Where Religious Belief And Disbelief Meet


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lamminium

ScienceDaily (Oct. 11, 2009) ? When it comes to religion, believers and nonbelievers appear to think very differently. But at the level of the brain, is believing in God different from believing that the sun is a star or that 4 is an even number?

While religious faith remains one of the most significant features of human life, little is known about its relationship to ordinary belief. Nor is it known whether religious believers differ from nonbelievers in how they evaluate statements of fact.

In the first neuroimaging study to systematically compare religious faith with ordinary cognition, UCLA and University of Southern California researchers have found that while the human brain responds very differently to religious and nonreligious propositions, the process of believing or disbelieving a statement, whether religious or not, seems to be governed by the same areas in the brain.

The study also found that devout Christians and nonbelievers use the same brain regions to judge the truth of religious and nonreligious propositions. The results, the study authors say, represent a critical advance in the psychology of religion. The paper appears Sept. 30 in the journal PLoS One.

Sam Harris, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation in the lab of Mark Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, was a lead author on the study. Jonas Kaplan, a research assistant professor at the USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, was the co-lead author.

The study involved 30 adults ? 15 committed Christians and 15 nonbelievers ? who underwent three functional MRI (fMRI) scans while evaluating religious and nonreligious statements as "true" or "false." The statements were designed to produce near perfect agreement between the two groups during nonreligious trials (e.g., "Eagles really exist") and near perfect disagreement during religious trials (e.g., "Angels really exist").

Contrasting belief and disbelief yielded increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), an area of the brain thought to be involved in reward and in judgments of self-relevance.

"This region showed greater activity whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc., or statements about ordinary facts," the authors said.

The case for belief being content-independent was further bolstered by the fact that while the trial statements accepted by religious believers were rejected by nonbelievers, and vice versa, the brains of both showed the same pattern of activity for belief and disbelief.

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 the brain's anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with cognitive conflict and uncertainty, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements.

The study raises the possibility that the differences between belief and disbelief may one day be reliably distinguished by neuroimaging techniques.

"Despite vast differences in the underlying processing responsible for religious and nonreligious modes of thought," the authors write, "the distinction between believing and disbelieving a proposition appears to transcend content. These 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."

Harris is the author of two New York Times best-sellers, "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation," which have been published in more than 15 languages, and is the co-founder and CEO of the The Reason Project. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and many other journals.

Other authors on the study included Cohen, Susan Y. Bookheimer and Marco Iacoboni, of UCLA, and Ashley Curiel, of Pepperdine University. The authors report no conflict of interest.

Work in Dr. Cohen's lab is funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

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Hypnagogue

So, the religious statements were evaluated in the brain, apparently, no differently than scientific statements? That seems to be the claim.

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lamminium

It is at this time unclear. We do know the same brain region appears to be involved in belief and disbelief. The rest of the article does not provide any conclusive evidence other than point to future research.

Still, isn't it strikingly interesting? You gotta wonder if something else is involved because religious and nonreligious modes of thoughts are quite disparate. :p

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betacortex

That might explain why people get so flustered talking about religion...

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Treemonkeys
Still, isn't it strikingly interesting? You gotta wonder if something else is involved because religious and nonreligious modes of thoughts are quite disparate. :p

What do you think makes them so different? They seem very much the same to me.

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shakey

umm... I found this study sort of useless. All it says is same region is used. That doesn't get us any closer to anything. What they need to find is why people believe in such nonsense and continue to believe in it after they have been proven so many times that what they believe in can not be, or at least has failed to be.

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Growled
umm... I found this study sort of useless. All it says is same region is used. That doesn't get us any closer to anything.

I would have put it a bit more tactfully, but I tend to agree.

What they need to find is why people believe in such nonsense and continue to believe in it after they have been proven so many times that what they believe in can not be, or at least has failed to be.

They also need to learn why some people believe that only what they believe is right and everything they don't believe is nonsense. :p

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Calum

No religion has ever been proven to be 100% correct, on the basis of fact.

I go on facts and facts only; not myths, rumours or fantasy.

Nobody has proven that God exists. Nobody has proven that Islam is incorrect. Nobody has proven that Christianity is correct.

The same applies to science - I will only believe it if it has been proven and is fact.

So, to sum up, I do not follow any religion for the reasons stated above and I do not see how others can when there is no proof that what they believe is correct.

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lamminium
What do you think makes them so different? They seem very much the same to me.

Calum points out part of the disparities in religious vs. non-relgious thinking:

No religion has ever been proven to be 100% correct, on the basis of fact.

I go on facts and facts only; not myths, rumours or fantasy.

Nobody has proven that God exists. Nobody has proven that Islam is incorrect. Nobody has proven that Christianity is correct.

