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How God Tickles Our Brain (Part One)

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2010

You’re probably aware that in the last decades brain research has revealed a lot about religious experiences, near death experiences and similar. It’s an area I’m interested in but haven’t looked into much. Recently Bill wrote an article on the AgnosticsInternational forum and he’s kindly allowed me to reproduce it here. I think it’s a particularly clear and useful overview:

The Sensation Known As Religious Experience

I want to look at how the human brain works, and how it processes religious ideas: not to attack religion or theism, nor to support them, just so we can add this new dimension into our debates.

I shall take some short cuts and simplifications: if you need fuller and more complex material, I can give you such links. I do not feel that you need to know every nook and cranny of this field of science to gain some benefit from some knowledge of it.

Let us look at the human brain itself – it is made of localized areas called lobes, and these lobes “do” things when electrical activity takes place within them. Communication between the lobes is virtually simultaneous, and most of us would like to think that our brains are a seamless whole.

However, each lobe has its own specialization. One lobe processes your thinking and reasoning, another handles input from the five senses, another deals with speech and yet another is your short term memory. These lobes are the conscious part of your mind – it is where you see, hear, think and react to the world outside. Although these lobes are part of the integrated whole, just for discussion purposes and not as a definition, it is useful to group these lobes together as a single unit, and call it “the little brain”.

The rest of the brain deals with everything else from controlling your heart rate to providing emotional responses to holding long term memory. Again, purely for discussion, it is useful to call this subconscious area of your brain “the big brain”, for it really is very much larger than the conscious brain.

The technology of fMRI allows doctors to study what is wrong with any one lobe, and researchers to examine what each lobe does. Some of the research simply confirms prior theories, and some gives new insight and explanation.

For example, we now know that the little brain processes about 2,500 bits of data per second, constantly during waking hours, and never varies much from that figure. Big brain processes about 4 billion bits per second, some lobes in constant agitation and others at rest until their functionality is required.

One early discovery explained the experience of deja vu. When a subject loses the short term memory of a sight or sound just after seeing or hearing something, the sound or sight is present in long term memory. That is, the sight or sound entered both short term and long term memory simultaneously, short term dropped it for some reason, and found that long term memory recognized the sight or sound – even though it was being sensed for the very first time. Deja vu really is nothing more than a brain blip.

We now know that the ability to believe in religious ideas is held in three separate lobes, which do other jobs as well. This ability piggy backs on those lobes. That is, there is no special religious belief lobe. (It would have been a very odd god who had the human mind built in such a way that it was impossible to believe in god, and the mechanism neither adds nor subtracts from theology). The first piece is [unfortunately this section is missing. Can anyone help fill in the gap?]

The second piece is the temporal lobe. When this lobe is activated, it gives us the ability to empathise with others. It is normally activated by seeing somebody or something, and we sense whatever it is that the person or thing is experiencing. Sometimes it gets activated when no-one is present, and we then sense the presence of that no-one. One cause of such activity is temporal epilepsy – and such epileptics have so many religious experiences that they are considered to be blessed by some cultures. Another cause of such activity is an experimenter providing the lobe with micro-electronic stimulation, and the subjects consistently report religious experience, consistent with the prior teaching of what a religious experience consists of. Christians report sensing the presence of Christ, jews the presence of God, Muslims the presence of Allah, buddhists a state of nirvarna and so on.

The third piece is the Limbic system – several lobes deep in the lowest reaches of the subconscious that provide, among other things, the ability to get ready to have sex, to fight, to flee in fear and so on. One thing we have learned about this particular area is that it is where all Near Death Experience originates – with its hallucinations, ghosts, and light beckoning from the other side of death’s door. Some brave people have had NDEs invoked upon them in laboratory settings.

However, outside of such experiments, the strength of NDEs produced by the limbic system are so overpowering, that atheists have been known to become theists after such an event.

We need to look at these three pieces in some more detail – but we have gone far enough for an overview.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Before looking at religious belief itself, I’d like to take your time to look at how the belief system works in general.

The events you conscious mind witness pass into your subconscious instantaneously. The subconscious processing of those events causes emotions and memories to be evoked and the results often are passed back to the conscious mind equally instantaneously.

But sometimes the mechanism does not always work properly.

For example, you meet a person and big brain gives you an instant signal that you know this person. May be with some images of shared experience, and so on. Definitely with a signal if this person is friend, foe or an unknown quantity. But the person’s name may escape you. How can that be? Big Brain definitely knows a lot about this person, and must have that name stored somewhere – it is just the ability to get to that memory sometimes stalls. Hypothesis: until modern times, recognizing friend or foe was far more important than remembering names, so our brains are still more geared to the friend/foe recognition than to trivial side issues.

There is a similar effect when you mislay something. Short term memory has no idea where your keys are – someone tells you left them in a particular place – and Big Brain’s instant confirmation makes you slap your head as you say “Doh!” Hypothesis: Big brain sometimes is working to an agenda that does not necessarily match that of little brain. Being at a subconscious level, we have no idea what that agenda is at any one time.

When it comes to what we believe, the sequence is that input to the conscious is processed by the subconscious and the subconscious sends a “true/false/don’t know” sort of signal to the conscious mind.

If I say “Madagascar is a large island in the Indian Ocean” you probably get a “true” signal – even if you have never been to that place in your life. Your subconscious measures the statement, finds it consistent with everything you have been previously been told, and you get the “true” signal.

