Differences In Brains Between Believers And Atheists?

The following question was posed at the (inaptly named) magazine Scientific American, “Is there a difference between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person?” It was asked of one Andrew Newberg, “director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.” Andrew Newberg

Newberg said yes.

But he admitted that the “the neural picture is not yet complete.”

Several studies have revealed that people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray. A more recent study revealed that people who have had “born again” experiences have a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in emotions and memory, than atheists do. These findings, however, are difficult to interpret because they do not clarify whether having larger frontal lobes or a smaller hippocampus causes a person to become more religious or whether being pious triggers changes in these brain regions.

Newberg left out the most important point of this “recent study”: it does not confirm that people who have been “born again” have a smaller hippocampi than do atheists. Newberg’s understanding of statistical evidence is poor. Three points about studies of this kind (for more, look at this critique of another Newberg study):

  1. The sample sizes can usually be counted on the fingers of one or two researchers, making the possibility of over-certainty high;
  2. The kind of people chosen to study came from an extremely narrow demographic, in time, place, age, socio-economic, and genetic background. It is a stretch past the snapping point to suggest, as Newberg does, that these few folks represent all humanity;
  3. In this study (and all similar) it is not the case that all theists had smaller hippocampi than atheists. What happened was that a few more theists than atheists had smaller hippocampi; it is even so that some theists had larger hippocampi than some atheists.

It is also the case that nobody knows whether smaller or larger hippocampi are better or worse (for their possessors) in any tangible sense. It makes a pleasing sound, of course, to suggest that larger is better, but this supposition is unwarranted—at best: at worst it is foolish.

Various experiments have also tried to elucidate whether believing in God causes similar brain changes as believing in something else. The results, so far, show that thinking about God may activate the same parts of the brain as thinking about an airplane, a friend or a lamppost. For instance, one study showed that when religious people prayed to God, they used some of the same areas of the brain as when they talked to an average Joe. In other words, in the religious person’s brain, God is just as real as any object or person.

One begins to wonder if Newberg can remember what he says from one moment to the next, for this second set of “evidence” is not consonant with the first. If God is as real as “any” object or person—and just what exactly, measurably, unambiguously does “any object or person” mean? any?—then the only thing that is different between the brains of theists and atheists must be so minuscule that we have little hope of finding it.

If the brain acts that the same way for God as it does for pencil erasers, pebbles, grains of sand, air, water, aspirins, electrons, Uncle Mike, and on and on forever, then all that can be different is one small “belief switch”, turned “on” for theists and “off” for atheists.

But even this is nonsense. Talk of “areas of the brain” is ridiculously loose, and is a bad, unshakable habit of people like Newberg (see this egregious study of Sam Harris).

Research also suggests that a ­religious brain exhibits higher levels of dopamine, a hormone associated with increased attention and motivation. A study showed that believers were much more likely than skeptics to see words and faces on a screen when there were none, whereas skeptics often did not see words and faces that were actually there. Yet when skeptics were given the drug L-dopa, which increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, they were just as likely to interpret scrambled patterns as words and faces as were the religious individuals.

The “research” that “suggests” these findings is subject to the identical criticism given above. E.g. it is not the case in this wee sample that every theist had more dopamine than every theist, etc.

Notice how Newberg exposes his bias. Let it be so that theists “tend” to see patterns in patternless data more than do atheists. Sounds bad, almost as if the atheists have not evolved into a higher state. But if theists are quicker to see patterns, then they ought to be better scientists, more acute detectives, quicker to find true signals hidden in the noise. We do find, do we not?, among those of lasting genius (Newton, Galileo, Bach, Shakespeare, etc.) vastly more theists than atheists.

This means the mutation that leads to atheism is harmful. Good thing, then, that we find that atheists breed less than theists. Their faulty, harmful-to-intelligence genes have a good chance of passing out of the population.

Article originally linked on Hot Air.

16 Comments

  1. I’ll bet on the pattern perceivers everytime. They have the stronger associative memories and intuitive power. They may make more mistakes but they make the world go. See for example Kahneman “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

  2. Hi…I’ve been studing (not simply reading) Newberg’s work for long while now. It is fascinating! I was just reflecting on the Scientific American article this morning on my way to work. I am wondering if Newberg’s response is directly quoted?

    Newberg makes clearly in his lectures and in his writings that to the religious person God is just as real – maybe even more real, in fact – then anything of the materialistic world. Thus, he says, “In other words, in the religious person’s brain, God is just as real as any object or person”.

    Another point that needs to be made is regarding the following: “A more recent study revealed that people who have had “born again” experiences have a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in emotions and memory, than atheists do”. Main point here: not all religious believers are “born again” Christians let alone of the Christian Faith. So, the hippocampus study reflects some of those in the “born again” tradition ONLY!

