What does religion do to our brain?

14 Aug

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?


Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “What does religion do to our brain?

  1. mer

    August 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    First of all, thank you for the original blog, well-written and some interesting notes as well. I think the main point in your blog is that our DNA/brain is a major determinant of being a religious person. Am I right? As a religious person myself, I wonder, where you would include the concept of free will? Surely, the brain does not determine all that we do, and possesses high plasticity to accomodate all kinds of changes.

    Also, about the DNA part, I’d say that there is just too much we don’t know about genes and their interactions. Especially with such a vague concept as religion, assuming that it has to do with DNA seems to be a bit problematic, though not necessarily a wrong assumption.

    As a last question, does activation in the brain necessarily imply the non-existence, of God so you want? This seems to be implied often by researchers, do you think that is the case?

    • care4brain

      August 26, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and responding. I also appreciate any other feedback for future improvements. As I already explained, this weblog is more about giving the reader a reason to think out of the box even if it is for a short time. My intention is not just to write an informative piece but to write about the things that are challenging our minds in everyday life and being able to look at them from a different perspective.
      I think it is necessary to give ourselves the chance to doubt and question our believes and thoughts once in a while in order to refresh our minds and our absolute thoughts regardless of whether we will change them in the end or not. For that matter I think that I already have reached what I wanted by writing this piece. To answer your questions I must say that as I mentioned before I really don’t know the absolute truth or answers. By reading your comment I see that you also don’t come up with a suggestion or any specific explanation about why you think that there might be a free will and why you think that our brain does not control our behaviors completely. I try to give you some general thoughts. There is one thing though that I know for sure and that’s the complexity and uniqueness of our brain as an extraordinary organ or machine that we don’t know all about it yet.
      About the free will some people think that the evidence for free will is the creativity of the scientists but this surely does not prove the theory of free will. Not coincidentally, in very different parts of the world, the same unique find is made by creative scientists on a very frequent basis. We know that the discovery of art was made thousands of years ago. Apparently, the unique expression of human creativity depends on the development stages of the brain. The brain remains a machine, from which we can theoretically, if we would know the input and build of the brain, know every detail about it. With reasonable certainty we could predict what will come out under certain circumstances. But because of the complexity of these connections within the human brain we are not yet able to do this for one individual, but this does not proof the existence of a free will. Groups of people behave so predictably that free will just seems imaginary and suggested by the enormous complexity of our environments and our behavior. According to Spinoza free will did not exist and still until this day a new argument for its existence is not given yet. I hope you enjoyed this challenge as much as I did and I should say I admire and respect your open attitude as a religious person to read this piece with open mind and hope to hear from you very soon.


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