Beliefs don’t have to be proven to ‘light up’ the brain

07:11 AM



See this pretty picture of a brain lit up by singing gospel songs? What if I told you those same pathways would light up for a Madonna fan at a karaoke bar yelping along with the rocker’s lyrics.

Dr. Alasdair Coles, a lecturer in neurology at University of Cambridge, and an Anglican priests as well, takes a very acerbic look at brain imaging studies of the faithful, particular those that make claims of unique brain findings for people who have religious or mystical experiences.

His lecture at our seminar today was titled "Neurotheology" and he had a definition: "the scientific study of the mechanisms of brain function which underlie human religious behavior, belief and experience." Then he debunked his own title.

Yes, the brain is involved, he says, but "this tells us nothing about God." It shows interest in brain mechanism and it tells us more about humans and their individual reaction but "it doesn’t look at communal or societal effects" and, he says, "it has largely consisted of poor experiments — over-interpreted and uncritically taken up by media." (Ouch!)

He took a cudgel to several studies, particularly ones that relied on brain imaging, but failed the "so what?" question. So what if, for a handful of faithful Catholics, looking at a picture of the Virgin Mary reduced their experience of pain. Would passionate fans of rocker Madonna have had the same effect?

And, as Fraser Watts, theologian and psychology Fellow here at Cambridge and our host, pointed out, "Nothing in the Gospel is about giving people less pain. It’s quite the opposite."

So, are there brain signatures for religious experiences, a mark of the awareness of an unverifiable God? Coles looked at another study aimed precisely at this. it concluded there were "no differences in the signatures for verifiable or unverifiable beliefs."

However, interestingly enough, Coles, who holds an "unverifiable hypothesis" of a belief in God himself, thinks that doesn’t mean we might not one day, with improved technology, find something here.

"You or I can have the same numinous feeling but for some of us it nacquires significance over and above the earthbound reality."

DO YOU THINK…unbelief, or beliefs that can’t be proven, would look the same in a brain image? Would seeing images that contradict your opinion change your view?

Beliefs don’t have to be proven to ‘light up’ the brain – Faith & Reason