Lead author, Sam Harris, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and co-lead author, Jonas Kaplan, research assistant professor at the USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, performed the first neuroimaging study to systematically compare religious faith with ordinary cognition.
The study has demonstrated that our brains respond differently to religious and nonreligious statements, however the information seems to get processed in the same brain regions. In other words, our judgement on the truthfulness of religious statements occurs within the same brain regions, despite whether we believe or not.
The study included 30 adult subjects, in which half were devout Christians and the remaining half were non-believers. All subjects judged the reliability of religious and non-religious statements while undergoing three functional MRI (fMRI) scans. The statements used were certain to generate agreement in both groups.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a brain region said to be involved with reward and judgements of self-relevance, showed increased activity when evaluating statements related to beliefs in God, the Virgin Birth and ordinary facts.
However, religious thought appears to be more associated with areas of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict in both believers and nonbelievers.
Conversely, our thoughts about ordinary facts seem more reliant upon areas associated with memory retrieval. This study helps to illustrate that no matter how much or how often religion is forced upon us, our brains still believe that religion is not based on factual knowledge.
Interestingly, “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.”
This research suggests that one day it may be possible to distinguish religious belief versus disbelief via neuroimaging techniques. “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." In addition, this type of research could shed new light on the study of cult behaviours.
Where Religious Belief And Disbelief Meet