How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
NEURAL EVOLUTION AND GOD
5. WHAT DOES GOD LOOK LIKE?
Imagination, Creativity, and the Visual
Representation of Spirituality
God is both a feeling and an idea, but which comes first? Spiritual experiences appear to emerge spontaneously in human brains, but as far we can tell, they rarely occur in early childhood. Instead, young children are introduced to the idea of God by their parents. Through story telling and simple religious rituals like prayer, a child begins to grasp the concept of God and what it represents. This becomes our neurological basis for future religious beliefs, and they will color our spiritual experiences for the rest of our lives.
As far as the mechanical functioning of the brain is concerned, it doesn't matter whether God is physically, mentally, or spiritually real. It only matters whether the concept is useful for survival, and since notions of spiritual realms have permeated cultural history, this suggests that religion has played an important role in helping people cope with their lives. As the biologist and anthropologist David Sloan Wilson points out, religious belief “is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world.”1
DRAWING PICTURES OF GOD
All conscious thoughts and images have a neurological impact on the brain, but certain words emotionally affect a person more than others.2 Even yes and no are processed emotionally, and in different areas of the brain.3 It actually takes a person longer to respond to no, which suggests that the brain does not take kindly to having its behavior interrupted. In fact, it takes years to train a child's mind to understand the concept of “no.”
But what about the word God? We believe that this concept has a specifically unique effect upon the brain, because the evidence shows that children begin with a simple concrete image of God that slowly becomes more abstract and emotionally arousing in either a positive or negative way. Indeed, God may be one of the most powerful words that a person encounters in childhood.
In order to give you a personal sense of the neurological power of a single word, I want you to get a pencil or pen and a blank piece of paper and draw a picture of God. Be spontaneous and draw whatever comes to mind, without worrying about the quality of your art, but you must complete the drawing in two minutes. Also, pay attention to the first reaction you had when I asked you to draw a picture of God. When you finish your drawing, write a brief description of its meaning below the picture.
We've been conducting this experiment for several years with different groups of religious and nonreligious people, and if you're like most of the adults who have participated, the question probably caught you off guard. Nearly everyone pauses for a long time—even longer than when we asked, “What does God feel like?”—which tells us there is increased activity occurring in many parts of the brain, especially in the visual, motor, association, cognitive, and emotional centers.4 Indeed, the question appears to be so neurologically challenging and psychologically provocative that some people simply refuse to draw anything. Children, however, have no difficulty with the request, and delight in drawing their impressions of God.
For sixty years researchers have been asking children to draw pictures in order to explore their religious concepts and beliefs. Young children, in particular, do not have the language to articulate religious concepts well, but their pictures give great insight into their feelings and thoughts. In general, children live their religious lives through imaginative daydreams and symbolism, rather than through words.
For example, in 1986 psychologist David Heller interviewed forty children using drawings, doll play, and innovative forms of dialogue.5 He found that Catholic children associated God with family. Jewish children talked about God in relationship to suffering. For Baptist children, God was controlling, providing order, organization, and structure to one's life. Hindu children identified their gods with community. For them, a divine being symbolized energy or a force in the universe, not a person.
One might assume from this that different religions generate different images of God, even among different Christian sects, but a recent study compared the drawings of children from Unitarian and Baptist backgrounds and found no significant differences.6 This suggests that religious denomination has little to do with a child's physical image of God.
Interestingly, no researcher has collected data on what adults render when asked to draw a picture of God. When we did, it provided fascinating evidence about the neurological “evolution” of religious imagery in the minds of believers and disbelievers. The evidence even suggests that atheists contemplate God with as much depth and sincerity as a religiously committed believer. But before we address how adults envision God, let's take a look at the children's research.
A CHILD'S IMAGE OF GOD
Four major studies have analyzed children's pictures of God.7 The first was conducted in 1944 by the American sociologist Ernest Harms, who amassed 4,000 pictures from children between the ages of three and eighteen. In 1980 the German religious educator Hermann Siegenthaler collected 350 pictures from children five to sixteen years of age. And in 1996, Helmut Hanisch, a professor of religious education at the University of Leipzig, gathered more than 2,500 pictures from children aged seven to sixteen. A fourth study, conducted in 1998 by three American university professors, analyzed 968 drawings made by children between the ages of three and eighteen.
