More Differences In The Brains Of Believers And Non-Believers

religious automatons

Apparently, believing in god can help block anxiety and minimize stress. At least that's the by-line of this study done at the University of Toronto. But this is actually much more interesting than that. Here, this is the study synopsis I found at ScienceDaily:
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?"

So, atheists are more aware when they make a mistake. And we have more active brains. This is the second study (here's the first) I've found that shows that believers are not using their whole brains. Ok, that was inflammatory, I know, but it's true. :P


  1. Conservatives, who tend to be religious, dislike ambiguity. Religion gives people dogma and rigidity so they can always be sure of The Answers. It doesn't matter if those answers are wrong, for the believer will make them so in his mind and argue them to the death. It gives him great comfort to be "right" and posses The Truth.

    Religion truly does shut down thinking and brain activity because it provides all the answers instead of encouraging people to seek them. People are lulled into a false sense of security and don't even notice reality passing them by.

  2. Well said, Buffy. That makes sense. But if it's in the brain, does how your brain works then lead you to be a conservative bible thumper? or does the brain change based on your behavior?
    What is so frustrating is that religion provides the WRONG answers, and conflicting answers, not good healthy ones. Which makes us all suffer.

  3. There's a number of factors in play here. The brain is reactive. Your upbringing is a determining factor of how you grow, and if you aren't taught critical thinking skills any woo that comes through is enough to sway you. Add to that cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization and you have a recipe that, depending on where your head is at can cook up disastrous results.

    I think the guys over at the Non-profits have it right when they say that using reason to get to the answers is much better than feeling good because you think you already have them.

  4. I agree, Steve. I was just lamenting how kids are not taught how to reason and use logic and critical thinking either in school or at home. I wasn't taught it when I was in school and I know they don't teach it now. It sure would solve a lot of problems!

  5. Well, you can bet that my son will be learning that stuff as soon as he's ready for it.

    Question everything.