New Scientist: Did Evolution Allow Religion?

Once we had evolved the necessary brain architecture, we could “do” religion, brain scans indicate.

The research shows that, to interpret a god’s intentions and feelings, we rely mainly on the same recently evolved brain regions that divine the feelings and intentions of other people.

“We’re interested to find where in the brain belief systems are represented, particularly those that appear uniquely human,” says lead researcher, Jordan Grafman of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.

The researchers found that such beliefs “light up” the areas of our brain which have evolved most recently, such as those involved in imagination, memory and “theory of mind” — the recognition that other people and living things can have their own thoughts and intentions.

“They don’t tell us about the existence of a higher order power like God,” says Grafman. “They only address how the mind and brain work in tandem to allow us to have belief systems that guide our everyday actions.” [Full Article]

Full Article

Brain researchers trying to understand the neural basis of religious belief have concluded that the brain has no special region or network for this task. Rather, it depends on general networks that exist for other purposes.

A team led by Dr. Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke questioned volunteers about their religious beliefs while monitoring the blood flow in their brains with a scanning machine. Extra blood flow is assumed to reflect the activity of neurons in a specific region of the brain. [Full Article]

NPR: To The Brain, God Is Just Another Guy

Brain scans of participants thinking about God and religion.Brain scans of participants thinking about God show activation in the same part of the brain where people empathize with others. One such brain region, called the precuneus (the upper green dot), is also associated with imagination, balancing complex tasks and self-consciousness.

The human brain, it appears, responds to God as if he were just another person, according to a team at the National Institutes of Health.

A study of 40 people — some religious, some nonreligious — found that phrases such as “I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me” lit up the same areas of the brain we use to decipher the emotions and intentions of other people.

“There was no difference,” says Jordan Grafman, who runs the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Grafman says the finding, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that there is no special circuitry in the brain that deals with religious belief. It also suggests that religion developed as the human brain evolved its capacity for complex social interactions. [Full Article and Audio]