Each researcher used somewhat subjective criteria to analyze the pictures, but together, certain common themes emerged that corresponded to the child's age and the religious affiliation of their parents and teachers. For example, children below the age of six usually drew faces, while children between the ages of six and ten mostly drew faces and people. God was seen as a protector or a king, sometimes living in a palace or in the clouds. Occasionally, angels or biblical scenes would be depicted, but as children grew older, faces and people were replaced by more symbolic images such as crosses, hearts, open hands, or an eye hovering in the sky. The oldest children often represented God as the sun or as radiating spirals and light. In all studies, the use of symbols increased with age.
Hanisch took the research to another level. He gathered 1,471 pictures from West German children who attended Christian-oriented schools. Then he collected 1,187 drawings from children who attended schools in East Germany, where an official antireligious doctrine had governed the country.
In the religious group, children between the ages of seven and nine represented God as a face or person more than 90 percent of the time, but as we saw in the earlier studies, there was a gradual decline as the children grew older. By the time they reached sixteen, only 20 percent drew pictures of faces or people. Instead, they preferred symbols like suns, circles, and spirals. Commentaries from the older children reflected a loving perception of God.
This did not happen in the artwork collected from the nonreligious students. By age sixteen, 80 percent of the nonreligious children still used people to symbolize God. Their comments were generally negative, referring to God as powerless and weak, and often included references to war, misery, suffering, and poverty. As one twelve-year-old girl wrote, “I don't understand why God is allowing all this. Therefore I don't believe in God.”
Drawings of God from a seven-year-old girl (left) and a fourteen-year-old boy (right). Both children attended Sunday school.
As religious children grow older, their depictions of God become more abstract, reaching 80 percent by the age of sixteen. Only 20 percent of the pictures drawn by older non-religious children were abstract; 80 percent remained anthropomorphic. (Chart modified after Hanisch.)
Young children do not have the cognitive skills to articulate abstract concepts of God, but they can use their visual imagination to comprehend spiritual realms. Even in the adult brain, ideas appear to be associated with internal visual processes, and mathematicians often think in pictures when they describe the invisible forces of the universe. Even when we imagine the distant past or future events, we activate the visual-spatial circuits in the brain.8 In fact, if you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something, the brain's first impulse is to assume that it doesn't really exist. Thus, for anyone, the brain's first response is to assign an image to the concept of God.
Without this capacity for visual imagination, we would barely be able to think. Even when we sleep, our visual representations of the universe remain active, albeit in unusual ways. Children, however, do not have the neural capacity to easily separate fantasy from fact, and so they form beliefs that blur the boundaries of reality. They easily believe that their nightmares are real, while adults have advanced neural processes to help them analyze perceptual discrepancies.
The imaginations of children run wild, and this makes it easy for them to define God with simple pictures and words. Furthermore, the ways they hear adults talk about God will also contribute to the images they form. If you tell a child that God can see you, or listen to your prayers, then the child's imagination will associate those qualities with the eyes and ears of a face. If you tell that same child that God gets angry, the brain will generate images of frowns, gritted teeth, or perhaps fists banging against a wall—visual constructions that represent how a child perceives anger in other human beings. If you tell your child that God can perform miracles, then the internal imagery takes on superhuman traits. For example, one boy drew God with a cape and a large S on his chest.
Girls, by the way, draw somewhat different pictures than boys. They tended to use more symbolic and abstract representations, and in Hanisch's study, a small percentage of seven-year-olds drew female representations of God. Neurologically, we know that males and females process emotional words in different ways and in different parts of the brain, and this may explain the subtle differences.9
Slowly, a concept of an anthropomorphic deity evolves in the child's brain. As the brain begins to make the neural connections needed for abstract reasoning, religious images become more abstract. Yet abstract concepts will still be visually processed. Thus, a notion like love or compassion—which has no physical form in the world—might be “seen” as a heart or a hand reaching out to another. Happiness may be drawn as a smile, guilt or shame may be represented through the use of dark colors, and an all-powerful benevolence might be drawn as a sun radiating down on the Earth. But when it comes to our most primal sense of God, it all begins with a face.
GOD IS A NOUN
We are born with a neurological mechanism to identify objects, and the first objects infants learn to identify are their family and caretakers. With each new object that a child learns to recognize, the brain labels it, the first of many steps that turn an image into a concept and a word. Thus, the first words infants speak are those that identify the people they see.10 But the only part of the person that an infant recognizes is the face.
Young children can only grasp the simplest concepts because the neurological capacity to comprehend abstract concepts won't mature until adolescence.11 The easiest type of word for children to learn is a concrete noun, because it refers to something the child can see, touch, or taste.12 Young children cannot understand words like “peace” or “democracy” because these are highly sophisticated ideas, and the places in the brain where abstract nouns are processed remain poorly developed for many years. A young child's brain has no choice but to visualize God as a face that is located somewhere in the seeable physical world, and this is what we find when we analyze the pictures drawn by children younger than ten.
