achieving transcendence with brain surgery

February 18, 2010

Want to get closer to your supernatural deity of choice? You could spend years memorizing holy books, scrolls purported to contain ancient wisdom, and study dense, esoteric tomes filled with endless ruminations on all kinds of vague topics, like most religious scholars. Or you could just have surgery on your parietal cortex and give it three days to a week before feelings of transcendence and a closeness to the divine set in. This is what researchers in Italy found after studying the reports from patients who had surgery on brain tumors located in the aforementioned region of the brain. These findings seem to agree with previous research, which shows a link between the parietal, frontal and temporal cortexes in the making of a spiritual experience, and offer new evidence that religion is more about what goes on in your head than what may be happening outside of it.

The study is based on 88 brain cancer patients who were asked to indicate to what degree they agreed with a series of statements about how close they feel to nature, other people, or some mystical universal power. The distribution of answers was plotted before and after surgeries and patients whose parietal cortexes were the surgeon’s target tended to agree with the more spiritual statements, as well as agreed with them more often. This is not a concrete demonstration of how the brain conjures up spiritual beliefs, but it does point to the role of a particular brain center as one of the culprits. Together, the frontal, parietal and temporal cortexes deal with one’s social skills and orientation in space and time, so tinkering with them during surgery or damaging them in an injury should alter one’s perceptions and ideas of the outside world. This is why the study’s results were not much of a surprise to the experts. In fact, some neuroscientists thought there was a missed opportunity to learn a lot more about the way the brain processes religious beliefs…

Uffe Schjødt, a psychologist at Aarhus University in Denmark adds that he and others have found that some of the same regions become active during prayer and meditation. But he says that the authors missed a golden opportunity by not conducting more detailed interviews with the patients after their surgeries. “The study does not tell us anything about religiosity, religious practices, or mystical experiences post-surgery, which is a shame.”

There’s also an interesting caveat to consider about the frontal cortex. Surgeons rarely have to do any damage to it when removing a brain tumor located in the front of the brain. However, tumors near the parietal cortexes come with a greater risk for damage. After parietal patients boosted their spirituality scores and frontal cortex patients stayed where they were pre-surgery, the researchers felt confident enough to point to what they were sure was the culprit in the sudden gain in transcendent feelings. This doesn’t mean that the frontal cortex has been ruled out as important in religious beliefs and experiences. After all, it helps govern decision-making as well as playing a significant role in analytical tasks. The choice to embrace a religion because it gives some sense of comfort or fulfills a psychological need would have to be processed there. And that note brings us to a very important point. Just like there’s no real evidence for a God gene that makes us biologically disposed to supernatural beliefs, there is no God spot in the brain. Religion is a product of complex cognition, decision making and culture and pinning it down to one cortex or a chain of nucleobases just isn’t going to happen.

See: Weaver, J. (2010). Brain surgery boosts spirituality Nature DOI: 10.1038/news.2010.66

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  • jclark

    OK. I admit it. I am an incurable lecher. Your recent post about the difficulty in locating a God spot (G spot) in the brain immediately caused me to think of the elusive Graefenberg spot (G spot) in female anatomy. Though there is no direct link between the female G spot and the sixties film “Deep Throat” (Yes, I saw it.) there does seem to be a kind of correlation between the character depicted by Linda Lovelace in the film and the pseudo-scientific search for this supposed anatomical feature. In the film, as I recall, Ms. Lovelace could not achieve an orgasm because her clitoris was mislocated in her throat.

    The sub-cranial G spot (God spot) may prove to be even more difficult to locate. Perhaps it is located further south. If it should turn out to be in the brain or elsewhwere and someone finds a way to stimulate it, who could resist the procedure that would send one (male or female) into a paroxysm of religiosity? “Proof” at last of the existence of God!

  • Greg Fish

    Ok, let’s roll with that idea and say that we found a religious cortex of the brain hidden deep in the parietal lobe. We stimulate it with electrodes, sending the person into an absolutely out of this world religious experience of some sort. And now the questions begin, most important of them is what the patient thought happened…

    Did the person’s religious upbringing define the experience? Does a Christian soar through the clouds with angels and see Jesus while a Muslim goes to a lush, green paradise, and a Buddhist feels she’s achieved nirvana? What other cortexes were in play during the experience? How intense was the stimulation? Is it possible for a doctor to over-stimulate this region of the brain and what would happen if we did?

  • jclark

    Raised Catholic by parents who were not themselves particularly religious excepting when it was convenient or when it reinforced the concept of family, I spent a fair amount of my youth attempting to access the feeling of transcendence associated with belief in God. Though I am now ashamed to admit it, I squandered many hours reading books like “The Lives of the Saints” and being a profoundly serious acolyte. The book is revolting. It is filled with the kind of sadistic and masochistic madness De Sade used for prurient purposes. I assume that was not the intention of the books authors. At the time I didn’t question it (I was quite young) and tried to find some of sort verifiable God experience in the gross stories of the “Rose of Lima”, as I recall, slurping up the vomit of her leprous patients and sucking the pus from the wounds of others. The experience of God eluded me. It was not until I stumbled across the writings of Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley at an early age (I was around twelve) that I became aware that it was actually possible to doubt the existence of God.

    As I matured, the doubt instilled by these and other authors like James Joyce and Philip Wyley bloomed into a full fledged acceptance of the idea that there was no God. At least, if there was, there was no means of proving it. Belief in God had to be instilled by other believers or those who pretended belief for their own nefarious purposes. It was not discernibly different from belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

    If the God spot is found in the brain or elsewhere, I suspect that stimulating it would be a transitory experience much like an intense orgasm. I cannot imagine that if the person whose G spot had been stimulated was a non-believer that the experience would have a lasting effect although if the procedure of stimulating it was sufficiently non-invasive it might become addictive. As real as God might seem during the stimulation. the individual would still have to deal with reality, as we perceive it, afterwards.

    The actual experience would probably be much like the near death experiences–A blinding light, a tunnel and eerie music or voices. It might be like the re-birthing processes that some native groups stage to impart adulthood on pubescent males. I doubt that it would be like the trip to Damascus that changed Paul’s way of life so profoundly.

    A profound believer who underwent the procedure would remain a believer unless he managed to see that the stimulation was artificial and began to question the veracity of his beliefs.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … there is no God spot …

    No wishy-washy neuro-agnosticism here, by Dawkins!

    Our esteemed host is an avowed atheomaculist!

  • Tony webb

    There is an episode of Derren Brown on youtube somewhere where he uses hypnosis (of a sort) to convince a group of atheists into believing in God.
    Seen somewhere else, electrical and magnetic stimuli causing the ‘god effect’ also experiments with LSD did the same.

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