It's a Brain Puzzle

When we look at prayer through the lens of neuroscience, we can make an interesting observation: Talking to God is not really different from talking to one’s friends and neighbors.

Praying is in many ways a fascinating phenomenon. To the believer it is a direct method for communicating with God, an ever-present source of comfort in school, at work, while walking, running, or driving. To some praying is a communication with the ultimate power, something that inspires awe, feelings of unconditional love, and, indeed, a sensed presence of God.

To scientists however, praying is fascinating for different reasons. Praying is a puzzling human phenomenon, especially from the perspective of brain science. The brain did not evolve to communicate with invisible supernatural beings. Rather, the brain evolved to cope with challenges in the natural environment, to survive predation and develop tools, and to understand social groups and to interact with other humans. Though complex and highly distributed, these skills seem to recruit specific systems in the brain that point to an evolved set of cognitive functions that enable us to do what we do.

So what happens when believers attempt to communicate with their God? If the brain did not evolve a system for conversing with highly abstract invisible entities, what brain systems activate when it does?

In a recent study our team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how the brain responded to praying in Christian believers. Surprisingly, considering God’s postulated invisibility, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, we found that conversing with God was not associated with regions that process abstract concepts. Rather, we found a marked pattern of activity in four regions that typically activate when humans relate to other humans. Neurologically, this finding suggests that strong believers process God as a concrete person – in spite of the theologically complex and highly abstract nature of the Christian God. Interestingly, we did not find this pattern in believers who did not use praying regularly. Perhaps the religious brain can learn to treat gods as real persons through regular practice and strong beliefs.

Importantly and somewhat contrary to the widespread assumption that communicating with God constitutes a unique experience reserved for believers, our findings suggest that praying to God is comparable to ‘normal’ interpersonal interaction, at least in terms of brain function. Praying, it seems, is subserved by the basic processing of our biologically evolved dispositions like other complex cultural phenomena, in this case the evolved human capacity for social cognition.

One might ask if these findings, then, are evidence that God is just an illusion, an imagined friend that always listens in times of distress? Or may they in fact be proof that God affects us even at the level of brain function? Atheists and believers alike take considerable interest in this kind of research. Fortunately, as a scientist my interest lies solely in the physical world and speculations about the spiritual dimension lie well beyond scientific scrutiny.

Read more in this debate: Aiman Mazyek, Dietmar Heeg, Ingo Hofmann.

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