Brain-scan studies show that nouns are linked primarily to visual object-processing regions.13 Furthermore, each time a novel idea is introduced, the brain responds with increased activity in specific parts of the right hemisphere,14 in the same areas that construct our visual representations of reality. Thus, when a child is introduced to a spiritual concept, the brain automatically gives it a sense of realness and personal meaning. Children who continue religious education will be introduced to new ways of conceptualizing God, and each time that happens, the brain will revise its “spiritual” map, so it is not surprising to see children's pictures becoming more complex as they mature.
God is a noun, and nouns stimulate the “where” and “what” part of the brain, specifically regions in the parietal lobe.15 This region is responsible for identifying and integrating shapes it perceives in the world,16 and from what we know about how the brain processes visual objects, we can assume that a child's parietal lobe is very active when thinking about the nature of God. Thus, the brain attempts to place God somewhere within the physically observed universe. As a result, it might be less likely that children can purposefully feel a sense of unity with God. As our brain-scan research has shown, only advanced meditators can willfully suppress activity in the parietal area.
However, older children may be able to alter the brain by shifting neurological attention from the visual centers to the frontal regions where abstract thinking takes place. Brain-scan studies show that this occurs when adults focus on complex ideas, and when this happens, we neurologically disconnect from our visual orientation. This would allow God to lose his gender, face, and position in relationship to ourselves, and thus the boundaries “God” and “self” begin to blur or merge. As we will describe in the next few sections, some adult believers represented this spiritual experience by drawing mirrors to symbolize God and oneself as being the same.
Mature frontal lobe processes are also responsible for the greater imagination, creativity, and originality adults use when they attempt to describe the immaterial qualities of God. If these new ideas are repeated, old memory circuits can be permanently altered and changed. Still, our childhood notions of God will continue to influence our thoughts. This too is seen in adult pictures of God.
EXAMINING ADULT PICTURES OF GOD
Based upon the changes reflected in children's pictures of God, we reasoned that adult drawings should reflect similar developmental patterns. After all, neurological growth continues well into middle age—shouldn't our concepts of God also mature?
To test this assumption, we set up our experiment to address several issues. First, we presumed that adults who regularly attended church or engaged in spiritual activities would produce more abstract drawings than children. Second, we presumed that the abstract drawings would be different in content and meaning from those done by children. Third, we presumed that most of the drawings made by non-religious adults and atheists would be anthropomorphic, reflecting little maturity or change. Our first two presumptions were right, but our presumption about atheists was wrong.
Participants included congregational members from four different Religious Science churches, congregants from a Unitarian church, students from a community college, and members of a California Free-Thought/Atheist society. For our preliminary evaluation, we collected 256 pictures. Most of the college students were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, whereas the average age in the other groups was between forty and seventy, so we certainly had a wide range of adults we could analyze. Nearly half of these individuals had spent at least four decades seriously contemplating God, in both positive and negative ways.
ADULT CHURCH ATTENDEES
Of our survey participants, 160 were members of the Church of Religious Science (not to be confused with Christian Science),∗ and most had been members for many decades. This spiritual group was founded in the early twentieth century by Ernest Holmes, and they subscribe to a New Thought philosophy that sees God, the universe, the mind, and one's personal self as interconnected. As stated in the philosophical tenets of the United Church of Religious Science:
The Science of Mind is built on the theory that there is One Infinite Mind which of necessity includes all that is, whether it be the intelligence in man, the life in the animal, or the invisible Presence which is God. In it we learn to have a spiritual sense of things.17
In the tenets of Religious Science International (another of several institutes based on the principles established by Ernest Holmes), an emphasis is also placed on the value found in other religious traditions and sects:
Religious Scientists believe, very simply, that the Universe is fundamentally spiritual—it has intelligence, purpose, beauty and order. Whether we call it God, spirit, energy, or Universal Intelligence, every person, place and thing emanates from this spiritual universe. We believe this Universal Intelligence is within us, as well as around us, and that we are conscious of it. Our beliefs are in harmony with the basic tenets of all the world's great religions.18
As a group, I have found these congregations to be particularly optimistic about life, and they place great emphasis on the power of positive thinking to bring both spiritual and material prosperity into one's life. In addition to embracing contemporary psychological principles, they also attempt to integrate modern science and physics into their principles and beliefs.
