The Brain

Here's What Belief In A Religion Does To Your Brain

March 26, 2016 | by Tom Hale

Photo credit: Sanjib Mitra/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The perceived conflict between religion and science has played out across history, from lectures in Ancient Greek pantheons to discussions on Internet forums. According to a new study, the origin of this clash actually begins as a conflict between two networks in the brain.

The researchers came to this conclusion through eight separate questionnaire-studies and thought experiments. Each contained between 159 to 527 adults and compared the results of those who held beliefs in a god or universal spirit and those with no religious beliefs. The researches from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College recently published their findings in PLOS One.

Their research found that those with religious or spiritual beliefs appeared to suppress the brain network used for analytical thinking in order to engage the network for empathetic thinking. Equally, those who were non-religious showed they suppressed their empathetic thinking for analytical thinking.

"When there's a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd," said Tony Jack, who led the research, in a press release. "But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight."

These two networks have a hard time balancing out as they are continually working to suppress the other, according to the study.  

However, the researchers say that neither of these ways of thought has the monopoly on answers to the world’s great questions; our very nature has allowed us to engage and explore our experiences using both patterns of thinking.

Jack added, "Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that's the business of science. Science should inform our ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine what is ethical or tell us how we should construct meaning and purpose in our lives."

Furthermore, they argue science and religion don’t always have to be seen as opposing forces. As the study points out, many of the world’s greatest scientist have held spiritual beliefs, including 90 percent of the 21st century’s Nobel laureates.  

The authors concluded by saying that understanding the interaction between these two ways of thinking could enrich both.

"Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight,” Jack concluded.

Main image credit: Sanjib Mitra/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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