God and the limbic system

In Phantoms in the Brain, V S Ramachandran (left) devotes one chapter to the God question. His treatment is notable for its crisp articulation of the problem:

Do our brains contain some sort of circuitry that is actually specialized for religious experinece? Is there a “God module” in our heads? And if such a circuit exists, could it be a product of natural selection? What sorts of Darwinian selection pressures could lead to such a mechanism? Many traits make us uniquely human, but none is more enigmatic than religion—our propensity to believe in God or in some higher power.

Ramachandran focuses on patients with temporal lobe epilepsy who have “religious” experiences and fixations, not of the “Jesus bleeding on the cross” nature, but rather ones of religious ecstasy, divine light, and ultimate truth.

The author muses on the fact that the limbic system, where this type of epilepsy is focused, is responsible for emotional response. He proposes and rejects a couple of hypotheses (well, OK, he does not reject the hypothesis that God is actually visiting these people). Unfortunately, he seems to have largely run out of the clever, simple experiments we have come to rely on him for. Eventually he is reduced to proposing that we do the undoable: a “Godectomy”, where the patient’s temporal lobe is removed to see if that shuts down the mystical experiences.

In fact, Bear and Fedio (1977) conducted a study in which they used self report measures given to temporal lobe patients to categorize the characteristics of what is called temporal lobe personality. They came up with religiosity and sense of personal destiny among other traits. They also found that once these patients had temporal lobectemies all of these symptoms decreased (reference).

The rest of the chapter is an interesting, but not entirely relevant meditation on the theory of evolution, including the contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace, who, unlike Darwin, thought evolution could not explain the advent of advanced human capabilities like being able to do math, which developed far in advance of there being any selectional advantage associated with them, and invoked Providence as the explanation for such capabilities.

Our author’s admirably restrained conclusion is:

There are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics…we are still a long way from showing that there is a “God module” in the brain that might be genetically specified.


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