As part of a workshop program that we have been introducing to religious institutes and public schools, we handed out a survey form on which we asked them to draw a picture of God. As we expected, faces and people appeared only 14 percent of the time, which was even less than the 20 percent found in Hanisch's religious sixteen-year-olds. This suggested to us that old anthropomorphic images continue to be neurologically revised as a person's religious involvement continues. Eighty-six percent drew a wide range of abstract designs, which, factoring out the gender differences, was nearly the same as Hanisch's group. Similar to the findings in all of the other studies, nearly half of the abstract drawings were composed of suns, spirals, and radiating light. Approximately 10 percent drew nature scenes, 10 percent drew clouds, and 6 percent drew hearts, themes that were also common among the children of the earlier research studies. Unlike the children, there wasn't a single representation of a biblical theme, perhaps reflecting the nonbiblical theology of the church.
Drawing from a twenty-two-year-old Religious Science woman who was raised Catholic (left), and a seventy-two-year-old man (right) who had been affiliated with Religious Science for forty years.
There was also a greater variety and complexity of abstract representations. Some people mixed animals with stars and crosses and suns, some drew arrows pointing in different directions, and a few represented God by drawing the symbol for infinity or an atom, with electrons spinning around its core. Several members drew mirrors to capture the notion that God and self were reflections of each other, a belief integral to the teachings of Religious Science.
The words chosen to describe their pictures represented highly positive abstract concepts that few children used. For these people, God was energy, peace, freedom, and awareness—a blend of intellectual concepts and experiential senses similar to the descriptions we found in our online Survey of Spiritual Experiences.
Another unique quality of “drawing” was captured, for 8 percent of the participants handed in pages that were left completely blank. Often they would add a comment stating that their picture symbolized “all,” “everything,” or “pure spirit.” With the exception of a few eighteen-year-olds, no children, to my knowledge, deliberately left their picture blank, nor did any child refer to God in similar abstract terms. These findings support our hypothesis that as the brain matures, the more abstract and mysterious one's concept of God becomes.
For these members of the Church of Religious Science, God is a symbol for a transcendent level of consciousness. When this occurs, both words and pictures fail to capture the quality of the experience. The “reality” of God remains, but the concept becomes a metaphor for other personal and spiritual qualities of life. Such drawings also lend support for James Fowler's model of faith development. His book, Stages of Faith,19 is one of the most comprehensive models describing a person's spiritual development over the course of a lifetime. He argued that if we deeply contemplate life's meaning, our notions of God will evolve from concrete ideas to mythical beliefs, and from there toward more universal values of social responsibility.
Three of the Religious Science groups we surveyed were 90 percent Caucasian, living in middle-to upper-class neighborhoods. The fourth congregation was 90 percent black, and the church was situated in a poorer inner-city neighborhood. However, the percentages of the different styles of drawing were the same, which meant that racial and socio-economic differences did not change the way these people envision God.
UNITARIAN PICTURES OF GOD
Unitarianism, first established in sixteenth century Europe with the explicit purpose of demonstrating tolerance toward different religions, attracts individuals from many faiths and backgrounds, including a large percentage of agnostics and atheists. Unitarian belief systems emphasize humanitarian principles of justice, equal rights, co-existence with others, and a willingness to integrate scientific evidence in the search for truth, meaning, and democratic freedom.20
When we gave one Unitarian congregation a range of categories by which they could identify themselves, 75 percent circled “freethinker,” 75 percent circled “humanist,” 40 percent circled “agnostic,” and 11 percent circled “atheist” (most respondents circled multiple categories—again, a reminder that many Americans prefer not to label their religious orientations). Like the members of the Church of Religious Science, Unitarian “pictures of God” reflected a wide variety of positive, abstract, symbolic, and nature-oriented imagery Indeed, they had the lowest percentage of faces and people—less than 1 percent—compared to any other group, a visual demonstration that they have distanced themselves from a biblical interpretation of God. Fifty percent of their “God” drawings were highly abstract, 26 percent reflected scenes from nature, 20 percent drew suns, planets, stars, or radiating spirals, but less than 1 percent left their pages blank—far fewer than the other adult groups we've surveyed. Their commentaries about God also reflected their tolerance and open-mindedness toward people who hold different religious and philosophical beliefs.
The community college students in our study presented a very different profile, which was reflected in the ways they envisioned God. When asked what their current religious or spiritual orientation was, half wrote down that they were either religious or spiritual, but few were affiliated with an organization. The other half said they were either nonreligious, agnostic, or atheist.
