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Brain's reactions to symbols suggest we're hard-wired for God — or not

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6 2014 6:30 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 1:00 p.m. MDT

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and director of research at Thomas Jefferson University’s Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine, who published a study examining the effect of religious symbols on brain function, is shown with an MRI machine.

Thomas Jefferson University

Reactions to visual depictions of Satan or of a Christian cross may be a product of education, but they also are conditioned deep in the brain, a new scientific study reveals.

The results of the research by Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and director of research at Thomas Jefferson University’s Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine, may have implications for understanding the effects of religiously based world views in people's lives, as well as in societal discussions of political and moral issues.

"When we are asked about things that pertain to religion, our religious beliefs very substantially affect the ways in which we respond," he said. "The ways in which we believe about things have an impact on the ways in which our brain processes the information and creates our reality for us."

Newberg, a pioneer in the field of "neurotheology," which suggests people may be hard-wired to choose faith or unbelief, also found that reactions to religious symbols may be grounded in brain activity that happens before people are conscious of it.

Newberg published his pilot study examining the effect of religious symbols on brain function in the latest issue of Spirituality in Clinical Practice, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Belief and reality

According to the university's announcement of the research being published, 20 "healthy volunteers" from a variety of religious backgrounds were examined with a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, while viewing positive and negative symbols.

Some symbols had religious content, some didn't, and there were some neutral symbols in the mix as well. Newberg said the symbols were reproduced in the same size and in monochrome.

The symbols used in the study ranged from the cross to a plus sign to a depiction of the devil, as well as religiously neutral symbols such as a dollar sign. Newberg said the dollar sign elicited the most positive reactions of any symbol, spiritual or secular.

"The study sought to determine the relationship between different levels of visual processing (unconscious primary and higher cognitive) related to observing religious symbols, and the associated impact of religious beliefs and attitudes with the goal of determining if religious symbols interact with the brain on a primary level," a news release from the school stated.

Examining the brain's reaction to religious symbols is just one of several ways researchers are using fMRI devices to study how we think — and why.

In Germany, neurologist Dr. Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald has studied the reactions of writer's brains as they create bits of fiction, finding reactions similar to those of musicians or athletes, The New York Times reported. In 2007, Hannah Devlin of the FMRIB Centre at Britain's University of Oxford noted, "Over the last decade (fMRI devices have) provided new insight to the investigation of how memories are formed, language, pain, learning and emotion, to name but a few areas of research."

Newberg, in a phone interview from Philadelphia, said, "These religious symbols do seem to have an impact on the way the brain works, and in particular on that primary visual cortex, because the primary visual area of the brain is before consciousness, it is before we're aware of the thing."

Questionnaires filled out by participants before the fMRI-based tests revealed something else as well, Newberg said: "There were some significant correlations between what's going on in that primary visual area and the attitude that people had about religion."

In other words, Newberg said, "When we have different beliefs, and particularly religious and spiritual ones, it really modifies how our brain perceives reality."

Implications of research

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