Sol Snyder on Finding God in the Brain

The first 2008 issue of New England Journal of Medicine came yesterday in the snailmail box and I read the following story with such great interest that I nearly walked into a tree. Bear with me but the news lately has taken me on a neuroscience streak without my having specific professional expertise in the area.
The famed Johns Hopkins neuroscientist, Solomon H. Snyder, MD, DSc, has a commentary entitled, “Seeking God in the Brain – Efforts to Localize Higher Brain Function” (currently available as free full text). The commentary was very loosely directed at a study elsewhere in the issue by the group of UCSF oncologic neurosurgeon, Mitch Berger, MD, whereby attempts were made to localize brain regions responsible for language in patients undergoing resection for gliomas. In general, the good news about Berger’s paper is that the control of language is functionally diffuse enough that very few patients experience language deficits following removal of their brain tumors:

Craniotomies tailored to limit cortical exposure, even without localization of positive language sites, permit most gliomas to be aggressively resected without language deficits. The composite language maps generated in our study suggest that our current models of human language organization insufficiently account for observed language function.

I recognize that the goal of Snyder’s commentary was to integrate the findings of the Berger group into the broad area of brain mapping of higher cortical functioning. However, the commentary spends the bulk of its time on attempts to identify the neurobiological basis of religiosity in humans.

Snyder comments on three books: a) Francis Collins’ The Language of God; b) David Linden’s The Accidental Mind; and c) Michael Trimble’s The Soul in the Brain. The common thread in the commentary is that several scientists contend that belief in religion or, more appropriately, moral and altruistic behavior (often mutually exclusive, I might add), provides an evolutionary advantage because “it facilitates social behavior that leads to preservation of the species.”
Snyder then discusses Linden’s argument that religion is an artifact of evolution:

Neuroscientist David Linden, for instance, has recently suggested specific mechanisms whereby evolutionary alterations in the structure of the brain might account for the development of religion as well as love, memory, and dreams. As the brain evolved, he explains, the overgrown cerebral cortex came to overlie the more primitive, emotion-regulating limbic structures, which in turn surmount the most primitive brain-stem structures and the associated hypothalamus. Linden argues that the accidental linking of these portions of the brain accounts for many of the tribulations of humankind — anxiety and other emotional disturbances arise in substantial part from the ongoing war between the “rational” higher centers and the emotion-laden limbic system.

Snyder then levels a subtle rebuke to intelligent design zealots with this interpretation of Linden’s work:

Linden argues that if an “intelligent designer” had assembled the brain, it would surely have done an elegant, impeccable job, but the more we learn about the brain, the more clearly we see that it is an ad hoc concatenation of structures designed for unrelated functions — a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption.

In speaking of right- and left-brained behaviors, Snyder discusses Linden again:

He regards religious ideation as reflecting beliefs — such as the concept of a virgin birth or the notion of a God who knows every thought of every human being — that violate our everyday perception of reality. He likens such conceptualizations to the confabulations that persons with split brains arrive at in order to make sense of the incompatible data encountered by the two separated hemispheres.

Snyder then begins discussing the work of British neurologist Michael Trimble who examines the relationship between his area of expertise, epilepsy, and religiosity in historic figures such as St Paul, Muhammed, and Joseph Smith (Mormon founder). In a similar light, Snyder notes Trimble’s discussion of the work of fellow Hopkins colleague Roland Griffiths that was covered heavily last year whereby patients receiving strong, serotonergic hallucinogens like psilocybin experienced long-term changes in spirituality and religious sense of self.
Snyder then ties up the loose ends of the Trimble discussion with this:

In seeking a general relationship between religious states, poetry, and music, Trimble ascribes all three to the right, nondominant side of the brain. He assumes that integration of the activity of the right-sided emotional brain with that of the left-sided analytic brain gives rise to the greatest intellectual achievements in the arts.

And Snyder’s own observations are what I find most interesting since a great many of my colleagues on-blog and off have numerous creative talents outside of the laboratory:

I suspect that major advances in science, too, are the product of more than pure reason — in the finest scientists I have encountered, I have always detected a notable creative, artistic flair. Artistic, intuitive approaches are evident even in the most abstract intellectual achievements, such as Einstein’s theories.

And with that, Snyder comes near to closing this essay, only two pages long but quite intriguing. I don’t think that Snyder intended to discuss the concept of God in the brain as the title provokes. Instead, I felt that he was trying to explain how seemingly irrational beliefs or impractical behaviors might have been conserved throughout evolution in the development of the brain. For this fact alone, the commentary is well worth reading.
But if religious or neuroscience folks are looking for this elder statesman of neuroscience to reconcile all, here is the closing letdown of the essay:

Nonetheless, as imaging technology and associated cognitive testing become ever more sophisticated, we may be able to discriminate ways in which religious and creative sensibilities relate to one another and to brain areas that mediate emotions that are deranged in psychiatric illness. Whether any of these advances will provide the answer to the cerebral basis of religion, if one exists, is anybody’s guess.

As I stated earlier, the commentary is available as free full text at the time of this posting.

Snyder SH. Seeking God in the brain – efforts to localize higher brain functions. New Engl J Med 2008;358:6-7 [full text]
Sanai N, Mirzadeh Z, and Berger MS. Functional outcome after language mapping for glioma resection. New Engl J Med 2008;358:18-27 [full text]


10 thoughts on “Sol Snyder on Finding God in the Brain

  1. I’ve come to think that there must be a biological basis for religiosity. And that not everybody has it.
    It’s almost like some weird kind of sensory apparatus that allows them to experience things I can’t. When I have discussions with people who believe in God, it’s like they’re describing a some kind of sensory input I’ve never experienced, like seeing infrared or hearing x-rays in the form of tissue-penetrating sonar. If the capacity for religion were biological, and some percentage of humans don’t possess that trait, it would explain a lot things.
    (I had a blind [completely, as in, no functioning eyes] friend in college who used to mess with people’s heads by saying things like “I walked in the bathroom last night and turned on the light and there was a huge bug in the shower!” This is what it sounds like to me when people talk about God. They’re claiming to see things that by all rights they cannot see.)

  2. HP and Eric, perhaps it’s not such a strange idea in the context of Snyder’s commentary. After all, some people are great musicians or artists while others clearly have no aptitude (or desire) for any creative art. So, perhaps, religiosity is a similar trait for which some have a greater or lesser disposition.

  3. I’m a forty-year-old atheist who was religious up until about six years ago. HP, I’m not sure which side of your line I fall on. It all seemed to make sense for a while (though I admit I was not getting the divine feedback I expected and that everyone else claimed to get), and then it stopped making sense. Simple and straightforward as that. I even dream now about being in a group of religious believers and apologizing that I can’t participate in a worship service because I’m no longer a believer. It’s hard for me to see some sort of biological necessity in all this.

  4. speedwell, indeed, you point to a specific issue not addressed in the commentary; namely, moral and altruistic behavior clearly exists in the absence of religiosity. In fact, we have many examples today where religion is used as an excuse for behaviors most of us would consider immoral. As a well-known atheist once told me, those of religious faiths have no corner on the market of moral and altruistic behavior.

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