As I’ve written about previously, belief in ideas may be innate aspect of our psychology and neurology, and this may be an evolutionary byproduct. To understand belief, understanding transcendent experiences is important, and a search on the internet will provide thousands of alleged supernatural encounters with god, Jesus, Vishnu, angels, and other related experiences. There are new research instruments and adapted old tools that allow investigation into these phenomenons, such as fMRI, nMRI, SPECT and PET scans, which allow cognitive researchers and neuroscientists to further elucidate these claims.
For example, the ancient Greeks called epilepsy the sacred disease because those afflicted frequently suffered with transcendent experiences during their auras and described their post ictal or after seizure period in mystical terms. Now of course, we understand the uncontrolled electrical spiking pattern that occurs on an EEG as resulting from epileptiform activity that gives rise to these altered states, and that one of the most common foci is in the temporal lobe causing mystical and transcendent experiences in humans.
The temporal lobe is also involved in face and object recognition, auditory and speech processing as well as language generation and memory for time and place. If this region is electrically disturbed as in the case of epilepsy, this gives rise to experiences involving faces, voices, and time and place disruptions. This is verifiable in any number of human subjects although the subjects do not always report the experiences as mystical or transcendent.
As another example, in cases of deep meditation or prayer, studies using SPECT and PET scanning the cohorts report these states as a loss of sense of self, and a disconnection from usual sensory experience. Scans reveal a decline in the right parietal lobe activity, which is essential for tracking our sense of having a physical body, and that the physical body exists in space, which is an interesting finding, but by no means indicative of mystical, supernatural, or magical experiences.(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3749673/)
Transmagnetic Stimulation (TMS) disrupts normal electrical patterns and activity in the brain and can cause cohorts to have out of body, emotional numbing, or transcendent experiences. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968882/)
Not all participants describe the induced experiences in religious terms. Having epilepsy personally, with out of touch with reality and out of body post-ictal (meaning after seizure) phenomenon, I can say that it’s bizarre, surreal even but it’s not transcendent, and it has never felt supernatural. The nature of the experiences depends upon what the cohort originally believes. Those in ancient Greece tended to explain the world in terms of magic and supernaturalism; it seems only natural that they would believe their epileptiform activity in their brains were somehow spiritual.
Belief in belief
In addition, researchers asked a set of non-religious Oxford rowers on a team before a practice, and before a match questions including “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge” a quote stating that “the tasks we face are solvable by science”, and an inspirational quote from Carl Sagan. The rower’s performance improved after reading the quotes.
A follow up study was performed where cohorts were asked to consider their death and other participants were asked to consider dental pain. Each group was subsequently asked to rate their belief in science. Those who thought about death believed more strongly in science than those who thought about dental pain. The conclusions of this study were that belief in science increases when secular individuals are placed in threatening situations. They go on to suggest that a belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions. (http://www.science20.com/news_articles/atheists_find_comfort_faith_too_belief_science-114159)
What we believe influences us in cases of the placebo effect more than simply having a superficial impact. Researchers now understand that placebos for pain may cause the release of endogenous opiates, and other placebos cause measurable physiological changes in our bodies depending upon what the subject believes about the treatment.
Humans have a long history with what we call transcendence that permeates our culture. We’ve built cultures around the tickling of those areas of our brains that we believe are direct lines to gods and the afterlife. There are populations who spend their lives in deep meditation seeking transcendent phenomenon, a conversation with or a phone call from a god, and with these activities they are activating specialized neural pathways in their parietal lobes and interpreting it as supernatural or mystical. It’s probably pleasurable, making the activity more likely to be repeated.
Religion itself that may be constructed around these transcendent experiences along with cultural phenomenon is probably not necessary for the survival of our species; perhaps it is detrimental, as evidenced by secular countries that fare better than religious ones in measurements of wealth, crime, poverty, teen pregnancy, and other measures of wellbeing as we define these constructs. Indeed, there are no areas of science that are to be worshiped and any can be overturned if a researcher can repeat a study revealing the opposite of what has been demonstrated. however, science offers transparent verifiable answers to questions, and it is a viable alternative to the believing brain.