Neuroscience and Religion: A Possible Link

When people ask me if I’m religious, I tend to answer, “More religious than the average Colby student”. This is because I have a tough time defining just how religious I am without the use of relativity. I went to a Catholic elementary school, junior high, and high school. This means that other than wearing a uniform from kindergarten to 12th grade, I attended mass, went to confession and learned about religion in school for 16 years. Because Colby is a very liberal college, the average student is not very religious, or at least outwardly so. However, in high school I knew many students who were a part of the Campus Ministry program or attended weekly mass with their families in addition to the services we were required to go to at school. Therefore, I define how religious I am based on my perceived surroundings.

Religion is often seen as in direct opposition to science. However, I was always taught that science and religion go hand-in-hand. For example, in the evolution versus creationism debate, I was taught that evolution occurred, and is scientifically proven so, and that this process was guided by the hand of God as a part of his plan, painting science and religion as collaborators, not competitors. After a student in class presented on the potential benefits of religiosity to mental health, I decided to look into the possibility of a relationship between neuroscience and religion.

In a study conducted with devout Mormons as its participants, Ferguson and colleagues (2016) used fMRI scans to find a neural origin for religious or spiritual euphoria. While in the scanner, 19 participants were asked to activate their religious experiences using prayer, scripture reading and quotes from Latter-day Saints authorities. During this process participants were repeatedly asked if they were “feeling the spirit” in order to correlate high spiritual feelings with physiological responses recorded. Additionally, participants could press a button anytime he or she felt overcome with the spirit when not explicitly asked. Results indicated a correlation between brain regions associated with the reward pathway and brain regions activated during this spiritual experience. Specifically, the nucleus accumbens was significantly activated before peak spiritual feelings, suggesting a connection between this brain region and religious experience (Ferguson et al., 2016).

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This figure shows the brain regions typically associated with feelings of reward or pleasure (A) juxtaposed with regions activated by viewing quotations (B,D) and reading scripture (C). Left and right nucleus accumbens activity before and after moments of strong spiritual feeling is also shown (E).

This figure shows the brain regions typically associated with feelings of reward or pleasure (A) juxtaposed with regions activated by viewing quotations (B,D) and reading scripture (C). Left and right nucleus accumbens activity before and after moments of strong spiritual feeling is also shown (E).

ERNAnother set of researchers point to religion’s role in “motivated meaning-making” as a potential source of the mental health benefits of religiosity (Inzlicht, Tullett, & Good, 2011). In this review, they highlight a different brain area as the “religious center”—the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This region is involved in higher-level cognitive function, including the distinct role of error detection and conflict monitoring. The present review looked specifically at error-related negativity (ERN). An ERN is a negative spike in brain activity as measured by electroencephalography (EEG) that occurs when an error is made. Low ERN suggests less negative, anxious feelings when an error occurs. The researchers assert that their data provides evidence that religious conviction predicts lower error-related ACC activity thus suggesting an anxiolytic effect of religion on those who subscribe to it.

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religionThese studies certainly have their flaws with a small sample size (Ferguson et al., 2016) and no direct evidence of causality (Inzlicht et al., 2011); however, it is still interesting in that it they are able to find correlations between religious experience and the brain. Religion is a significant part of a large portion of the world’s population, with 84 percent reporting a religious affiliation of some sort. This makes studies such as Ferguson et al.’s and Inzlicht et al.’s relevant and important to a vast majority of people.

 

References:

Ferguson, M. A., Nielsen, J. A., King, J. B., Dai, L., Giangrasso, D. M., Holman, R., … & Anderson, J. S. (2016). Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons. Social Neuroscience, 1-13.

Inzlicht, M., Tullett, A. M., & Good, M. (2011). The need to believe: A neuroscience account of religion as a motivated process. Religion, brain & behavior, 1(3), 192-212.

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