But then we asked a variety of questions designed to more accurately ascertain their degree of belief and disbelief concerning God. We discovered that many of the religious and spiritual students also considered themselves agnostic, nonreligious, interfaith, or freethinker. Even those who considered themselves nonreligious would often select additional terms that could easily be interpreted as spiritual or religious. As we have pointed out before, it is very difficult to ascertain what a person's religious beliefs are, and we believe that if you ask enough questions, you'll find that most people simultaneously hold a multiplicity of seemingly discrepant beliefs. This was certainly true of our college student sample.
In fact, of all the categories chosen, the majority of students—both religious and nonreligious—identified themselves (as the Unitarians did) as freethinkers. Usually, the term is used by atheists and agnostics who reject all forms of institutionalized religious belief, but an informal query showed that these individuals did not like to identify themselves with any particular belief, especially those represented by older members in society. In the literal sense, they saw themselves as thinking “freely,” willing to change their belief systems as they saw fit.
Does this imply that adolescents as a group are less religious than adults? Yes. We know, for example, that religious interests rapidly decline during adolescence21 and that many teens will reject their parents’ values as they attempt to redefine their spiritual beliefs.22 Indeed, for many people religiosity continues to decline through the rest of life,23 a trend that has continued since 1970.24
For the entire group, 20 percent drew faces and people, but only half of these people associated themselves with a denominational faith. The other half were agnostic. In fact, only one atheist drew a face, and even she said that she sometimes believes in God. Once again we see a gradual decline in anthropomorphic representations, even among those who are disinclined to believe. In Hanisch's study, 80 percent of the sixteen-year-old atheists continued to draw faces and people, but we found much lower representations among atheist college students. One reason for this discrepancy is obvious. Hanisch's children were raised in an antireligious culture that would not tolerate acceptance. American children are exposed to an extraordinary variety of mostly positive religious beliefs, and we know that variety stimulates neurological activity. Thus, American children are unconsciously encouraged to envision many possibilities of both God and godlessness.
Of the college students who drew faces and people, many said their pictures represented the images they had as children. One Catholic-turned-Wiccan even drew a baby, saying, “When I was younger, I viewed God as a child, like me—we were toys.” We also noted a high propensity of anthropomorphic representations from religious Catholics, but we'll need to collect more data to see if this observation holds up.
Drawing by an agnostic nineteen-year-old female college student who saw God as a natural loving energy that was both male and female and that permeated the universe.
Sixty-three percent of the entire group of students used a wide range of nature-based and abstract drawings: fields, trees, flowers, animals, suns, stars, planets, spirals, and other abstract forms. Some were particularly creative. For example, one person used musical notes to describe her uplifting feelings when she practiced yoga and meditation. A “questing” Catholic drew three overlapping faces—a man, woman, and a cat—to reflect the “multifaceted nature of God,” and a self-proclaimed deist drew a clock to symbolize the timelessness of a spiritual universe. Again, this supports our argument that neurological development correlates with evolving abstract conceptualizations of God.
We also had a high percentage (17 percent) of blank pages. Unlike the members of our church study, most of these students were nonreligious or agnostic. Many simply said that if God doesn't exist, you can't draw a picture of God. Only a few people left the page blank to symbolize a mystical presence.
We asked our participants to write a brief description of their drawing, and most of the comments made by these “freethinking” students were positive. Many were neutral, but as the person moved closer to disbelief or atheism, negative comments increased. Those who expressed the strongest degrees of disbelief often used sarcasm in their drawings and commentaries. For example, one atheist said that God was Morgan Freeman, from the movie Bruce Almighty. Another drew a picture of the McDonald's golden arches and wrote “Over One Billion Served.” Then he crossed out “Served” and wrote in “Saved.” Such cynicism might be expected, since considerable research shows that older adolescents enter a period where they question and doubt religious beliefs.25 Couple that with the usual irreverent tone of teenagers, and it is easy to see why such sarcasm might arise.
When we asked them about their initial reactions to drawing a picture of God, most expressed surprise. One student said, “I can't believe we're being asked this in a public school!” Another said, “I knew it!” And one Catholic, who described her spiritual orientation as “lazy,” actually shouted out, “Oh my God!” Many students said they didn't have a clue what to do, but those who strongly disbelieved were either shocked or humored by the experiment. Interestingly, the more religious students had less resistance and negativity than the agnostics.
