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Patrick McNamara | G Force

Religion meets science

(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
January 24, 2011

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Q. What do you see as the relationship between religion and science?

A. Religion has been a constant in human experience as far back as we go. Probably even the Neanderthal had some sort of religious experience — at least buried their dead. It shapes so many human decisions and human behaviors that it’s just silly for science not to treat it with respect.

Q. What do you think science can learn from religion?

A. If we can uncover the essential nature and functions of religiousness, we’re going to learn something really deep and interesting about human nature.

Q. Are you religious yourself?

A. I’m not particularly religious, but I have a lot of respect for religion and for religious people, and for the vast array of religious expressions around the world.

Q. In your research, you’ve shown that Parkinson’s disease patients have different religious experiences depending on which side of the body their disease started.

A. Patients with left onset disease take longer to access religious concepts and report lower levels of religiousness in general than their counterparts. [This] tends to be associated with a set of neural networks in the brain — specifically the right prefrontal and right temporal [lobes]. That doesn’t mean there’s a God spot in the brain, just that those areas of the brain seem to handle the complexity of religious experience better than any other part.

Q. And epileptic and schizophrenic patients also show differences in their religious experiences?

A. Between one-third and one-half of schizophrenic patients report religious delusions, across the world. The delusions are always influenced by the local culture, but it’s a striking pattern. And once again, it’s the right frontal temporal region that’s implicated.

Q. Why would this particular area of the brain be involved in religion?

A. Anatomically, it seems one of the more complex regions of the brain, and functionally, we know it’s implicated in these very high order cognitive functions, like the experience of the self and identity.

Q. Do you think some religious figures’ experiences with God can be explained by this phenomenon?

A. Even if the person had seizures and it contributed to his religiosity, it doesn’t explain the religiosity. You can’t say, ‘without those seizures he would never have been a religious founder’ — we don’t know that. All too often, scientists have published papers where they seem to imply we can dismiss a religious founder’s claims simply because that person was having seizures, and that’s not legitimate, it seems to me.

Q. Is this a feedback loop — does religion offer anything to the brain?

A. I think one of the things that religion does when it’s working properly is it strengthens the prefrontal lobes. All those practices that the religious people tell their adherents to do — like prayer, ritual, abstaining from alcohol, controlling your impulses — strengthen the ability of frontal lobes to control primitive impulses.

Q. Does that help explain why religion has had such staying power?

A. If you’ve got a cultural system that produces people who are reliable, who cooperate, who are relatively honest and trustworthy, who can control their impulses, who are good parents, who abstain from ingesting addictive substances — if a cultural system does that on a consistent basis over the centuries, that’s a pretty valuable system.

KAREN WEINTRAUB

This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.

WHO
Patrick McNamara
WHAT
A Boston University associate professor of neurology and psychiatry, and cofounder of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion (www.ibcsr.org).