    But, what is really interesting is the comments that follow the article. Many who desire to call themselves rationalists and scientifically minded demonstrate their ability to perceive Newberg’s information in only one way – theirs. The problem is that Newberg work has done more to harm their scientism and scientific materialism than almost anything else – generally speaking – and they can not recognize this fact. See, Why We Believe What We Believe lecture on line. Here you see that the brain can only accept what it feels “safe” enough to accept.

  3. Here we go again…

    The author of this blog & like-minded readers would do themselves a favor by reading:

    “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer (http://www.amazon.com/How-We-Decide-Jonah-Lehrer/dp/0618620117 ). In that book he compiles a reasonably comprehensive summary of how different parts of the brain function & affect decision-making in humans. MRI & related studies are summarized for a variety of things, as are case studies in which parts of the brain have been damaged…and how that affects human cognition (that is, some studies are as crude as that addressed here, others quite precise & unassailable).

    The subject interesting on its own merits & Lehrer does a good job summarizing in layman’s terms a considerable breadth & depth of research & related findings. There is much more out there.

    And this blog’s author & some of his regulars will, in particular, be amazed at the findings of certain brain structures & associated functions they perform create a particular pattern of EMOTIONAL “data processing” that gives rise to a number of behaviors–morality included.

    That particular aspect of brain function, curiously, when damaged gives rise to purely logical thinking that is devoid of emotion…and related processes. We identify such people as “sociopaths,” and other extreme pathologies that fit the general category of “evil.”

    In other words, the kind of “logical” thinking & deductive reasoning espoused here (while certainly having merits) is utterly inappropriately applied to how the human brain actually functions.

    The general kind of religious study described in the two recent articles this blogger critiques, by the way, essentially replicate prior studies of a less focused nature — but did so via a controversial topic (religion)….which suggests thier intent in doing & publishing the study was not to report the findings found, but rather as a sort of “goof” — to stir up debate on a finding that, when presented in an emotionally neutral (non-religious) context did not arouse such reactions. In other words, it appears plausible that the papers critiqued here on brain function & religious thought are not so much the end results as a prompt in a larger study, with the blogger, etc. being the actual subjects. We can look forward to that paper in the near future I suspect.

  4. Ken,

    Hate to say this but the book looks like Oprah quality. Mostly pure speculation. An example (not from the book but the author’s words), he name-drops Herb Simon then shows misunderstanding of what Simon meant:

    What I wanted to do in How We Decide was venture out of the lab and into the real world so that I could see the scissors at work. I discuss some ingenious experiments in this book, but let’s face it: the science lab is a startlingly artificial place.

    Simon said the problem was akin to understanding scissors in that we need to consider both blades in understanding the operation of scissors. By this he meant we can’t avoid considering the context of decisions. He surely didn’t mean to wander off into speculation of uncontrolled events.

    Another wonderful quote (from an unnamed scientist):

    “The secret to happiness,” he said,”is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.”

    Fortune cookie stuff. I haven’t read the book, but the Q&A with the author makes it sound like it’s on par with every Power-of-Positive-Thinking and New Age feel-good book. It likely gives things to ponder but with little confirming substance.

  5. Another interesting quote. This time about losing $300 in Vegas (in answer to the bizarrely out of place question “Are you a good poker player?”):

    It was an expensive but valuable lesson: there’s a big difference between understanding how experts think and being able to think like an expert.

    Or maybe he just doesn’t understand how experts think as much as he believes.

    The first step to making the right decision, then, is accurately diagnosing the problem and figuring out which brain system to rely on.

    Gotta wonder how he suggests accomplishing reliance on a particular brain system.

    Maybe I’ll buy the book. It looks like I could have a lot of fun with it. OTOH, for a positive thinking course, it probably won’t be as entertaining as the Jonathan Livingston Seagull one.

  6. DAV,

    [T]here’s a big difference between understanding how experts think and being able to think like an expert.

    I love this quote! There is a big difference between understanding how Michael Jordan plays basketball and being able to play like him.

  7. I’m not so sure I can take the results of a study like this too seriously. Assuming that the experiments were well constructed to begin with (could the results say that different people respond differently when laying inside the confined space of an MRI?), the experimenter is attempting to resolve a signal (thought concept) that is going to be too small for for his sensors to resolve. Keep in mind that fMRI measures blood flow, not electrical activity.

    It wouldn’t be much different than standing at one end of a pond, during a rain storm, and using a magnifying glass to look at the water lapping off of a lilly pad to determine where and when a pebble was thrown in to the water on the opposite side.

