Faithful and nonbelievers think alike, study says

first_imgPeople may have wildly differing beliefs, but when it comes to how the brain processes faith — or lack thereof — it’s all the same.A USC-UCLA study tested brain activity in relation to religious beliefs. The study found that whether a person is religious or nonreligious, he or she use the same parts of the brain to determine what they believe.The study, led by author Sam Harris, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation at the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and USC Research Assistant Professor Jonas Kaplan of the Brain and Creativity Institute, took 15 Christians and 15 people who had no religious convictions and presented a series of statements for them to affirm or deny. The questions varied from commonly understood truths to religious affirmations — for example, “Eagles are real,” versus “Angels are real.”Using a functional MRI, the researchers mapped changes in brain activity, and found that while the answers were different, the same parts of the brain were used to determine belief — whether the statement was religious or not.“It’s interesting because these people were diametrically opposed in their beliefs, but we’re seeing something very similar going on in their brains,” Kaplan said.The results, Kaplan said, proved that belief or nonbelief is controlled by the same parts of the brain, whether or not those beliefs are grounded in religion and whether or not the believer has a background in religion.“Believing in these different statements is similar as far as the brain is concerned,” Kaplan said. “The results make sense — when people believe things, they believe them, religious or not.”Religious believers and nonbelievers alike agreed the results of the study made sense, though they had different reasons thinking as such.Rabbi Dov Wagner of the Chabad Jewish student center said he was not surprised by the results, because rational belief and study is a central tenet of the Jewish faith.“There is subjective belief, blind faith, but there is also a strong emphasis on logic and philosophy, a rationally engaged faith, which isn’t just intangible, but actually attempts to study, understand and comprehend ideas that relate to faith,” Wagner said. “It’s informed belief, that’s based not just on blind acceptance, but an approach to knowledge that is not that different from the way you approach any part of life.”Those on the other side of the religion debate likewise agreed the study’s results were logical.Riley Bell, a sophomore majoring in global health who said she does not subscribe to religious beliefs, said she thought believing in religion was similar to believing in anything else.“[Religion] is like anything else you would think of as true or false, it’s a way of approaching what’s around you,” Bell said. “There’s nothing that makes it any different, it’s just a created mental state.”Kaplan said he sees no reason his study should spark controversy in the religious community. The study’s intent was not to validate either stance, but to clarify how the brain processes religion.“We were totally neutral to the actual answers. We were trying to find out how people process information — what is actually happening. We’re not trying to answer the religious questions themselves,” he said.A.J. Starsiak, a senior majoring in molecular biology who said he has strong Christian beliefs, said he thought science could actually be useful in trying to understand religion.“Science is digging in depth, through thought, in that way it’s philosophy of a sort,” he said. “Anything that makes you think more about your beliefs is beneficial … In that way science is definitely a good approach to Christianity.The subjects of the study were chosen for their strong convictions in either camp, but Kaplan says it would be interesting to explore differences in strengths of believers. The psychology of religion is a growing area, he said.“Religion is something that is important for us to understand. It’s a part of people’s lives, and it makes sense for us to try to understand it,” Kaplan said. “We wanted to see if there was anything special about the way people’s brains process religious belief.”last_img

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