resources_nature_txt_God in the brain?

God in the brain?

Author: Luis María Gonzalo Sanz
Published in: Aceprensa, service 016/07.
Date of publication: 14-02-2007


Brain and religious experiences

The God Gene

How religious experiences are explained neurologically.

Out-of-body feeling

In conclusion


For some time now, it is not uncommon to find articles, both in scientific journals and on knowledge dissemination, with titles such as these:

  • God on the brain (God on the brain)1

  • The "God" part of the brain2

  • Neurotheology3

  • Biological basis of spirituality4

As the titles suggest, the authors, based on clinical and experimental observations, assume that religious experiences, which people attribute to dialogue with God, are due to neurological phenomena in our brains. The conclusion they usually draw is that it is not God who is the author of such phenomena but our brain, at final, that it is not God who created us but we who created God. Let us look at the experiences on which they are based.

Brain and religious experiences

Neurologists have observed that epileptics, with epileptogenic foci in the temporal lobe, perceive scenes (in the aura that usually precedes seizures) and hallucinations, which reproduce in a more or less distorted form events experienced previously. The case described by Penfield is well known5. This was a 14-year-old girl, who suffered from epileptic seizures. The most frequent aura was a hallucination, which caused her to relive a scene that had occurred seven years before. It was as follows: One spring day, he was walking with his younger siblings in the countryside. At a certain moment, a man came up behind her, without her noticing, and said to her: "Do you want me to put you goal in this sack with the snails? She was frightened to death and ran away, calling for help. From the age of 11, when the epileptic seizures began, they were often preceded by the hallucination described above.

As the girl's epilepsy responded poorly to drug treatment, neurosurgical intervention to remove the epileptogenic focus (which the neurological examination showed to be in the right temporal lobe) was deemed advisable. The operation was performed by Penfield. Under local anaesthesia, he performed a temporal craniotomy on the right side, incised the dura mater and revealed a series of adhesions between the arachnoid and dura mater at the level of the first temporal gyrus. These were remnants of an old haemorrhage, protruding and pressing on the underlying temporal cortex, and were responsible for the epileptic seizures. As the girl was conscious and could report the sensations and hallucinations she perceived, Penfield stimulated the areas near the epileptogenic focus with a fine electrode, and the response, at several of the stimulated points, was the hallucination of snails.

Michael Persinger6 is one of the neurologists, who has collected from his patients with temporal epilepsy accounts of hallucinations of subject religious. Two of the frequently mentioned stories are those of Rudi Affolter and Gwen Tihe, both of whom suffered from temporal epilepsy. He is an atheist and tells of experiencing hallucinations as if he were actually dying. She is a Christian and the hallucination she suffers from is that she gives birth to Jesus Christ.

Some have tried to reproduce these epileptic auras experimentally by stimulating the temporal cortex. Michael Persinger did this with a magnetic field of low intensity and the experimental subjects reported that they felt as if there was a non-bodily being in the room in which they were, they sometimes experienced a sudden illumination, or spiritual fear, loss of the notion of time, etc. For his part, a Swiss researcher , by means of "electric zaps" at the level of the gyrus angularis (the area where the temporal lobe and the parietal lobe meet), applied to an epileptic, experienced the sensation of "out of body" to which I will now refer.

If temporary epilepsy produces religious experiences, some authors have thought that the mystical experiences of certain saints, such as St. Paul, Joan of Arc, St. Teresa of Jesus, etc. were possibly caused by the "little evil" (weak epileptic seizures), i.e. that what is attributed to a mystical union with God is reduced, according to them, to a pathological activity of the cerebral cortex. The case of Ellen White (born 1827) is quotation . At the age of 9, she suffered a traumatic brain injury, which caused her personality to change and she began to have religious visions. These led her to found the Seventh-day Adventist Movement.

Another source source of information on the genesis of religious experiences is offered by neuroimaging in meditating subjects. Neuroimaging, either PET (Positron Emission Tomography) or fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) allows us to know which areas or nerve centres are activated when we carry out physical or intellectual activities. Newberg et al.7 have recorded the brain areas that were activated in 14 Tibetan Buddhist monks and in M. Baime (who has been doing Zen meditation since the age of 14). Something similar has been done by Austin8 also using Tibetan monks. In all these cases it was found that the temporal lobe was activated while the parietal lobe was less active. As the parietal lobe is involved in spatio-temporal orientation, they conclude that the sensation of levitation, of being outside space and time, which mystics often experience, is due to the lack of activity in this lobe.

The God Gene

In 2004, Dean Hamer published (ed. Double Day) a book graduate: "The God gene", a book that at the end of 2006, the publishing house Esfera de los Libros, has published in Spanish. The core of the book is the experimental work that Hamer and collaborators made with a group of subjects. They looked to see if in those who showed a greater inclination to "self transcendence", to mysticism (in the meaning that Hamer gives to this term: ease of going out of oneself, a feeling of being in connection with a wide universe and with an open mind to events that are not easily explained) there was any modification Genetics in any of the 10 genes that they investigated. The result was that a variant in the VMAT2 gene (variant 3305) appeared more frequently in individuals with a greater tendency towards mysticism than in others. This variant implied an increase in the issue of monoaminergic receptors, some of which favour "self transcendence". It is this gene that he has dubbed the "God gene". Although the book's blurb notes that the author is one of the world's most prestigious geneticists, an objective reading of Hamer's account cannot help but detect serious gaps and inaccuracies. Firstly, that any brain function, however minor, is controlled by a number of genes and the "God gene" is not the only one involved in this important mission statement. Secondly, the neurotransmitters to which he alludes perform multiple functions depending on the nerve centre in which they are released, and they certainly cannot be said to produce mystical experiences. More appropriately than "God gene" one could speak of "God drugs", as there are several psychedelic substances that produce the sensation of "self transcendence" that Hamer speaks of.

