Monday, March 10, 2008


Something that has boggled my mind is the question of why 90% of people are religious. The answer to this question intrigues me, both as a neuroscientist and an atheist, precisely because it is not understood from either a neuroscientific viewpoint or an atheist viewpoint, both of which are the viewpoints I have on it.

Neurotheology is a booming new subset of neuroscience, devoted to the study of the neural bases of why people have the beliefs they do, in fact pioneered by UW's own Richard Davidson, who did studies on Buddhist monks back in 2002 (he's chums with the Dalai Lama, I think). Richard Davidson conducted a study in which he performed an EEG on both Buddhist monks and college students, instructing each to meditate, and found that the Buddhist monks had much more active gamma waves than the college students.

Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Canada (and in fact an alumnus of UW), did an experiment called the 'God helmet' experiment. People who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy experience sensory hyperstimulation, and individuals will interpret what they see in the context of their perspectives on society (for example, seeing Ronald Reagan's face in a potato chip as opposed to, say, Nixon's or Muammar Ghadhafi's). Individuals who are religious will probably perceive a sensory hyperstimulation as what they think is a spiritual experience. Persinger's tests on people such as nuns showed they were extremely sensitive in their temporal lobes. Famously, Richard Dawkins's experience wearing the 'God helmet' gave him no hyperstimulation, and his temporal lobe was found to be less sensitive. (Persinger also pioneered the Tectonic Strain theory, in which the magnetic field of the earth produces piezoelectric signals that create UFOs; this idea was challenged by Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba, who had an Earthlight theory which replaced 'piezoelectric signals ' with 'triboluminescence'.

So perhaps we atheists have less sensitive temporal lobes, and religious people probably have hypersensitive ones.

This is something to ask Dr. Dawkins about tomorrow when he visits. And yes, I will actually have the chance to ask him this in person. (It's great, being a regular at my campus's atheist society.) But he's an evolutionary biologist, so I don't know much how he's going to answer this.

I think it's a combination of temporal lobe sensitivity, overexposure to religion, underexposure to secular society and differences of opinion, and flexibility of mind that makes people more religious, and that atheists are not as temporally hypersensitive and have a better balance of exposure and a more flexible mind .

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