Whether you’re a believer or not, God is taking up space in your head – the prefrontal cortex, to be exact. Jordan Grafman, PhD, of Northwestern University has been studying where religious belief systems are stored in the brain and how they overlap with moral, political, and social systems. This fascinating episode explores near-death experiences, how brain injury can influence belief, and how religion has been used to enforce cultural and social rules. Plus – the disappearing boundary between Religion and Politics in America.
Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome. It is my pleasure to have Dr. Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist and professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Dr. Grafman has done extensive work on how God and religion are represented in our brains. What areas of the brain are important for this function and do they overlap with areas for social and behavioral functions? Is there a God spot in our brain? Jordan, thank you for being with us today.
Jordan Grafman: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
Phil Stieg: So let’s start off with some definitions of that. We’re all on the same plane. How do you define religion?
Jordan Grafman: It’s a belief system. This one is extraordinary. It’s because it’s only found as far as we know, in human beings. So why is it only found in human beings is part of our hunt. We want to know why. I think initially my interests were always in the human prefrontal cortex. It turns out that that’s the most evolved area of the human brain and disproportionately large and complex compared to other animals. It really distinguishes humans from other species. It also seems to be very involved in all kinds of beliefs, human beliefs such as economics, morals, religion, political beliefs, very important. It’s also important for social neuroscience.
Now, within social neuroscience and the study of beliefs, there’s nothing more human than religious beliefs. So and a belief in supernatural entities as well really, really distinguishes us. So all my interests come together in studying the neural basis of religious belief.
Phil Stieg: How do you separate the concept of religious beliefs from spirituality?
Jordan Grafman: Yeah, I think when you’re doing research, you have to focus on a few areas that allow your experiments to actually detect whether your hypotheses, what you how you fashion the experiments are valid or not.
So spirituality is a little bit too vague to study, I think, whereas actual experiential and didactic religious beliefs, things you’re taught in church, synagogue, the mosque, those things can be studied as well as their representations in the brain
Phil Stieg: So I’m sitting here with the books that I perused in preparation for this whole event, The book “Neuro-theology”. And then the other one, “The Transmitter to God, The Limbic System, The Soul and Spirituality”.
I’ve always had a fascination as a neurosurgeon as to whether there is a God spot. That was my next question, – that concept of is there a God spot?
Jordan Grafman: So far we haven’t been able to find anything resembling what you just referred to as a “God Spot”. I would say that that idea probably emerged from people who thought we were so special, that we had such special communication with supernatural entities, that somehow there must be a special part of our brain that was designed for that kind of communication — and only for that kind of communication. So based on our work and the work of others as well, I don’t think so far there’s any evidence for that kind of location or spot in the brain that’s just devoted to religious thinking, thought and communication.
Phil Stieg: Every civilization that archaeologists have dug up, there’s always some form of a religious relic there. What is it about that? But why is it in every culture?
Jordan Grafman: Well, I think people, particularly when their social network, their social circles began to expand beyond families or Clans of people, they had to figure out a way to best organize their social milieu and not sacrificing in a way where your own local family was more important than the rest of your community.
So how could you do that? How could you enforce rules and how could you enforce how to get along better? And religion, it turns out, is one of the perfect vehicles for doing that. Many religions, for example, will say monogamous marriage is important, for example, rather than having multiple partners, whether you’re male or female. There are good reasons, it turns out, for that, that go beyond simply a lifestyle decision. It really reduces in some sense your power. If you if you’re just with one partner versus many, it reduces elitism. It helps people then have a “greater good” in mind. That is, the community becomes larger than your own local family. So just from that point of view alone, it influences how people get together in social communities.
Phil Stieg: So, how did you initially go about identifying areas of the brain involved religious beliefs?
Jordan Grafman: Our original studies were using was using functional magnetic resonance imaging in healthy volunteers, just people from the local community.
Phil Stieg: And looking at what looking at a religious relic or something and seeing which part of their brain lit up?
Jordan Grafman: No, what we did was we took statements from the Baylor Institute of Religion survey. They sent out this survey. It’s a very well-known survey. They sort of tell us about religious belief in the United States. We then asked people in the scanner to say whether they agreed or disagreed with a particular statement. And while they were doing that, we measured their brain activity, And so we could find patterns of activation, and those patterns we could relate to other studies that got the same pattern, but not with religious materials, but other materials.
Phil Stieg: I’m presuming that you found that areas of the brain are activated that also perform other functions beyond religious functions?
