Monthly Archives: November 2011

Sci-Phi: God and the brain

Mat Iredale on the natural basis of supernatural thinking

Why is it that humans are so attracted to religion? Is there something about our brain that predisposes us to religion – is there even a unique domain for religion in the human mind – or is it just a coincidence that markedly similar religions have arisen from otherwise vastly different human societies?

Recent research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and archaeology has given rise to a new science of religion that is beginning to provide answers to these questions that “promise to change our view of religion” according to the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

One finding that is emerging is that humans do seem predisposed towards a religious world view. As Boyer points out, unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasised mates. Boyer suggests that the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.

He concludes that it is “a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved.” Boyer thinks that this may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents in which people believe have moral concerns: “Those agents are often described as having complete access only to morally relevant actions. Experiments show that it is much more natural to think ‘the gods know that I stole this money’ than ‘the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast’.”

Research has also shown that tacit assumptions are extremely similar in different cultures and religions, unlike conscious beliefs, which differ widely from one culture or religion to another. Boyer believes that these similarities may stem from the peculiarities of human memory. Experiments suggest that people best remember stories that include a combination of counterintuitive physical feats (in which characters go through walls or move instantaneously) and plausibly human psychological features (perceptions, thoughts, intentions), a memory bias that contributes to the cultural success of gods and spirits.

Other experiments suggest that children are predisposed to assume both design and intention behind natural events, prompting some psychologists and anthropologists to believe that children, left entirely to their own devices, would invent some conception of God. But this should come as little surprise, given that our minds have evolved to detect patterns in the world. We tend to detect patterns that aren’t actually there, whether it be faces in clouds or a divine hand in the workings of Nature.

Our cognitive predisposition towards a religious world view helps to explain the failure of the once popular prediction that the spread of industrialised society would spell the end of religion. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber, together with various other sociologists, historians, psychologists and anthropologists influenced by their work, all expected religious belief to decline in the face of the modern developing world. Not only has this not happened, but as the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris points out, religion remains one of the most prominent features of human life in the 21st century with orthodox religion being “in full bloom” throughout the developing world. Whether it is the rise of Islamism throughout the Muslim world or the spread of Pentecostalism throughout Africa, Harris says that it is clear that religion will have geopolitical consequences well into the 21st century.

Harris was part of a Los Angeles-based research team that recently carried out the first systematic study into the difference between religious and non-religious belief. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure signal changes in the brains of thirty subjects (fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers) as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious statements, Harris et al. were able to compare those parts of the brain that “lit up” when the subjects were asked a serious of questions that were either of a religious nature or religion-neutral.

Whilst admitting that gradations of belief are certainly worth investigating, the authors wanted their experiment to characterise belief and disbelief in their purest form. They therefore excluded from the trial anyone who could not consistently respond ‘‘true’’ or ‘‘false’’ with conviction to the various statements. In a similar manner, the statements shown to the subjects were designed to elicit only a yes or no answer, rather than a maybe, and were designed, as far as possible, to have the same semantic structure and content. The statements were shown to the subjects in groups of four (true and false; religious and nonreligious), for example: The Biblical God really exists (Christian true/nonbeliever false); The Biblical God is a myth (Christian false/nonbeliever true); Santa Claus is a myth (both groups true); Santa Claus really exists (both groups false).

After each statement was shown, the subjects pressed a button to indicate whether the statement was true or false. The statements were designed to produce roughly equal numbers of believed and disbelieved trials. What they found was that while the human brain responds very differently to religious and nonreligious statements, the process of believing or disbelieving a statement, whether religious or not, seems to be governed by the same areas in the brain.

Contrasting belief and disbelief yielded increased activity in an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, thought to be associated with self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behaviour. The authors report that this region showed greater signal “whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc. or statements about ordinary facts.”

A comparison of all religious with all nonreligious statements suggested that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict in both believers and nonbelievers, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks. Activity in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with response to conflict and which has been negatively correlated with religious conviction, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements.

The authors admit that one cannot reliably infer the presence of a mental state on the basis of brain data alone, unless the brain regions in question are known to be truly selective for a single state of mind. As the brain is an evolved organ, with higher order states emerging from lower order mechanisms, very few of its regions are so selective as to fully justify inferences of this kind. Nevertheless, they argue that their results “appear to make at least provisional sense of the emotional tone of belief. And whatever larger role our regions of interest play in human cognition and behaviour, they appear to respond similarly to putative statements of fact, irrespective of content, in the brains of both religious believers and nonbelievers.”

They conclude that there is no reason to expect that any regions of the human brain are dedicated solely to belief and disbelief, but that their research suggests that these opposing states of cognition can be discriminated by functional neuroimaging and are intimately tied to networks involved in self-representation and reward. And they argue that their results may have many areas of application, “ranging from the neuropsychology of religion, to the use of ‘belief-detection’ as a surrogate for ‘lie-detection,’ to understanding how the practice of science itself, and truth-claims generally, emerge from the biology of the human brain.”

Further Reading
“Being human: Religion: Bound to believe?” by Pascal Boyer, Nature, 455, 1038-1039 (23 October 2008)
“The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”, S. Harris, J.T. Kaplan, A. Curiel, S.Y. Bookheimer, M. Iacoboni, et al., PLoS ONE 4(10): 2009

Mathew Iredale’s Sci-Phi column appears every issue in tpm