The same applies to science - I will only believe it if it has been proven and is fact.

So, to sum up, I do not follow any religion for the reasons stated above and I do not see how others can when there is no proof that what they believe is correct.

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ylcard
It is at this time unclear. We do know the same brain region appears to be involved in belief and disbelief. The rest of the article does not provide any conclusive evidence other than point to future research.

Still, isn't it strikingly interesting? You gotta wonder if something else is involved because religious and nonreligious modes of thoughts are quite disparate. :p

A bit off-topic.. I always wondered about that because it seems so dodgy to me, scientists say this area here is responsible for X, that one for Y and so on.

Then they find people with half a brain still functioning properly and they say that the brain can rewire itself.

Then there are people that ARE brain damaged and they can't do certain things, so they say that that area of the brain was damaged beyond "repair" and the person can no longer talk, what happened to rewiring ?

I believe one thing about the brain, we don't know much about it, everything else seems very dodgy..

Well I'll say at least something on topic :p Due to my beliefs (or disbeliefs) about the brain I think the whole "research" went the wrong way, since we don't know squat about the brain, how can we be sure of anything we observe is true - and that we interpret it correctly.

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lamminium

Everyone agrees that we know the least about the brain. However, we do have evidence that certain brain regions are responsible for certain functions mainly due to lesion studies and post-mortem examination of diseased brains.

The fact that the neurons are plastic adds to the complications and our struggle to understand it.

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ThePopeSVCD

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

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toadeater

Are they comparing rational vs. irrational thought?

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Farstrider
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for "good" people to do bad things, it takes religion.

I would have to agree with most of what you say, except for the part where you say, "Religion is an insult to human dignity."

I have no problem with people who believe in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam etc. When I DO start having issues with them, is when what they believe in impinges on my life. Do your thing and I will do mine! I do not interfere with ?them? so why should they interfere with me!

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Athlonite
I would have to agree with most of what you say, except for the part where you say, "Religion is an insult to human dignity."

I have no problem with people who believe in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam etc. When I DO start having issues with them, is when what they believe in impinges on my life. Do your thing and I will do mine! I do not interfere with "them" so why should they interfere with me!

+1 i hate it when they knock on my door i'll either say no i haven't seen your spaceship or get lost before i sick the dog on ya, don't get me wrong i don't have anything against religion just don't try crammin it down my throat

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dead.cell
umm... I found this study sort of useless. All it says is same region is used. That doesn't get us any closer to anything. What they need to find is why people believe in such nonsense and continue to believe in it after they have been proven so many times that what they believe in can not be, or at least has failed to be.

Have you seen the world? I would hardly think everyone would be okay and accepting of the pointlessness there seems to be with life. I may be accepting of the fact that we're only here for a short time on this planet, but the thought that... when I die, I become nothing... I no longer wake... See anything... Be anything... Simply cease to exist. It scares me. I don't like to think about it. I don't go rushing to fool myself of course, but if this sort of thing can frighten me, it's easy to understand how stories and beliefs can be so heavily relied upon simply to help us get through our struggles in life and bring us hope.

If anything, I would really consider it a complex survival mechanism for the mind. Even someone who doesn't believe in all the fancy stories and relies on his/her science and ideas that sound much more logical, the part of the brain is still there, finding some sort of grasp on life. Otherwise, every atheist would have killed him or herself and there'd be no real idea of "atheism" other than the understanding that not believing will bring death.

I'm really tired right now, so if any of this doesn't really make sense, forgive me.

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FloatingFatMan
If anything, I would really consider it a complex survival mechanism for the mind. Even someone who doesn't believe in all the fancy stories and relies on his/her science and ideas that sound much more logical, the part of the brain is still there, finding some sort of grasp on life. Otherwise, every atheist would have killed him or herself and there'd be no real idea of "atheism" other than the understanding that not believing will bring death.

Or maybe we just don't need such silly reasoning to be able to function, and are quite able to accept that when you're dead, you're dead.

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DDStriker
Or maybe we just don't need such silly reasoning to be able to function, and are quite able to accept that when you're dead, you're dead.

+1

not everyone is scared of the same things

thantophobia

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FloatingFatMan

Personally, I've always thought that my knowing that we each only get ONE shot at life gives me a far greater respect for life than your average theist. They all seem to believe that when you die, you get another and much better life after this one, so really, it's not that big a deal if you die. You can twist that to think that it's not too much of a problem to end someone's earthly life a bit sooner than it would on it's own, or even just make their current life unpleasant, because they'll eventually go on to a much better one.

