Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers

By | March 5, 2009

Believing in God can help block anxiety and minimize stress, according to new research that shows distinct brain differences between believers and non-believers.

In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task – a well-known test of cognitive control – while hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain activity.

Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, and the fewer errors they made.

“You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty,” says lead author Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.”

These correlations remained strong even after controlling for personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also found that religious participants made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts.

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?”

via Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers.

Does faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster reduce stress too? 😉 I’ve seen this calming effect in action, but this story brings up a deeper question:

The question of belief (and how it might be achieved) is a crucial point of disagreement between atheists and theists. Atheists contend that believers are overly credulous — that they believe things much more easily and readily than is rationally warranted. Theists, on the other hand, argue that nonbelievers deliberately disregard important evidence and are thus unjustifiably skeptical.  …

According to Terence Penelhum, there are two general schools of thought when it comes to how beliefs originate: voluntarist and involuntarist. The voluntarists take the position that belief is a matter of will: we have control over what we believe much in the way we have control over our actions. Theists often seem to be voluntarists and Christians in particular commonly argue the voluntarist position. … Involuntarists, on the other hand, argue that we cannot really choose to just believe anything. According to them, a belief is not an action and thus cannot be attained by command.

… One can be praised for acquiring beliefs through having gone to the trouble of studying, researching, and making a genuine attempt to gather as much information as possible. On the other hand, one can be blamed for acquiring beliefs through deliberately ignoring evidence, arguments, and ideas which might tend to create doubt about long-held assumptions. –

Could you, tomorrow, honestly believe something you do not believe today? Could you do that just by talking yourself into it?

I think some people can do this and others can not. It comes down to what you have learned to accept as evidence for your beliefs.

Reality is maleable because we each interact with a mental model in our brain which only approximates the real world. The less your map fits the territory, the more happy you may be, but the more at risk for certain hazards.

7 thoughts on “Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers

  1. Liz

    “Could you, tomorrow, honestly believe something you do not believe today? Could you do that just by talking yourself into it?”

    I’ve asked myself that very question many times. I used to be a theist, now I’m not. But could I be if I tried hard enough? Or maybe I still am and don’t realize it, how can I know? It’s so confusing. I’m so good at fooling myself, convincing myself, ect… I would agree that I lean more towards the idea that we can’t just choose our beliefs.
    For me, when I ignore any emotional responses, and just stick to evidence/reason/logic/ it becomes rather obvious that I am not a theist. But many theists say to me.. “Well, there’s your problem. You can’t ignore your emotions. That’s how God reveals himself”. Well shoot, why would he go and do a thing like that.

    I’ll take the anxiety for now. For me personally, as a theist, God was a nice stress reliever yes. But it was only temporary, and sometimes dangerous because I truly believed God had the power (not me) to fix things, so I didn’t work as hard as I should have. Now, I have to deal with issues head on, or the stress won’t go away. It might be harder, but I just take a nice long bath afterwards. 🙂

  2. Xeno Post author

    Do believers get ripped off more? Try this Atheist meets God cartoon. This explains the origin of Eden:

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is written in Akkadian or Babylonian but scholars have determined that certain parts of it existed in Sumerian as a number of short stories about Enkidu and Gilgamesh that were later patched together and expanded into a great epic. The steppe Enkidu grows up in Sumerian is called eden/edin, in Akkadian (Babylonian) it was called seru.

    The Sumerian word for uncultivated steppeland is eden/edin. The Epic of Gilgamesh although written in Akkadian which renders “steppe” as seru or seri, states unequivocally that Shamhat saw Enkidu at the watering hole as a wild man of “eden/edin” (the “steppe”). How is it that the watering hole is described as being in _the eden/edin_ instead of being in _the seru_? Akkadian scribes were trained in both Sumerian and Akkadian, they frequently used a Sumerian LOGOGRAM (a single sign) as “substitute” for an Akkadian word which had several cuneiform signs or letters as a type of “shorthand.” That is to say _one_ Sumerian logogram could replace _several_ cuneiform signs making up a word. Hence Enkidu “the wild man of the steppe” was written using the Sumerian logogram eden/edin and the scribe knew upon seeing this logogram that it was synonymous with the Akkadian word seru or seri, meaning “steppe.” – bibleorigins

    The story of Moses and the tablets:

    One of my favorite Sumerian stories is the original version of the biblical story of Moses and the ten commandments. In the Sumerian version Enlil, the god of the great mountain Kurgal, gives the ME to Enki on the mountain top. The ME are more than 100 instructions for the people to follow in order to bring order out of chaos. Enki brings the tablets down from the mountain to his city of Uridu where the instructions are used to bring civilized order to the Sumerians.

    The story of a great flood originally comes from the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh. The biblical version copies some of the language almost word for word. Apparently the Judeans in Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE borrowed the older tales when they were creating the stories in Genesis in order to make their own history from the stories of other cultures.

    If the original Sumerian versions of the stories hadn’t been discovered then people may have actually come to believe the biblical versions may have been true. –

    There is a balance point somewhere, between trust and fact checking. Overdoing either one can be problematic. Have faith, we are told. Based on what? The older Sumerian stories? Faith is useful, but add discernment too. Otherwise, you might buy a home for way more than it is worth and destroy your credit with a foreclosure.

  3. Silkyray

    Think of it this way. Having faith is having the ability to place trust into uncertainty. We can not possibly know all the variables to everything so we must have faith that when we deal with these unknown variables we will be able to survive them(how ever that may be, emotional, physical, etc). Of course we don’t know what we are all capable of so we use faith to make new achievement. I dare you to find me one person without faith in something. And if they argue they have no faith then they still have faith in them selves, or they would not be arguing the point(because they have faith in them self that they can convince you what they are saying is right).

  4. barack obama

    Glad I found your blog. I’ve found a few good tips on your site. I’ll be a regular visitor from now!

  5. Xeno

    Thank you Mr. President. Let me know what I can do to help our country out of the mess it is in.

  6. Swine Flu Symptoms

    Great post! I read your other posts as well and I subscribed to your RSS Feed!


Leave a Reply