Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Brain of Fundamentalists, The Brain of Skeptics

The Pew Forum's biannual conference on religion had a fascinating conference a couple of years back on neuroscience and belief. One intriguing point made by Andrew Newberg:
...There have been some studies that have looked at political perspectives, trying to understand what happens in the brain of people who are Republicans and the brains of people who are Democrats. We talked about some of this, and I'd just highlight a couple of interesting studies. One was an fMRI study, which is a magnetic resonance imaging that looks at blood flow and activity in the brain, and it showed that people who scored higher on liberalism tended to be associated with stronger what they called conflict-related anterior cingulate activity. Now, what that means is, you have a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate, which helps you mediate when things are in conflict with the way you already believe.

The researchers then interpreted this, and we can go into all the questions about how should we interpret these studies. People who had greater liberalism seemed to do better or were more sensitive to altering some habitual response pattern, implying that they were more open to change, more open to other ideas, more open to conflict, than people who scored lower on liberalism. Does that mean something about people who consider themselves to be liberals versus conservatives, Republicans versus Democrats?

Of course all people, regardless of what their particular perspectives are, when they're viewing their own candidate, that has a different effect in their brain than when they are viewing a candidate from the opposite party. When you're looking at somebody from the opposite party, or thinking about them, it tends to activate the amygdala, the limbic areas, again, that tend to trigger more of an emotional response, whereas when you're looking at people who are concordant with your views and beliefs, that tends to activate some of the areas of the frontal lobe and also that anterior cingulate that helps you mediate your conflict-resolution powers.
Can one extrapolate from this study to make implications regarding the brains of skeptics versus the brains of religious fundamentalists?

I think it is a fair assumption to suggest that there is a much higher rate of skepticism in the scientific community versus the religious community (bear with me, I realize that this is an oversimplified dichotomy.) Yes, there are exceptions on both sides: folks who reluctantly leave a secular lifestyle for a religious one based on what they believe to be legitimate arguments ("proofs"), as well as "fundamentalist skeptics" (including some fundamentalist atheists) who refuse to consider arguments against their beliefs.

But the advancement of science requires intellectual conflict and challenge; those who resist such conflict are at best relegated to a footnote in science history books. The same can not be said for religious orthodoxy (by definition); in this world, the great leaders always operate within a very constrained a priori belief system. For example, in Judaism it is verboten to challenge the notion of a God given Torah (TMS). Otherwise one is marginalized and branded a heretic.

Interestingly, many OTD ("off the derech", although I prefer OAD - "on another derech") people may have more in common with baalei teshuvah than they would like to admit - both have altered some habitual response pattern possibly because of stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity!

Supporting evidence for my hypothesis is the well-known correlation of conservative politics with the more fundamentalist factions of both Christianity and Judaism.


Baal Habos said...

> both have altered some habitual response pattern possibly because of stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity!

True both have altered behaviour; but isn't the attribution, especially in the case of BT's, a big leap?

Frum Heretic said...

True both have altered behaviour; but isn't the attribution, especially in the case of BT's, a big leap?

Note the emphasis in "folks who reluctantly leave a secular lifestyle". There are many BTs who become observant only after a great struggle that results from a challenge to their secular beliefs. (The validity of the arguments used in their "conversion" does not seem to be relevant here.) Certainly one can attribute the altered behavior to multiple factors, but why are you reluctant to attribute the change to "stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity"?

Baal Habos said...

I didn't see the world "reluctantly" in that paragraph. Maybe I'm RELUCTANT to attibute that change to stronger CRACA due to me having Stonger CRACA ;)

But I get your point.

Anonymous said...

correlation != causation? Not even. This is ridiculous. Religious people tend to be conservative. Shocking. More research must be done. Such strange bedfellows. Ah' but now its explained, the reason that people whose belief system is based on tradition have a belief system based on tradition, is because they are stubborn. Indeed it tends to rain during a rainstorm.