    There are plenty of interesting fMRI results to talk about relating to how signal x corresponds to activation y. This isn’t one of them.

  8. “We do find, do we not?, among those of lasting genius (Newton, Galileo, Bach, Shakespeare, etc.) vastly more theists than atheists.”

    What a nonsense. The question you should be asking is whether atheists are or were disproportionately successful. You should take into account an estimate of the proportion of the population that are (openly) atheist before judging relative success. Your dubious list of theists is not sufficient to make your case.

    “This means the mutation that leads to atheism is harmful. Good thing, then, that we find that atheists breed less than theists. Their faulty, harmful-to-intelligence genes have a good chance of passing out of the population.”

    This reproductive gloating has got to stop. I’m starting to believe that you might be a closet atheist and are renouncing your sin in the style of Pastor Ted Haggard.

  9. genemachine,

    Of course it’s nonsense. It is deliberate nonsense, to match Newberg’s unsubstantiated claims.

    Now that Ted Haggard stuff is a low blow!

  10. I seem to recall twin studies suggested a religiosity gene but as usual environmental facts are as important. Neither would this separate aetheist from practicing whatever, perhaps both believe.

  11. My brain function (and yours) is chemically dependent on dopamine. Hey, dogs too! See Dopamine: Better Than Sex? http://stevenkotler.com/node/69

    Pattern recognition (so key to intelligence that they might as well be synonymous) is mediated (neurologically transmitted) via dopamine pathways. No dopamine, no pattern recognition, fatal fog. You couldn’t even fork food into your mouth without dopamine. Without that transmitter, you might stab yourself with the fork repeatedly, because dopamine signals pain as well as pleasure.

    Love your examples of dopamine adepts: Newton, Galileo, Bach, Shakespeare, etc. I would add Gauss and Euler, because I dig their pattern recognition feats.

    I wish I had their catecholamine neurotransmitter capacities. Probably save me a lot of grief, which too often is due to my unfortunate tendency to repeat my mistakes. But I’m sure that I’m better off than your average atheist in that regard.

  12. I note also that electricity is responsible for television programs. I only need to work out how to inject more electricity into my TV and I can get better programs!

  13. Our understanding of brain function right now seems on a par with our understanding of overall body function in the Middle Ages. I’m sure if you dug deep enough you could find similar studies performed by witchdoctors correlating crude sizes of various organs with degrees of faith and piety.

    I do recognize that some of the core research into brain functionality is very valuable, but these peripheral studies are a populist waste of time. I think Ken is right that it’s obviously more driven by PR and economics than science. If you want to make money, and don’t care whether your research is useful, then make sure you study something which is impossible to analyze conclusively, with close ties to at least one controversial topic.

  14. DAV, re:

    “Hate to say this but the book looks like Oprah quality. Mostly pure speculation. … I HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK [emphasis added], but the Q&A with the author makes it sound like it’s on par with every Power-of-Positive-Thinking and New Age feel-good book.”

    THAT is complete & utter BS. At least you admit, at the very end, you don’t know what you’re talking about — that you’re both reaching & basing conclusions on ignorance in a way that conforms to your preconceptions — not a very compelling foundation.

    The author is not an expert in the field, merely summarizing in layman’s terms a considerable breadth & depth of research & related findings done by others. Naturally something will get garbled a bit — a reflection with the interviewee’s facility with the subject & language, but not at all a factor affecting the findings by many many others of which the interviewee is reporting second-hand. Those findings still stand–and can be easily verified separately.

    Your approach, is unfortunately not unusual. Recalls to mind a report by an explorer in the Amazon in the 1800s of a type of magical potion. It was reported to be made by having a cross-eyed child chew a certain easily obtained mix of plants, spit that mix in a hollowed gourd [that had to be shaped like a snake] and then hung from a certain tree at a bend in a certain river (that’s as much as I recall now of parts of the recipe). Of course, this was dismissed…until well into the 1970s. Turns out that was a recipe for a type of Penicillian that cured wound infections & associated fevers (the chewed paste & gourd were a makeshift petri dish; placing the concoction by the river provided the right humidity, etc.)! The primitive natives had no idea how or why it worked….so they preserved every part of the recipe as they observed and in so doing created a formula that seemed so superstitious & clearly wrong/irrelevant on so many details (cross-eyed child, shape of gourd, etc.) it wasn’t taken seriously by more modern & studied outsiders. Too bad.

    Same thing, basically, is lately happening here.

  15. Embarrassingly bad science at it’s worst. The irony is that many ‘famous’ atheists in the sceptical community started their lives as believers. If there are ‘structural’ differences between brains it is indeed remarkable that such transitions are possible.

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