This Is Your Brain on Religion

The neuroscience of religious belief.

Posted Feb 15, 2020

Religious belief appears to be a human universal. Like language and other cultural systems, the exact religious beliefs that people hold in their lives depend heavily on early social experiences. Just as we grow up learning to speak the language of our family and community, so it is that we come to accept their religious beliefs as our own.

Despite this obviously learned component of religion, the fact that all known societies exhibit some form of religious belief strongly suggests that there’s an innate component to human religiosity. Could it be that our brains are hard-wired for religion? This is the question that Northwestern University neuropsychologist Jordan Grafman and his colleagues explore in a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

To start, Grafman and colleagues provide a working definition of religion to clarify the scope of their project. Specifically, they define religion as a set of thoughts and feelings that give rise to beliefs in supernatural powers that are often regarded as sacred. In this sense, religion not only includes the codified belief systems of organized religions; the term also pertains to animistic beliefs of pre-agricultural societies, which often attribute divine or spiritual properties to natural phenomena such as wind and lightning.

In their article, the researchers use the tools of neuroscience to tease out the regions of the brain that get involved in religious belief. For instance, brain-imaging techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and ERP (event-related potentials) allow neuroscientists to correlate activity in specific brain regions with various types of religious cognitions. Furthermore, studies of patients with brain damage show us how people’s attitudes about religion can change due to the loss of function in particular areas of the brain.

As is the case with all complex behavior, many brain areas get involved during religious cognition. In fact, the notion that specific brain regions have specific functions is quite naïve, and it has been fully debunked.

Moreover, we see that religion—like language or music—makes use of the same brain areas employed by other functions. This observation also helps us understand how uniquely human behaviors such as these could have evolved. Namely, they were cobbled together from parts already in existence, so there was no need for a “god” module or language device to have evolved from scratch.

One particular configuration of brain structures relevant to religious belief is the so-called theory-of-mind network. This comprises a wide array of brain areas that become active during social interaction.

The term “theory of mind” refers to the ability to make inferences about what other people know and think. In other words, it’s the capacity to take another person’s perspective. These abilities don’t appear in humans until the preschool age, and they continue to develop through adolescence and adulthood. Primates show very limited theory-of-mind abilities, and other animals—your dog included—none at all.

Human social interactions are far more complex than those engaged in by any other species, and they would fail utterly without the ability to make reasonably good guesses about what’s going on in the minds of other people. In other words, we try to explain and even predict other people’s behavior by attributing to them specific thoughts and feelings that lead them to act in particular ways.

Since we’re already in the habit of seeing others as intentional agents—that is, as beings capable of choosing their own actions—it’s but a small step toward attributing thoughts and feelings to what are most likely mindless objects. For instance, we’ll say that our malfunctioning computer has a mind of its own. Or we plead with our car to please start on a cold winter’s morning. Young children often attribute intentions to natural phenomena, as do people living in hunter-gatherer societies.

Organized religion arose in tandem with the development of agriculture and complex societies. Belief systems in organized religion also tend to be more abstract than they are in animistic thinking. In other words, vague beliefs in the mentality of natural phenomena give way to established creeds about divine personalities that may even take on the shape of a human, animal, or mixture of the two. Gods are persons—even if they’re only imagined—and when we think about our gods or pray to them, the same areas of our brains light up as when we’re interacting with other people.

Indeed, the very idea of beseeching a divinity to intercede on our behalf is a hallmark of organized religion. No doubt this practice hearkens back to our early childhood when we were utterly dependent on our elders, who made decisions for us that we didn’t want, but who could also sometimes be dissuaded by special pleading.

And yet, as Grafman and colleagues point out, prayer provides personal benefits beyond any sort of divine intervention that may follow from it. In one study, devout Protestants were asked to engage either in religious prayer or else in non-religious positive thinking while undergoing painful electric shocks. Those who prayed reported lower levels of pain than did those who engaged in non-religious thoughts. This result is in line with the general finding that expectations, such as through hypnotic suggestion, can affect the experience of pain. It also accords with Karl Marx’s aphorism that religion is the opiate of the masses.

Brain-imaging studies also show that repetitive prayer can activate the brain’s reward system. In other words, the same areas of the brain that are associated with the pleasant experience of having sex, snorting cocaine, or indulging in chocolate also light up during intensive prayer sessions—at least among devout believers. This finding may then account for the ecstatic experiences that many worshipers have during intense prayer or sensory-overloaded services.

The eighteenth-century philosopher Voltaire famously quipped: “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.” In the twenty-first century, neuroscience has shown us that our brains may indeed be hardwired for religious belief.

References

Grafman, J., Cristofori, I., Zhong, W., & Bulbulia, J. (2020). The neural basis of religious cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0963721419898183