Jordan Grafman: That’s right. So let me give you one example, which is, I think fairly crystal clear. There’s been a lot of studies of how people infer the intentions of others. This is called theory of mind. In the larger literature. It’s something, for example, people with autism have some difficulty in doing. Even in the healthy population, without a label like that, the people who everybody just walking around people have those skills to varying degrees. Right? I mean, they have to understand to sort of have to understand what a colleague means by what they said or by their actions. So this is an important function of the human brain because it’s very important for social behavior, how you get along with people and how you read other’s behaviors. So we found that when people were thinking about God and God’s intentions and behaviors, the same regions, the same profile of activation was found. So our sort of the cut to the chase line was, at least to most people, God’s just another guy. I mean, you think about God, like you might think about your neighbor.
Phil Stieg: Let me ask, have you had a patient or a client that you examined for their religious hot spots and then they had a traumatic injury and came back and you saw that there was either a difference or it was the same in turns in terms of their response to a religious stimulus.
Jordan Grafman: We haven’t seen that kind of patient ourselves, but there are reports in the literature that we’re sometimes a somebody who had a deep religious belief, had a brain injury, they no longer have religious affiliation or beliefs. And vice versa, somebody who might have been not very religious, had a brain injury and become very religious. There are lots of reasons that people might adhere to different forms of spirituality and belief if they have damage to certain parts of the brain.
So just to give you an example, in some of our studies, when we study people who have injuries and damage to the frontal lobes, to the prefrontal cortex, that often affects their ability to modulate, to inhibit, to critically analyze things they’re seeing. So let me give you another example from my own life.
So about 20 years ago, my mom died. I used to go to work at the NIH very early when I worked there.
I was walking to the bus, actually, and I’m walking on one side of the street and across the street I look and I see my mother. I’m sure it’s my mom. I look away because it’s a little weird. I think. I look back. It seems like her again. I look away, I look back, she’s gone. Now, I happen to know how you can prime such images as that. There’s research that shows you can do that. If I’m naive, and I just see that I think I’ve just had a transcendent moment, and that there is such a thing as an afterlife and, you know, you can go on and on. And sometimes I’m sure that people do not want to proceed with a thorough scientific explanation because the experience meets their needs.
Now that that perceptual phenomena, you can study in the brain, you can study in human subjects. You can induce that kind of experience. That kind of personal experience and knowledge, I think points out why it’s important to study these kinds of beliefs in the brain because it will help us better understand ourselves. Now that’s fragile, right, because as I just said, I think many people do not want this laid out in black and white. There are lots of reasons for that!
Phil Stieg: And we can spend another week on that!
Tell me your thoughts then on individuals that have near-death experiences and they have the light at the end of the tunnel. And so insofar as I remember the one of the books I read about the child that saw obviously a person with a beard and a purple robe. And link that then with some of the scientific data that we’ve developed with astronauts that are put it high G forces, and they have this near-death experience and they do report this elevated feeling and perception of seeing their surrounds and a deeper sense of euphoria or a deeper sense of reality. Does that imply the brain is hardwired for it or is that just, again, the release of a bunch of neurochemicals?
Jordan Grafman: Right. I think it’s both what you said. I think the brain is a bit hard wired for it in the sense that if certain areas of the brain are not functioning very well, other areas can be hyper functional. And that kind of hyper functioning can lead to similar kinds of perceptual phenomena. It’s it can be explained. So, yes, people have those experiences, they report it, but there’s good scientific explanations for it.
Phil Stieg: Is it because, as you said earlier, specific areas of the brain are involved in religious experiences, but those areas are also involved in other functions of the brain, like semantics, memory retrieval and imagery. And somehow all of these functions get tied together with an experience like near-death. With a near-death experience that part of your brain has imagery and you see the light at the end of the tunnel or whatever it is you see.
Jordan Grafman: The fact that we cannot find a God spot, but we can find overlap between what happens in the brain when people are processing all forms of religious belief and other kinds of social belief, that indicates and suggests that, at least in the brain, these belief systems are in the vicinity of each other. Now, whether they’re distinguished in some way, whether you can have a very selective problem in accessing religious beliefs versus accessing political beliefs say that’s harder to find, partly because there’s some probably some overlap between the two, just like there might be overlap between moral beliefs and religious beliefs, legal beliefs and religious beliefs. So there’s probably some distinguishing features like how often you activate any of these beliefs. And if you co-activate beliefs together, they’re sort of likely to hang out together in the brain as well. So that is a way we can use brain research to better understand the nature of how we store religious beliefs.
