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Is God All in Our Heads?

Rhawn Joseph thinks there's a genetic, neurological basis for religious belief and spiritual experience?that God is all in our heads. He believes homo sapiens have evolved the ability to experience God through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure buried deep in the brain. This is in the most primitive part of the brain, where emotions and sexual pleasure come from. Joseph says, "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." Despite his studies, he's not an atheist.

Joseph says studies of epileptic patients who have experienced religious hallucinations are evidence that "spiritual experience is not based on superstition but is instead real, biological and part of our primitive biological drives." He?s studied neuroscience, astronomy, history, religion, archaeology and anthropology for examples of religious ecstasy when a person sees God or hears the voice of an angel. He thinks those experiences are the result of hyperstimulation of the amygdala, which releases large quantities of natural opiates. These same opiates are released in response to pain, terror and trauma, as well as social isolation and sensory deprivation, which may account for spiritual practices ranging from the isolation of monks to salt water sensory deprivation tanks.

But his explorations haven?t made him an atheist. He says, "There are creatures living in caves who don't have eyes 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.

"Maybe the ability to experience God and the spiritually sublime is an inherited limbic trait. Maybe we evolved these neurons to better cope with the unknown, to perceive and respond to spiritual messages because they would increase the likelihood of our survival." In other words, a belief in God makes us stronger and more likely to survive.

Matthew Alper doesn?t think our ability to believe makes God real. He says, "We're capable of repression, of phantom limb pain?our capacity to believe what isn't there is also sometimes helpful." He thinks we may need belief in order to deal with the information we get from our larger brains. "Consciousness creates so much anxiety that our species had to come up with a cognitive adaptation to deal with the pain of our intelligence?being able to think about our own mortality, for instance. So it came up with a brain modification that allows us to believe in an alternative reality, that when we die there is a spiritual part of us that will live forever."

Andrew Newberg believes the limbic system is important in explaining religious phenomena, but doesn?t think it?s solely responsible. He thinks the complexity and diversity of those experiences must involve other higher brain structures. A radiologist, he takes images of the brains of deeply religious people, trying to identify the areas where neural activity is linked to religious experience. He has brought in Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, and taken pictures of their brains while they meditate and pray.

Newberg attached an IV line to the arm of a Tibetan monk. While he was deep into meditation, Newberg injected a chemical tracer into the IV line and made scans of his brain. The images were filled with pools of neon green and red, representing increased and decreased blood flows to various parts of the brain. Newberg found increased blood flow in the frontal lobes, where higher thinking takes place, and decreased blood flow in the back or parietal lobes, where spatial orientation takes place.

He says, ?We saw evidence of a neurological process that has evolved to allow us humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all that is.?

Massimo Pigliucci disagrees and says, "Suppose we wanted to investigate some paranormal phenomenon, such as telepathy, and you claim that your brain behaves in a particular way when you do telepathy. So we do a brain scan, and we see that the pattern of neural activity will change because you are trying to concentrate on doing telepathy. The scan will obviously be different from your brain at rest, but does it show that telepathy is going on? No. The brain is always working?You go to the movies, you eat a piece of chocolate, you dream?your brain patterns will change." Joseph says, "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?Am I religious? No. Am I spiritual? Yes. I certainly don't believe in an anthropomorphic God. I would say the kingdom of God is inside us all. The brain is the chamber of God. It allows us to realize God and contemplate God, whatever God is."

Some of the most mysterious modern scientific experiments have investigated life after death, and communication with dead friends and relatives.

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