Scientists 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
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).
In 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)
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).
Then, 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
How many percent of the brain was activated during these
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
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
Can we have at hand an instrument for measuring the religious
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
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
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).