I, on the other hand, know full well that when your gone, your gone; so I'm not going to do anything to make someone else's shot at it unpleasant, or shorter. Mainly because I don't really want anyone to do that to me! ;)

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petrossa
umm... I found this study sort of useless. All it says is same region is used. That doesn't get us any closer to anything. What they need to find is why people believe in such nonsense and continue to believe in it after they have been proven so many times that what they believe in can not be, or at least has failed to be.

I think so too, and for several reasons.

1) the technology used is not nearly precise enough to determine what's happening. It can only determine with a enormous margin of error were metabolism is higher.?

2) There's no way of knowing what you are measuring, the activity can mean the brain is actively trying to suppress the illogic of the one and to promote the logic of the other.?

3) Obviously at some point belief and science need to be made aware to the consciousness, which happens also very obviously using the same area's of the brain

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lamminium
I think so too, and for several reasons.

1) the technology used is not nearly precise enough to determine what's happening. It can only determine with a enormous margin of error were metabolism is higher.?

2) There's no way of knowing what you are measuring, the activity can mean the brain is actively trying to suppress the illogic of the one and to promote the logic of the other.?

3) Obviously at some point belief and science need to be made aware to the consciousness, which happens also very obviously using the same area's of the brain

1) The principle behind fMRI makes it an excellent tool for study. It does not measure any particular metabolic process but simply show an increased neural activity in the specific region(s). This implies that the region(s) must be at least associated with the stimulated behaviour.

2) Refer to point 1.

3) Ditto.

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toadeater
+1 i hate it when they knock on my door i'll either say no i haven't seen your spaceship or get lost before i sick the dog on ya, don't get me wrong i don't have anything against religion just don't try crammin it down my throat

I have a problem with these people affecting legislation in the US. With them using their religious beliefs to define what is supposedly moral and immoral. Religion in the US goes beyond the church, it even defines our holidays. You know, Holy Days. There are so many Holy Days in the world, why does the US only support Judeo-Christian ones? Only in recent years have Holy Days from other religions begun to be recognized officially. I guess you can say it's because some religions are more popular than others that they get holidays, but employers and schools do not recognize niche religions or what those religions may require.

There is still a bias towards Christianity in the US, despite what the US government claims. And sometimes it is worse than that:

Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.

-The Air Force is investigating a complaint from an atheist cadet who says the school is "systematically biased against any cadet that does not overtly espouse Christianity."

-The official academy newspaper runs a Christmas ad every year praising Jesus and declaring him the only savior. Some 200 academy staff members, including some department heads, signed it. Whittington noted the ad was not published last December.

-The academy commandant, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again Christian, said in a statement to cadets in June 2003 that their first responsibility is to their God. He also strongly endorsed National Prayer Day that year. School spokesman Johnny Whitaker said Weida now runs his messages by several other commanders.

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/4/19/162856/321

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petrossa
1) The principle behind fMRI makes it an excellent tool for study. It does not measure any particular metabolic process but simply show an increased neural activity in the specific region(s). This implies that the region(s) must be at least associated with the stimulated behaviour.

2) Refer to point 1.

3) Ditto.

Well, since FMRI is just another mathematical model it's only as good as the program that analyses the data.

Change a parameter and active becomes inactive.

Furthermore if a certain brainregion responds to a stimulus in the FMRI it is most likely secondhand.

The after the fact neural activity needed to correlate data in the brain to make it palatable for 'us' is huge, and overshadows the real activity which caused it because the FMRI has to low a resolution.

So all a FRMI shows that there's brainactivity, but what that activity actually does is complete guesswork.

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lamminium
So all a FRMI shows that there's brainactivity, but what that activity actually does is complete guesswork.

That's the primary purpose of using fMRI (to identify the areas involved in a particular behaviour). What more do you expect from it alone?

The significance of the study in the OP is that it gives us a starting point (if you don't know which regions are involved, how could you conduct further research?). People seem to think one study can nail down everything which kind of amuses me.

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petrossa
That's the primary purpose of using fMRI (to identify the areas involved in a particular behaviour). What more do you expect from it alone?

The significance of the study in the OP is that it gives us a starting point (if you don't know which regions are involved, how could you conduct further research?). People seem to think one study can nail down everything which kind of amuses me.

The problem is, what i tried to explain, is that it is not sure the areas that light up are the areas that are the cause of a certain observed activity.

Since the software that makes sense out of the enormous signal noise to discover a pattern is based on observations made it only shows that you can reproduce the observations with that software.

Which is as circular logic as you can get.

Furthermore since the largest activity observed will be in the after the fact processing of the brain of earlier incoming data you stand a more than even change you're looking in the wrong direction.

Until we can get a much higher resolution, and can make out between suppressing and strengthening activity it's anybody's? guess what it shows.

Which goes to show that if you start out looking for a certain confirmation you're quite likely to find it but need not reflect what actually happens.

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