Thursday, May 22, 2008

Brain imaging of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty

A fascinating fMRI study by Sam Harris and colleagues has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 14 adults while they judged written statements to be true (belief), false (disbelief), or undecidable (uncertainty). (Yes, this is the same Sam Harris who wrote "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."). To characterize belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in a content-independent manner, they included statements from a wide range of categories: autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual. They show that belief, disbelief, and uncertainty are mediated primarily by regions in the medial PFC, the anterior insula, the superior parietal lobule, and the caudate. The acceptance and rejection of propositional truth-claims appear to be governed, in part, by the same regions that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors.
...the final acceptance of a statement as true or its rejection as false appears to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions may actually disgust us.
...When compared with both belief and uncertainty, disbelief was associated in our study with bilateral activation of the anterior insula..., a primary region for the sensation of taste. The anterior insula has been regularly linked to pain perception and even to the perception of pain in others. This region, together with left frontal operculum (also active in the contrast disbelief - belief), appears to mediate negatively valenced feelings such as disgust. Studies of olfaction have shown that the left frontal operculum is engaged when subjects are required to make active judgments about the unpleasantness of odors. Thus, regions that have been regularly implicated in the hedonic appraisal of stimuli, often negative, appeared in our study to respond preferentially when subjects rejected written statements as false. Our results appear to make sense of the emotional tone of disbelief, placing it on a continuum with other modes of stimulus appraisal and rejection.
...Several psychological studies appear to support Spinoza’s conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection...Understanding a proposition may be analogous to perceiving an object in physical space: We seem to accept appearances as reality until they prove otherwise...subjects assessed true statements as believable faster than they judged them as unbelievable or undecidable. Further, because the brain appears to process false or uncertain statements in regions linked to pain and disgust, especially in judging tastes and odors, this study gives new meaning to a claim passing the “taste test” or the “smell test.”

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