Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

If you’re just tuning in, we’re continuing our conversation with Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries, as part of a four-part exploration of the intersection between neuroscience and theology. 

Are human beings hard-wired to believe in something, God, etc?

This is a great question. Daniel Dennett, among others, has argued for this idea. He wouldn’t say “hard-wired” – per se. That has much stronger meaning in science than I think you mean. But do we have an innate tendency to believe in something, such as God? I’d say, yes. A big part of what our brains do is to create coherent sense out of all the information we receive. For example, take visual perception – our brain creates a whole, stable and consistent percept from the snippets of visual information we take in each moment. As we live in the world, our brain is constantly making sense of our experiences and the information we receive, creating essentially a narrative of the world. And this is extremely valuable and important, and allows us to function in the world.

One theory of religion is that it results from this tendency. Essentially, in creating this narrative, in making sense of what we perceive, our brains is looking for causes, for agency. Bustling in the leaves behind you is because a person or animal is there, etc. So the idea is that when we can’t find a proximate cause we devise spirits or gods that cause the unexplained things. The theory is that over time this developed into religion as we know it today, with dogma and doctrine and rituals. And so long as religion is a list of just-so stories about the world, and a god (or gods) that look a lot like super heroes, then yeah, I think this could be a fair assessment of religion. But I don’t think that’s what faith is, what religion is – and that’s why I think we need to be willing and able to let go of just-so stories and the idols we create for God.

So yes, I think we have a innate tendency to believe things. We need this in order to function in the world – to navigate, to communicate, to glean any information from the world around us. And some aspects of religion rely on this innate function, but it’s not the whole story.

Some people would say faith is just a neurological circuit in the brain firing. How would you respond to that?

Why “just”? There’s a notion that if something is the result of brain activity then it isn’t real. If I explain to you how we perceive sunsets, and how the neural wiring of the visual system establishes complementary colors, does that make the sunset less beautiful? The activity of our brain is what lets us think, lets us see beautiful things, taste food, listen to music, laugh at jokes, and fall in love with people. It doesn’t make these things less real or pleasing – in fact, I find that understanding more about these things makes me enjoy them more. For example, there are neural circuits in our brains that underlie language, our ability to speak, our ability to learn language, etc. But nobody would suggest that language is just an illusion, just the activity of neural circuits. Rather, evidence of such neural circuits validates these functions. Similarly, the idea that faith is the result of neural activity should not diminish or invalidate faith. The fact that faith amounts to brain activity doesn’t make it less real or significant. All of our behavior and all of our thoughts and all of our feelings result from neural activity – why would faith be any different?

Do the brains of religious and non-religious people differ? To take this further, does someone with the “fruit of the Spirit” have a different looking brain?

This is a really interesting question. Frankly, I don’t think this has been examined in a way that directly answers those questions, per se. Do the brains of religious and non-religious people differ? I’d say no. I’m assuming you are asking about brain activity, rather than brain structure. (There is some interesting work showing structural differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths, but usually we look at functional differences).

So of course then we’d have to ask are there differences when people do what? That is, I don’t expect there to be differences in brain activity when somebody is reading a grocery list, for instance, but could there be difference when somebody is doing something religious, or thinking about God, or something like that? Sam Harris, of course, showed that the brain activity of Christians when they affirm statements of faith (ie. Jesus is the son of God) is the same as the brain activity of non-religious people when they affirm statements of fact (ie. the sky is blue). He uses this to argue that beliefs aren’t special – they aren’t different from other ideas or thoughts.

There have been some studies looking at brain activity when people pray, or even trying to capture brain activity during “practices related to compassion” – and mostly they find relatively subtle effects, often not statistically significant, and only when they are comparing, for example, mediation novices with monks who have meditated for over 10,000 hours. That’s roughly one hour per day for 30 years. I find those kinds of studies unconvincing. 10,000 hours of any action will probably show some changes in brain activity for that action. And if that’s the amount of prayer or meditation it takes to effect a small difference, I’m not sure we could honestly say that your run of the mill religious person (say the typical church goer) has different brain activity than non-religious people.

So, bottom line, to date I think there is very little evidence to suggest that there are significant differences between the brains of religious and non-religious people – but I also don’t think it’s been adequately studied to give a definitive answer.

I see the questions about fruit of the Spirit as a different question. Personally, I don’t see these as traits that are unique to religious people. I think religion might help cultivate these attributes, but I think plenty of non-religious people exhibit them as well. Again, I don’t think this has been explicitly studied – and I think it would be difficult to design a good experiment to look at this parameter – but I’d be more inclined to expect differences in brain activity that correlate with kindness and gentleness and patience, etc.

Correction:  By way of elaboration to yesterday’s post, in which I joke about the genre of movies that Saskia shows her fruit flies in her experiments, I asked Saskia to share a bit more about the kinds of “flicks” she shows her flies.  She wrote the following: “…the movies I show are way simpler – patterns of motion really. I can’t say what the fly itself ‘likes,’ but I’ve been studying a particular cluster of neurons that respond really strongly to looming stimuli – that is stimuli that mimic an object moving towards the fly on a direct collision course. I’ve shown that these neuron are “necessary and sufficient” for the fly’s escape response – that is these cells are why when you try to swat a fly it usually gets away.
Got questions or opinions?  Just leave them below.  Tomorrow join the conversation about how a Stanford neuroscientist takes the Bible seriously.
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