Monday, March 16, 2009

Neural correlates of religious belief - neuroscience and spirituality

I'm realizing that I have a sufficient number of notes from this area in my queue that I'm not going to get to them separately. So, here I pass on first some links to recent publications and then some work on neural correlates of religious belief.

First, three publications:
"How God changes your brain"

"Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge"

A conference on Neuroscience and spiritual practices
Kapogiannis and collaborators attempt to model the complexity of religious belief and then provide brain imaging data correlate their categories with well known brain networks:
We propose an integrative cognitive neuroscience framework for understanding the cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. Our analysis reveals 3 principle psychological dimensions of religious belief (God's perceived level of involvement, God's perceived emotion, and doctrinal/experiential religious knowledge), which functional MRI localizes within networks processing Theory of Mind regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics, and imagery. Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.
In a less ambitious effort, Inzlicht et al. suggest that religious people are more chilled out when they commit errors, reflected by reduced reactivity of their anterior cingulate cortex:
Many people derive peace of mind and purpose in life from their belief in God. For others, however, religion provides unsatisfying answers. Are there brain differences between believers and nonbelievers? Here we show that religious conviction is marked by reduced reactivity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a cortical system that is involved in the experience of anxiety and is important for self-regulation. In two studies, we recorded electroencephalographic neural reactivity in the ACC as participants completed a Stroop task. Results showed that stronger religious zeal and greater belief in God were associated with less firing of the ACC in response to error and with commission of fewer errors. These correlations remained strong even after we controlled for personality and cognitive ability. These results suggest that religious conviction provides a framework for understanding and acting within one's environment, thereby acting as a buffer against anxiety and minimizing the experience of error.


  1. Deric, I'd like to throw something in the mix here and see what happens. (I'm a Bono "green hat" btw.)

    Faith is seen to be a religious concept that science places on a line with knowledge as its inverse, and in place of faith, science uses the concept of certainty. Ironically, I see religious people use the concept of faith when in actuality, they too are engaged in certainty. I bring this up to you, to see if there is something else to look for in neuroscience research.
    I'll explain:

    The main difference between faith and certainty (and conviction) is that a situation which asks us for our faith is a situation which requires us to trust. (Btw, faith is merely the noun form of the verb, believe. I believe x, or I have faith in x are equal)
    The mundane act of driving to the grocery store for tonight's dinner is a faith situation; if you didn't believe, that in driving, you would return home safely, you wouldn't drive. Likewise, if you didn't trust in other drivers, you wouldn't share the road.

    Certainty on the other hand, is only a coherent strategy in situations that don't require trust; things like measurement or events that have already occurred fit into the concept of certainty. If a driver is certain of his safe return, then to be coherent, he should leave his seat belt off.

    When the element requiring our trust is removed from the situation, whether done appropriately or mistakenly, the human dynamic involved switches from faith to certainty. Inherent to the strategy of faith, is a flexibility born from acknowledging, that while the object of my faith is credible-I will return safely-I recognize incomplete knowing- I better wear my seat belt.

    One more difference between the two dynamics. When one is engaged in a trust situation by means of certainty, you will find that person to be inflexible, rigid. True faith in this situation supports flexibility and is open to the unknown. Do you see what I mean when I note that, oftentimes, religious people are really utilizing certainty when they use the word faith?

    So I'm wondering in this context, can the distinction that I'm making between faith and certainty, be somehow mapped?

  2. Anonymous1:11 PM

    Minimizes the experience of error? That would have potentially disasterous effects in any system of process control.

  3. Anonymous9:10 AM

    I think you are missing the point on the differences between faith, probability and certainty.

    There are 2 things that can normally be considered certain - past events and things that are measurable by dimension, time, etc.

    You appear to be comparing faith and probability. In relation to your shopping trip example, there is a measurable probability and measurable confidence level of that probability (depending on how often you have taken the trip previously), that you will return from a shopping trip safely, with a higher probability wearing a seat belt.

    Sane (Oops - lol) people make their decision either consciously or unconsciously based on this probability.

    Faith, on the other hand, says that god will protect the believer with no empirical evidence to support that decision.

    There is NO measurable effect (except where studies have proved a negative effect, most likely due lack of due care and attention because of belief in god's protection of the believer) of faith or the power of prayer to improve the probability of a safe journey or any other real world event.

    Certainty is that someone is going to win the next lottery. The probability on a single ticket winning is one in a million, faith is that the winner will be you!

  4. Anonymous9:51 AM

    To Ergo Ratio

    I was going to try to say something funny about "no-one ever said it was a survival mechanism for individuals in the modern world"!

    But I have reconsidered my original thought and think that perhaps it has become one?

    We are stuck with a brain that essentially evolved to deal with relatively simple survival decisions, but what are the evolutionary survival traits for today?

    As an individual they are the same as they have always been - improvement in the probability of producing the next generation.

    However, for our species as a whole, we may have to consider that survival factors have changed significantly since our brain evolved, especially in the last 200 years, and that survival of our species beyond another 10 or 20 generations may depend on quite different evolutionary factors to the recent past.

    The ability to ignore what should scare us may be an evolutionary survival mechanism that has worked so far, but may spell our doom as a species in the future.