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fMRI Watches Religious Thoughts In The Brain

January 27, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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What does religious belief look like in the brain? A group of researchers appears to be homing in on the answer to that question, using functional MRI brain scans.

In an open-source article published online January 15 in Brain Connectivity, they describe differences in how the brains of religious and nonreligious people work when contemplating religious subject matter. There’s a good reason to look at such a theological subject through a biological lens, said Gopikrishna Deshpande, PhD, an author of the study:

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. This has led scientists to speculate that there must be a biological basis for the evolution of religion in human societies.

Dr. Deshpande is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University. He was quoted in an Auburn news release.

The researchers’ results support the theory that religious beliefs arose from the theory of mind (ToM) brain network, which enables people to attribute mental states—including beliefs—to themselves and to understand that others may have different mental states. In the new study, subjects with stronger ToM activity were more religious.

The pathways the brains used to process religious concepts hinted at different ways believers and nonbelievers look at religious topics. For example, the study said the pathways used in the brains of nonreligious subjects suggested “greater difficulty and procedural demands for imagining and processing the intent of SAs [supernatural agents, such as gods].”

Of course, the believers themselves may not agree with the notion that religious faith has anything to do with biology—or, for that matter, evolution.

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