The neural basis of belief

Even the most sympathetic observer has to admit that religious beliefs are often very strange. Indeed, while nearly all agree that Santa Claus does not actually live at the North Pole, employ elves, or fly with the assistance of reindeer, the majority of us still believe in God according to any number of recent studies. Religious beliefs would thus seem to be somehow fundamentally different from more everyday judgments, but a new study by Sam Harris and Jonas T. Kaplan, et al., suggests that, on the contrary, regardless of what the belief is about, judgments of the truth of a proposition are realized in the same regions of the brain.

There have been many well known studies of religious practice and experience, especially meditation and prayer, but relatively little is known about the neural dynamics of belief. In response to this gap in the research Harris, of The End of Faith fame, and colleagues previously studied belief as a “general mode of cognition,” while others, notably Kapogiannis et al. (2009), have taken this model further to explore specifically religious belief. In their latest study, however, Harris and his colleagues compare “these two states of mind directly.”

Employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers measured signal changes in the brains of thirty subjects – half of whom were “committed Christians” and half of whom were “nonbelievers” – while “they evaluated the truth or falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions.” Subjects were asked to respond by pressing a button for “true,” “false,” or “undecidable” when presented with a “series of short statements through a video-goggle display.” Examples of these propositions include “the biblical God really exists” and “Santa Claus is a myth.” The former statement was intended to be “true” for the Christian subjects and “false” for the nonbelievers while the latter was meant to elicit a “true” response from both groups. Thus both groups, Christian and nonbelievers, were subjected to two categories of stimuli: religious and nonreligious propositions. In all cases, however, “belief” (judgments of “true” versus judgments of “false”) was associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area important for self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behavior.” That is, the same region of the brain showed increased activity when subjects judged a proposition to be true regardless of the content of the proposition in question, suggesting that a common neurological mechanism is used regardless of the subject under consideration.

While these results are surely a welcome contribution to the neuroscientific study of religion, the study also indirectly demonstrates the complexity of understanding religious belief. For example, of the original pool of forty subjects who took part in this fMRI study, ten were excluded from analysis. Three of the excluded subjects were removed because of technical difficulties in their scans or to achieve gender balance in the study, but seven subjects were removed from consideration “because their responses to . . . experimental stimuli indicated that they did not actually meet the criteria for inclusion in our study as either nonbelievers or committed Christians.” Given the intent of the study, these exclusions seem reasonable since the researchers were after data on “belief and disbelief in their purest form.” Nevertheless, their results seem to rely heavily on the researchers’ sense of what constitutes a “committed Christian.” It is not clear, however, that a “committed Christian” would find statements such as “the biblical God is a myth” necessarily false. Does Christian commitment really amount to a literal reading of scripture? Might not a “committed Christian” believe that the God portrayed by the biblical narrative is a mythic figure and still maintain that something important and even true is communicated via such a myth? Perhaps, as Francis Pharcellus Church once said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus“ after all.

For the original paper by Sam Harris, Jonas T. Kaplan, et al., (2009) “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief,” PLoS ONE 4(10): e0007272, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007272, see here.

For an assessment of this study see here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.