Thinking about physics suppresses our social minds

Last year, a scientific study out of UBC-Vancouver made a splash by claiming that analytical thinking decreased people’s belief in God. Of course, this wasn’t much of a surprise – both hard-nosed science advocates and dreamy religious writers have noted the incompatibility between religious and analytic thinking. But new research offers a neurological perspective on this religion-science divide. Specifically, a team of cognitive scientists has found that the neural systems that deal with purely physical phenomena inhibit those that focus on social information, and vice-versa. Since many studies have linked social cognition to religious belief, it seems that our science minds and our religious minds are like streets at a crossroads: if one direction is flowing, the other is shut off.

Okay, that metaphor was pretty clunky. But the research is anything but: led by Anthony Jack of Case Western Reserve University, a research team composed of psychologists, imaging specialists, and cognitive scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peer at brain activity while research subjects carried out two different types of activities. Some of the activities focused on purely social cognition; for example, subjects read stories or watched videos in which two characters misunderstood one another. The other activities were exercises in mechanical or physical cognition – such as, for instance, solving problems about gravity, magnets, or train velocities. The physics-based tasks also took the form of videos and short readings.

The researchers found that the areas of the brain that were activated by social scenarios were not only different from those activated by mechanical thinking, but that these brain networks actively inhibited each other. That is, when the parts of the brain related to thinking about people, emotions, and social relationships lit up, the regions associated with thinking about physical objects and mechanical systems essentially went dark. The reverse was also true.

Interestingly, the two regions Jack and his colleagues identified showed a remarkable overlap with two networks that had been previously identified in brain research: the task-positive network and the default mode network. Long recognized by brain researchers as distinct cortical circuits, these two networks have been associated with external and internal focus, respectively – thinking about things happening outside the body versus internal states such as one’s own emotions or daydreams.

In a resting state, the task-positive network, composed of regions in the lateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal parietal cortex, has been shown to de-activate the default mode network, which spans areas in the medial parietal cingulate and the superior temporal, inferior parietal, and medial prefrontal cortices. Researchers have interpreted this reverse correlation to mean that the default mode network is what’s “running in the background,” so to speak, whenever the brain doesn’t have anything more important to do. Once a specific task or project appears, the default mode network steps aside so the task-positive network can get to work focusing the brain on the goal.

But the research from Case Western calls this older model into question. Jack and his colleagues found that it wasn’t just the task-positive network that inhibited the default network, but also the other way around: when subjects were focused on social cognition, the so-called default mode network lit up brighter than ever, while the task-positive network dimmed into insignificance. It now seems much less likely that the default mode network is simply a cognitive holding pattern, keeping the brain humming lazily along until there’s a task to focus on. Instead, the default mode network appears to help the brain focus on a different kind of task: the social kind.

The researchers made sure to eliminate a number of other explanations for this startling reverse correlation, including task difficulty, the length of the reading assignments, and the use of different memory styles for different tasks. None of these factors statistically explained the results. They also wondered whether observing and thinking about actions in general might be the causal factor, lighting up the task-positive network and suppressing the default mode network. But both the social and the physical narratives in the study had about the same number of physical actions each, whether a bowling ball falling off a platform or a man packing a car for a camping trip. The best statistical explanation for the different, mutually inhibiting patterns of brain activity was physical versus social cognition.

While Jack and his colleagues didn’t mention religion in the paper they published recently in NeuroImage, it’s clear that these different patterns of mechanical and social cognition have profound implications for religion and belief. A growing body of studies has shown that religious beliefs are processed in the brain in much the same way as social experiences: thinking about God looks very similar, neurologically speaking, to thinking about your best friend. And other research, covered last year on this blog, showed that people with deficits in social cognition – specifically, people on the autism spectrum – have weaker religious beliefs.

If future research backs up these findings, then we may have a neat explanation for the persistent gap between science and religion in modern culture. Science is essentially about finding mechanical causes and understanding the world as a physical system. It’s really not an endeavor that demands very much – if any – social cognition. In fact, social cognition is likely to interfere with good science, since the social operations of our brains look for teleology, goals, and intentions – the better to understand and predict the extremely complex behavior of our fellow humans. Trying to intuit the goals and wishes of a chemical reaction won’t get you very far, though, so modern science teaches its practitioners to ignore their social brains during research so they can focus on purely physical explanations.

Science, then, recruits the parts of the brain that don’t see purpose, intention, or consciousness in the external world. Jack and his colleagues claim, with very good evidence, that these areas actively suppress the areas that scan for and interpret social realities, including hidden purposes, goals, and intentions. If they’re right, it’s no surprise that, as theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg once glumly wrote, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

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