Perhaps most surprising, nearly everyone in the student survey expressed varying degrees of doubt concerning the existence of God, and even those who said they were atheist—which represented 12 percent of the sample—expressed doubts concerning their disbelief. In fact, 60 percent of those who circled “atheist” on the form to describe their orientation also circled “agnostic.” Yet when they were asked the question, “Describe your current religious or spiritual orientation,” many wrote down “unsure,” “disinterested,” or other ambiguous terms.
I point this out to cast doubt on national polls showing that 70 to 80 percent of Americans are religious. Most surveys ask narrow questions or give limited choices, and this can taint the pollster's conclusions. Thus, I recommend that you take all survey findings—ours included—as suggestive, not definitive. With that caveat, I would say that our survey showed a much higher degree of agnosticism, at least among college students, than other studies. Of those who considered themselves atheist (12 percent, by the way, is much higher than the reported 1 to 3 percent found in various American polls), only 1 percent said they were certain that God did not exist.
If these young agnostics and ambivalent atheists hold on to these perspectives as they grow older—and prior research has shown that they will—we may soon have a nation where most of the population will be questioning virtually every dimension of traditional religious belief. Given such a scenario, I can barely imagine what types of spiritual communities will be born. But given the history of American religion, I'm sure it will rise to the task.
Current evidence supports the notion that changes in the spiritual beliefs of young adults will dramatically alter the spiritual landscape of America. Why? Because young Americans appear to be very critical of religious organizations, and in particular, mainstream Christianity. For example, research shows that only 20 percent of “churched” teens remain spiritually active by the time they reach age 30,26 and although most consider themselves Christian, it is in name only. According to research conducted by the Barna Group, a nouveau Christianity is emerging, filled with rootless values: “While young Americans have adopted values such as goodness, kindness and tolerance, they remain skeptical of the Bible, church traditions, and rules or behaviors based upon religious teaching.”27 David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, found that these young Americans see present-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, boring, overly political, anti-homosexual, insensitive toward others, and out of touch with reality.28
Similar sentiments are voiced by the distinguished Oregon State University professor of religion and culture, Marcus Borg. He found that many of his students view Christians as “literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.”29 Furthermore, as we will explain in the following chapter, we see evidence that many Americans are rapidly moving toward religious and spiritual beliefs that embrace interfaith tolerance and acceptance, along with a more loving and mystical conception of God.
Here's where the real surprise came in. Of the twenty-three members of the Freethinker society, only 20 percent drew people and faces, far less than those drawn by the “freethinking” college students and the East German children described above. In fact, the quantity of anthropomorphic representations of God was only 5 to 7 percent higher than what we found in the members from the Church of Religious Science.
Fifty percent of adult atheists left their pictures blank, compared with 8 percent of the Religious Science church attendants and 17 percent of the agnostic college students (only one atheist student left her picture blank). In addition, 50 percent of the adult nonbelievers refused to make any comments about God in the space provided on the form. And yet there was far less hostility than what we found with our atheist/agnostic college students, or what Hanisch found with his East German children. Instead, the comments were mostly neutral and civil. A few intimated that God was equivalent to beauty, energy, and the unknown, but most saw God as an outdated idea reflecting biblical notions of a powerful immortal being. For these individuals, God imbued no personal meaning to their lives.
THE PICTORIAL MEANING OF GOD
Our ongoing research continues to demonstrate that all human beings develop multiple images of God, many of which are largely hidden from consciousness. Yet these images affect the way we think and feel. We also believe that asking people to “draw a picture of God” encourages children and adults to articulate spiritual values and concerns that are often difficult to convey. It's a fun exercise to do in classrooms, churches, and family gatherings, and it generates the kinds of conversations that help people of all persuasions to appreciate the wide differences of religious and spiritual beliefs.
Drawing is a form of communication that is neurologically distinct from writing and speech.30 Where writing involves the abstract functioning of language centers in the left hemisphere, drawing involves the language centers of the right hemisphere, where meaning is ultimately processed.31 In essence, words and pictures are two integrated elements of language, and most words, as I mentioned earlier, have an “image” quality associated with them.32 If the right hemisphere is injured, words and pictures lose their meaning. Thus, to have a comprehensive concept of God, the brain needs to integrate abstract associations with image-associated metaphors and feelings. Words are not enough to describe a spiritual experience, but the combination of words and pictures may actually come closer to representing one's individual relationship with God.
