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The Infancy of Brain Studies

In a recent CNN article:
Are Humans Hard-Wired for Faith?

After noting that similar areas of the brain ‘light up’ during contemplative or prayer activity, the researcher goes (as is common with brain scan studies) a bit too far:

“Newberg calls religion the great equalizer and points out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying that I know how the brain works. But neither does this guy. All he knows is that certain sections of the brain are used for a small set of similar activities. Did he test someone chanting “There is no God!” over and over? I don’t think so. And of course, we know that lots of meditation doesn’t necessarily involve belief in God.

Again, my point is not to cheer for any particular religion, or any lack of religion. My point in this article is to highlight the type and quality of results that are pouring out of the brain scan labs. Not that it isn’t interesting to see what parts of the brain light up when we are engaged in various activities. It is interesting, and has potential for someday evolving into science that helps us understand how the brain works. We’re not there yet.

The trouble is, this is like making conclusions about religious practices of people on earth by looking at the patterns of lights from outerspace. No, it’s worse than that. When looking at lights from outerspaces, we know we are looking at lights, and can make some guesses about population centers, etc. based on the patterns.

With brain studies, we don’t really know what types of thinking correspond with the “lighting up” of certain areas, although we can choose to believe what the people in the studies tell us they think they were thinking about. (Ever tried to think about one thing, and one thing only for an extended period of time?) But what we are really measuring is physical states. Contemplation is great for this, because it is a calm body state. Not a huge surprise that certain parts of the brain are passive and others active when the body is calm. And of course there is some rudimentary learning to be gained from such a study.

But, “our brains are built to believe in God” as a result of this study? Come on. Regardless of your belief system (and I respect those who believe in God, and it certainly makes sense from a faith standpoint that if God made our brains, God would build them for belief in God) but this is supposed to be a scientific study! Faith is called faith, primarily because there isn’t any proof. But if there were a need for proof, and if there was a proof, this study isn’t it.

Next time you see a brain scan study, look deeply to see if, based on the areas of the brain that light up, the conclusions of the scientists are justified. In my opinion, we are at the very, very beginning of this type of research. The results are interesting, but watch out for sweeping conclusions!!

The Infancy of Brain Studies

Greg Rogers

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APA Reference
Rogers, G. (2018). The Infancy of Brain Studies. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 Apr 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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