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The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief.

Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, Cohen MS - PLoS ONE (2009)

Bottom Line: However, no research has compared these two states of mind directly.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.

View Article: PubMed Central - PubMed

Affiliation: UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, California, United States of America.

ABSTRACT

Background: 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.

Methodology/principal findings: 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.

Conclusions/significance: 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.

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Related in: MedlinePlus

Religious versus nonreligious statements.(A) The MRI signal was greater when subjects evaluated religious statements compared with nonreligious statements in areas throughout the brain, including the precuneus, anterior cingulate, insula, and ventral striatum. (B) Increased signal was found for nonreligious statements compared with religious statements in several left hemisphere regions including the parahippocampal gyrus, retrosplenial cortex, temporal pole, middle temporal gyrus and hippocampus.
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pone-0007272-g002: Religious versus nonreligious statements.(A) The MRI signal was greater when subjects evaluated religious statements compared with nonreligious statements in areas throughout the brain, including the precuneus, anterior cingulate, insula, and ventral striatum. (B) Increased signal was found for nonreligious statements compared with religious statements in several left hemisphere regions including the parahippocampal gyrus, retrosplenial cortex, temporal pole, middle temporal gyrus and hippocampus.

Mentions: While the contrast of belief minus disbelief yielded similar activation patterns for both stimulus categories, a comparison of all religious trials to all nonreligious trials produced a wide range of signal differences throughout the brain. The contrast of religious stimuli minus nonreligious stimuli (see Fig. 2A, Table 3.) revealed greater signal in many regions, including the anterior insula and the ventral striatum. The anterior insula has been regularly linked to pain perception [34] and even to the perception of pain in others [35]. This region is also widely believed to mediate negatively valenced feelings like disgust [36], [37]. The ventral striatum is also regularly associated with emotional processing, especially with reward [38] and appears to play a role in cognitive planning [39]. We also found greater signal for religious stimuli in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is often taken to be a reporter of response conflict [40], and activity in this region has been negatively correlated with religious conviction [41].


The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief.

Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, Cohen MS - PLoS ONE (2009)

Religious versus nonreligious statements.(A) The MRI signal was greater when subjects evaluated religious statements compared with nonreligious statements in areas throughout the brain, including the precuneus, anterior cingulate, insula, and ventral striatum. (B) Increased signal was found for nonreligious statements compared with religious statements in several left hemisphere regions including the parahippocampal gyrus, retrosplenial cortex, temporal pole, middle temporal gyrus and hippocampus.
© Copyright Policy
Related In: Results  -  Collection

Show All Figures
getmorefigures.php?uid=PMC2748718&req=5

pone-0007272-g002: Religious versus nonreligious statements.(A) The MRI signal was greater when subjects evaluated religious statements compared with nonreligious statements in areas throughout the brain, including the precuneus, anterior cingulate, insula, and ventral striatum. (B) Increased signal was found for nonreligious statements compared with religious statements in several left hemisphere regions including the parahippocampal gyrus, retrosplenial cortex, temporal pole, middle temporal gyrus and hippocampus.
Mentions: While the contrast of belief minus disbelief yielded similar activation patterns for both stimulus categories, a comparison of all religious trials to all nonreligious trials produced a wide range of signal differences throughout the brain. The contrast of religious stimuli minus nonreligious stimuli (see Fig. 2A, Table 3.) revealed greater signal in many regions, including the anterior insula and the ventral striatum. The anterior insula has been regularly linked to pain perception [34] and even to the perception of pain in others [35]. This region is also widely believed to mediate negatively valenced feelings like disgust [36], [37]. The ventral striatum is also regularly associated with emotional processing, especially with reward [38] and appears to play a role in cognitive planning [39]. We also found greater signal for religious stimuli in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is often taken to be a reporter of response conflict [40], and activity in this region has been negatively correlated with religious conviction [41].

Bottom Line: However, no research has compared these two states of mind directly.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.

View Article: PubMed Central - PubMed

Affiliation: UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, California, United States of America.

ABSTRACT

Background: 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.

Methodology/principal findings: 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.

Conclusions/significance: 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.

Show MeSH
Related in: MedlinePlus