Overall, we found that atheists were either highly creative or highly unimaginative when it came to drawing pictures of God. For those who simply lost interest in God, only childhood images were recalled—usually the old man with a beard—but those who seriously contemplated their doubts often used sophisticated symbolism to represent their feelings and thoughts. For example, a leader of a national freethinker group sent me a beautiful four-color mandala made out of concentric circles within circles. Although she does not believe in God, she wrote that her drawing reflected the elements of nature, which she worshipped as a religious person worships God. For her, nature was a source of revelation in much the same way the universe was a source of revelation for Einstein.33
Another leader of an atheist/human-rights organization sent me a picture of a famous optical illusion, similar to the drawings made by the illustrator M. C. Escher, to express her view of religious beliefs. This eighty-year-old woman wrote: “When you first look at it, it seems to make sense, but when you examine it closely, it makes no sense at all. It has no real-world application.”
Drawing by a forty-year-old male atheist who reported having spontaneous mystica and transcendent experiences at various times in his life.
In a drawing by a male atheist who regularly meditates, he used overlapping circles to represent the transcendent nature of a universe governed by the laws of time, space, and relativity. He used black circles to represent different religious traditions, intersecting lines to symbolize human consciousness, and a small white circle near the center to represent “man's conception of God.” For this individual, God was much smaller than the forces that govern a “non-self creating universe.”
Circles and spirals, as I noted earlier, are one of the most common themes used to represent spirituality by religious adolescents and adults. Interestingly, intersecting circles, lines, and triangles were also used by abstract painters like Kandinsky to represent the spiritual nature of the world:
Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven…. A yellow triangle, a blue circle, a green square, or a green triangle, a yellow circle, a blue square—all these are different and have different spiritual values.34
In every child, and perhaps every adult, there is an artist that is capable of reaching out beyond the confines of a limited human mind to touch some deeper essence of life. So wherever you turn, and whomever you ask, it appears as though everyone has some image of God, even if it is represented by nothing other than a blank sheet of paper. To a neuroscientist this suggests that believers and disbelievers may harbor a “God neuron” or a “God circuit” somewhere inside the brain. For one individual, such a neuron might connect with feelings of pleasure and awe, but for another, to feelings of disappointment or pain. There may even be people who lack the neural circuitry to construct either a positive or negative image of God. Instead, they must find meaning and purpose somewhere else.
IS THERE A GOD NEURON IN YOUR BRAIN?
In a recent neuroimaging study published in Nature, researchers demonstrated that a single neuron in an individual's brain would only fire when the person was shown a well-recognized face.35 They implanted electrodes in several epileptic patients’ brains prior to surgery, and each was shown a large number of photographs of people, places, and objects. For one patient, a single neuron fired to images of Jennifer Aniston and nothing else. For another, a neuron responded when the patient was shown a picture or a drawing of Halle Berry, the actress who played the role of Catwoman in a Hollywood film.
In a previous study, the same team found an individual who had a single neuron that would fire to Bill Clinton. Another patient's neuron responded to images of the Beatles. The researchers also discovered that individual neurons will fire selectively to images of animals, buildings, or scenes. Thus, it is possible for some people to have a single neuron that will only fire when they see a familiar image of Jesus, a sitting Buddha, or the Jewish star of David. That neuron could represent the cornerstone of their religious training and belief.
Is it possible that some people could have a neuron, or specific set of neurons, that would fire when they are asked to envision God? Yes, but it would probably be associated with the image they were introduced to in early childhood. For many people, that neuron might be associated with one of the most famous paintings in the world: the image portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (which, by the way, is similar to ancient pictures of Zeus). This God—that wise, compassionate, and powerful man with the long white beard and flowing robe—is the image that remains imprinted in my mind.
Today, my memory circuits of God have entwined themselves with my neurological research and childhood beliefs. And the same thing happens in every person's brain. We all begin with a simple neural circuit that captures our earliest impressions of God, and as we associate new meanings and qualities, these circuits interconnect, becoming larger and more complex over time.
As brain-scan technology becomes more refined, I suspect we will see that each human being has a unique neural fingerprint that represents his or her image of God. The East German students were not encouraged to contemplate religious beliefs, so their neurological sense of God included little more than a primitive image of a face, one that was fused with the negative messages they were taught. But Religious Science congregants transformed their childhood images in ways that attempted to include the totality of life. For them, God, thoughts, the universe, and an optimistic view of oneself have all been fused together into a vast interconnecting web of neurons that can influence nearly every aspect of one's life. And for people who choose to meditate, they create a different neural network based upon the images and thoughts they contemplate and experience.
