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God on the brain? Scientists map religious thoughts with scans

Jesus has been "found" in tree bark, windows and even Cheetos, but now researchers have been able to map where he—or at least religion—pops up in the brain.

Scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA this week that they pinpointed where in the brain different types of religious thoughts originate. According to the study, religious musings occur in a variety of regions, confirming previous research showing there is no single "God Spot" in the brain from whence all spiritual thoughts emerge.

Study co-author Jordan Grafman, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, says that recalling a religious experience activates the same brain areas as more mundane musings, such as remembering, say, what you ate for lunch yesterday. And pondering God? Pretty much the same brain patterns as thinking about people you've never met such as historical figures or movie stars.

Grafman and his colleagues scanned the brains of 40 subjects (who described themselves as religious) while they were asked if they agreed with certain statements such as whether "God is forgiving" or "God is wrathful." Their findings: the thoughts activated areas such as the prefrontal cortex (involved in planning, social behavior and personality) and temporoparietal junction (believed to be involved in distinguishing between one's own and others desires and intentions) that are more advanced in humans than in other animals. Other primates have these brain structures, but it's still up for debate whether they have a similarly functioning temporoparietal junction, says Kalanit Grill-Spector, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Stanford University. The discovery supports the thinking that a cohesive notion of religion is unique to humans and that even our early ancestors were capable of such beliefs, Grafman says.

Critics have noted that the study is limited because it captures a "thinking" brain rather than one in the midst of a religious experience, Andrew Newberg, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Spirituality and the Mind, told the The New York Times. The research only examined the brains of people with traditional Western religious beliefs, but, Grafman says, he's looking for collaborators who can help test the findings in other cultures.

Image courtesy of Wolfgang Wildner via Flickr

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