Religion can cause wars, unify communities, and help us rationalize our world, but does thinking about God activate particular areas of the brain? Cognitive neuroscientists at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke sought the answer through functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.
The researchers asked religious and nonreligious test subjects to ponder God as a savior, a forgiver, and a moral guide. The fMRI scans revealed activation of particular neural pathways, including those in the anterior prefrontal cortex. But this brain region is not used only for religious thought. Investigator Jordan Grafman says it is also a center for empathy and for the perception that others have thoughts and feelings of their own. “People were using established cognitive processes to try to understand the actions of a supernatural being,” he says.
The prefrontal cortex is the most recently evolved region of the human brain, much larger in us than in apes. It is thought to have benefited us by allowing humans to explain mysterious phenomena and by bringing groups of people together. “You would persuade others that the way you think about something was the way they should think about it too,” Grafman says. “It creates group cohesion, and that’s important for survival.”