Study: Brain interactions differ between religious and non-religious subjects

by Morgan Stashick
brain
MRI brain scan

(Medical Xpress)—An Auburn University researcher teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to study how brain networks shape an individual's religious belief, finding that brain interactions were different between religious and non-religious subjects.

Gopikrishna Deshpande, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Auburn's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, and the NIH researchers recently published their results in the journal Brain Connectivity.

The group found differences in brain interactions that involved the theory of mind, or ToM, brain network, which underlies the ability to relate between one's personal beliefs, intents and desires with those of others. Individuals with stronger ToM activity were found to be more religious. Deshpande says this supports the hypothesis that development of ToM abilities in humans during evolution may have given rise to religion in .

"Religious belief is a unique human attribute observed across different cultures in the world, even in those cultures which evolved independently, such as Mayans in Central America and aboriginals in Australia," said Deshpande, who is also a researcher at Auburn's Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Center. "This has led scientists to speculate that there must be a biological basis for the evolution of religion in human societies."

Deshpande and the NIH scientists were following up a study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to scan the brains of both self-declared religious and non-religious individuals as they contemplated three psychological dimensions of .

The fMRI – which allows researchers to infer specific brain regions and networks that become active when a person performs a certain mental or physical task – showed that different brain networks were activated by the three psychological dimensions; however, the amount of activation was not different in religious as compared to non-religious subjects.

To address this anomaly, Deshpande and NIH researchers characterized the interactions between the different that were activated during the study.

More information: "Brain Networks Shaping Religious Belief." Kapogiannis D, Deshpande G, Krueger F, Thornburg MP, Grafman JH. Brain Connect. 2014 Jan 15. DOI: 10.1089/brain.2013.0172.

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MrVibrating
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 20, 2014
Interesting, and may be taken as evidence supporting the theory that consciousness is at least partly rooted in our proclivity to assign causal agency - even where it's redundant..
my2cts
3.7 / 5 (7) Jan 20, 2014
"Religious belief is a unique human attribute"
How is the author of this statement so sure? Many forms of behaviour that were once believed to be exclusively human have been observed with animals as well. This one may well prove to be no exception.
my2cts
5 / 5 (5) Jan 20, 2014
"Individuals with stronger ToM activity were found to be more religious"
That does not prove a causal relationship. It may be that ToM activity implies susceptibility to religious beliefs. It may be that fostering religious beliefs enhances ToM activity. If the latter is the case this could be an evolutionary reason why religion exists at all.
Mike_Massen
4 / 5 (4) Jan 20, 2014
It would seem to some that a desire towards a belief in a deity in an adult is non other than the extension of reliance on a parent figure when a child.

Is it possible the attachment of religious people to the notion of a deity is in fact a projection at a newer level of there prior attachment to a parent that provides food & care ?
DougR
5 / 5 (3) Jan 20, 2014
This was a particularly vacuous, pointless article. As pointed out in previous comments, the authors state assumption as fact, and assume causal relationships where none have been proven.

Further, it should come as no surprise that people who have chosen to subscribe to a faith-based religion think differently than other, more rational people, because the primary requirement of faith-based religions is to demand that adherents subscribe to their religious tenants unthinkingly, without question.

Modernmystic
5 / 5 (4) Jan 20, 2014
Further, it should come as no surprise that people who have chosen to subscribe to a faith-based religion think differently than other, more rational people, because the primary requirement of faith-based religions is to demand that adherents subscribe to their religious tenants unthinkingly, without question.


I'd agree that the intensity of the belief is different amongst religious people, however ALL human beings subscribe to tenants unthinkingly, and without question...that's culture.

How many times to atheists question the general core mores and values of their society? If they did how many times do they go against them? As an atheist I can tell you I think it's wrong to steal, murder, rape, and a hundred other things that need not be named. I've never questioned any of those things I mentioned, but even if I did I'm pretty sure I'd be against them all just as much as I am now. Cultural indoctrination is very, very effective and it's a given with ALL human beings.
sanddog42
not rated yet Jan 20, 2014
the authors (sic) state assumption as fact, and assume causal relationships where none have been proven.


I don't see where the author does either of these two things.
DougR
not rated yet Jan 20, 2014
the authors (sic) state assumption as fact, and assume causal relationships where none have been proven.


I don't see where the author does either of these two things.


"Religious belief is a unique human attribute observed across different cultures in the world, ..."

