Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Skepticism and the Religious Brain

An interesting study at a university in Denmark has new light to shed on the brain of the religious believer and how it evaluates information. This was the gist:

"Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians."

Not surprisingly, the brains of the "Pentacostalists" (?) responded differently than the rest: when they heard the prayers read by what they were told was a healer---someone with power and authority in their world---parts of the brain that help them figure out what is good and bad information literally turned off.

"Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian."

I'm always fascinated by these brain studies. It makes me think back to when I was a Christian, and all the crazy tricks the mind can play. It is interesting how, in modern Christianity especially, most of the communication is oral (no snickering); what I mean is everything happens in ideas and things spoken between people. Their beliefs are based on a 2000-year-old collection of letters that have been re-and-mis-translated a zillion times, there's no one of real authority to interview, there's nothing to test or measure or base facts upon, it's all this nebulous, invisible thing that exists solely in the realm of people. So obviously our brains have a lot to do with it.

I don't think there's really anything good you could say about a supposedly productive activity that causes parts of your brain to shut off (unless you're talking about trying to lessen pain, etc.). That's kind of a no-brainer. Ha! A pun too!


  1. Unfortunately, the religious might not see it as a bad thing that they turn off parts of their brain. Faith = good; critical thinking, not so much.

  2. Yeah, I think you're on to something there. I've never understood why faith is a good thing---belief in something for which you have no evidence? In every other area of life my parents warned against that very concept.

  3. Fain is good to keep people in line, no questions asked. I remember asking where god came from when I was a kid. It was a question treated as a disease and I distinctly remember being told "we don't ask questions, we just follow god." Great message, yea?