Media coverage hyped the importance of findings suggesting that spiritual experiences have a brain basis. Even so, an evolved capacity for self-transcendence fits in well with what we know about the evolutionary role and function of religion.
The evolution of religion
Religious beliefs and rituals are found in every society studied by anthropologists. This implies that religious/spiritual experience is a universal characteristic of human beings just as the capacity to see in color is.
Religion could not have evolved and could not have affected the lives of the majority of the world’s human inhabitants if it had not helped them to solve the problems of surviving adversity and of raising children successfully who would propagate their supernatural belief systems after they had died (1).
So it makes sense that the brain might be specialized for religious experiences. Indeed, an evolutionary perspective on religion implies that humans are inherently susceptible to religious views.
This view is bolstered by evidence that spiritual experiences (including religious experiences) have a neural basis. Although there is no single “God spot” in the brain, feelings of self-transcendence are associated with reduced electrical activity in the right parietal lobe, a structure located above the right ear (2).
Self- transcendence, or a sense of the otherworldly, is the opposite of being self-focused and is a convenient definition of spirituality and/or religious sensibility used by researchers. This perception is generated by many experiences in addition to religion, including brain trauma, drug states, and epileptic seizures.
Spiritual experiences use many different parts of the brain: the God spot is functional rather than anatomical. So what are the likely benefits of having such neural mechanisms for spiritual experiences?
So what is the God spot used for?
In an earlier post, I argued that a primary function of religious beliefs and rituals is as a form of emotion-focused coping with the difficulties of life. It functions rather like the security blanket that a small child employs to soothe itself when distressed.
The security blanket concept of religion has a lot going for it. It explains why people pray during a crisis, and why people living in the most miserable places on earth are universally religious. On the other hand, in societies that experience a good quality of life, religion loses its importance, and atheism breaks out (1). This is what is happening in the social democracies of the world from Sweden to Japan.
Such “comfortable” modern societies are an anomaly, of course. Prior to the emergence of such uniquely favorable conditions, life was always full of difficulties. That is why religion is a human universal. It is also the reason that our religious sensibilities are served by specialized functions of the brain. These snap us out of the self-absorption otherwise induced by misery and produce self-transcendence or a feeling of otherworldliness.
This is not exactly a God spot because it is neither localized as a spot, nor peculiar to experiences related to a deity. Yet it adds a dimension to our understanding of religious experience and explains why even people in secular countries remain deeply spiritual (3).
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Johnstone, B., Bodling, A., Cohen, D., Christ, S. E., & Wegrzyn, A. (2012). Right parietal lobe-related “selflessness” as the neuropsychological basis of spiritual transcendence. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. accessed at http://www.tandfonline.com on 5/30 2012.
3. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.