Religion & cognitive neuroscience

Neuroanatomical Variability of Religiosity:

We hypothesized that religiosity, a set of traits variably expressed in the population, is modulated by neuroanatomical variability. We tested this idea by determining whether aspects of religiosity were predicted by variability in regional cortical volume. We performed structural magnetic resonance imaging of the brain in 40 healthy adult participants who reported different degrees and patterns of religiosity on a survey. We identified four Principal Components of religiosity by Factor Analysis of the survey items and associated them with regional cortical volumes measured by voxel-based morphometry. Experiencing an intimate relationship with God and engaging in religious behavior was associated with increased volume of R middle temporal cortex, BA 21. Experiencing fear of God was associated with decreased volume of L precuneus and L orbitofrontal cortex BA 11. A cluster of traits related with pragmatism and doubting God's existence was associated with increased volume of the R precuneus. Variability in religiosity of upbringing was not associated with variability in cortical volume of any region. Therefore, key aspects of religiosity are associated with cortical volume differences. This conclusion complements our prior functional neuroimaging findings in elucidating the proximate causes of religion in the brain.

Obviously these sorts of studies need to be viewed skeptically, the intersection of religion & fMRI seems very biased toward a high level of "sexiness." Nevertheless, there are dozens of books on the psychology of religion, and, we know that religiosity is moderately heritable, so at some point the cognitive neuroscientists need to get in on the game of normal human variation in religious orientation (as opposed to studies of mystical brain states which seem focused on outliers). Here's the conclusion, which takes some sides in long festering arguments about the evolutionary origins of religion:

This study is correlational; therefore, it does not imply causality. Moreover, it was performed in adults. Subjects may have been predisposed to follow specific patterns of religious behavior by their individual brain development or their religious behavior may have contributed to volume changes of certain brain areas. Regardless, the fact that there is no brain area correlating with religiosity of upbringing (PC2) argues against religious nurture independently accounting for regional brain variability. Therefore, religiosity in adult life may reflect innate "susceptibilities", perhaps genetic or early developmental, which are non-modifiable during upbringing, or any initial effect of religious upbringing may be dissipated by experiences in later life.

The brain areas identified in this and the parallel fMRI studies are not unique to processing religion, but play major roles in social cognition. This implies that religious beliefs and behavior emerged not as sui generis evolutionary adaptations, but as an extension (some would say "by product") of social cognition and behavior. Furthermore, the current study suggests that evolution of certain areas that advanced understanding and empathy towards our fellow human beings (such as BA 7, 11 and 21) may, at the same time, have allowed for a relationship with a perceived supernatural agent (God) based on intimacy rather than fear. The idea that how you relate to "thy God" parallels how you behave to "thy neighbor" is a long-cherished claim of many religions (and is backed by some empirical evidence...In this study, we see that this link is elaborated in the cognitive and neural foundations of religion.

Citation: Kapogiannis D, Barbey AK, Su M, Krueger F, Grafman J, 2009 Neuroanatomical Variability of Religiosity. PLoS ONE 4(9): e7180. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007180


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Notables from the last 24: Over at Gene Expression, Razib casts a skeptical eye on a study of the neuroanatomical variability of religiosity. The brain areas identified in this and the parallel fMRI studies are not unique to processing religion [the study states], but play major roles in social…
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The first 2008 issue of New England Journal of Medicine came yesterday in the snailmail box and I read the following story with such great interest that I nearly walked into a tree. Bear with me but the news lately has taken me on a neuroscience streak without my having specific professional…

Papers like this attempt to make religion a medical condition. They are also highly provincial. It is true that Western Europeans have abandoned Christianity, but many of them have returned to their pagan roots (Gaia worship, etc). The US is also early in the process of de-Christianizing and reverting to paganism of the European kind.

However, elsewhere in the world, especially southern Africa and East Asia, Christianity is expanding very rapidly, much more rapidly than Islam (which seems to have reached its natural geographic limits, the invasion of Europe not-withstanding). If China ever gives up on suppressing religion, there will be an explosion of Christians across its territory. Maybe a good thing, maybe not. Depends.