For the genuine mystic, God transcends every concept the brain can possibly generate. But what happens in such a brain? What happens when you go against your biological propensity to turn God into an image? At first your brain rebels. It doesn't like uncertainty, and when it encounters a problem that appears to be impossible to solve, it releases a lot of neurotransmitters, which put you on alert. You'll feel an odd combination of anxiety, curiosity, irritability, frustration, and excitement—feelings that stress chemicals trigger in your brain. And if you don't find a solution, you could easily end up depressed. In religious circles this is called the dark night of the soul.
Yet those who embrace a mystical vision of God rarely suffer psychological angst for extended periods of time. Instead, they find new ways to make sense out of the unimaginable realms to which they feel drawn. This indeed is a creative process, which means they have interrupted habitual patterns of thinking. Like children, they allow their minds to fantasize and speculate, and in the process new neural connections are made that allow them to integrate old and new perspectives. Artists, inventors, and theoretical scientists do this all the time, and so do theologians. And for these people, there is nothing more gratifying than looking at the world with new eyes. New images are formed, and if they prove useful in life, the old images will be dismissed.
Based upon the research we have accumulated, we believe that the more you examine your spiritual beliefs, the more your experience of God will change. And if you cannot change your image of God, you may have trouble tolerating people who hold different images of God, and that may threaten our planet's survival. In the words of the religious philosopher Martin Buber:
Time after time, the images must be broken … [for it] is the human soul which rebels against having an image that can no longer be believed in, elevated above the heads of humanity as a thing that demands to be worshipped. In our longing for a god, we try again and again to set up a greater, more genuine and more just image, which is intended to be more glorious than the last and only proves more unsatisfactory. The commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee an image,” means at the same time, “Thou canst not make an image.” This does not, of course, refer merely to sculptured or painted images, but to our fantasy, to all the power of our imagination as well. But we are forced time and again to make images and forced to destroy them when we realize that we have not succeeded. The images topple, but the voice is never silenced.36
From a neurological perspective, images of God are unavoidable, but from many theological perspectives, there is no true image of God. Thus, if you cling to your childhood perceptions, you will limit your perception of truth. This is the drawback to any religion that insists upon a literal, biblical image of God. If you limit your vision, you might feel threatened by those who are driven to explore new spiritual values and truths—people who one day might turn out to be our future leaders and saints.
THE SELF-EVOLVING BRAIN
The neural evolution of God is unavoidable in most human beings, but not in the Darwinian sense of the word. Human beliefs are not tied to the principles that govern genetic evolution,37 and thus we are free to reinvent ourselves, and our spirituality, with every new generation.
What makes human beings unique is the extraordinary impermanence of their ideas, and this impermanence is reflected in our extraordinary neuroplasticity. Neurons do not have fixed properties. Instead, they are changing all the time.38 It takes less than two weeks for a neuron to grow new axons and dendrites,39 and in some cases the change occurs suddenly.40 Competitive behavior,41 environmental influences,42education,43 or even a rousing sermon can trigger a rapid rewiring of circuits. In essence, evolution gave us a nervous system that actively participates in its own neural construction, something we do not see in other animal brains.
It even appears that our brain has a mutant strand of DNA that contributes to our creativity, inventiveness, and individual uniqueness. These “jumping genes,” as scientists are fond of calling them, can cause cells to change their functioning as we grow.44 This explains why identical twins are not really identical, why one family member can be brilliant at math, while another excels at sports, or why one relative ends up struggling with a serious mental illness when no other family member has any semblance of a problem. No two people perceive the world, or God, in the same way, because no two human brains begin with the same genetic code.
Terrance Deacon, the esteemed professor of anthropology and neuroscience at the University of California in Berkeley, describes the human brain as an “evolutionary anomaly” because human beings have unparalleled cognitive abilities to imagine the unimaginable:
We think differently from all other creatures on earth, and we can share those thoughts with one another in ways that no other species even approaches…. We alone brood about what didn't happen, and spend a large part of each day musing about the way things could have been if events had transpired differently. And we alone ponder what it will be like not to be…. No other species on earth seems able to follow us into this miraculous place.45
We live most of our lives in a world that is filled with imaginative thoughts, and as we age, we continually modify our beliefs. We are born anew, as the evangelicals like to say, and we can do it as often as we like. We can change our religion, we can change our moral code, and we can change our pictures of God, thanks to the evolution of a truly unusual brain.
∗ In 2008, in response to a growing dislike in American culture toward religion and church organizations, many of these groups dropped the words “Religious Science” and “Church,” and referred to themselves as various centers for “Spiritual Living.”