Lately, it seems that there is an increasing scientific curiosity about the mind and the reasons for the way we behave, think, act and perceive the world we live in. One of the latest themes where we can witness a rise in public attention and social conversation is the scientific reason for religion. While up until 40 years ago, no one could even imagine there will ever be such liberty and openness to actually research this part of our life, today both religious and non religious are cooperating to get some answers (I have to admit though, that by saying cooperating I mean most of the investigators are non-religious and the test subjects are religious).
The results are by far fascinating. We can learn so much about ourselves as the social animal, about history, anthropology, sociology and many more sciences combined. A recent study shows that religious faiths activates a network of nerves that coordinate the social communication, feelings, imagination and memory (not for all aspects). It shows that in the human brain God is perceived as another human being with thoughts, intentions and of course, feelings. The neuroscientist Alumit Ishai, professor of cognitive neuroscience in Zurich University, investigates this subject. A few years ago she studied, with the help of a MRI, what is happening in the mind of Carmelita’s nuns when they perceive a union with their God. The results were that the mystical experience caused an augmented activity in the visual cortex, the Insular cortex and the Orbitofrontal which shows us that it is not any different from another substantial excitement as emotional experience.
It is known today that gods and similar ideas were with Homo sapiens for the past 70,000 years and more. This is when they started to create variety of worship rituals, beliefs in different gods and general awe towards the unknown and unfamiliar (which of course was practically everything). This need for gods is a common interest for social psychologist, evolutionist, anthropologists and other investigators from different fields (up to philologists at times). The question is what caused that need to believe and if it had an effect on civilization, meaning, whether or not the belief helped civilization coagulate, as with skills as survival and procreation.
The more common and logical of the explanations today is based on the cognitive model of believe as a product of human mind. That, of course, explains why there is an obvious personification to any god that was ever worshiped. Religious people have the tendency to relate to the god they perceive many of the natural characterization they feel. That is to say, that other than thoughts, intentions and feelings that are common to all, each believer sees her god according to what she feels. A person who is very sensitive will normally see God as a very caring and sensitive being; another person with a temper, will perceive God as a fearful being, one that punishes and condemn etc.
This conclusion is also supported by the fact that human being tends to relate any incidence they experience to a personified existence and not to the nature of things. One example is when someone wakes up at night because of a loud noise, the first instinct it to shout “who’s there” and not “what is going on there”.
The theory of the mind is fascinating and surely one post will not be enough. Thus, in the next few weeks I will upload some more interesting studies related to this great enigma, the mind. If you are interested, you are more than welcome to propose links, ideas and even guest blogging.
S. I. Cohen