Religion: Is it All in Your Head?

Focuses on the theory of Vilayanur Ramashandran of the University of California in San Diego that somewhere in the brain's temporal lobes there may be neural circuitry for religious experience. Basis of his theory; Experiment supporting his theory; Implication of his theory about religious experience.

By Jamie Talan, published on March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

While looking into how the brain regulates behavior, I VilayanurRamashandran, M.D., thinks he may have found God. The neurologist believes that somewhere in the brain's temporal lobes there may be neural circuitry for religious experience; he points to the fact that about 25 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy are obsessed with religion. "I have temporal lobe patients walking into my laboratory wearing a huge cross and carrying a 500-page tome on the nature of God," says Ramashandran, of the University of California in San Diego.

He thinks that these patients' seizures caused damage to the pathway that connects two areas of the brain: the one that recognizes sensory information and the one that gives such information emotional context. "Everything becomes very significant," he says. "These patients are seeing depth in every little thing."

To support his theory that there is a specialized circuitry in the brain for religious experience, Ramashandran and his colleagues hooked up temporal-lobe patients and healthy controls to a machine that records the body's physical reactions to stimuli. Three groups of words were presented to the patients: neutral words; profane or sexually loaded words; and religious words.

Normal people set off the response meter when they read curses and sexually expressive words. There was no response to the neutral or religious words, even in normal volunteers who are devout. But some patients with epilepsy gave the monitor a jolt when they were presented with religious words--and not when they heard curses or sexual words.

Ramashandran cautions that his findings are preliminary, and even if proven in the laboratory, don't invalidate religious experience. "On the contrary," he says, "they tell us what parts of the brain may be involved."