Assumption presented as fact. I'll leave it as an exercise for you to ferret out the unsupported claims of causal behavior.
MandoZink
5 / 5 (5) Jan 20, 2014
"This has led scientists to speculate that there must be a biological basis for the evolution of religion in human societies."

Our evolving awareness and mental capabilities required a mechanism to make sense of what we could not yet fathom. Believing in magical entities did not hinder our early survival. It could even serve up comfort when needed. It was no doubt chosen for survival during our advancement in darker times.

A related quote by Paul Dirac:
"It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions"

We're smart enough now to know better, but people endeavor to pass on this crippling legacy anyhow. Religion is learned behavior. It would be more relevant to scan people before they either do, or do not, learn critical thinking. Then re-scan.
MandoZink
5 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2014
It also made perfect sense for humans all over the world to believe it was flat. It,too, was a fallacy you could live with and survive just fine.

At this point, if we are going to advance, evolution needs to select for the ability to recognize personal cognitive biases.
sanddog42
3 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2014
@DougR Even if you don't believe religion is unique to humans, that was presented as quote by one of the researchers, not the author of the article. Still not seeing any unsupported claims of causal behavior.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 21, 2014
Agree with my2cts et al, correlation isn't causation.

And these may be the same methods that were ridiculed by showing how fMRIs can be used to study "perception" in dead fishes. And if not, who knows if it is statistically sound? [Paywalled.]

Anyway, a study of the abstract shows that it wasn't ToM in general that was affected, but specifically fear driven and linguistic [doctrine] agent detection: "Perception of SAs [supernatural agents] engaged pathways involved in fear regulation and affective ToM. " "Beliefs based on doctrine engaged a pathway from Broca's to Wernicke's language areas."

That seems feasible, because if it is something that differ between religious and non-religious it is the statistics of intelligence. Non-religious tend to be more intelligent IIRC, so they would have no difficulty adapting to the needs of detecting real agents.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
1 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2014
@sanddog: Oh, it is obvious that the authors are doing this (as is some of the other press on this).

It is in the abstract, say here: "This pathway was more active in non-religious compared to religious subjects, suggesting greater difficulty and procedural demands for imagining and processing the intent of SAs." That doesn't suggest difficulty at all, it could be that it isn't necessary (because non-SAs in general aren't modeled in a way that activate those pathways, eg without fear).
DougR
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2014
@sanddog42: It's not whether or not I believe that religion is unique to humans, it is that the author states that it is. I'm sure he's a Real Smart Person, but he can't know that.
MandoZink
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2014
@ DougR

Are you saying that it could be a non-human attribute also, or that it simply does not apply to all humans? (per the article statement).

This reminded me of a story I recently read where a missionary was de-converted by a tribe which had no history of religious belief whatsoever, and were unable to even conceive of that in their reality. Here is one reference to that story I just found:
http://www.seacoa...04120305

There is more on this story if you search for it, even a video somewhere. I found it a very interesting example of growing up perfectly fine without any illusions. These people were simply unable to buy into any tale of the supernatural. It apparently impressed the missionary so much he lost his own acquired belief system.
MandoZink
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2014
-- correction --

The article I posted DID make reference to the tribe's belief in a few spirits. That was not in the original story I read last year.
DougR
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2014
@MandoZink: I don't think I can state it any more clearly. The author is claiming knowledge he cannot possibly have. Nobody knows what, just for one example, apes think. They share most of our DNA. Anybody who claims to know that humans are the only living entities on this planet who think about religion are arrogant, ignorant, narcissists.
Modernmystic
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2014
@MandoZink: I don't think I can state it any more clearly. The author is claiming knowledge he cannot possibly have. Nobody knows what, just for one example, apes think. They share most of our DNA. Anybody who claims to know that humans are the only living entities on this planet who think about religion are arrogant, ignorant, narcissists.


Is it in evidence that animals DO think about religion? If there is I'd be honestly intrigued and interested to see it. If it isn't, and since I've personally never seen anything like religious inclinations in any animal I've ever observed I'll assume when I hear hoof beats that I hear horses and not unicorns.

Until it is proven that animals do have religion then it's LOGICAL to think that humans are the only living entities on the planet who have it. It isn't arrogant, ignorant, or narcissistic any more than thinking humans are the sole animals on the planet that consciously use fire as a tool.
MrVibrating
5 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2014
I read about a split-brain patient some years ago; complete severance of the corpus callosum as radical treatement for uncontrollable seizures.

