You are Your Brain, by Mike McHargue
NOVEMBER 12, 2016
The human brain is the most intricate and mysterious arrangement of matter in the whole known universe—at least according to human brains.
Your brain has about 86 billion neurons and trillions of supporters called glial cells. (We know this number because a team of researchers used chemicals to dissolve brain tissue without damaging the nuclei of neural cells.) Our 86 billion nerve cells create connections to one another via dendrites, which are like tiny organic wires that allow neurons to send and receive electrical signals.
These signals, along with corresponding chemical messages, are the stuff all your thoughts and feelings are made of. Every song you’ve sung, every dream you’ve had, and every conversation you’ve lost yourself in originated as a burst of electrical activity in the trillions of connections among billions of neurons in your brain.
Ancient people believed that our heart and bowels were the seat of our thoughts and emotions, but today we understand that our thoughts and feelings originate and transpire in our brains. There is nothing that is more “you” than your brain. No other organ has the capacity to shape how you perceive the world or how your inner experience unfolds. You are your brain, and your brain is you. And that means spirituality and religion are rooted in the brain in the same way that thoughts and feelings are.
Scientists know there is a part of your brain responsible for anger and another part responsible for affection. Your brain has a “spot” for language and a “spot” for vision, so some neuroscientists naturally wondered if the brain also had a “God spot,” a part of the brain that’s responsible for religious experiences. Despite several published findings, no scientific consensus has been built around the idea—there doesn’t seem to be any one part of our brain responsible for God.
Still, whatever you know about God and whatever spiritual experiences you’ve had are held in your brain. More-sophisticated brain-imaging technology has shown that people’s beliefs about God aren’t anything like a “spot” but instead arise from a complex network in our brains. The more someone thinks about God, prays, or has other spiritual experiences, the more developed this network becomes.
This is why belief in God is so robust in the minds of many Christians. God is not something we believe in as much as something we feel and experience—and this is why the faithful and the skeptical find it so difficult to understand one another. In the brains of atheists, God is a noun, a noun no more real than tooth fairy or unicorn. But believers have a rich neurological network that encapsulates God through feelings and experiences that are difficult to articulate with mere language.
Reprinted from FINDING GOD IN THE WAVES: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science. Copyright © 2016 by Mike McHargue. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Catch Mike’s interview on SBE here