This geneticist already published a sensationalist work in 1993 about the gayness gene. According to him, a variant in the Xg28 gene, located on the long arm of the X chromosome, is frequently found in gays. Several geneticists (among others George Ebers of the Western Ontario University and N. Rish) wanted to replicate these results and were unable to confirm Hamer's findings. Hamer had to say that his results were preliminary and that the genetic component only accounted for 5-8% of the inclination towards homosexuality.

In the latter work , he cures himself by saying that in addition to his gene, there may be others that also influence the "self transcedent" personality and that by talking about the "God gene" he is not denying the existence of God. Rather, it could prove it in that there is a gene that favours the inclination towards transcendent things.

How religious experiences are explained neurologically.

In meditation (I am going to refer to Christian meditation, which is the usual Western meditation), the starting point is always the consideration of scenes from the life of our Lord, or of lived experiences. Such consideration involves the activation of the centres of the report (medial side of the temporal lobe), and these memories in turn activate the areas of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, related to the affective-emotive world. It is these activations that are observed by those who have recorded brain activity during meditation. Naturally, the intensity of activation of all these cortical centres varies according to the strength with which the scenes that have been brought to report are experienced. It is the same as when, instead of considering religious motifs, one recalls events from one's past life. There is nothing extraordinary in this and "religious experience" falls into the category of ordinary life phenomena. Something different is the case of the mystics, who, not by effort staff but because they are caught up by God, reach the unitive state with our Creator. These ecstasies, logically, are not experienced by all those who meditate, but by a very few, those whom God grants them when He wills. Mystics, of course, would not lend themselves to having their brain activity recorded by any of the neuroimaging methods. They would not, for one thing, out of humility and, secondly, because no one knows when they might take place. Moreover, because they occur outside the body, no change in the bioelectrical activity of the brain would be recorded. Hence, to attribute the ecstasies of some saints, such as those mentioned above, to the "little evil", is to want to explain everything from the point of view of pure subject, denying a priori any supernatural fact or intervention. This reductionist way of understanding life explains why materialistic scientists think that those who meditate or pray, trying to address God, attribute to God what is nothing more than a natural phenomenon. That is why they call some works as we mentioned at the beginning of this article: God in the brain, or God part of the brain, and mention this subject of programs of study as Neurotheology, a name already proposed by Aldous Huxley in his novel "Island".

Another phenomenon that some relate to religious experiences is the so-called "out body experience", which I will briefly address below.

Out-of-body feeling

The out-of-body sensation is often described by those who have experienced it, as if their self, or soul, has left the body, and they see and observe things, including the body itself, from outside the body. They also commonly describe seeing a powerful light, wandering in the cosmos, feeling a great peace, and so on. Susan Blackmore9who has studied this phenomenon, puts it down to the fact that, for whatever reason, the corresponding impulses do not reach the sensory areas of the brain, so that in the absence of information from our body and the ability to imagine, to remember, etc., the "I" is experienced as disembodied and as wandering in space. Such "out-of-body" sensations occur more frequently in epileptics than in normal subjects, as well as in those who are in a near-death trance. Cardiac patients, who have been resuscitated from clinical death, also experience this in 12% of cases, according to a Dutch study.

Similar "out-of-body" experiences sometimes occur during REM sleep, a phase in which muscular relaxation is at its maximum, and in the transition from the state of wakefulness to the first stage of sleep. In all these situations of muscular relaxation, as very few proprioceptive sensations reach the cortex of general sensitivity, and visual, acoustic, etc. sensations are very reduced, a favourable status is created to reach the sensation of incorporeality.

What is false is to admit, as some have done, that in certain cases of "out-of-body experience" there has been an actual death and thus a soul-body separation.

In conclusion

Atheistic neuroscientists, not admitting the existence of God, nor that man is a being endowed with a spiritual soul, are forced to a biased interpretation of the facts that transcend the subject: they have to explain religious experiences and the mystical state as simple brain activity. It is therefore, according to them, meditators and mystics who, from simple neurobiological phenomena, create God. It is common for reductionists not to consider whether their position is unscientific, admitting subject as the only reality, but rather the opposite is true, they take those who, in addition to the "physis", think that the metaphysical exists, as unscientific, even in a veiled way they consider them mentally retarded. They do not want to realise that, in order for their conclusions to be accepted as scientific, they have to be experimentally demonstrated.10And there are numerous facts, not only in mental activity but also in evolution, which they cannot and will not be able to demonstrate from their reductionist point of view.


(1) Tucker L. God on the brain. BBC, 2, Horizons, 20 March, 2003.

(2) Alper M. The "God" part of the brain. Rogue Press 2001.

(3) Ford Ch. Neurotheology: Which came first, God or the brain. Biology, 103, Serendip, 1991.

(4) Ashbrook JB, Albright R. The humanizing brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience meet. Pilgrim, 1999.

(5) Penfield W. The excitable cortex in conscious man. Liberpool Univ. Press, 1958.

(6) Persinger M. Neuropsychological basis of God beliefs. Praeger Publishers, 1987.

(7) Newberg A, d'Aquili E, Rause V. Why God won't go away: Brain, Science and Biology of Belief. Ballantine Books, 2001.

(8) Austin JH. Zen and the brain: Toward an understanding of meditation and consciousness. MIT Press, 1999.

(9) Blackmore S. Near-death experiences: in or out of the body. Skeptical Inquirer 1991; 16: 34-45.

(10) Popper K. The logic of scientific discovery. New York, Harper & Row, 1968.