This suggests that whatever brain structures are "responsible" for religion are in fact the species norm. Perhaps scientists should investigate what structural anomalies in European brains lead to loss of religious affilialtion.

By Bob Sykes (not verified) on 29 Sep 2009 #permalink

This study and others to come will shed more light on the neural correlates of religiosity and its evolutionary history, but may be much less helpful in shedding light on the choices of individuals and groups that operate IN THE NAME of religion or other ideologies. The underlying inherited predispositions are acting through so many layers of second and third and fourth order phenomenae that the same inherited predisposition could equally easily lead to someone fighting FOR religion and someone else fighting AGAINST all religions, to give just one obvious example. And then, we have all the fakers, who are faking religiosity or irreligiosity because it brings them more of what they want...
Btw, do the researchers say anything about what happens when the region associated with empathy and "god's love" AND the region associated with pragmatism are BOTH larger? In other words, are combinations of these regions seen and what would those people tend to look like? Would they be (like some people I know) intimately involved with "god" and universal love AND frankly atheistic and dismissive of organized religion? Are the "fear of God" crowd more orthodox in practice? What about young people who are deeply into heavy metal and satan one year and equally deeply into enjoying videos of infidels having their head cut off as they plan their next bombing a year later?
We are not even close, but someday, we may say about this kind of work:
"the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved⦠The value of this work secondly consists in the fact that it shows how little has been done when these problems have been solved" (I dont have to tell Razib, but this is, of course, Wittgenstein).

just so everyone knows, Bob Sykes thinks michael behe is awesome. just so you can evaluate his comments ;-) (i didn't let that comment through)

I'm new to this type of research, but could it be that these brain regions are important in creating a mental map of overall social awareness or adaptation. For example, if we replace religiosity with say philosophy or even political sensitivity, I wonder if we would get similar results. The idea I'm presenting is that these brain regions may contribute to the general idea of how an individual considers large group relationships or other socially relevant constructs.

While "return to their pagan roots" seems unnecessarily pejorative and probably false as well I do wonder if some of the ways humans view pseudoscience are tied to some of the same cognition that leads people to believe in faith healers and the like. That is I suspect that if we were to look at a lot of the behaviors of people espousing no religion I'd be very surprised if there weren't many irrational or arational behaviors which were emergent out of the same cognitive processes that lead to a lot of religions and religious behavior.

same cognitive processes that lead to a lot of religions and religious behavior.

right. the only thing i would add is that it has more to do with *intuitions* than behavior.

I'm not sure I'd make that distinction although I can see what you are getting at. After all the popular places to point to are things like agency detection. But to give an other example, why do humans seem to create ritual? We make a somewhat artificial distinction between religious and non-religious ritual. But is the way an army raises or lowers the flag any less ritual than what happens in many religions? And why on earth do we care about such things so much? Even children, playing on their own, seem to create rituals. So I think a case could be made for something going on in the brain which produces religious behavior but which almost certainly produces a lot of other social behaviors as well.

clark, good point. but there's a difference between doxy and praxy. i think the problem here is that "religion" is actually highly modularized, so that any modern religious organization promulgates a set of beliefs and practices which are constructed from a host of lower level cognitive dispositions, intuitions and habits.

when it comes to pseudoscience and what not (e.g., astrology), i think the intuitions are key. when it comes to political religion, i think other aspects come to the fore, especially the importance of a perceived ethical/moral purpose in life in conjunction to community. as for ritual and the need for regularity and boundaries, the manifestation of this in everyone's life is so ubiquitous that it doesn't even need to be elaborated upon.

I definitely think religiosity is related to the brain. It was probably adaptive evolutionary wise to have those feelings. I'm an atheist, but I have taken drugs which have made me feel more spiritual temporarily. I did a blog post about pharmaceuticals for increasing spiritual feelings (see name). I think a selective and potent post-synaptic 5-ht1a agonist might be able to increase religious feelings. Serotonin drugs by themselves activate too many other receptors and tend to decrease dopamine, which may have a negative effect on spirituality. The 5-ht1a receptor has been correlated with religiosity and also mood.