Monday, May 3, 2010

Charismatic prayers shut off skeptical part of believers' brains

No, this isn't me attempting to call theists stupid - it's a new study out in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. From New Scientist:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023).

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

It's not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

It's always fascinating to me when we find more and more scientific discoveries that explain religious behavior. Of course, I still wonder what the causal relationship here is. Do people become believers because the logical part of their brain shuts off when presented with unsupported religious woo? Or does the logical part of the brain shut off only in believers who have been trained to accept that people like faith healers are telling the truth?

(Via Boing Boing)

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