Recently, I came across the claim — supported by numerous lines of study and evidence — that the natural development or ontogeny or language is similar to the natural development of supernatural thinking. At quite an early age, children exposed to language will effortlessly begin acquiring and using the many skills which result in linguistic fluency.
Something similar occurs when it comes to supernatural thinking. At an early age, before children are taught anything about spirits, gods or religions, they naturally develop ideas that could easily be characterized as teleological and supernatural. This is a fairly strong indication that various aspects of human brain evolution have resulted in a mind that spontaneously generates belief in the supernatural.
I was reminded of this by a recent study on language from a team of researchers at the University of Rochester. The study team’s press release makes some excellent points about the brain and language:
A new study [appearing in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences] from the University of Rochester finds that there is no single advanced area of the human brain that gives it language capabilities above and beyond those of any other animal species.
Instead, humans rely on several regions of the brain, each designed to accomplish different primitive tasks, in order to make sense of a sentence. Depending on the type of grammar used in forming a given sentence, the brain will activate a certain set of regions to process it, like a carpenter digging through a toolbox to pick a group of tools to accomplish the various basic components that comprise a complex task.
“We’re using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains,” said study coauthor Aaron Newman. “Obviously we’re doing something different [from other animals], because we’re able to learn language unlike any other species. But it’s not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else.”
These observations are particularly poignant in today’s world. The current rage is the use of brain imagining studies to look for localized areas where certain types of thinking occur. The resulting images mislead us into believing that the red/orange “hot spots” are the only parts of the brain working on whatever issue is put before the test subject whose brain is being imaged during various test tasks. These images mislead because while certain brain regions may show increased activity or blood flow under certain test conditions, the entire brain is active and contributing to cognitive processing and outputs. Those “dark” regions in such images should not be interpreted as areas of the brain that are shut down or inactive. These darker areas are at work and contributing to whatever is occurring in the hot spots.
Although certain areas of the brain have received the most attention when it comes to language — most notably Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area — language is not localized to these regions. The entire brain is involved in language. Lesions to Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas rarely result in total language loss, whereas lesions to subcortical areas — sometimes called the limbic system — often result in total language loss. This is particularly interesting because the limbic system is an evolutionarily older area of the brain that is usually associated with emotions. The subcortical amygdala, for instance, can in a limited sense be called the seat of fear.
What does this have to do with the supernatural thinking on which all religions are constructed? As is the case with language, supernatural thinking arises from whole brain function and from many regions working together. Although we can parse these functions into discrete operations, when these functions are combined the result is supernatural thinking. There is not, in other words, any specific region or area of the brain that in isolation is responsible for supernatural thinking. This means of course that there is no one part of the brain that can be called the seat of the supernatural or religious. By the same token, there is no such thing as a “God gene.”
This also means that supernatural thinking arises from more than just fluctuations in consciousness, as David Lewis-Williams claims in his new book Conceiving God. While consciousness certainly accounts for certain aspects of supernatural thinking, it is only a partial explanation.