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Monthly Archives: August 2013

What does religion do to our brain?

1. The Prayer Maker Machinery - A PRAYER MACHINE -  2011 - James Paterson - 53 x 78 x 25 cm  steel wire , African black wood   

      I was walking at the David Pecat Square the other day when I met James Paterson and saw his beautiful work of art. David is an incredible visual artist who is a perfect illustration of someone with a creative mind. His work was very unique. There was something very special about it. There were these drawing-like sculptural pieces made from wire that he called prayer machines. I mean the name itself, surely gets credit. A prayer Machine was definitely what I wanted to know more about so I went there and asked him about it and this is how he explained his art to me:

    These pieces I call prayer Machines are an expression of verbal language in prayer. I find that words often fail me when I pray. I can’t always find a word that will objectively describe a longing, desire or feelings that I have and as a visual artist I wondered what prayer would look like if I could see it. Obviously once made, the art pieces then become subjective because they are a material representation of my prayer which is an organic and relational process. Yet I call them machines because they do something ; in a fleeting sort of way these whimsical prayer Machines begin to capture, in visual essence, the elusive butterfly, the prayer that is my attempt to communicate with my creator. I construct them out of steel rods and wire then anchor them in a finished wooden base; a blending of the manufactured and natural worlds…..

    What is more fascinating than extraordinary art, illustrating belief, passion and creativity of human mind as an introduction to this topic?      

     I can’t call myself a religious person but as religion has played an important role in my life I can for sure say that I would like to be open to the possibility that god might exist. I also appreciate the religious development as long as it restricts to the person only and not when the person wants to impose the religious rules to others. For many years I went from believing and exploring different religions to not believing in anything or believing in a higher power and so on… With passage of time religion has gone out and in of fashion for many times in my life until I understood why I couldn’t get it out of my head and then I realized that religion has always been part of my life. It only glistened sometimes and then it just tarnished or changed its shape, but it was always there.

     Let’s have a quick look at it from the neuroscience point of view. Although this is a difficult topic to talk about in simple terms especially when it comes to issues concerning consciousness, logic, emotional processing mechanisms of the brain, issues that are essential to address when dealing with the neurological correlates of spiritual experiences and religious beliefs. In order to do this I have used many references such as the work of Andrew Newberg,  Mark Waldman and Dick Swaab and many others.

     We are all born with a particular sensitivity for being religious or not. Let’s say we carry this sensitivity on our DNA’s and then there is social environment that does the rest. Children have all an idea about what god is and how he looks like. If you ask them they often draw the picture of god as an old man with long hair and beard. As children grow in to adults that image changes. In fact the more a person thinks about God, the more complex and imaginative the concept becomes, taking on unique nuances of meaning.
If you contemplate god long enough something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to some subtle experiences. Perceptions alter, beliefs begin to change, and if God has meaning for you, then God becomes neurologically real. For some, god may remain primitive concept, limited to the way a young child interprets the world. But for most people, God is transformed into symbol or metaphor and that neurological concept will never go away. So if you already are sensitive to be religious then the social environment where you grow up and the social context is crucial for having belief. Belief takes its place in our brain and stays there.

      Various practices show that thinking of a loving being causes the compassion centers in the brain to light up, whereas belief in an authoritarian spirit stimulates regions that prime the brain for fighting.
Recent imaging studies have also shown that there are various parts of the brain such as parietal lobe and frontal lobe or even temporal lobe that will be more activated when people pray, meditate or have religious experiences. These parts are also involved in many different functions such as creative thinking, attention, concentration, etc.

     So religion, especially when started at a young age and when the person has certain sensitivity for it, will shape the brain to a different form and that causes changes in the way we think and behave. Even if we decide not to practice any religion, it will appear in other shapes. For example people who have believed in God in the past might now be more open to spirituality or believe in being able to change the world so they will fight for it and they become activists for example. This is just another type of expression but still the same brain structure causes this.  So I guess you could say that beside the group of people who never had belief in their life there are a group of people who are religious and there are also people who have a religious brain. I probably belong to third group with the religious brain. To which group do you belong?

     I hope that this topic as well as this weblog gives the readers a new perspective in how we make our choices and illustrates how beautiful and complex our brain is.
When I talk about this topic with friends they sometimes ask me whether they should encourage or prevent their children at young age to believe in God. The only answer I can give them is as Dick Swaab once said: send your children to a school that teaches them how to think rather than what to think.

If religion is just an activation of certain parts of the brain, does that mean God or any higher power is just in our heads? Or God could have created our brain this way?

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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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