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Feb. 11 2010 - 7:35 pm | 4,010 views | 1 recommendation | 9 comments

A Holy Hole in Your Head?

Drawing to illustrate the relations of the bra...

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Ever suspected that religious people have a part of their brain missing? Well, here’s a new study that will let you take a cheap (and reasonably accurate) shot at the God-fearing…

While the popular notion of a search for the “God spot” is a bit silly — particular “spots” don’t really control the entirety of our various behaviors or beliefs — the idea that there’s a physical, biological, even neuroanatomical and genetic basis for religious belief seems increasingly likely. Religious thinking has been tied to various brain regions before, but a new study (abstract) moves things a big step forward. By measuring indicators of religiosity in brain-cancer patients before and after surgery to remove their tumors, a team of researchers in Italy has found that damage to a specific region of the brain (the posterior parietal cortex) can increase a person’s feelings of “self-transcendence,” or the feeling of being connected to others and to the universe.

The parietal cortex has previously been linked to maintaining one’s sense of self — such as in keeping track of the locations of one’s various body parts.

The researchers surveyed 88 brain-cancer patients before and after surgery, as reported by Discover’s 80 Beats blog, asking them to answer “yes” or “no” to statements such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism;” and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time.” People who answered “yes” to these statements score high on the trait of self-transcendence. The same people who score high on this measure are also prone to belief in things like miracles and ESP.

What the researchers found was that people who came in with tumors in the posterior parietal cortex scored higher on self transcendence before surgery than other patients, who came in with tumors in the frontal cortex. After the tumor removal, the patients who’d had tumors in the posterior parietal cortex scored even higher on self-transcendence. Patients who’d had tumors in the frontal cortex showed no change on that trait after the surgery.

What this would appear to show is that feelings of self-transcendence, and thus possibly religiosity, can be changed by alterations to neuroanatomy — in this case, first from a tumor, and then from the inevitable damage incurred by removal of a tumor.

Of course, this study, as with all studies, has its weaknesses. First off, the changes in self-transcendence were only measured three to seven days after surgery. It would be interesting to see how long these changes last — if they are, perhaps, permanent. Also, as one cognitive neuroscientist put it to Nature News, the whole study is based on “one self-report measure, which is a coarse measure that includes some strange items.”

Indeed, it would be interesting to see a study like this with a much more detailed questionnaire on various aspects of religiosity and with much more long-term follow-up after surgery.

Still, this is possibly the clearest link ever made between brain anatomy and belief in the supernatural. Perhaps surgery to cure believers (or non-believers!) is only decades and decades away.

  • Neuroworld looked at the compatibility of libertarianism and atheism here

  • Neuroworld checked in on the hunt for the God spot way back in November here.


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  1. collapse expand

    I seem to remember, though, that Phineas Gage, who famously survived a bizarre accident that damages his frontal lobe changed from a devoutly religious man to an absolute heathen.

  2. collapse expand

    I’m an atheist, but just for the record, a feeling of connectedness and transcendence is what we call “spirituality” not religion.

    • collapse expand

      We’ve started separating these things out as a culture, but I’m not sure there’s a biological base to doing so. Both traits may arise from the same neural mechanisms. Not that there might not be a difference, of course — both are extremely complex phenomena.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Religion is a system of beliefs, rules, mores, values. It is not an emotion or feeling.
      Even if you don’t see the difference between an external system and an internal feeling, try to imagine a religion that is NOT about transcendence or connectedness with the universe. In such a case they cannot be used synonymously in your article.

      That is like the difference between love and marriage, which are two very different things. The fact that they are related does not make them synonymous, no matter what the song says.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Ryan, looking at it from another perspective, a tumor or physical change in the brain may inhibit the the noise and distraction from the physical senses and allow a greater sense of spiritual connectivity. To imply that we are closer to discovering a physical framework that explains spiritual belief in its entirety is a huge leap.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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