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?”
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. – about.com
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.