When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers told me that one day Jesus would knock on the door of my heart. When that happened, I could open the door and Jesus would move in. As an adult in the church, I often hear references to a “God-shaped hole in our hearts.” The idea is that all people have an innate longing for a relationship with God.
Of course, we’re speaking poetically when we talk about our hearts—our hearts are really just pumps at the center of our circulatory system. The real seat of our thoughts, dreams and feelings is our brains. So is there scientific merit to this idea of our ingrained desire to commune with a higher being? Are our brains wired for God?
Researchers at the University of Oxford decided to test the idea. They conducted a massive series of experiments across cultures and continents to see if humans are inherently dualistic. Dualism is the belief that there are unseen, immaterial forces at work in the material reality we see every day.
These experiments found that children believe both their mothers and God to be all knowing. Mom loses her omniscience as a child’s brain develops, but God does not. This is true even for Children raised in non-religious households, and in less religious cultures.
This predisposition doesn’t end with childhood. Adults across cultures overwhelmingly believe in some form of life after death. This is true in eastern and western cultures, developed and developing nations, and in religious and secular societies. Most people across cultures have a predisposition toward belief in an all-knowing God and life after death.
Since Jesus Came Into My Anterior Cingulate Cortex
Scientists have been looking for a spot in the brain that corresponds with God. After all, there’s a place in your brain responsible for vision, language, memory and anger. Couldn’t there be a neurological God spot?
Our insights into how the brain works have gotten much more sophisticated in the last decade thanks to the emergence of new tools to image living brains. We have machines now that let us watch living brains in three dimensions without surgery or autopsy. This technology allows brain scientists to study believers as they pray, meditate, worship and experience God.
This research shows that there is no God spot. God doesn’t simply move into a spot in our brains—God redecorates. Believers have a complex, rich network in their brains for God. For the devout, God is not just an idea, but a tapestry of feelings and experiences. This network affects how our brains work at fundamental levels.
People who regularly focus on God’s love through prayer and meditation change. They experience less stress, and they even experience a reduction in blood pressure. Their prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain associated with focus and attention, becomes more active over time, helping them avoid distraction and be more intentional.
They also have more activity in their anterior cingulate cortex. That’s the part of our brain associated with love, compassion and empathy. Focusing on God’s love makes us more loving and less angry. It’s easier for us to forgive ourselves and others.
People don’t just see God as loving. Many people also see God as angry or vindictive. When we focus on God’s anger at us or at others, different things happen in our brains. Our limbic system becomes more active. This can be helpful—fear of God can change our behavior, at least temporarily.
But ultimately, dwelling on God’s anger increases our stress level and makes us fearful of others. We have trouble forgiving ourselves and other people. Neuroscience shows us that God’s love is better for us than God’s wrath.
Teach Us, Lord, to Maximize the Neurological Benefits of Belief
Science tells us that there is tremendous power in prayer. God will be most active and transforming in your brain if you pray for 30 minutes per day, at least four days per week. If you’ve ever wondered how to be closer to God, or why your walk with God is difficult, science says the answer is prayer.
Any prayer is beneficial, but prayers focused on God’s love are most helpful. Dwell on God’s love for you and for your community. Talk to God about His love for those in need and those who are suffering. In time, those prayers are also likely to move you to act for the people you pray for.
Are our brains wired for God? Not only does science support the idea, but it also shows us that belief in God and an active prayer life can make us healthier, happier people who do good in the world.
Mike McHargue is a Christian turned atheist turned follower of Christ. HeÕs a founding member of The Liturgists and is a writes about science and faith at mikemchargue.com. @mikemchargue.