Do brain connections help shape religious beliefs?

#1
Building on previous evidence showing that religious belief involves cognitive activity that can be mapped to specific brain regions, a new study has found that causal, directional connections between these brain networks can be linked to differences in religious thought. The article "Brain Networks Shaping Religious Belief" is published in Brain Connectivity.

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Dimitrios Kapogiannis and colleagues from the National Institute on Aging (National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, MD) and Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, IL, analyzed data collected from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies to evaluate the flow of brain activity when religious and non-religious individuals discussed their religious beliefs. The authors determined causal pathways linking brain networks related to "supernatural agents," fear regulation, imagery, and affect, all of which may be involved in cognitive processing of religious beliefs.

"When the brain contemplates a religious belief," says Dr. Kapogiannis, "it is activating three distinct networks that are trying to answer three distinct questions: 1) is there a supernatural agent involved (such as God) and, if so, what are his or her intentions; 2) is the supernatural agent to be feared; and 3) how does this belief relate to prior life experiences and to doctrines?"

"Are there brain networks uniquely devoted to religious belief? Prior research has indicated the answer is a resolute no," continues study co-author Jordan Grafman, Director, Brain Injury Research and Chief, Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "But this study demonstrates that important brain networks devoted to various kinds of reasoning about others, emotional processing, knowledge representation, and memory are called into action when thinking about religious beliefs. The use of these basic networks for religious practice indicates how basic networks evolved to mediate much more complex beliefs like those contained in religious practice."
http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-01-brain-religious-beliefs.html#inlRlv
Study: Brain interactions differ between religious and non-religious subjects
(Medical Xpress)—An Auburn University researcher teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to study how brain networks shape an individual's religious belief, finding that brain interactions were different between religious and non-religious subjects.

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Gopikrishna Deshpande, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Auburn's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, and the NIH researchers recently published their results in the journal Brain Connectivity.

The group found differences in brain interactions that involved the theory of mind, or ToM, brain network, which underlies the ability to relate between one's personal beliefs, intents and desires with those of others. Individuals with stronger ToM activity were found to be more religious. Deshpande says this supports the hypothesis that development of ToM abilities in humans during evolution may have given rise to religion in human societies.

"Religious belief is a unique human attribute observed across different cultures in the world, even in those cultures which evolved independently, such as Mayans in Central America and aboriginals in Australia," said Deshpande, who is also a researcher at Auburn's Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Center. "This has led scientists to speculate that there must be a biological basis for the evolution of religion in human societies."

Deshpande and the NIH scientists were following up a study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to scan the brains of both self-declared religious and non-religious individuals as they contemplated three psychological dimensions of religious beliefs.

The fMRI – which allows researchers to infer specific brain regions and networks that become active when a person performs a certain mental or physical task – showed that different brain networks were activated by the three psychological dimensions; however, the amount of activation was not different in religious as compared to non-religious subjects.

To address this anomaly, Deshpande and NIH researchers characterized the interactions between the different brain networks that were activated during the study.
http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-01-brain-interactions-differ-religious-non-religious.html#inlRlv
The article above reminds me of this small study.

Non Believers and Believers Think Differently
This is actually interesting research, but I do feel that too much is made of the fact that we see differences in brain activity when different groups react differently to stimuli. Everything you think and feel are networks firing in the brain. When research looking at the patterns of brain activity is reported, however, it often makes it sound like it’s surprising that such differences are “in the brain,” as if this makes the differences more biological or fundamental.

In any case, what this recent study looked at was 23 volunteers (12 believers and 11 skeptics) who were separated into their respective groups by a questionnaire – do you think that psychics can predict the future, etc. They “first imagined themselves in critical life situations (e.g. problems in intimate relationships) and then watched emotionally charged pictures of lifeless objects and scenery (e.g. two red cherries bound together).”

The researchers found that those who scored as a believer on the screening test were twice as likely as those who scored as skeptics to find meaning in the images – some sign predicting how the situation would turn out. That is not surprising, and in a way just validates the screening test (it predicted a later response).