Upon recovery the subject was given a battery of tests, one of which included headphones, sending signals to one ear only... hence one hemisphere was asked to take a sip from a glass of water, and subsequently, the other half was asked why she took this action, replying "that she was thirsty"...

What this demonstrates is that we impulsively apply ToM - even in respect of our own actions. We project conscious agency back out onto the world, and it's a deep-rooted instinct due to the inherent risk that some misfortune may be the result of something or some one's mal-intent.
MrVibrating
5 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2014
@ModernMystic - when a diligant dog barks at a rustling in the bushes, is his risk assesment of a potential mal-intent 'religious' in the event that it's just the wind..? He envisions something malevolent and threatening, due to the intrinsic risk that it might actually be so, and there's more to lose through negligence of such risks, than from retaliating towards a false positive.

In exactly the same sense, a child's fear of monsters in the closet is an identical, instinctive response. This is the root of superstition - it's an inevitable consequence of a finely-honed cause-detection system, prioritising conscious agency over that of the inanimate.
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (3) Jan 22, 2014
MrV,

I think your idea applies to some religions based on fear (most western religions and Islam), but a lot of eastern religions are more of an attempt to describe the world and are philosophical. While there are a lot of "airy concepts" in them like re-incarnation etc. that are not rational neither are there any concepts meant to "scare" someone into believing.

So, I don't think what you're saying applies to all religions. Moreover I think it's a leap to say the dog barking at something in the bushes is religious. Religion, despite its irrationality, requires some fairly complex concepts and abstractions so I think you're making a leap there.
MrVibrating
5 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2014
Obviously you're not gonna fit the full pageantry of the world's religions into one easy pigeonhole, but the consistency here is the application of ToM to inanimate causes - projecting conscious agency to providence, whether that takes the form of animist beliefs re. ancestors or spirits of trees or rocks, or just the notion of the ever watchful eye of karma keeping tabs on what's fair and square. We ascribe this power of causal agency to events around us in much the same way as a child or dog jumping at shadows, hence it makes sense that those of us more socially attuned would have a greater propensity towards over-extending those skills, perhaps, slightly..

ETA; case in point, nerds tend to be atheist, and also, stereotypically at least, socially awkward.. Whereas many religious folk have good interpersonal skills, perhaps at the expense of analytical ones... maybe an inevitable trade-off?
MandoZink
not rated yet Jan 22, 2014
MrV,

I thought you were being satirical until your epilogue. Your entire comment was a truly fine blend of belief system and confirmation bias. You have anthropomorphically projected ToM onto other species and imagined them with animist worldviews. Wow! That alone is quite a fanciful abstraction. From that you could deduce that animals also must have an endless array of fairy tales running through their "minds" giving further credence to their spiritual notions. If only they could write them down someday. It would add immensely to our bounty of mythological narratives.

I should add that I sometimes catch my cats praying for tuna and catnip. I am so sad to tell them that if Jesus wanted them to have tuna, He would have given them can-openers AND claws. I'm not an ass about it and I remind them that it is NOT a sin to want tuna or catnip. The dead philodendron, however, was a transgression, but you, MrV, already know they can intuitively perceive this in shadow of the almighty.
MandoZink
4 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2014
I should add that your experiences with atheists are sorely lacking. This is an explainable phenomenon you very likely deal with daily, while totally unaware that you do. Aside from the few nerds, most atheists won't bother revealing it to those they perceive as prone to stereotypical preconceptions.

My atheist friends are universally warm, outgoing, socially active, altruistic, intelligent, thoughtful, responsible, and wonderful conversationalists, They accept that even though people are hindered by the misconceptions they acquire, they are still good people. They just may not let you in on their unobstructed worldview.
Vyhea
not rated yet Jan 22, 2014
DougR / MrVibrating

Don't be disparaged by the atheist heathens. We can take solace that the experience of animals is as rich as their smaller imaginative brains will allow.

when a diligant dog barks at a rustling in the bushes, is his risk assesment of a potential mal-intent 'religious' in the event that it's just the wind..?


Well said. The dog knows not, yet the possibilities are there. Spinning deep in his ToM haze, his spiritual sense enhances that due diligence. Could be troll-possessed squirrels hiding there, could be aliens mutilating cattle, or maybe just something as simple as Jesus lost and wandering in the bushes.

We may never know exactly, but as God is my copilot, we DO know that animals have more respect for the imagination Jesus gave us than those hell-bound atheists ever will.

ETA: When my dog sees lights in the sky, he barks. He knows when somethings not right. And he won't be left behind.

