God on the Brain: Part Two

From about the nineteenth century on, mapping brain areas to specific behaviors, or ‘localization,’ became the predominant frame for the study of the brain[1] and the focus of neuroscientific research as it emerged.[2] Despite the fact that the localization research effort is “based on assumptions […] that cannot be validated either in principle or in practice,”[3] it remains one of the main underlying premises to the natural scientific study of religion. It is also the basis for research to find God in the brain.

As we saw in the previous post, while religion was historically being subjectified and ‘placed’ in the mind, individual thought and behaviors were being ‘located’ in the brain. With religion identified with the mind and the mind identified with the brain, it was not a far step to develop the thought that religious experience might just be purely physical—a scientific phenomenon. And this reductive claim was increasingly put forth in the science of religion. The thought went that if the exact location of religion were found in the physical world, then it would be wholly understood.

Wilder Penfield (1891–1976) [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Wilder Penfield (1891–1976) [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

The idea of ‘finding’ God via science materialized in the 1940s and 1950s with the work of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), who is commonly associated with the rise of the notion of a neurological ‘God spot.’[4] Keeping patients conscience while performing brain surgery, Penfield was able to gain subjective reports while stimulating various regions of the brain, finding that prodding the temporal lobes caused some patients to report out-of-body experiences, hearing voices, and seeing apparitions.[5]

And it was around this time of Penfield’s research, from the 1950s to the 1970s, that we can identify the beginnings of the field of the cognitive science of religion.[6] Though reductive materialism had been around for a significant period of time, it was during the late twentieth-century age of ‘brain culture’ in which the individual came to be framed as a ‘neurochemical self,’[7] expressed in a formulaic and wholly reductive way: “human = self-conscious mind = brain.”[8] This also created a “new way of conceiving the soul,”[9] impacting the field of the cognitive science of religion. For example, psychologist and neuroscientist Joshua Greene, while performing fMRI scans on subjects thinking over moral dilemmas, remarks, “Some people in these experiments think we’re putting their soul under [a] microscope and in a sense, that’s what we’re doing. This is what your soul is, if anything is.”[10]

Animated fMRI Scan [credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Nevit Dilmen and Tekks]

Animated fMRI Scan [credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Nevit Dilmen and Tekks]

The rhetoric of ‘finding’ God in the brain is splashed across the titles of many contemporary works, such as Where God Lives in the Human Brain (2001), by Carol Albright and James Ashbrook and Wired for God? The Biology of Spiritual Experience, by Charles Foster, while photos of imaging and fMRI data ‘locating’ mental processes dominate world-widely read scientific magazines, like Science.[11] Localizationist discourses spurred on the notion that religious experience might not just be natural and material, but accessible and measurable, divorcing religion from ideas of the supernatural, spiritual, and of transcendence.

fMRI Brain Scan [credit: Wikimedia Commons, author DrOONeil]

fMRI Brain Scan [credit: Wikimedia Commons, author DrOONeil]

But, has the soul, God, or religious experience really been pinned downed ‘under the microscope’? The cognitive science of religion, as well as related fields, has proposed various locations of where the ‘God spot’ might be, including the temporal lobes, as mentioned, and the posterior superior parietal lobe.[12] Relatively recently, researchers have embraced a more ‘global’ approach, examining the wide array of brain areas involved in any given experience. Nonetheless, localization has remained a major theme in the field.

Whether one or many locations, does a correlation between brain activity and religious experience suggest religion is just a scientifically measurable phenomenon? If so, is religion ‘religious’ any longer? Is religious experience real? These are the questions that flood the discourse, demonstrating an overall sense that if religion is placed in a scientific framework, it casts doubt on if this is really religion at all.

Ecstasy of St. Theresa [credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Napoleon Vier]

Ecstasy of St. Theresa [credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Napoleon Vier]

One researcher in particular has created quite a stir, featured in media, documentaries, popular science publications, and widely discussed in the literature: Dr. Michael Persinger. He claims he has not only found the ‘God spot,’ but also that religious experience can be technologically induced via the so-called ‘God Helmet.’ I will examine what the God Helmet is, what it does, and the various reactions to the above-mentioned questions in the following post.



[1] Davi Johnson Thornton, Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 13–14 and 36. See also, Stanley Finger, Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explanations into Brain Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and William Uttal, The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001).

[2] Brian C. Alston, What is Neurotheology (Charleston: BookSurge, 2007), 3.

[3] William Uttal, Distributed Neural Systems: Beyond the New Phrenology (Cornwall-on-Hudson: Sloan Publishing, 2009), 205.

[4] See, e.g., Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience (New York: Penguin, 2009), 146. For a discussion, see Bradley Hagerty (2009), 146–148; Raymond F. Paloutzian, Erica L. Swenson, and Patrick McNamara, “Religious Conversion, Spiritual Transformation, and the Neurocognition of Meaning Making,” in Patrick McNamara, ed., Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, vol. 2, The Neurology of Religious Experience (Westport: Praeger, 2006), 151–169, here 161–162; and Michael Blume, “God in the Brain? How Much Can ‘Neurotheology’ Explain?,” in P. Becker and U. Diewald, eds., Zukunftsperspektiven im theologisch-naturwissenschaftlichen Dialog (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 306–314, here 307–309.

[5] Wilder Penfield and P. Perot, “The Brain’s Record of Auditory and Visual Experience: A Final Discussion and Summary,” Brain 86 (1963), 595–696; Wilder Penfield, “The Role of the Temporal Cortex in Certain Psychical Phenomena,” Journal of Mental Science 101 (1955), 451–465, here 458; Wilder Penfield and T. Rasmussen, The Cerebral Cortex of Man: A Clinical Study of Localization and Function (New York: Macmillan, 1950).

[6] See, e.g., Stewart E. Guthrie, “A Cognitive Theory of Religion,” Current Anthropology 21.2 (1980): 181–194; Justin L. Barrett, “Cognitive Science of Religion,” in Anne Runehov and L. Oviedo, eds., Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions (New York: Springer, 2013), 409–412; D. Jason Slone, “Cognitive Science of Religion,” in Gary Laderman and Arri Eisen, eds., Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2007), 593.

[7] Johnson Thornton (2011), 7 and 115–116.

[8] Volney P. Gay, “A Conversation on Neuroscience and Religion,” in Voney P. Gay, ed., Neuroscience and Religion: Brain, Mind, Self, and Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009a), 19–35, here 23.

[9] Carl Zimmer, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World (New York: Free Press, 2004), 7.

[10] Quoted in Zimmer (2004), 264.

[11] Uttal (2009), xiii.

[12] Andrew Newberg, “Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects,” in J. Wentzel Verde van Huyssteen, ed., Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 1 (London: MacMillan, 2003), 307–311, here 308.



2 thoughts on “God on the Brain: Part Two

  1. Pingback: God on the Brain: Part One | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  2. Pingback: God on the Brain: Part Three | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

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