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

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

Reactions to people of the same or other faiths is much in the news these days. Last month, the Pew Research Center released a survey on religious attitudes that showed Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians are viewed most favorably, while Muslims and atheists are the least well-perceived.

The Pew survey found reactions were often tempered by whether someone knew an individual of another faith. Those who know someone whose beliefs are different were sometimes more warmly disposed toward that faith, although Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, atheists and Muslims didn't benefit from such familiarity.

While the Newberg study looked at religious symbols and not specific faith groups, the implications of his research touch on many areas of today's religious issues, one author said.

Rob Moll, a veteran Christian writer whose book "What Your Body Knows About God" will be released this fall by InterVarsity Press, said Newberg's research offers a glimpse of faith's real-world effects.

The research, Moll said, suggests "certain beliefs can lead to close-mindedness, while other beliefs make one less cognitively biased. Depending on our view of God and how we are to approach God, faith can make us more open to and understanding of the world around us and the differences we encounter among different people.

"Clearly our religious and spiritual beliefs modify or alter the way in which our brain really thinks about these different ideas," Newberg added. "One can debate whether it's for good or for bad it just speaks to the power of these beliefs and their impact on how our brain processes information and the reality that's around them."

Moll said Newberg's research is a powerful argument against the notion that all religious roads have the same destination.

"In a time when people are inclined to believe that all religion is good or bad, or it all leads to the same place, this study shows at least that our theology does have real-world effects," Moll said. "In this case, affecting our ability to see symbols that we may view negatively. So, religion isn't all the same, and what we believe seems to actually matter."

Moll said the Newberg study and similar ones contradict Gnosticism, which views the physical world as illusory, with spirituality unrelated to the body. "In my work in hospice and a funeral home, I often heard people say the body is 'just a shell,’ ” he said. "But these studies show that no, it isn't. The body is actually a part of our most spiritual experiences."

And, Newberg said, the brain is apparently conditioned to respond by the nature of our deepest feelings about God.

"The emotionally negative religious symbols had a greater effect on the limbic area of the brain, the emotional areas of the brain in those people who had more negative views about religion," he explained, specifically those who see God negatively or as punishing. "People who had these kind of maladaptive or negative views about God or religion tended to be more reactive to the negative religious symbols."

Pilot test

Newberg said results might be different in China, for example, where the majority of religious people identify with Buddhism. "This is still kind of a pilot study, but there certainly is a long way to go in terms of figuring out how all the different views about religion and spirituality have an impact," he said. "This is kind of a first step in exploring something that hasn't been explored before."

Ultimately, Newberg said, "it would be really fascinating" to explore how religion changes the brain, both for good and for bad, utilizing what's learned to help people.

The field of neurotheology, he explained, examines "how people think about religion, think about God, how they visualize these concepts. There are tons of different practices, meditations, prayers and all that we can explore."

And while Newberg is planning further studies, some in the religious world are moving ahead with what he's already found. Leadership Journal, a magazine for evangelical Christian pastors and church leaders, devoted its July 2014 issue to what it called "Neuro Ministry," which managing editor Drew Dyck said was of growing importance. (Some articles are behind an online paywall.)

"Neuroscience has shed light on mental illness, addictions and habit formation," Dyck said. "Do we really believe it has nothing to say about discipleship? Brain studies have yielded tremendous insights into how we listen and learn. Do they have nothing to say about preaching and teaching?"

Dyck asserted that helping people change and "become more like Christ" is the main goal of pastors, and getting people to do this requires more than a download of information via the pulpit. It often involves changing habits, which is a much tougher challenge.

"I believe wise leaders use all the tools at their disposal to more effectively pursue their callings — and brain science is a powerful tool," Dyck said. "The theologian Karl Barth is quoted as saying preachers should prepare sermons holding a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Perhaps in our day, we should be holding the Bible in one hand and the latest brain study in the other."

Author Moll agrees: "This study shows that our beliefs have a top-down effect on how the brain works," he said. "We don't necessarily believe because our brain works a certain way. In many cases, our brain works a certain way because we believe."

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Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com