MrVibrating
not rated yet Jan 23, 2014
MrVibrating
not rated yet Jan 23, 2014
You have anthropomorphically projected ToM onto other species and imagined them with animist worldviews.

Well no; i've merely stated the obvious - that recognition of other minds, having their own worldviews, motivaions and intents is a prerequisite for responding appropriately to their potential mal-intent.

In short, if other minds have intentions towards you, then you probably want to know about it. Religion - insofar as projecting causal agency to provenance - is a direct development of this far more primal instinct.

Human religion is quantitavely different, not qualitatively so, from non-human superstition.

Fact is, even pigeons display a tendency towards superstitious beliefs.. (look it up)
MandoZink
5 / 5 (1) Jan 24, 2014
Survival instincts, such as awareness, caution and insight, are combined adaptive and learned traits that enhance situational cognition and get passed on. Believing these characteristics are derived from a innate spiritual religious mindset is a leap of blind faith, which, to no surprise, mirrors the type of confirmation bias that accompanies a spiritual religious mindset.

This is the same type of systemic belief that religious people hold when they think that all love and/or goodness must come from a supreme being, who just so happens is the very god they believe in.

... recognition of other minds, having their own worldviews, motivaions and intents...


That recognition allows some of us to realize how beliefs are inherited and end up being assimilated into our worldview. Everything you see gets filtered thru a single-minded set of blinders. It's a mental yoke uniquely created by human-contrived religion. You can really appreciate the larger universe you get as an atheist.
MrVibrating
not rated yet Jan 25, 2014
You're getting the fundamentally wrong end of the stick - i'm not religious (not that i'm aware of, anyway), and i'm not suggesting other animals are either.

On the contrary, i'm pointing out that the wellspring of what becomes religion is not, in itself, spiritual or in any way dualistic; it's simply an over-active faculty of ToM, projecting it upon the inanimate and circumstantial.

And beyond this, i'm suggesting that a key selection pressure for such a faculty as ToM is the imperative to be able to identify causes of things crucial to survival - not least for predators and prey, but all the more so for reproductive success and social bonding.

If we're hard-wired to imagine other minds, and survival depends upon doing so, it's unsurprising if it gets over-extended sometimes...

TBH i'm skeptical that a dedicated ToM faculty is even necessary - the same results can be logically derived without a specialised 'module' or whatever...
jhanny_appleweed
not rated yet Jan 25, 2014
To all of you commenting that this article assumes a causal relationship where none has been proved, please be aware that no causal relationship for anything has ever been proved...by anyone...ever. It is, in principle impossible to prove causation, hence the phrase "correlation does not equal causation." And hence the logical fallacy "cum hoc, ergo propter hoc."

A more effective complaint is to cite WHERE the false cause was attributed, and to propose alternative possible causes to undermine the given conclusion.
MrVibrating
not rated yet Jan 26, 2014
@jhanny - there's ONLY evidence of causation. It's oxymoronic to suppose there could ever be evidence of acausal determinants - causation is the single most certain and irrefutable dynamic there is.

Your platitudes to correlation and causation seem misconceived and misplaced - the article doesn't mention causality, and i mentioned it only as a de-facto raison d'etre of processing per se.

The research however focused on a CAUSALITY-based fMRI study of the CAUSAL flow of processing activity between self-identified religious and non -religious subjects, finding the former have overactive pathways consistent with discerning the intents of supernatural agents, compared to the latter group.

Some waypoints for you:

Causal agency = the perception and projection of free will; the belief that we (and thus others) constitute, effectively, first causes.

ToM = understanding that other minds have different information to yours.

Ascribing agency where there is none = a false positive.
russell_russell
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2014
An early child subject control group before any type of belief or non belief system is ascertainable by accepted methods is missing.
DougR
5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2014
@Vyhea:

I long ago gave up on any hope of having rational conversations with those who are steeped in religious mysticism. The act of of accepting "on faith" the precepts they have been taught by their religious recruiters changes their abilities to think rationally. "Faith", in the religious context requires that the adherent willfully agree to unquestioningly accept the tenants he is being taught as "the one true way".

The key to successfully navigating conversations with people who have taken an irrational, unsupported view such as the author has take in the original article, i.e.

"Religious belief is a unique human attribute observed across different cultures in the world, ..."

is to disengage, and turn to more rewarding, rational discussions.

A person who has willingly agreed to unthinkingly, unquestioningly accept someone else's doctrine, religious or otherwise, simply cannot be trusted to be intellectually honest.