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Narrator: Since 2005, The Baylor Religion Survey has earned respect for its long-term tracking of religious belief in the United States. In this edition of This Is Your Brain – The Guided Tour, we’ll get a glimpse of latest survey and the results that were significant – but not necessarily surprising.
SFX: Voice of the survey>
Question 26: When you were growing up, how often did you and your family… .A) Pray together as a family? … B) Experience serious conflict between the people living in your household?… (fade under)
Narrator: Conducted by Baylor University – the world’s largest Baptist College – the survey’s questions are designed to give researchers a better sense of how deeply some religious beliefs are held and, importantly, acted upon. There are also questions about political and social beliefs, giving us a fascinating look at how those belief systems overlap.
SFX: Voice of the survey:
Question 5: Please rate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statements. … I am accountable to others for how I carry out my responsibilities. … When I have hurt someone, I try to repair the harm I have caused. … I determine my own dignity. (fade under)
Narrator: The 2021 edition, conducted just weeks after the January 6th insurrection, found a strong correlation between people who believe in a literal interpretation of the bible, and people who believe in current political conspiracy theories.
For example, “bible literalists” were more than twice as likely than the general public to believe false claims like the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, or that top Democrats are secretly involved in a child sex trafficking ring.
According to Paul Froese, director of the Baylor survey, “Increasingly, hyper-partisanship is taking on a religious-like fervor. The relationship between politics and religion is getting closer. It’s harder for us to distinguish between the two.”
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The Baylor finding seems to align with the observation in the brain scan studies at Northwestern University. They found that passionate moral beliefs, religious beliefs and political beliefs seem to share overlapping territories in the brain.
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Clearly, Biologists and Social researchers are still a long way from a comprehensive understanding of belief. But the more data they collect the better we’ll understand how our brains process belief. Because as Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The good thing about science is that it’s true – whether or not you believe in it.”
Phil Stieg: What I find amazing is how important the prefrontal cortex, how important that is not only in religious experiences, but so many other functions in our human lives. I often marvel at a patient that presents to me with a ruptured aneurysm from what’s called the anterior communicate area, which is right up in this frontal lobe area. And they will have the most amazing delusions and hallucinations and think they’re the king of Siam and all that. But it’s not only that area. I mean, that area is so richly connected to every other area of the brain via neural networks. Personally I’m overwhelmed with how we’re going to ever be able to sort all of this out. Certainly not in my lifetime.
Jordan Grafman: Well, I think we can start out the basic principles, but because our contacts and our daily episodes for each of us as individuals are so different, it’s an endless research project. Because context change, environments change. The future will be different from the present. 30 years ago we wouldn’t be talking like this, would we?
Phil Stieg: Well, that’s the trap we fall into. is context, right? I mean, am I seeing that piece of art on the wall or is that my brain’s representation of that piece of art on the wall? And if you look at it, you see something very different. If a cat looks at it, they see something, nothing at all. They see lines and vertical and horizontal lines.
Jordan Grafman: That’s perfect, because if you take religion, religion is not some unitary belief system that everybody believes in exactly the same way. So there are all sorts of denominations right? Among religions. And these denominations often have aggressive differences, not simply philosophical differences.
Phil Stieg: What about the brains of believers versus nonbelievers? Do they respond differently to your stimuli?
Jordan Grafman: They look very similar. It turns out. Even nonbelievers tend to have knowledge about religion. And so it looks like believers and nonbelievers are drawing from the same knowledge pool when they think about the task, we give them, the religious tests we give them.
There are some differences, though. Of course, some of the differences involve experiential differences that people would report if they’re believers versus nonbelievers, emotional differences, the intensity with which you believe versus nonbelievers. And in fact, sometimes, the very implicit activation of emotional structures in the brain when you’re reading something that contradicts your own belief. And often you’re not aware of that intensity, but it shows in the brain that that is activating structure’s concerned with emotion.
Phil Stieg: Is there any literature on looking at brain function with functional MRI, PET, whatever you’re using to look at someone that might be taking the religious road, you know, they start they’re an early believer and then then they become more indoctrinated in their religion. Are there changes in the brain? And if there are, what are they?
Jordan Grafman: Well, we haven’t done those studies, but I would bet there would be, of course. And that’s like any skill, anything you practice. No doubt as you learned neurosurgery, there were changes in your brain that accommodated your work interests and your professional interests. The same thing would hold for people who studied religion longer than others. They would have a more enhanced and a more rich representation of that religion. One of the things we’d like to do, but we haven’t had the opportunity to do yet, is to study very experienced religious practitioners, priests, rabbis, imams, these kinds of people, whose skill may really be enhanced in certain aspects of didactic religious belief or experiential belief. We’d like to do that. Just to give you a parallel, an old student of mine is now a professor at Michigan, was interested in orthography and reading, and he studied mail men. Mail people deliver the mail at the time. I mean, they’re looking at addresses. They’re looking at fonts all day. And their areas of the brain that did that were enhanced, right? They were specialized. So wouldn’t be any different for religious belief.
