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See Inside March / April 2010

Belief in the Brain

Sacred and secular ideas engage identical areas

Religious belief may seem to be a unique psychological experience, but a growing body of research shows that thinking about religion is no different from thinking about secular things­—at least from the standpoint of the brain. In the first imaging study to compare religious and nonreligious thoughts, evaluating the truth of either type of statement was found to involve the same regions of the brain.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used functional MRI to evaluate brain activity in 15 devout Christians and 15 nonbelievers as the volunteers assessed the truth or falsity of a series of statements, some of which were religious (“angels exist”) and others nonreligious (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military ruler”). They found that when a subject believed a statement—whether it was religious or not—activity appeared in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with emotions, rewards and self-representation.

And although the nonbelievers rejected about half of the statements the believers accepted, the brain scans of both groups were indistin­guishable, providing further proof that evaluating truth or falsity is independent of the content of the statement in question. “The fact that we found the same brain processing between believers and nonbelievers, despite the two groups’ completely different answers to the questions [about religion], is pretty surprising,” says Jonas Kaplan, a research psy­chologist at U.C.L.A. and co-author of the study. The finding adds to the mounting evidence against the notion, popular in the scientific community as well as among the general public, that religious faith is somehow different from other types of belief, explains co-author Sam Harris, also of U.C.L.A. In contrast to this assumption, he says, “Believing the sun is a star is rather the same as believing Jesus was born of a virgin.” [For more on the neuroscience of religion, see “Searching for God in the Brain,” by David Biello; Scientific American Mind, October/November 2007.]

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