I thought the link between neuroscience and religion would be interesting to investigate, so I did a little research and found an excellent article that delves into 6 separate facets of the current research and explains it using relatively simple jargon. Below are some snippets from the article. For those who are interested in reading the entire full text, send me a PM and I can e-mail it. Here is a link to the abstract: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/conten...00003/art00004
Altered State of Consciousness
According to d’Aquili and Newberg’s theory, religious experience in rituals and meditation is caused by an overload of the limbic structures involved in emotions and homeostatic regulations, e.g., the hypothalamus and the amygdala. This overload of stimuli blocks perceptual input which in turn causes a deafferentation of the associative areas and eventually leads to an altered state of consciousness. A prominent example of this mechanism is the blocking of input to posterior superior parietal cortex (PSPL) which according to d’Aquili and Newberg induces an experience of absolute unitary being with the world or higher order of reality.
The Relaxation Response
In an experiment with three experienced Tibetan monks (Benson et al. 1990), Buddhist meditation was shown to correlate with a general decrease in metabolic rate and a hemispheric asymmetry of brain activity with a global increase of beta activity which may be associated with concentration and focused attention. In other words, the participants did not seem to reach a calm state similar to that of sleep, but instead increased their attention during meditation. This description of meditation as a focused state of attention rather than mental rest is supported by other studies of meditation reporting increases of brain activity in regions associated with concentration and focused attention, e.g., the dorsolateral prefrontal areas (Herzog et al. 1990; Jevning et al. 1996).
The God Helmet
Persinger has devised a helmet capable of stimulating the brain through the skull using TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) to see if religious experiences can be induced in normal healthy persons. Participants in Persinger’s experiments do not know when the TMS device is active, and sometimes they are instructed to push a button if they experience a felt pres- ence. The participants are subsequently asked to describe their experience and complete questionnaires. Persinger’s results suggest that the so-called God Helmet works on 80% of the general population. [However] Persinger’s scientific data are controversial.
Cognition or Emotion?
Azari argues that religion develops in a cultural system and that meaning and interpretation are central features in both spiritual experiences and religious feelings (Azari et al. 2001). The prefrontal cortex has been associated with social cognition and interpersonal interaction, and Azari and colleagues use this evidence (e.g., Vogeley et al. 2001) to argue that this region may subserve the personal experience of God (Azari et al. 2005: 274). The results support Azari’s general hypothesis that religious experience is essentially a cultural phenomenon. The finding that Bible recitation activated the prefrontal cortex rather than subcortical regions, Azari argues, suggests that religious experience may take on different expressions in different cultural systems.
In the study fifteen nuns who described a mystical experience as a feeling of unconditional love and oneness with God were instructed to re-experience a past mystical experience in the scanner. Results, which were not corrected for multiple comparisons (thresholded at p<0.001), showed that a mystical expe- rience relative to rest and a non-religious contrast condition (to think of a past happy experience with a human being) activated several brain regions (e.g., the orbitofrontal cortex, temporal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, superior and inferior parietal cortex, caudate nucleus, insula, medial prefrontal cortex, and brain stem).
Formalized and Improvised Prayers
We argue that this pattern of activation in Personal Praying suggests that talking to God who is considered “real” rather than “fictitious” like Santa Claus is comparable to normal interpersonal interaction. This finding is not only interesting for the social cognitive and affective neuroscience and the cognitive science of religion. It also offers important insights to the study of theology in which Christian doctrine on God’s nature includes abstract concepts like God’s omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Interestingly, in terms of brain function, our results suggest that the Inner Mission [a fraction of the Danish Lutheran Church known for orthodox views] participants mainly think of God as a person rather than as an abstract entity.