Gene Expression

God makes you chill

Neural Markers of Religious Conviction:

Many people derive peace of mind and purpose in life from their belief in God. For others, however, religion provides unsatisfying answers. Are there brain differences between believers and nonbelievers? Here we show that religious conviction is marked by reduced reactivity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a cortical system that is involved in the experience of anxiety and is important for self-regulation. In two studies, we recorded electroencephalographic neural reactivity in the ACC as participants completed a Stroop task. Results showed that stronger religious zeal and greater belief in God were associated with less firing of the ACC in response to error and with commission of fewer errors. These correlations remained strong even after we controlled for personality and cognitive ability. These results suggest that religious conviction provides a framework for understanding and acting within one’s environment, thereby acting as a buffer against anxiety and minimizing the experience of error.

ScienceDaily has more:

Their findings show religious belief has a calming effect on its devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making errors or facing the unknown. But Inzlicht cautions that anxiety is a “double-edged sword” which is at times necessary and helpful.

“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” he says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?”

These data confirm other results which seem to suggest that theists are more well adjusted and less neurotic than atheists. I would also caution that perhaps there are causal chains here which are confounding our inferences as to the sequence of cause and effect. Atheism is just a weird cognitive phenotype, especially in very religious societies.

Also, I think the caution expressed by one of the authors of the paper is well taken. Calm confidence can yield great results, but you probably want civil engineers to be a little paranoid and anxious so that they double check their results.


  1. #1 Sam C
    March 5, 2009

    … theists are more well adjusted …

    Rather depends what you mean by “well adjusted” (apologies if it has a precise technical meaning which I am unaware of). Living with an irrational world view doesn’t seem well adjusted to me, even if it makes one less anxious because one knows the answers a priori rather than having to worry about working them out.

    As you say though (but I think you lost a few words, your sentence seems a little garbled to me), I’d be happier with a civil engineer who said that a bridge was safe because it had been calculated against current codes of practise with an additional factor of safety rather than one who said that he was doing God’s will and had prayed long and hard so there was no way God would allow the bridge to fall down.

  2. #2 razib
    March 5, 2009

    Rather depends what you mean by “well adjusted” (apologies if it has a precise technical meaning which I am unaware of)

    “prosocial tendencies.” along with happiness & self-perceptions of well being. i prefer nonfiction to fiction myself, but that doesn’t mean that i enjoy reading more than someone who prefers fiction.

  3. #3 susan
    March 5, 2009

    Wow, religion really is like a drug. I guess that’s why so many people who quit addictions tend to substitute it with God. I know a few people who have gone through AA and NA and have benefited from these organizations, but they already had some sort of religious belief to begin with. I’m glad I don’t have any kind of addiction problem, as an atheist I would have trouble seeking solace in a higher power.

  4. #4 Dan S.
    March 5, 2009

    The first thing that popped into my head was that paper by Amodio et al where conservatives had lower ACC activity than liberals doing a Go/No-Go task. But in that case, the conservatives made more mistakes . . . (Did they do anything for political affiliation?)

    “prosocial tendencies.”
    Sometimes I wonder if this has more to do with the social environment, but I’m not familiar with the research and honestly . . .

    And causation here seems a bit tricky?

  5. #5 Cannonball Jones
    March 6, 2009

    So believing utterly insane lies makes you less anxious? Hmm, I’ll stick with being a tad more nervous but having a firm grip on reality thanks very much. If I need to chill out that much I’ll have some Talisker instead. Much less harmful.

  6. #6 Tom Rees
    March 6, 2009

    There was a paper out earlier this year showing that low error response negativity (interpreted in this study as low error-related anxiety) is linked to increased risk taking and decreased empathy in young male adolescents (my blog shameless plug). This and other evidence suggests that anxiety does indeed serve a useful purpose – and so anxiolytics are not necessarily a good thing.

    BTW, they found no relationship between conservatism and ERN, and hence no confound. Neurocritic has more on this.

  7. #7 Kevin Winters
    March 6, 2009

    Well, the findings of that study definitely are showing its face in the responses: SamC gives the rather ludicrous assumption that a theist engineer would pray to God about the bridge’s saftey rather than test it thoroughly, Susan touting the Marxian ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, and Cannonball Jones speaking of “utterly insane lies”. What an unhappy bunch!

    Though not a theist myself and feeling that agnosticism is a more rational inference than hardcore atheism, I think these responses are rather irrational. Yes, less anxiety may be detrimental, but whether it is the case here has not been demonstrated, so speculating about it does nothing for us (except for mire us in unfounded assumptions). As for addiction, is there any evidence that atheism cannot be addictive? I mean, turning a light on and off can be addictive (this repetative action is needed for some people to function, one important aspect of addiction), so why can’t atheism (or the apparently intense need to demonstrate the absolute supremacy of atheism)? I think this and this, by noted atheist Scott Atran, would be useful in this discussion (or at least for the comments, though not directly related to the primary thread topic).

    Just to finish: I’m not saying you can’t be atheists, but at least be careful before you start throwing out possible (but currently unproven) secondary results of a given study.

  8. #8 Mohammed Husain
    March 6, 2009

    Many of the comments strike me as a being a bit defensive. They also tend to create a false dichotomy. I don’t know that religious people do their homework any less than non-religious people, such that a religious civil engineer will do a poorer job and then proceed to rely on divine will. This is just not accurate. If anything, the religious person would contend that their belief in ultimate accountability gives them more of an incentive to do honest civil engineering work and meet the standards required of them- even when people aren’t looking.

  9. #9 DDeden
    March 7, 2009

    “These results suggest that religious conviction provides a framework for understanding and acting within one’s environment, thereby acting as a buffer against anxiety and minimizing the experience of error.”

    That’s what it evolved to do, same thing in sardines. Religionism/tribalism/nationalism etc. are superorganism software templates originating in cyclical environmentally induced group migrational patterns, which have been modified for (post-agric./trade/tech.) sedentary communities.

    “Calm” may also be a stress reaction, as being still may allow body camouflage and posture to be more effective than fight or flight, and with less energy expenditure.

  10. #10 Mohammed Husain
    March 8, 2009

    “That’s what it [religion] evolved to do, same thing in sardines.”

    Is that supposed to be a verifiable claim? If not, it won’t really go far in convincing someone who takes a non-reductionist approach to religion that in fact religion is really nothing but just another adaptive mechanism. It’s too simplistic.