Scientists searching for brain's 'God spot' find belief circuits
Scientists searching for the so-called "God spot" have identified parts of the brain which control religious belief.
By John Bingham Last Updated: 1:00PM GMT 10 Mar 2009
A study involving practising Christians, Muslims and Jews found that some areas of the cortex "light up" in response to religious statements.
Scans carried out on volunteers as they processed a series of remarks about God showed how areas of the brain which evolved more recently and not present in other animals were often more heavily involved – suggesting that faith is uniquely human.
"We're interested to find where in the brain belief systems are represented, particularly those that appear uniquely human," said Prof Jordan Grafman of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, who led the research.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, undermined the idea that a single area of the brain – nicknamed the God spot – controlled religious belief.
Instead, the scientists found that several different pieces of cerebral circuitry are used to process different aspects of religion.
A group of 40 volunteers, drawn from the main monotheistic religions, were asked to listen to a series of statements about God and asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed while having their brain scanned.
When statements about God being involved in the world were read, the lateral frontal lobe areas – one of the part of the brain which enables us to empathise with other people – were engaged.
But when it came to comments such as "God is wrathful", activity was centred on the medial temporal and frontal gyri.
And when more abstract or doctrinal questions were raised, it was the right inferior temporal gyrus – the circuitry which helps us understand metaphor – which was most engaged.
"Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions," said Prof Grafman.