AUBURN, AL (WTVM) - Years ago, the National Institute of Health in Baltimore posed the question, "How does the brain shape a person's religious beliefs?"
"What they did was recruit subjects that identified themselves as highly-religious and non-religious. They got functional MRI images of the brain to see what regions of the brain were activated for three dimensions of religion. They dimensions were God's emotion, God's intent and some knowledge of the scriptures," explains Gopikrishna Deshpande, an assistant professor at Auburn University.
When NIH could not find any differences, Deshpande hypothesized that it's not the difference in how brain regions are activated, but how each region communicates with each other when they're processing religious information.
He later found his hypothesis was correct.
"That is the main question, is it something biological and inherent in people that they tend to believe in God and what we found interesting is that the connections between brain regions in the frontal cortex is highly expanded in humans and is actually stronger in religious people than it is to non-religious people. The importance of that region is that it evolved during evolution. This region is used by humans for decoding the intentions of others."
The fact that this pattern is stronger in religious people indicates that they are able to engage this brain network to attribute things to some kind of higher supernatural power.
Deshpande says the next step is to figure how genetics and environmental factors, like your upbringing, may influence how religious you are.
"It's really not possible to say if God exists or not, those are much broader questions and I think with time, once we answer these narrow scientific questions and buildup our knowledge in this field, hopefully we'll be able to answer those broader questions," he says.
To view the team's paper, go to http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/brain.2013.0172.