Religion lives in the primitive brain…

A few weeks ago, I took part in a discussion about the soul of a person with a split brain (When through surgery or incident, a persons left and right brain hemispheres are severed from each other). This is one of my responses, built on a discussion I’ve had years ago while romping around on a university campus. In no way, is this a scientific proof, but I thought it’s an interesting way of trying to understand the religious mindset and the almost survivalist response from religious people. I’m really looking forward to anyone’s perspective on this idea.

My discussion response :

I had a discussion a few years ago with a few students and  lecturers (neurology, sociology, psychology, informatics and some other random individuals) on how fear (flight or fight response), emotion and goal setting works. This conversation came about from watching people get hit by water balloons – Yes, we got hit by a few.

The balloon throwers were hiding on a 2nd level balcony of one of the university buildings, you couldn’t see them from the ground.


The reactions of people when they knew that they might get hit was interesting. The primary question was “When someone is expecting to get hit by a balloon, what parts of the brain are used?” The answer and evidence is quite strange. Even though we as humans have developed some pretty complex behaviour, these ‘old’ parts drive a lot of triggered responses – Think about flinching or becoming more alert and watchful when you ‘feel’ afraid. Even when the balloon throwing had ended, people walking passed would adopt a watchful strategy in walking, some would avoid large wet spots on the ground, as if that was still the target area. The primitive brain identified a threat, but to interpret the threat, the high cognitive parts kicked in and people would actively plan how to avoid getting wet, even if the threat had passed.

A few people paused at the edge of the area, and then just walked on. Which means that, though they knew and felt a threat, they decided it wasn’t important and then, with confidence just walked on through. Other’s would focus on the balcony and then turn away and walk around, which was actually quite a long way.


At the same time, it became clear that some people were horrified, terrified and angered by all this “wetting”. One guy actually threw his books at the balloon throwers. He ended up destroying a textbook and then looked panicked and hurriedly collected his stuff and jogged away. Others would laugh and then play along by being dancing targets.

I asked about the different reactions, the psychology people said that some people enjoy fear, it sparks elation rather than anger or trepidation – Like adrenaline junkies willingly risking their lives and sometimes enjoying an injury from a dangerous incident.

The neurology guys raised an argument – Is it purely a psychological response (People overcoming their fear cognitively) or a physiological structure redirecting signals (Brain wiring)?

We shared a couple of our own fears and phobias and how we overcome them. Phobias are irrational! They consume you, even if you’re intellectually aware that a roach can not harm you, you still feel afraid for your life. But, you can stop your flight response if you ignore that deep urge to run without direction or thinking. They all agreed it would be difficult to define what the actual reason is for people overcoming emotional states, or simply being triggered by events – They did say that it’s probably a combination, but for the psychological aspect, a person would have to be aware of themselves in an intimate level.

General conclusions : Watching people get hit by balloons shows just how varied people are. While a few people were shocked at first, they took a breath, frowned at the balloon throwers and then moved along without doing anything. Their cognitive brain forced the fear out of the primitive, or simply ignored the emotion of anger.



Goal setting seems like such a higher function…We think about what we want to do, and then GO AFTER IT with a plan. The fact is, we’ve been setting goals since our days on the grassland. A primitive part of us that looks from a position of hunger, or danger or our horniness. That old part starts the process of setting goals, not the cognitive. We need motivation to even accept a goal as worthwhile.

The people who took a walk around, cognitively evaluated if getting wet was worth the extra time it would take to walk around.
So…goals might seem like the furthest thing from beliefs, however, goals are about purpose. If you don’t have goals, you often feel as if you don’t have purpose. In christianity, the goal is to live according to the book and try not to piss the forever man in the sky off.


FEAR is a cornerstone of many faiths.

FEAR lives in the primitive brain!


When a goal is driven by the primitive brain, it generally goes two ways (unless you become intimately aware of yourself) – run or fight. How do you RUN from god? How do you fight a being so powerful, it can, at will destroy or create everything? How do you hide from something that always knows what you’re thinking?

NOW – put that into your cognitive mind!
ESCAPE or FIGHT that thing!

WHAT does the primitive brain have as a response to this THING? It can not fight it, run from it, defend against it by hiding!

In the meanwhile, the cognitive brain is trying to find rational and potentially workable solutions to this “fear”. (BTW – this is called DOUBT and is the ‘rational’ trying to prove that something is true or not).

There are only two options:

– Allow the higher cognitive ability to deal with the doubt and establish truth


– Give in to an unbelievably powerful adversary, that your brain can not rationalise or comprehend as real. In other words, distrust yourself to the extreme. IGNORE your own doubt, which is the part that helps you learn truth. Shut down and suppress the cognitive ability that took us to the age of reason and out of living in mud.

Primitive – cognitive dissonance (I think it’s called)
The choice is yours to which part of the brain you want to listen to. We have no natural enemies any more, besides ourselves. When left to its own, without something to focus on, the brain (collectively) will start creating all kinds of dangers. The primitive brain has kept us alive for so long, that it can’t begin to process a “danger-less” world.

I choose to use my WHOLE brain, especially the part that says : “A grassland is
a nice place for a walk today!”


5 thoughts on “Religion lives in the primitive brain…

  1. I think it’s fear on several levels. Fear of death, fear of hell, fear of not being a good person. And guilt – guilt for your wrong doings, guilt that something died for you etc.


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