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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Belief in God (right hemisphere) and Theology (left hemisphere)

Research by Michael Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (1987), seems to indicate that religious belief and/or religious experiences take place in the right hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere which is where the verbal and analytical functions take place attempts to explain the experience. These experiences are often very difficult to describe, in the same way certain non-religious experiences such as falling in love are hard to describe. Sometimes one is not able to put into words what they are experiencing. In 2 Corinthians 12:4, Paul says that there are no words to describe what he experienced when he was caught up to the third heaven. However, the brain seeks an explanation and a framework in which to make sense of the experience. These models or systems in which the experiences are explained, defined, and related to other beliefs are called theological systems. These systems are necessary in order to give meaning to the experience.
C. G. Jung calls initial religious experience Numinosum and maintains that organised religious confessions, rituals and dogmas are secondary. Numinosa, Jung writes, can be so powerful that they will destroy the experiencer if he or she does not have the adequate religious frame to encapsulate the Numinosum. If such a frame is not available, the experiencer, according to Jung, may become mentally deranged (Anne L. C. Runehov, A Neuro-psychological Explanation of Religious Experience).

So, religious belief seems to be based in the right hemisphere and the explanation and rational defense for the belief is based in the left hemisphere. So what happens if the connection between the two hemispheres is cut?

Michael Gazzaniga, founder of the Centers for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis and at Dartmouth College, the Neuroscience Institute, and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, describes in the next two videos what happens when the connection between the two hemispheres is lost.

In the next video, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, describes a case where in one individual is found both a belief and non-belief in God. The right hemisphere of his brain is a theist and the left one is an atheist.

These studies, of course, do not prove either the existence or non-existence of god(s) but I think they are fascinating. They give us insight into the nature of faith and reason.

Further reading:

Anne L. C. Runehov, Sacred or Neural?: The Potential of Neuroscience to Explain Religious Experience (2007).

R. Joseph, The Right Brain and the Unconscious: Discovering the Stranger Within (1992).


  1. If you search in the TED lecures you can find - Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight - where a neurologist describes her experience of a stroke in the left side of her brain. Although she can wax a little woo-ish for my tastes, it is still well worth watching to get a first-person account of what happens to consciousness when one side of the brain starts to shut down.
    The first-person perspective being that of a neurologist makes it even better.


  3. As I started watching that last video, the afterlife question popped into my head and then he brought it up almost immediately. I'm definitely going to have to try that one on some of my religious friends.

  4. The research on the hemispheres is really interesting. Corpus callosum is extremely important to hypnosis as well.