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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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Reponses to blasphemy in both groups.There were significant differences between blasphemous and non-blasphemous statements in both groups. These are regions that show greater signal both when Christians reject stimuli contrary to their doctrine (e.g. “The Biblical god is a myth”) and when nonbelievers affirm their belief in those same statements (pc = paracingulate gyrus; mf = middle frontal gyrus; vs = ventral striatum; ip = inferior parietal lobe; fp = frontal pole). Error bars represent standard error of the mean.
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pone-0007272-g003: Reponses to blasphemy in both groups.There were significant differences between blasphemous and non-blasphemous statements in both groups. These are regions that show greater signal both when Christians reject stimuli contrary to their doctrine (e.g. “The Biblical god is a myth”) and when nonbelievers affirm their belief in those same statements (pc = paracingulate gyrus; mf = middle frontal gyrus; vs = ventral striatum; ip = inferior parietal lobe; fp = frontal pole). Error bars represent standard error of the mean.

Mentions: Finally, among our religious stimuli, the subset of statements that ran counter to Christian doctrine yielded greater signal for both groups in several brain regions, including the ventral striatum, paracingulate cortex, middle frontal gyrus, the frontal poles, and inferior parietal cortex (see Fig 3, Table 5). These regions showed greater signal both when Christians rejected stimuli contrary to their doctrine (e.g. “The Biblical god is a myth”) and when nonbelievers affirmed the truth of those same statements. In other words, these brain areas responded preferentially to “blasphemous” statements in both subject groups. This contrast is the result of a double subtraction on religious trials: (Nonbeliever True−Nonbeliever False)−(Christian True−Christian False) = NT−NF−CT+CF = NT+CF−NF−CT = (NT+CF)−(NF + CT). The opposite contrast: (NF−NT)−(CF−CT) produced a result.


The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief.

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

Reponses to blasphemy in both groups.There were significant differences between blasphemous and non-blasphemous statements in both groups. These are regions that show greater signal both when Christians reject stimuli contrary to their doctrine (e.g. “The Biblical god is a myth”) and when nonbelievers affirm their belief in those same statements (pc = paracingulate gyrus; mf = middle frontal gyrus; vs = ventral striatum; ip = inferior parietal lobe; fp = frontal pole). Error bars represent standard error of the mean.
© Copyright Policy
Related In: Results  -  Collection

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getmorefigures.php?uid=PMC2748718&req=5

pone-0007272-g003: Reponses to blasphemy in both groups.There were significant differences between blasphemous and non-blasphemous statements in both groups. These are regions that show greater signal both when Christians reject stimuli contrary to their doctrine (e.g. “The Biblical god is a myth”) and when nonbelievers affirm their belief in those same statements (pc = paracingulate gyrus; mf = middle frontal gyrus; vs = ventral striatum; ip = inferior parietal lobe; fp = frontal pole). Error bars represent standard error of the mean.
Mentions: Finally, among our religious stimuli, the subset of statements that ran counter to Christian doctrine yielded greater signal for both groups in several brain regions, including the ventral striatum, paracingulate cortex, middle frontal gyrus, the frontal poles, and inferior parietal cortex (see Fig 3, Table 5). These regions showed greater signal both when Christians rejected stimuli contrary to their doctrine (e.g. “The Biblical god is a myth”) and when nonbelievers affirmed the truth of those same statements. In other words, these brain areas responded preferentially to “blasphemous” statements in both subject groups. This contrast is the result of a double subtraction on religious trials: (Nonbeliever True−Nonbeliever False)−(Christian True−Christian False) = NT−NF−CT+CF = NT+CF−NF−CT = (NT+CF)−(NF + CT). The opposite contrast: (NF−NT)−(CF−CT) produced a result.

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