Your Mystical Brain

Are our brains hardwired for God? The next frontier for neuroscience exploration is to answer whether we are all equally programmed to believe…or not.

In 2001, acclaimed ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins put on the “God helmet,” electrode-laden headgear designed to introduce the wearer to a “supreme power” by disrupting the normal goings-on of the brain with electric currents. Dawkins would report that his breathing rhythm and limb sensations were somehow affected, but he felt “no signs of God.” Immediately afterward, neuroscientist Michael Persinger, one of the helmet’s inventors, argued that previous tests found Dawkins to have decreased sensitivity in his temporal lobes, the brain region responsible for regulating our state of consciousness, language, long-term memory storage, and emotional reactions. Persinger implied that the global face of atheism over the past decades was immune to “divine interventions” because of brain structure.

Molecular geneticist Dean Hamer first coined the term “God gene” in his 2004 book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. He wrote that a person’s capacity to believe in God is linked to specific brain chemicals. Working as the head of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the National Cancer Institute in the United States, Hamer conducted a study in which he compared in excess of 2,000 DNA samples and asked his volunteers 226 questions to determine how spiritually aligned they felt with the universe. He found that the highest scorers were more likely to share a gene: the vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2), which controls the flow of mood-regulating chemicals in our brain called monoamines. In Hamer’s study, those who carried the gene were more likely to develop spiritual beliefs.

Notwithstanding, the notion of a God gene did not come without criticism. Carl Zimmer, New York Times science writer and a fellow at Yale University’s Morse College, claimed that the VMAT2 study was just one more study associating genes with personality traits—impressive at the beginning but ultimately doomed to fade into statistical noise. PZ Myers, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, called the VMAT2 “nothing more than a teeny-tiny pump responsible for packaging a neurotransmitter for export during brain activity…during higher order processing, like religious thought.”

Quite recently, the scientific enquiry into the modus operandi of religion in the brain switched direction. “Instead of studying what is being activated during spiritual practices, why not look into what is being suppressed?” wondered researchers from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Victoria University of Wellington in a groundbreaking paper titled “Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience,” published in Neuropsychologia in 2016. The team used computed tomography (CT), a procedure in which x-rays are aimed at a patient and quickly rotated around the body to produce signals that the machine’s computer then processes to create cross-sectional images, or “slices,” of the body. After performing 116 CT scans on injured Vietnam veterans, the team came up with a remarkable finding: Those who had mystical experiences were more likely to have suffered damage in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This region controls executive functions like planning, cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and our ability to reason abstractly — all key skills for scaling down our tendency to use mysticism as a means of explaining the world around us. In a way, damage to this region “encourages” the brain to let go of inhibitions and step beyond a cryptic door.

“Do you think some of us are hardwired to become religious?” I ask Jay Lombard, a behavioral neurologist, head of the Brain Performance program at Lifespan Medicine, and author of The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul. In his book, Lombard looks to case studies from his own practice to explore spiritual conundrums like the existence of God, meaning of life, the hereafter, and free will. He arrived at the conclusion that the brain,—or “the biological substrate of human experience,” as he says—renders all people indiscriminately potential candidates for encountering God. “The biological underpinnings of experiences — picture the smell of a flower or the image of a loved one — are mere simulacra or projections in our mind of what a flower or a loved one really are. This is where ‘the paradox of relativism’ surfaces: There is no space, or time, or subject, or object except in relation, and it is up to us to make a conscientious choice as to whether we want to believe in nothing or God,” says Lombard.

Jordan Grafman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University and the main investigator of the above-mentioned study on injured Vietnam veterans, begs to differ: “We are all capable of religious and other forms of belief systems, but I think, yes, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that, on average, some people are more neurologically wired to be religious,” he says. At this point, Grafman is quick to emphasize the sculpting role the environment plays in terms of what stays in memory in the brain. “The wiring might make it more likely that you would follow religious teachings in its more fundamental aspects, but the wiring itself is greatly due to how and where you were raised and what your experiences were growing up—in other words, your behavioral exposures. At play also comes neuroplasticity: your brain’s unique ability to change and form neural pathways over time, collecting new memories, abilities, and habits along the way,” says Grafman.

Is God in your own genes or not? What do you think? After grappling with a mix of bio-psycho-socio-religio-philosophical concepts of the caliber of inheritability, behavioral exposure, social influence, faith, or free will, which side are you on: Are we all equally programmed to believe? And how about the new player that comes to shake the already tumultuous neuroscience-spirituality relationship? Emerging are a number of mainstream studies pointing to a controlled use of certain psychedelic substances — yes, you heard right — as an alternative path to reaching a higher state of consciousness.

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