Do you believe in God? A recent psychological experiment suggests that it depends on what regions of your brain are active and inactive.
The psychologists’ paper appeared in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation in the experiment, a way to shut down certain regions of the brain, and focused it on the posterior medial frontal cortex, a frontal region of the brain associated with detecting threats and problem solving.(1)
Approximately 38 participants were involved in the study and had an average age of 21. Each of the participants claimed to hold significant religious beliefs and most of them identified as a moderate to extreme conservative. Half of the participants received a low-level intervention that did not deactivate their posterior medial frontal cortex, whereas the other half received a higher level magnetic stimulation that decreased activity in the the posterior medial frontal cortex.(1)
A change in fundamental values
Following the treatment, participants were asked to think about death before answering a series of questions about their religious beliefs and views about immigrants. The death task involved writing short responses about their own mortality. To address prejudice, participants were asked to read both a critical and a positive essay on immigration in the United States, and then answer how they feel about the writer of each essay.(1)
Participants were asked how much they agreed with the following statements: “There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God”; “There exist good personal spiritual beings, whom we might call angels”; and “There exists an evil personal spiritual being, whom we might call the Devil.” All the participants were pre-screened to ensure that they held religious and conservative convictions before the experiment.(1)
The researchers found that participants with a less-active medial frontal cortex reported 32.8 percent less belief in God, angels and heaven. They also had a 28.5 percent increase in positive feelings towards immigrants who bash their country.
Keise Izuma, a psychologists University of York and co-author of the study, said, “People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems. We wanted to find out whether a brain region that is linked with solving concrete problems, like deciding how to move one’s body to overcome an obstacle, is also involved in solving abstract problems addressed by ideology.”(2)
The investigators found that magnetic stimulation had the greatest impact on the participants’ reactions to the critical author:
“We think that hearing criticisms of your group’s values, perhaps especially from a person you perceive as an outsider, is processed as an ideological sort of threat,” said Dr. Izuma.(2)
“One way to respond to such threats is to ‘double down’ on your group values, increasing your investment in them, and reacting more negatively to the critic,” he added.(2)
“When we disrupted the brain region that usually helps detect and respond to threats, we saw a less negative, less ideologically motivated reaction to the critical author and his opinions.”(2)
The results of the study are disturbing in that they suggest that belief in God can be influenced by physical processes in the brain that we have little control over.
It’s important to not commit the genetic fallacy in response to these types of experiments, which attempts to falsify a belief based upon its origin. The problem is that the origin of a belief doesn’t necessarily determine whether that belief is true or false. At best, it provides a natural explanation for how the belief arose. For example, just because one may have been raised to believe in democracy doesn’t determine whether democracy is the best way to run a society.
Furthermore, the results of the experiment are actually in favor of theism, since they suggest that atheism is a product of mental retardation. The same reasoning holds true with respect to those in favor of open immigration policies. In other words, people who disbelieve in God and reject the enforcement of sensible immigration laws are more likely to have prefrontal lobes that don’t function properly.
In an increasingly secular society, however, belief in God is often derided as a cognitive defect or mental illness. It’s possible that the government could seize upon this technology and mandate a magnetic therapy in order to correct this “mass delusion.”(3)
“These findings are very striking, and consistent with the idea that brain mechanisms that evolved for relatively basic threat-response functions are repurposed to also produce ideological reactions. However, more research is needed to understand exactly how and why religious beliefs and ethnocentric attitudes were reduced in this experiment,” the authors of the study concluded.(2)