Can You See The "God Spot" In This Brain Scan? Neither Can We

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Don't be fooled by headlines suggesting neuroscience researchers have found the "God spot" in the brain that triggers religious devotion, say experts. Yes, it's back to the drawing board with our "worship me now, fools" raygun.

Reuters' FaithWorld blog has been covering the University of Pennsylvania's Neuroscience Boot Camp, going on now, and one message has become clear:

You can forget about the "God spot" that headline writers love to highlight (as in "‘God spot' is found in Brain" or "Scientists Locate ‘God Spot' in Human Brain"). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

"There isn't a separate religious area of the brain, from what we can tell from the data," said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Penn university hospital and author of several books on neuroscience and religion. "It's not like there's a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God. When you look at religious and spiritual experiences, they are incredibly rich and diverse. Sometimes people find them on the emotional level, sometimes on an ideological level, sometimes they perceive a oneness, sometimes they perceive a person. It depends a lot on what the actual experience is."


The image above shows two different brain scans, one from someone who is singing, and the other one from someone who is speaking in tongues. They look almost entirely identical, but you can just about glimpse a slight difference in blood flow to the frontal lobe, and specifically to the left caudate, among the "speaking in tongues" brains. (Thanks to The NeuroCritic for the image, and for pointing out that the study's authors admit their "results were hypothesis driven.")

The FaithBlog quotes neurological researcher Geoff Aguirre as pouring cold water on the idea that an fMRI scanner is like a mind reader, and calls the idea that you could use an fMRI to catch terrorists "science fiction, science fantasy." Adds Aguirre:

There's definitely an esthetic in the presentation of this data. People see this as a natural aspect of the brain, not the result of tests. Some groups made a very wise investment in the display technology for how neuroimaging results were reported. Those were the images that got displayed on the covers of the top scientific journals and made a splash.


I also love his comments about "Cartesian dualism," in which people try to claim that someone's actions weren't his fault because "his brain did that." (As if he and his brain are two separate beings.)

[Reuters and The NeuroCritic]