Science on Religion

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How the brain reacts to religious symbols, part 2

Head buttonPart 1 of this article explained the neurological findings of a recent study that analyzed how the brain reacts to religious symbols. In a nutshell, the brain deactivates certain regions of itself when viewing negative religious symbols, and does so at a fairly primitive, pre-conscious level. Now in part 2, the researchers look for correlations between brain reactions and people’s conscious beliefs concerning religion and God.

The neurologists made two hypotheses. First, they hypothesized that those who have an open-mindedness about religion would have less responsiveness in the emotional areas of their brain when encountering a diversity of religious symbols compared to those who are less open-minded about religion. More openness should mean less emotional reaction. Even if this hypothesis proved incorrect, the authors would have learned something: open-mindedness does not play a role in processing religious symbols.

Second, the neurologists hypothesized that those with maladaptive beliefs about God would experience increased brain activity in the areas involving negative emotion. As with the other hypothesis, if this one turned out to be incorrect, then at least the researchers would know that beliefs about God do not affect how people perceive religious symbols.

To test these hypotheses, participants completed two surveys before undergoing an fMRI while looking at religious symbols. First, the Quest Scale measures openness to religion. More specifically, people who score high on Quest tend to treat religion as an open-ended answer that could readily change in the future. Religion involves conversation and dialogue and is never set in stone. Second, the Beliefs About God Assessment Form (BAGAF) quantifies a person’s beliefs about God. It measures whether a person views God in a psychologically healthy way or in a psychologically unhealthy way (for example, an unhealthy belief might be held by someone who thinks God is out to get revenge on him or her). For instance, the following two statements demonstrate the positive and negative view of God: (a) “God views people as basically good but misguided much of the time,” and (b) “God views all persons as sinners who rebel against God.”

After mapping the results of the Quest and BAGAF surveys to the neurological scans, the researchers found that “it appears that different perspectives on religious beliefs, as measured by the BAGAF and Quest score (sic) are associated with differences in the brain’s perception of religious symbols.” In other words, both having an open mind about religion and having maladaptive beliefs about God affect how the brain perceives religious symbols. As expected, more open-mindedness meant less emotional reactions when viewing the religious symbols of foreign cultures, and possessing a negative view of God correlated with the triggering of negative emotions when viewing religious symbols.

Putting all of the pieces together, it appears that, on the one hand, the brain perceives negative religious symbols at a pre-conscious level—the brain disengages certain regions before the mind can reflect upon what it sees. On the other hand, once images get past this stage, the mind’s beliefs play an important role in determining how the brain interprets religious symbols. If people have a Quest orientation – that is, an open-ended approach to religion – they will experience fewer emotions when confronted with the religious symbolism of another culture. Additionally, if people have maladaptive beliefs about God, they will experience religious symbols negatively on an emotional level. While some may say that not all human experience of religious symbolism is “in the brain,” at least some of it is.


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