The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief

UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, California, United States of America.
PLoS ONE (Impact Factor: 3.23). 10/2009; 4(10):e0007272. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007272
Source: PubMed


While religious faith remains one of the most significant features of human life, little is known about its relationship to ordinary belief at the level of the brain. Nor is it known whether religious believers and nonbelievers differ in how they evaluate statements of fact. Our lab previously has used functional neuroimaging to study belief as a general mode of cognition [1], and others have looked specifically at religious belief [2]. However, no research has compared these two states of mind directly.
We used 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 propositions. For both groups, and in both categories of stimuli, belief (judgments of "true" vs judgments of "false") was associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area important for self-representation [3], [4], [5], [6], emotional associations [7], reward [8], [9], [10], and goal-driven behavior [11]. This region showed greater signal whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc. or statements about ordinary facts. A comparison of both stimulus categories suggests that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks.
While religious and nonreligious thinking differentially engage broad regions of the frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobes, the difference between belief and disbelief appears to be content-independent. Our study compares religious thinking with ordinary cognition and, as such, constitutes a step toward developing a neuropsychology of religion. However, these findings may also further our understanding of how the brain accepts statements of all kinds to be valid descriptions of the world.

Download full-text


Available from: Mark S Cohen,
18 Reads
  • Source
    • "Consequently, together with the expansion of specific brain regions (such as the temporal lobes and prefrontal cortex) related to these cognitive processes, religious thinking might have arisen (Boyer, 2003). Suggestive evidence for this line of thought comes from some fMRI studies reporting that the neural networks involved in religious cognition are also implicated in many other non-religious––mainly social–– cognitive processes (Harris et al., 2009; Kapogiannis et al., 2009; Kapogiannis, Barbey, Su, Krueger, & Grafman, 2009). These cognitive processes, could have arisen as systems devoted to define the relationships between human beings, thereafter being used for, or giving rise to, relationships between human beings and religious entities (such as gods, spirits, etc). "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: It has been shown that counterintuitive ideas from mythological and religious texts are more acceptable than other (non-religious) world knowledge violations. In the present experiment we explored whether this relates to the way they are interpreted (literal vs. metaphorical). Participants were presented with verification questions that referred to either the literal or a metaphorical meaning of the sentence previously read (counterintuitive religious, counterintuitive non-religious and intuitive), in a block-wise design. Both behavioral and electrophysiological results converged. At variance to the literal interpretation of the sentences, the induced metaphorical interpretation specifically facilitated the integration (N400 amplitude decrease) of religious counterintuitions, whereas the semantic processing of non-religious counterintuitions was not affected by the interpretation mode. We suggest that religious ideas tend to operate like other instances of figurative language, such as metaphors, facilitating their acceptability despite their counterintuitive nature. © 2015 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.
    Cognitive Science A Multidisciplinary Journal 07/2015; DOI:10.1111/cogs.12263 · 2.59 Impact Factor
  • Source
    • "Além desses resultados, a hipótese da religiosidade como um subproduto também encontra suporte em estudos de neuroimagem. Esses trabalhos demonstram que redes de processamento responsáveis por outras capacidades cognitivas, como por exemplo, a teoria da mente e memória declarativa, são ativadas quando um indivíduo pensa sobre ou realiza alguma tarefa relacionada à sua religião (Azari et al., 2001; Harris et al., 2009; Kapogiannis, Barbey, Su, Krueger, & Grafman, 2009). Essas seriam evidências de que os pensamentos religiosos são fruto da interação de estruturas neurais selecionadas, muito antes de a religião surgir, como suporte para outras funções cognitivas. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Religious behavior has long been the object of study by the humanities, with only few attempts to analyze its emergence and maintenance in human population from a Darwinian perspective. However, the natural sciences, together with researchers from various fields, are turning to the systematic study of religious behavior through an evolutionary perspective. Due to this new and growing field of research, we will review some of the major evolutionary hypotheses for the maintenance of religious behavior in human populations and analyze the main empirical results obtained until now. Despite the diversity of beliefs and recognized importance given to religion in our country, very few Brazilian researchers are working on this theme. We believe that this review may be important to raise awareness and encourage the study of religious behavior by evolutionary perspective on our country by scholars from different fields.
    Estudos de Psicologia (Natal) 06/2013; 18(2):223-229. DOI:10.1590/S1413-294X2013000200007
  • Source
    • "Oração ↑ PFC, lobos frontais inferiores e lobos parietais inferiores Beauregard et al., 2006 57 fMRI 14 carmelitas Senso de união com Deus ↑ RL córtex medial orbitofrontal, R córtex temporal médio, RL lobos parietais inferior e superior, RL caudate, L medial PFC, L ACC, L insular, L tronco cerebral, córtex visual estriado Newberg et al., 2006 56 SPECT 6 carismáticos Glossolalia ↑ L caudate ↓ DLPFC, L parietal superior Beauregard et al., 2009 64 fMRI 15 pacientes com NDE Meditação " ser de luz " ↑ R tronco cerebral, R córtex orbito frontal, R PFC, R lobo parietal superior, L lobo temporal, L insular, e L para-hipocampo Harris et al., 2009 62 fMRI 15 crentes/15 descrentes Julgamento de crenças " verdadeiro " vs. " falso " Crença associada com ↑atividade no ventromedial PFC; pensamentos religiosos associados com regiões do cérebro que governam emoções, autorrepresentação e conflito cognitivo; pensamento comum associado com redes de recuperação de memória Ge et al., 2009 63 fMRI 16 cristãos/16 não seguidores Traços de julgamento sobre Jesus Conectividade funcional entre MPFC e lobo parietal posterior, traço de julgamento diferenciado de líderes políticos e o eu, mas não entre Jesus e o eu. De Araujo et al., 2012 61 fMRI 9 usuários de Ayahuasca Efeito da Ayahuasca ↑ áreas occipital, temporal e frontal Peres et al., 2012 22 SPECT 10 psicógrafos Escrita psicografada ↓ L culmen, L hipocampo, L giro occipital inferior, L cíngulo anterior, R giro temporal superior e R giro pré-central PET: tomografia por emissão de pósitrons; SPECT: tomografia computadorizada por emissão de fóton único; fMRI: imageamento por ressonância magnética funcional; ACC: córtex singular anterior; PFC: córtex pré-frontal; DLPFC: córtex pré-frontal dorsolateral; R: direta; L: esquerda. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: The mind-body relationship has prompted debate from the times of millennial religious traditions and the ancient Greeks through to contemporary neuroscience, and although these questions have yet to be decisively answered, therapeutic interventions today are guided by assumptions made in this respect. Research on the neural correlates of consciousness and mental expressions has made progress over the last 15 years by developing functional brain imaging methods. This approach may open up new perspectives for studies of the expression of presumed instances of spiritual consciousness, which would have major ethical, social and philosophical implications. We pose a promising new line of research in the neurosciences and discuss certain issues pertaining to the effective use of neuroimaging to investigate mediumship and advance the consensus comprehension of consciousness, alleged spiritual communication and its relations with the brain. We highlight methodological challenges and lessons gleaned from our neurofunctional study of mediumship to be considered for further research in this field when formulating hypotheses to address these phenomena, and discuss useful guidelines for neuroimaging studies of spiritual experiences in general.
    Revista de Psiquiatria Clínica 12/2012; 40(6):225-232. DOI:10.1590/S0101-60832013000600004 · 0.52 Impact Factor
Show more