Religion and Baseball
Now I’m in Bethesda, Maryland. Another day, another MRI scan. This time, the prompt on the monitor I’m gazing at inside the machine leaves no room for a nuanced answer:
There is a god.
I have a few seconds to answer yes or no on the clicker in my hand, but I am stumped about which button to push.
As blood surges in my head to locales associated with religious belief, I’m thinking that this question, for me, may be unanswerable. I am essentially nonreligious. I seldom go to church, and I often find myself agreeing with the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens that organized religions are mostly artifacts of premodern cultures that in ancient times created all-powerful deities to explain and cope with the unknown. I believe that overzealous piety has led to horrors such as the Inquisition and to dogma that at times becomes so rigid that it blatantly contradicts scientific proof (and sometimes common sense). Yet I know that religion clearly comforts people. Studies show that patients who pray often tend to do better than those who do not. Nor can I deny the crucial importance of spirituality, a sense that one’s goals can be bigger than just looking out for oneself.
Bottom line: I have no proof that a god exists or that the universe is anything but random atoms assembling and disassembling without a design or a creator. My thumb twitches above the “no” button.
And yet I lack definitive proof that God does not exist. It is possible that he (or she or it) is real. Not the man with the beard depicted in medieval paintings, but some force far beyond our brains’ comprehension. If there is even a 0.0001 percent chance that this is so, can I answer no?
Time is up. My thumb moves toward yes, and I press it. I feel exhausted by so many thoughts racing through my brain; the neuronal exertion must have lit up my brain like a city at night seen from 35,000 feet.
That was exactly the point of the test, says Dimitrios Kapogiannis, a postdoctoral student at NINDS at the time. Kapogiannis and a small team of researchers asked 40 subjects these same questions about God and religious beliefs while they were in the MRI machine: 20 who said they were religiously inclined and 20 who said they were not. “The purpose of the study has been to discover the underlying cognitive structure of religious beliefs—to find out what cognitive processes take place when religious and nonreligious people think about religion,” Kapogiannis tells me. “Then we want to identify brain regions that become active with each such process.”
For this experiment Kapogiannis is working with cognitive neuroscientist Jordan Grafman. Chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section at NINDS, he is a researcher with a longtime interest in trying to understand how the brain works when people are identifying with cultural phenomena and beliefs. In 2006 Grafman’s lab ran an experiment on political beliefs, scanning the brains of people as they viewed pictures of John F. Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and John McCain. Grafman’s team found patterns of blood flow in specific areas of the brain suggesting certain ideological proclivities that could be correlated with party affiliation. “The core of the brain is conservative,” Grafman says, but “the outer shell is liberal; it’s playing with things, trying things.”
Grafman, an affable, gentle man with large eyes, is using his scanners to peek into brains as they wrestle with big questions such as politics and religion. He has also delved into the social neuroscience literature to understand why anyone would love the Chicago Cubs, a team that has not won a World Series in 100 years. Grafman says that Cubs worshippers are similar to religious adherents in their staunch belief that every “next year” will be the year. He says this hope springs from the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for high-level cognitive activities such as planning, reasoning, establishing context—and, undoubtedly, inventing justifications for loving perennial losers in baseball.
Back in the machine, the questions are still coming. Kapogiannis asks me 70 in all, arranged in subject matter from God as being angry and wrathful to God as being loving, with a variety of topics in between. I answer no to the “God is angry” sort of questions. I also answer no to questions about mixing God with politics and social policy. Finally come questions asking whether God is loving and compassionate; I would like there to be a good God who is kind and caring and a heaven that virtuous people end up in. But I see no proof of this, so I answer no.
Weeks later, Kapogiannis sends me my results along with pictures of my brain and his interpretations. First up is how my brain reacted to the idea that God is involved in my life and in the world. Kapogiannis explains that this image showed elevated activity in the right side of my brain in action-oriented areas. “God’s presence activates your temporal lobe,” he says. “You are actively imagining a God in action, visualizing an involved God, imagining a God willing to intervene.”
“But I answered no to the questions about God’s involvement and willingness to intervene,” I protest. “I fundamentally don’t believe this—unless I’m lying to my brain, which imagines a God in action without my knowing it.”
“This is just one interpretation,” Kapogiannis says.
I tell him about the barrage of thoughts racing through my head during the question about God. “Could it be that I’m just trying to decide which button to press?” I ask.
“That could be happening too,” he agrees. “This is all tentative right now.”
Other results showed my brain getting very active over the social policy questions —probably because I strongly object to mixing religion with such issues as abortion and homosexuality—and relatively quiet when I was asked about God’s being angry or loving. “These inquiries didn’t cause a strong activation,” Kapogiannis tells me. “This is a pattern seen in other people who are not particularly religious.”
I find Kapogiannis’s work fascinating, and I have no doubt that his research will help us understand the mechanics of how religion and belief work in our brains. But so far the interpretations of my true state of mind by using blood flow to regions of my brain seem at best sketchy—which he admits—and at worst little more than a sophisticated version of reading tea leaves.
My head is one of millions around the world being inserted into MRI scanners and getting hooked up to EEGs and other devices. Researchers are running thousands of experiments on everything from what our brains look like when we are watching TV to what happens when we are in love or lust.
The tests I took for my personal experiment provide a sampling of what is available for an individual, though, to be honest, I’m not sure how much they enlightened me about myself. I am pleased to know that I have no identifiable traces of disease. As for the rest, I got what researchers promised with this young technology when they told me it is not yet ready to test individual brains: a number of intriguing images and mostly impressionistic interpretations.
“One problem is that many of these studies tend to be one-offs,” says Judy Illes, who warned me early on that the science’s level of sophistication for individuals was not high. She notes that there are few follow-up tests or attempts to replicate initial data or to run the same experiments on larger populations, although she expects this to change. “Neuroscience right now needs a meta-approach linking all of this together,” she says, a project to create not only a vast map of the brain but a schematic of pathways and how different regions connect.
At UCLA, a project led by neurologist John Mazziotta and research neurologist Arthur Toga is attempting to do exactly what Illes suggests: create a comprehensive atlas that will provide a template for what is now known about brains—what they look like, how they vary, and how they function. Collaborating with researchers from Canada, Europe, Japan, and, in the United States, the University of Texas, the brain atlas team has scanned 450 “normal” brains and used hundreds of thousands of images taken of 7,000 people around the world to compile three-dimensional color maps of the brain. These maps, they say, will show everything from relative sizes of anatomical features to differences in brains associated with age, race, gender, educational background, genetic composition, and other distinguishing characteristics. Mazziotta and Toga’s study also includes cadaver brains, cut up into more than 2,500 microscopically thin slices and mounted on glass slides, then stained and digitally photographed.
Layered over the anatomical maps will be brain functions such as memory, emotion, language, and speech. The finished atlas, Mazziotta says, will serve a purpose similar to what the Human Genome Project has done for geneticists, providing a detailed framework of the brain that researchers can use to perform experiments.
Whether the brain atlas will one day lead to a meta-understanding of this most mysterious organ will not be known for decades. As I contemplate all of this sketchy knowledge about myself and the many hundreds of experiments I could run to find out even more, my head begins to ache. So I decide to run another experiment: to clear my mind of all thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
I try this for several minutes, wishing I had paid more attention to a friend who tried to teach me meditation. Nope. Doesn’t work. Certainly somewhere in my brain blood is flowing, lighting up something in that mysterious lump of gray matter that is me.
See David Ewing Duncan's previous article about subjecting himself to the latest in medical testing. Read about more of the author’s findings in his new book, Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World, published by John Wiley and Sons.