by Matthew Facciani
Popular authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have accrued notoriety by discussing the negative effects of religious belief. Such polemical figures and their followers often focus on the truth-value of religion while speculating its impact on societies and individuals. Certain developments in cognitive science offer an interesting challenge to these popular positions—in how they define “religion” and what it entails for the social and psychological effects that are said to follow.
It is first important to establish how cognitive scientists approach studying religion before explaining how religious beliefs may impact the brain. To avoid dealing with the complexity and variability of religion, cognitive scientists focus on the psychological effects of certain beliefs. Specifically, cognitive scientists are interested in measuring religiosity. Religiosity can be defined as the adherence to one’s ideological position. High religiosity involves a rigid adherence to one’s ideology. Importantly, religiosity doesn’t have to pertain to religious beliefs as it can apply to any ideology. Cognitive scientists often use religious beliefs to study religiosity because they can provide meaning and a framework for understanding one’s environment.
According to certain schools of thought within cognitive science, positive psychological effects of religiosity include lifting the mood of elderly cancer patients (Fering et al, 1997) increasing the propensity to help others (Saroglou et al, 2005), and reducing anxiety (Kay et al., 2008; Park, 2005). This reduction of anxiety seems particularly powerful when religious people have strong conviction in their beliefs as it creates a framework for understanding their environment (Pargament, 2002). The advent of neuroimaging techniques has allowed neuroscientists to study how religiosity impacts the brain as well. The neuroscience of religious belief is still a very new field, but there has already been substantial evidence in explaining how religiosity reduces anxiety on a neural level.
Creswell and colleagues (2006) have theorized that affirming one’s personal values during stress can make them less physiologically reactive to anxiety. Farias and colleagues (2013) found that secular people’s belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Strong conviction in one’s belief system can provide meaning and a framework for understanding the environment which reduces anxiety from uncertainty (McGregor, Nash, & Prentice, 2010). There is also evidence that anxiety can affect performance on cognitive tasks which require the processing of errors (Eysenck et al., 2007). Thus, cognitive neuroscience studies could investigate if religiosity buffers the anxiety caused by uncertainty.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a part of the brain associated with error detection and the experience of anxiety. Brain activity in the ACC has been shown to be associated with error detection with greater activity following an error in cognitive tasks (Yeung et al, 2004). An example of this task would be the classic Stroop task (Stroop, 1935). The Stroop task has participants name the text color of a word that is printed in a color not represented by the word they have to read (e.g., reading the word “blue” printed in red ink instead of blue ink). Error detection would occur whenever the participant accidently says the wrong color while trying to name the text color.
Essentially, errors on these cognitive tasks activate a basic “uh oh” response in the brain. Individuals who are more anxious tend to also have higher ACC activity during the “uh oh” response when detecting they made an error (Hajcak, 2003). Thus, if religiosity does reduce anxiety we should see less ACC activity during an error detection task associated with anxiety.
Inzlicht and his colleagues (2009) conducted a study where they measured the neural processes of anxiety in both religious believers and non-believers. They had both groups complete a cognitive task which is known to activate processes involved with error detection (and the corresponding “uh oh” response). An electroencephalograph (EEG) measured brain activity while the believers and non-believers completed the cognitive task. The researchers found that religious believers had less activity in the ACC during errors on the task. This effect was found despite controlling for personality factors and cognitive ability! These findings suggest that high levels of religiosity might buffer the anxiety caused by uncertainty.
This finding has since been replicated in other studies using similar experimental paradigms (Inzlicht, Tullet, & Good 2011). In one such study, the researchers had two groups of participants who strongly believed in a theistic God. In one group, participants wrote what their religion means and explains in their lives before completing the cognitive task while the other group did not. Like the 2009 study, Inzlicht and colleagues (2010) had participants complete an error detection task associated with anxiety while they had their brain activity measured. The group which reflected on God before the experiment had less ACC activity during errors than the group that did not reflect on God. However, this effect was only seen in religious believers because it likely affirmed their religiosity. In a religion specific study, Good and colleagues (2014) demonstrated that Mormons experienced less anxiety (reduced ACC activity) when thinking about alcohol after they were primed to think about God’s forgiveness. Again, affirming one’s convictions to a particular ideology appears to be the crux of reducing anxiety.
These neuroscience studies suggest that what we believe does appear to have a top-down effect on how our brain processes information. Scholarship in religious studies and related fields can help parse apart these beliefs and neuroscience allows us to study their effects on the brain. It’s important to operationalize belief as best we can before conducting behavioral research on religiosity. Psychological research has previously supported the role that religious belief can play in helping to reduce anxiety (Kay et al, 2008; Park, 2005) and now we can observe this effect on a neural level (Inzlicht, Tullet, & Good 2011). High religiosity seems to provide a strong anxiety of uncertainty buffer by providing a framework for understanding one’s environment. Parsing apart the specific components of religiosity which create this uncertainty buffer can be addressed with future research.
Do only religious believers with strong convictions in their belief achieve a buffer against anxiety? Could this effect be seen in people who have a rigid adherence to a secular ideology? How do social and emotional variables interact with this effect? Stay tuned, imminent psychological research (and hopefully my dissertation) should help answer these questions.
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Matthew Facciani is a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive neuroscience at The University of South Carolina. He is passionate about science communication and is an activist for gender equality. Learn more at www.matthewfacciani.com, and follow him at @MatthewFacciani.