The primary purpose of the study, however, was to look at brain activity with fMRI to see if there were any differences in brain activity. All subjects displayed activity in their left inferior frontal gyrus, which may represent seeing meaning in the images. The skeptics, however, also displayed greater activity in their right inferior frontal gyrus; an area that previous research indicates is associated with inhibitory control.

This suggests (if the results are valid – it is a small study) that everyone instinctively will see portents and signs in provocative imagery (especially if primed with an emotional situation), but that those who tend to be skeptical have a greater ability to inhibit that instinct.

Inhibitory control is an important cognitive function. Generally speaking, activity in various parts of the brain, including more primitive and emotional parts, is filtered through the most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex (frontal lobes) which strategically inhibits the more basic activity as part of long term planning, social behavior, and other functions referred to as “executive function.”

Someone, therefore, who appears cool and rational may have just as much of an emotional cauldron boiling beneath the surface, but has strong inhibitory control. Someone who is impulsive and glib may simply have a relative lack of inhibitory control.

In fact there is a known neurological syndrome of “disinhibition” which can be caused by damage to the frontal lobes (this is often in the context of a car accident where the forehead hits the windshield).

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) clinically is a disorder of executive function, and is associated with decreased activity in the frontal lobes.

All of this fits well with how skeptics often understand the process of scientific skepticism. People have a tendency to be compelled by emotional narratives, and to see patterns and signs in random stimuli. Skepticism, in part, is not accepting such stories or apparent patterns at face value, but evaluating them with an objective process to differentiate real patterns from illusory ones.

In this way skepticism is often a negative or inhibitory process – sifting out the chaff from the wheat. It is therefore not surprising that in a task that challenges one’s skepticism, the primary difference between skeptics and believers is in relative inhibitory control.

Of course, I don’t know if the pattern of results seen in this study is reliable. It is one small study, and fMRI studies can be technically very tricky to do well. I would love to see it replicated with a larger sample and more variables.
Written by Dr. Steve Novella
 
#4
The studies themselves are interesting....but Novella's commentary is just more of the same from him, and full of assumptions stated as facts. It is not surprising that skeptics use the inhibitory part of their brain. - the question is, is it possible to inhibit too much? Novella seems to assume that more inhibition is always better. But what else are they inhibiting? Could be better to be a bit less inhibited than the skeptics in this study? How many hardcore skeptics do you know who are great artists? Are skeptics 'inhibiting' their intuition and creativity too? This study can help us understand why skeptics seem so dry, literal, and sometimes just plain boring.

I think they've done it to themselves, building this inhibition through conditioning. IMO, many skeptics are living in a bubble of belief, and anything outside of that bubble gets 'inhibited'. Where things get interesting is when the skeptic brushes up against the paranormal in their own lives...and the bubble gets popped.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#5
Definitely possible the brain influences belief. For example:

Iain McGilchrist - The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Great presentation. One of the things he talks about his how a brain dedicated to mechanistic closure in the usual materialist sense can continually cut away evidence that would suggest materialism wasn't the case.

There's also Strassman's Theoneurological Model, which discusses his ideas on how the brain contacts the immaterial aspects of the world. Certain minds, in his theory, are predisposed to touching the Numinous. Ideologue skeptics, as Craig defines the term, might simply be hardwired to not have that connection. Thus whatever the truth of spiritual worlds they might simply be less able to make an unbiased judgement call.

I think they've done it to themselves, building this inhibition through conditioning. IMO, many skeptics are living in a bubble of belief, and anything outside of that bubble gets 'inhibited'. Where things get interesting is when the skeptic brushes up against the paranormal in their own lives...and the bubble gets popped.
Good point. Leiter discusses some of the reasons for the bubble in Pathology of Skepticism.

