It seems that more and more young Americans don’t feel quite as deeply connected to deities as their parents or their grandparents. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans under 30 who “never doubt the existence of God” has dropped from 83 percent in 2007 to 67 percent to 2012. In addition, only 18 percent of Millennials reported that they attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 26 percent of Boomers in the late 1970s.
With more people turning away from God and the church, questions surrounding the scientific implications of this generational trend can’t help but arise: How would this historic trend affect the minds and brains of young Americans, who will become the future of this country? In order to find an answer, we can turn toward a relatively obscure discipline in science: Neurotheology.
Neurotheology is the study of spirituality in the context of neuroscience, striving to explain the religious experience in neuroscientific terms.
“[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer. This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an established neuroscientist and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
So, what do studies of the brain tell us about the impact of religion? In 2014, when Dr. Newberg compared the brain scans of Franciscan nuns, Buddhist monks and staunch atheists in prayer, he found something interesting. The brain scans indicated that praying and meditation caused increased activity in the limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, and decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the brain region responsible orienting oneself in space and time.
“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” says Newberg. According to him, this discovery explains why spirituality is one of the defining characteristics of our species.
Surprisingly, the connection between the parietal lobe and spirituality runs deep. All the way back in the 1990s, Canadian cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger tried to artificially replicate the mental effects of religion with his invention, the “God helmet,” a helmet that directed complex magnetic fields to parts of the brain including the parietal lobe. While crowds of Evangelical Christians protested outside his lab, Persinger invited participants to test the helmet. To his delight, more than 80 percent of the participants reported sensing a presence in the room that they took to be their deity. As a result, they became deeply emotional and, once the experiment concluded, were filled with a sense of loss.
Persinger theorized that the electromagnetic disruption created by the helmet caused one hemisphere of the participant’s brain to separate from the other and sense it as an entirely separate presence. Funnily enough, Persinger’s experiment then supports the claims of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose 1976 book proposed that the left and right hemispheres are like two separate beings and that signals from the right brain were interpreted by the left brain as the voice of God. Ultimately, this would mean that supernatural occurrences such as divine visions and out-of-body experiences are merely the result of environmental disturbances.
However, there are still skeptics. Graham Ward, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University states that these claims are still shaky at best and that the temporal lobes “light up for any kind of excitement, not just religious experience.”
A more recent research study has found that humans naturally suppress the analytical parts of their brain and more heavily use the parts linked to empathy when they believe in God. Not only that, but the opposite occurs when humans think about the physical world instead. Anthony Jack, a Professor of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University who led the study, claims that humans use two different networks of neurons, one that enables critical thinking and one that promotes empathy. He explains that not only does this discovery broaden our understanding of spirituality in the history of cultures, but it also suggests that a healthy brain can choose which network to depend on and which to suppress when confronted with a logical problem or an ethical dilemma.
This idea that religion may arise from pathways in the brain rather than physical brain regions has been gaining traction recently. In a different study led by researchers at Auburn University showed that subjects who perceived supernatural agents in their daily lives were more likely to use brain pathways associated with fear when asked to think about their religious beliefs. They also found that devout believers tend to use neural pathways connected to language, while atheists tend to use pathways associated with visual imagery.
Most interestingly, while religion has been shown to heavily influence the brain, the brain can actually change how a person views religion. According to Boston University Professor of Neurology Patrick McNamara, changes in brain chemistry caused by Parkinson’s disease has been shown to erode a patient’s faith and devotion to God. These patients, McNamara discovered, lacked the neurotransmitter dopamine, which made him suspect that religiosity is connected to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. This theory fits surprisingly well in the context of a completely different study, one where researchers used functional MRI scans and found that religious and spiritual experiences activate the same reward systems in the brain that become active when listening to music or doing drugs.
But even if spirituality is just a matter of brain chemistry, several theories point to religion as an evolutionary adaptation. A number of reports have found that churchgoers live about seven years longer than atheists and tend to have greater success with recovery from diseases like breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. They are also more likely to have lower blood pressure and less likely to have depression. So while cultural trends may shift away from god, it won’t be all that surprising if religion continues to persist for years to come.
Originally published on April 19, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Neuroscience of religion reveals hidden cultural trends