'What Believing in God Does to Your Brain'

Just in time for Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, along comes the British newspaper, the Independent, with this report on how faith alters some of our mental processes:

Humans suppress areas of the brain used for analytical thinking and engage the parts responsible for empathy in order to believe in god, research suggests. They do the opposite when thinking about the physical world, according to the study.

“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said Professor Tony Jack, who led the research. “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.”

In an analysis of eight experiments, published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers also found people with faith were more empathetic than those without. The researchers examined the relationship between the belief in god and measures of analytic thinking and moral concern in eight experiments, each using between 159 and 527 adult participants.

Although both spiritual belief and empathic concern were positively associated with frequency of prayer or meditation, neither were predicted by social contact – such as church dinners – associated with religious affilation.

Let me say right off that none of this is surprising or even new. People of faith — which is, in its purest form, non-rational (not irrational, however) — have known this for centuries. Faith unites us with a higher power, a power that is sensed rather than seen, but a power whose effects are visible all around us, and whose voice whispers within all but the most dead souls.

In my new book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, I examined the notions of God and Satan, and good and evil, through the prism of Western culture and specifically through the Heroic Narrative, which long precedes organized religion. It’s my belief that the yearning for God is implanted in every human soul, and that this yearning is best expressed in the Christianity of western civilization. For when you stop to think about it, the Heroic Narrative is exemplified to literal perfection by the figure of the Christ:

The humbly heroic Christ – born into straitened circumstances, of a virgin mother, a precocious teacher and rabbi who undertook a brief, three-year ministry that was both populist and political, captured through treachery, unfairly tried, tortured and executed, and returned in triumph after his victory over death – is the archetypal Christian Hero, supplanting the Homeric heroes (Achilles, Odysseus), who did not give their lives for something larger than themselves, their families or their tribes.  But Christ, the Lamb of God, the Redeemer, Messiah, willingly fails in order to succeed, bestowing a gift upon a humanity that is still not sure whether it wants to accept it.

The atheist argument against faith — that it’s irrational — is both tautological and wrong; of course it’s not rational, otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. But how many of our deepest and most profound legends involve exactly that? That the Hero must make a leap of faith, embrace his identity, and accept his destiny, come what may. And doesn’t that exactly describe the Easter story? Non-rational? You’re damn right it is:

The researchers said the human brain explores the world using both networks. When presented with a physics problem or ethical dilemma, a healthy brain activates the appropriate network while suppressing the other. Such suppression may lead to the conflict between science and religion, the researchers added.

“Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes,” said Richard Boyatzis, professor of organisational behavior at Case Western Reserve University. “Recognising that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion.”

Viva la difference, and Godspeed.


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