If I say “Frenchmen live on a large island called France in the middle of the Atlantic” you could get a “false” signal. If the person making the statement is someone you trust, you might get a momentary “don’t know” to see if there is some special meaning, or joke, tied up in a statement clearly at odds with everything you have previously been told about Frenchman and France.

The signal for true/false comes as early in receiving input as possible, and then affects everything that follows thereafter. (This really is very recent research, and may need further work to get it clarified into a predictive phenomena). But it has been shown that if someone makes an early statement that the recipient holds to be false, all the following statements made are scrutinized purely to see where they also fail to be true.

The mechanism is very powerful: a professor of English found that he could dismiss a 27 page essay showing that William Shakespeare might not have been the “real” author of the plays and poems ascribed to him. The professor had published a paper supporting the opposing view – that Shakespeare was the real author. He dismissed his student’s essay out of hand, without further comment, because the wrong year was given in it for King James’ coronation. It mattered not how trivial the error was, it gave his Big Brain all it needed to satisfy its agenda that the submitted essay was wrong.

The sub-conscious acquires its stock of what is true and what is false over a relatively long period of time. Once something is held to be true or false, the belief mechanism is designed to keep that belief intact. When something is moved from being true to being false, or vice versa, the emotion involved with such a switch is very strong. We call it an epiphany.

Once a belief is established, it is very hard to get it changed to something different.

Which is why we will consider next the Jesuit truism “give me the child before he is 7 years old, and I will give you the man”

Click here for Part Two. You can also

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DJ Jan & X Santo | Reaching Into My Brain (1995)

12 Responses to “How God Tickles Our Brain (Part One)”

  1. Interesting… Just a side note, the areas of the brain that perform certain tasks are not designed to do just this on function. The brain is far more complex than we realise, and some regions that are typically designated as “speech” or “sight” also play some roles in other functions. The brain is not so neatly compartmentalised. In Steven Pinker’s “How The Mind Works” he goes into this topic in some detail, and it’s well worth a read if you feel so inclined.

    He also talks about the mind/brain dichotomy, where one is the machine, and the other is the way it works and its outcomes.

    Anyhow I’d like to read part 2 before I make any decisions about this. I still maintain that, no matter what we “perceive”, it all happens in the brain. All of it.

    Thanks Jonathan

    • You’ll find no disagreement from me here, Martin. Also it’s perhaps a little buried, Bill does acknowledge that the brain is complex, most regions seem to have multiple roles, and that he’s simplified a lot.

      I liked this just because it is so simple. I see it as a good starting point to learn more.

      Thanks for the suggestion of Stephen Pinker, too. It’s always helpful to know what are the useful books to read.

  2. Great post! Fascinating topic and I do like the very simplified summary of it. Great for the layperson although I do agree with Martin that the brain is more complex and less compartmentalized than it is often portrayed! I have Dennett’s Religion as a Natural Phenomenum on my bookshelf but haven’t had time to crack it open!

    The more I learn about how the brain functions and evolutionary theories regarding religious experience, it pushes me farther from religion. These theories just make sense to me right now, so much more than the idea that Christians can bring in the presence of God by worshipping him, an experience only sensed by the believers, unprovable & able to be orchestrated in so many ways!

    This knowledge is freeing but also sad as for me it feels like a magical experience is ending- like finding out the years I thought I spent in Narnia weren’t real!

    Looking forward to the next parts!


    • I do sympathise with the sense of leaving Narnia.

      You said “The more I learn about how the brain functions and evolutionary theories regarding religious experience, it pushes me farther from religion.”

      For me, none of this implies that a spiritual world must be false. Given that we are physical beings, anything that we experience must have some way of interacting with our brain. I wonder if we go down the path of “it’s only the brain” whether we’d end up with a kind of reductionism, and not be able to trust ANY of our experiences?

  3. Lydia said

    I agree with Martin – I won’t form my opinion until I’ve read the second part of this series.

    In the meantime I have a book recommendation for you, Jonathan. There is a trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer that addresses the issue/idea of brain function and belief in God. The books in order are: “Hominids,” “Humans,” and “Hybrids.” A two-sentence summary of the series: It is about the meeting of people from earths from two parallel universes. One of them is our earth/our timeline and the other is an earth in which Homo Sapiens died out 30,000-ish years ago and Neanderthals became the only surviving hominids.

    It’s really fascinating stuff. I recommend it even if you’re not generally interested in science fiction or speculative stories.

  4. Just found you on Twitter and the first of your tweets I saw was about this post, something I’m already interested in and only just beginning to learn about. Fascinating, isn’t it??? I was doing some research about the experience of “a-ha” moments and I went looking to see what part of the brain is responsible/activated when we experience them. I discovered it was the left temporal lobe, and then, on a hunch, I went looking to see if this was by chance related to parts of the brain that are connected to spiritual experiences/thinking/feeling. Sure enough, it was! Anyway, only just beginning to educate myself about all this! Will tune in for the rest of this conversation…

    • Hello, and welcome Cheryl. We’re friendly here.

      If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that most parts of our brain do more than one thing, so the parts that do spiritual stuff also do other stuff. Part two is up now 🙂

  5. If the research appears to do anything is suggest our perception of reality is the really important part. If we get it wrong, we’re living in a false reality. And getting out of that is so hard.

  6. […] How God Tickles Our Brain (Part One) […]

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