God and science of religious beliefs



Fig. 1 corrected mic.jpgScientists in the US used brain imaging techniques to localize the areas in the human brain that are activated when thinking about God and religion.  The results suggest that specific components of religious beliefs are mediated by known brain networks.  What techniques helped researchers to reach to this conclusion and if we are close to an instrument for measuring religious belief are just few of the questions discussed with Dimitrios Kapogiannis, first author of research that was published in PNAS.

The researchers found similarities in the way that a person's brain evaluates others' actions and the way they contemplate God's involvement with humanity. They identified a link between a person's previous religious teachings and the temporal lobe, which is involved in memory and speech. The results link religious belief to evolutionarily adaptive cognitive functions, according to the authors.

Practically speaking, how did you find the active brain areas when a person is thinking about religious beliefs?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis: ""First, we used methods used in psychology (normal people answering elaborate questionnaires) to identify cognitive processes taking place in the minds of people when they encounter a religious idea. These processes probably happen automatically and may also happen when you spontaneously think about God or religion . They occur in both believers and non-believers (after all, you have to somehow frame a question somehow in your brain whether you end up agreeing or not).

fig 2 lucrat mic.jpgIn other terms, when a human being is asked a question about God, (s)he has to frame the problem by answering three questions: 1) Is the God implied in the question involved in my life or not? 2) Is the God implied loving or threatening and angry 3) Do I base my belief on experience and imagination of specific circumstances or on abstract concepts (doctrine). This way, we turned the problem of "how we think about religion"  into three specific questions.

Then, we used functional MRI to find brain areas that carry on each one of these three tasks. We interpreted the function of these brain areas on the basis of what other researchers had discovered about them. For the first we found brain areas analyzing the meaning of actions and involved in something called Theory of Mind (the ability to comprehend others intentions and emotions) Fig.1.

For the second, we found one area involved in reacting to positive emotions (God's love, in blue in Fig. 2) or anger (God's anger, green in Fig.2).

For the third, we found areas involved either in imagination of scenes of ourselves in action (for example we showed impressive activation of visual areas, upper row in Fig.3) or abstract concepts (lower purple row in Fig.3).

fig 3 lucrat mic.jpgThen, we showed that to decide on whether you agree or disagree with the idea in question, you rely not only on these cognitive processes, but also (heavily) on emotions. In other words, to agree or disagree, you use areas of the brain concerned with emotional and autonomic nervous system responses."

How many percent of the brain was activated during these experiments?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis: "This is hard to quantify, but we saw activation of extensive distributed networks throughout the brain. What matters is that we saw activation of networks known to perform specific functions that make sense for this new role."

What are the next steps of your research?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis: "In this study, we studied the religiosity (or lack of) of members of Western culture and society. It remains to be seen if members of Asian, tribal or other societies and cultures use similar brain areas and cognitive processes."

What do you think religious belief is from the perspective of your current research?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis: "There are really two kinds of religious beliefs and two sets of brain areas processing them. One kind of beliefs is stemming from experience. Imagination is used to create situations and scenes where this belief is enacted. For example, you can remember or imagine a situation when religion helps you answer a moral issue, for example "Is euthanasia right". The second kind of religious beliefs are non-imaginable abstract concepts, such as "God is ever-present". Many beliefs are probably mixed, having some abstract doctrinal and some experiential content.
The distinction of dogma and practical religion is found in most religions, but the distinction had been neglected by neuroscience who regarded religious beliefs as one thing.

To decide whether you agree or disagree with a belief, you rely not only on cognitive processes, but also (heavily) on emotions. In other words, to agree or disagree, you use areas of the brain concerned with emotional and autonomic nervous system responses."

Can we have at hand an instrument for measuring the religious belief?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis: "Here we relied at subjects' self-reports as the best indicator of their beliefs. Efforts are made in various domains of cognitive neuroscience to find objective predictors and measures of mental processes (think of MRI as a lie detector). I believe that we are still far from having a reliable technique for that kind of measurements. As far as religious beliefs go, even if we hypothetically measure certain  aspects of it in the brain, we can never be absolutely sure there is nothing more. Religious people will be right in claiming that we will not be able to measure something whose definition makes it non-measurable."

What do you think the relation between science and religion is?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis: "First of all religious beliefs can be studied, if we focus on how our brains process them and not whether they are true or not. Science can create a framework of mutually dependent hypotheses about the world and address testable hypotheses within that framework. Religion does not use that mental framework and makes certain claims that are simply out of the realm of science. On the other hand, if religion would make specific claims about, let's say how the brain works, then science has every right to test this claim."

Article "Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief," by Dimitrios Kapogiannis, Aron Barbey, Michael Su, Giovanna Zamboni, Frank Krueger, and Jordan Grafman was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). For more details click here.

Note:

Dimitrios Kapogiannis, M.D. is a Staff Clinician. His work affiliations are National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Aging (NIA), and Clinical Research Branch (CRB).

Researchers found brain areas analyzing the meaning of actions and involved in the ability to comprehend others intentions and emotions.Researchers found one area involved in reacting to positive emotions (God’s love, in blue) or anger (God’s anger, green).Scientists found areas involved either in imagination of scenes of ourselves in action (for example, impressive activation of visual areas, upper row) or abstract concepts (lower purple row).

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