Within the past decade, a great deal of neurological research has been focused on finding the specific areas of the brain responsible for feelings of religiosity, spirituality, or transcendence. While there is no simple, direct correlation between a pinpoint locale in the brain and belief in a “higher power” – no clear-cut “God spot” has so far been discovered, in other words – cognitive scientists have nonetheless been able to narrow down the brain activity that causes religious feelings to the right hemisphere, and they have done this largely by studying patients with damage to that particular area. Most scientists agree that not even brain enhancing drugs can help to find these spots.
Two Halves, Two Minds
Some patients with very severe cases of right temporal lobe epilepsy find relief by having their corpora callosa surgically severed, in effect separating the two halves of their brains. Studies of people who have undergone this procedure demonstrate not only that the severing of the bundle of nerves between the brain’s hemispheres causes patients to experience the sensation of two personalities living within one head, but that these two separate “people” can have differing views on spirituality.
In a study by V.S. Ramachandran, patients with separated brain hemispheres wrote different answers to the question, “Do you believe in God?” when writing with different hands: The answer was “no” with the right hand (which is controlled by the left brain) and “yes” with the left hand. What’s more, brain scans of patients with right temporal lobe epilepsy tended to show much stronger reactions to religious words than the scans of non-epileptics.
The God Helmet
A widely circulated study done by Michael Persinger showed that simply stimulating the right brain hemisphere with magnets (through the use of a so-called “God helmet”) could bring on religious or spiritual feelings in most subjects. To greater or lesser degrees, the magnetic stimulation caused feelings of “presences” in the room with the subject, mild out of body experiences, or the sense of being “at one with the universe.”
Functions of the Right Brain
By studying subjects with different types of damage to parts of the right hemisphere, scientists are able to theorize why it is the likely seat of spirituality. The right hemisphere, and in particular the right parietal lobe, is generally responsible for localizing the body in its surrounding environment and causing awareness of the self in relation to others.
Damage to this area of the brain can give sufferers a feeling of being disembodied or outside of themselves; it can also cause patients to become easily lost, fail to recognize faces, and experience vivid hallucinations. Damage to the right parietal lobe also causes hyper-religiosity in some subjects; damage in the left hemisphere does not appear to affect religious feelings at all.