Susan Blackmore has recounted the terror she felt when she thought there might be real ESP. Probably why she now tries the old trick of insisting there's only dualism or materialism, even at a conference where philosophers are presenting Idealism and Panpsychism. ;-)
 
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#6
Definitely possible the brain influences belief. For example:

Iain McGilchrist - The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Great presentation. One of the things he talks about his how a brain dedicated to mechanistic closure in the usual materialist sense can continually cut away evidence that would suggest materialism wasn't the case.
I actually was thinking a bit of McGilchrist too on this topic, and his ideas on 'left-brain dominance'. Many skeptics seem to celebrate this as a positive trait. But perhaps it could be better classified as a dysfunction? I finally picked up a copy of The Master and his Emissary, so I'm looking forward to reading that soon...
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#7
I actually was thinking a bit of McGilchrist too on this topic, and his ideas on 'left-brain dominance'. Many skeptics seem to celebrate this as a positive trait. But perhaps it could be better classified as a dysfunction? I finally picked up a copy of The Master and his Emissary, so I'm looking forward to reading that soon...
Yeah, it's on my reading list as well though I've got a few books to get through at the moment. Let me know what you think!

Volk goes into the confirmation biases of Novella and other ideological skeptics here:

I argue, in Fringe-ology, that such biases prove particularly destructive in conversations about the paranormal. But I now hold a more intimate understanding of how confirmation bias operates. Because in mid-January, I got to see how I look through the eyes of skeptics disinterested in looking past their own worldviews.

The occasion was a podcast produced by the good people over at the The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. On Jan. 19, the team there compounded lead host Steven Novella’s off-point rebuttal to my critique of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge with a litany of what I can only guess were heart-felt, bias driven mistakes.

I’ll take you through the segment, point-by-point, interjecting as needed.
 
#8
Oh look, another thread with a thinly veiled accusation that we're somehow religious.

You have it reversed. The activity of the brain... I wish others would consider this more seriously.
In equal turn, it would be nice if you engaged with the evidence for psi etc, unlike the other skeptics here, I have not seen you once engage with it.
 
#10
Oh look, another thread with a thinly veiled accusation that we're somehow religious.



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I wasn't in the slightest suggesting you all are religious. Read the first sentence of the first article; stop at the word regions. That describes my intentions which is to make the counter argument the brain is immensely capable of creating the thing called mind. There's no need in my opinion to think it can't.
You shouldn't project your prejudices unless you can back them up.
 
#11
You have it reversed. The activity of the brain... I wish others would consider this more seriously.
They are defining areas of the brain showing qualitative changes in the oxygenation of hemoglobin. That the areas showing these changes are similar in scanned subjects is definitely interesting. Certainly the brains spatial network structure seems correlated to sensory input/output, even processing, but these sorts of experiment are still just measuring qualitative changes of an associative network in the 'present' as far as I'm concerned.
 
#14
You wouldn't say that if you'd seen Paul at the Skeptiko (materialists) Christmas Winter Holiday party.
Just Paul? Let's not forget Linda, boy oh boy she had everyone in stitches. Btw Malf, you're not suppose to let them know we are a fun loving bunch with a sense of humor.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#17
:D Sorry about the strict door policy. However, we invited LoneShamen for... ahem... obvious reasons.
Given LoneShaman's ability to discuss a wide variety of topics, especially semiotics in relation to the materialism's outstanding problems (here+here+here) and potential issues with Neo-Darwinism*, I'd bet money he could handle a debate with materialists even while high. :)

*Just to be clear, problems with Neo-Darwinism doesn't mean God Did It. It doesn't rule it out but it's not a given.
 
#18
I actually tried to get in but they patted me down at the door and confiscated all my crystals. I had to remote view the entire event from home.
Don't fib, we are all inclusive. We took your rocks away because if we say something that angered you, you could have thrown them at that person and put an eye out.
 
#19
Your response implies psi research doesn't suffer from the same type of research. But we know that's not true. Most of psi research is qualitative. For most the gold standard is the personal experience narrative. However, this type of brain research has something going for it, it's repeatable.
Is it interesting enough for you to change your mind over the brain is capable of creating the mind and there's no reason for memory being stored outside of the brain?
My brain certainly appears to be involved in the creation of my consciousness, but is the brain perfectly isolated? Nope.

It certainly appears that my brain uses a form of associative sensory memory which is encoded within the spatial patterns it creates within it's structure. Do these spatial patterns store my sense of meaning? Not as far as I can see, they only seem to provide a mechanism to enable access to meaning.
 
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