NEW ORLEANS -- No one knows why humanity felt its
first religious stirrings.
But researchers at UC-San Diego, reported Tuesday that the human brain may be hard-wired to hear the voice of heaven, in what researchers said was the first effort to directly address the neural basis of religious expression.
In a provocative experiment with patients suffering from an unusual form of epilepsy, researchers at the UC-San Diego brain and perception laboratory determined that the parts of the brain's temporal lobe -- which the scientists quickly dubbed the "God module" -- may affect how intensely a person responds to religious beliefs.
People suffering from this type of seizure have long reported intense mystical and religious experiences as part of their attacks but also are unusually preoccupied with mystical thoughts between seizures.
That led this team to use these patients as a way of
investigating the relationship between the physical structure of the brain and spiritual
In a carefully designed experiment, the researchers determined that one effect of the patients' seizures was to strengthen their brain's involuntary response to religious words, leading the scientists to suggest a portion of the brain is naturally attuned to ideas about a supreme being.
"It is not clear why such dedicated neural machinery ... for religion may have evolved," the team reported Tuesday at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. One possibility, the scientists suggested, was to encourage tribe loyalty or reinforce kinship ties or the stability of a closely knit clan.
The scientists emphasized that their findings in no way suggest that religion is simply a matter of brain chemistry.
"These studies do not in any way negate the validity of religious experience or God," the team said. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."
Until recently, most neuroscientists confined their inquiries to research aimed at alleviating the medical problems that affect the brain's health and to attempts to fathom its fundamental neural mechanisms. Emboldened by their growing understanding of how the brain works, however, scientists now dare to investigate the relationship between the brain, human consciousness and a range of intangible mental experiences.
Craig Kinsely, an expert in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia, called the new study "intriguing" and said "the implications are fascinating."
"People have been tickling around the edges of consciousness and this sort of research plunges in," Kinsely said. "There is the quandary of whether the mind created God or God created the mind. This is going to shake people up, but (any conclusion) is very premature."
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, the senior scientist involved in the experiment and the director of the center for brain and cognition at UC-San Diego, said, "We are skating on thin ice. We are only starting to look at this. The exciting thing is that you can even begin to contemplate scientific experiments on the neural basis of religion and God."
© Copyright Los Angeles Times 1997