Phil Stieg: You’ve been studying this for a few decades now… where is the satisfaction for you – and for that matter, what have been the pitfalls?
Jordan Grafman: It’s a slow crawl, you know, especially because it’s a relatively new and I would say isolated area of research.
There are lots of reasons people stayed away from studying religion. Sometimes agencies that give money out and say it’s too complex. You can’t learn anything from studying religion, although you can make it as simple as you want. It’s not any different from studying how you read. I mean, you can do it.
Another aspect is that it is a very fragile area. You have to be very careful not to offend or put off people by these studies as if you’re trying to say God doesn’t exist and I’m going to justify it. And you people are crazy. That’s what you don’t want to do. And because its beliefs are legitimate, I mean, there is a legitimate in religion as they are in other aspects of other systems that involve belief. You want to be sensitive to people so you can learn about it better. I think the basic idea is you give you respect other people. Right. But at the same time, you say I’m dying to find out how the brain represents this stuff. And because it’s a great social phenomena and only we have it.
Phil Stieg: Two take away messages that I should have as a result of this conversation regarding God in my brain – or not in my brain, but something my brain has conjured up. Tell me which way I should think or feel about this.
Jordan Grafman: Well, I think you just said one of them: God is in our brain. There’s no doubt God is in your brain is a belief system as a system, even if people don’t believe they’ve come across God. They’ve had to think about an argument why they don’t believe. So God is in everybody’s brain in that sense.
And if that’s the case, then the more we learn about how such beliefs are represented in the brain, the more we can better understand the relationship to evolution, to social behavior and to other aspects of social function that can teach us about ourselves as humans.
Phil Stieg: So then back to the chicken or egg conversation. Is God the creation of the brain or did God come first and our brain responded to that?
Jordan Grafman: You know, I’ve tried to recruit God to come in our lab for a long time. I haven’t been able to do that. So in the meantime, I’m still waiting because I know the paper that would appear in the journal Science,
Phil Stieg: You’d get that one in Nature. I know…
Jordan Grafman: No doubt about that. In lieu of that, though, I think we just have to, for the moment, do our research and figure that there was a need or an experience that people had at one point in time that led us to believe in both the moral concepts of religion as well as in the supernatural aspects of religion. And from there, we move into the 21st century. Right? And that’s where we are now. So that’s what I’m working on.
Phil Stieg: So what’s your impression has the supernatural component gotten bigger or smaller?
Jordan Grafman: You know, it’s amazing. And I think if you look at just as an example, beliefs. If you stretch beliefs beyond religion and you look at the current political climate in the United States with people having certain kinds of beliefs that other people might think are preposterous. You wonder what led somebody to have those beliefs and to and to have those beliefs over a relatively short period of time.
So religion also can teach us about the nature of falling in and out of beliefs, sort of in and out of love, in and out of beliefs and how that occurs, and what’s the complexity that leads to that in daily lives? And the brain follows in that case. The brain both interacts and responds to our religious experiences and other kinds of belief experiences. You can’t separate them out. So, in that sense, we haven’t found a separate soul. We haven’t found a separate entity that somehow would emerge from the brain.
In my limited life span, what I’m really interested is saying these are the core features of the core dimensions of how we store religious beliefs and where in the brain we store those dimensions and features.
Phil Stieg: Yeah. I mean, you really want to understand the biological basis of religious experience
Jordan Grafman: And belief. I think you cannot make advances in the details of knowledge about the human brain and what its functions are until you’ve made the same kind of advances in understanding behavior. That’s why I appreciate the original work of philosophers. But I think now psychologists, economists and other people are teaching us a lot more about the behaviors and therefore we can use that knowledge to better understand the brain the brain. We still have lots of data to work on.
Phil Stieg: Jordan, in the past, I have actually lectured, tried to lecture on God in the brain, so this has been a fascination of mine and you clearly are a world’s expert on this. I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us. It’s interesting to know that God is in the brain. So I think that that will bring a lot of comfort to many people. The question is, what does that mean? And I look forward to the new results that you’re going to be presenting in the future, as I know you will. Thank you so much for being with us.
Jordan Grafman: Thank you for having me.