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Scientists search brain for proof of Godís existencecomment (0)

March 20, 2003


The human brain, even at its ancient, primitive core, is less an organ of impulse than a machine of reason. We are built to make sense of things. Our brains restlessly scan the world for patterns in chaos and causes in coincidence.
   
We crave explanation and, when faced with the indescribable, sometimes we create the answer.
For many people, the answer to the most ineffable question of all — “Why do we exist?” — is God.
   
Neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph has spent years studying history, myth and biology in his quest to understand the universality of spiritual experience and its evolutionary function.

Joseph concludes the connection between the brain and spirituality suggests that there is a physiological basis for religion — that human beings, in essence, are hard-wired for God. Joseph, of Santa Clara, Calif., believes there is a neurological, even genetic, explanation for religious belief and spiritual experience.
   
Homo sapiens, he theorizes, have evolved the capacity to experience God primarily through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure buried deep in the brain.
   
The amygdala, along with the hippocampus and hypothalamus, make up the limbic system, the first-formed and most primitive part of the brain, where emotions, sexual pleasure and deeply felt memories arise.
   
“These tissues, which become highly activated when we dream, when we pray or when we take drugs such as LSD, enable us to experience those realms of reality normally filtered from consciousness, including the reality of God, the spirit, the soul and life after death,” Joseph says.
   
Joseph, who has a doctorate in neuropsychology and is the author of a comprehensive textbook called “Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology and Clinical Neuroscience,” cites his own clinical and historical research, as well as studies of epileptic patients who have experienced religious hallucinations, as evidence that “spiritual experience is not based on superstition but is instead real, biological and part of our primitive biological drives.”
   
There is a maverick, even provocative bent to much of Joseph’s writing. He has published a half-dozen books of his own at University Press, including “The Transmitter to God: The Limbic System, the Soul and Spirituality,” and he continues to research a number of subjects, many of them in evolutionary biology.
   
For the past 20 years, Joseph has been mining neuroscience, astronomy, history, religion, archaeology and anthropology for clues about the meaning of intense religious ecstasy during which a person may see an image of God or hear the voice of an angel.
   
Joseph believes those experiences are the result of hyperstimulation of the amygdala, which releases large quantities of natural opiates. The same opiates are released in response to pain, terror and trauma, as well as social isolation and sensory deprivation.
   
“Hyperactivation of the amygdala, hippocampus and overlying temporal lobe gives a person the sense that they’re floating or flying above their surroundings,” Joseph says. “It can trigger memories and hallucinations, create brilliant lights, and at the same time secrete neurotransmitters that induce feelings of euphoria, peace and harmony.”
   
Many religious people might view the cause and effect in reverse — it is the divine inspiration that activates those areas of the brain, instead of the other way around — but to Joseph, the order is irrelevant. For him, the more important question is “Why?”
   
“There are creatures living in caves who don’t have eyes,” he says, “because there’s nothing for them to see. But we have a visual cortex and an auditory cortex, because there are things we were made to see and hear. You don’t develop a brain structure to help you experience something that doesn’t exist.” We are hard-wired for God, in other words, because there is a real God to experience.
   
The lack of opportunity for empirical studies does not deter Joseph. He sees similarities across cultures in near-death experiences; beliefs in ghosts, spirits and demons; and symbols such as crosses, triangles and circles, as further evidence of the neuro-anatomical basis of spirituality.
   
“If you’re a scientist and you find people having the same experience, colored by their own cultural differences, all over the world 4,000 years ago and among both children and adults, you have to say, well, there’s something there that’s worthy of scientific explanation.” (RNS)
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