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Monday, April 26, 2010

Neuroscientific Study Shows Believers Put Brain in Neutral

I have recently become fascinated with neuroscience. We are learning so much more about how the brain works literally every day in this new field. A recent study by four Danish scientists, Uffe Schjoedt, Hans Stødkilde-Jørgensen, Armin W. Geertz, Torben E. Lund and Andreas Roepstorff, reveals that devoted religious believers will "switch off" their critical faculties when listening to a religious leader that they trust implicitly. A report of the study, The power of charisma—perceived charisma inhibits the frontal executive network of believers in intercessory prayer, was published in the Oxford Journal, Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience (April 2010). I learned of it from a blog I read regularly called: Epiphenom.

Brain imaging was done on a small group of Pentecostal Christians while they were listening to prayers given by three different people. They were told that the prayers would be given by a non-Christian, an "ordinary" Christian and a Charismatic Christian who had a healing ministry. Each person was identified to the group before the praying began. In reality, all three were "ordinary" (I assume they mean non-Pentecostal) Christians.

What the scientists observed was that
specific regions of the pentecostalist's brains became somewhat activated when listening to the prayer from the 'non-believer', but highly deactivated when listening to the prayer from the 'charismatic healer'. The prayer from the ordinary Christian resulted in deactivation too, but on a small scale.

And the regions that were deactivated by the "charismatic healer" were all associated with "executive function" - the part of the mind that evaluates, monitors, and makes decisions. A similar response has been seen in the brains of people undergoing hypnosis - as well as meditation.

In other words, they went into a bit of a trance.

What Schjødt thinks is happening here is that, when we listen someone we trust implicitly, we switch off our critical faculties, and just let what they are saying wash over us. In the words of the researchers, "subjects suspend or 'hand over' their critical faculty to the trusted person."
This is very interesting and I think it may explain why many Christians truly are brainwashed.

In all fairness, I don't think its only Christians who may be guilty of this. I think it is probably a human tendency to "let our guard down" and accept what we hear from those that we know agree with us. This is no doubt true regardless of the ideology involved. In other words, a person who is conservative politically is going to be less critical in listening to another conservative and a liberal will be less critical listening to another liberal.

What does this teach us? I think it shows us that it is imperative to be just as analytical and critical in listening to those with whom we agree as with those with whom we disagree.


  1. Wow, thanks for posting this! What a fascinating study! That is a great blog as well, thanks for sharing it too.

  2. Now they need to do a similar study with devotees of Richard Dawkins or Obama...

  3. Interesting post. I am constantly wrestling with myself about the whole God issue. I am trying to understand why so many people find religion to be so powerful...

  4. Thanks for the introduction to the Epiphenom site. I, like you, am also heavily interested in neuroscience and the psychology of religion. Have you read Spiegel's new book yet on the psychology of atheism? I submitted a brief review here:

  5. Being a Christian myself, I would agree that this study reflects the majority of religious people out there. However, I would have to say that Christians are encouraged to take captive every thought. Does this mean that Christians are the most contemplative/analytical/critical people? By no means! But an agnostic like yourself (and one with multiple degrees in theology at that!) would be happy to know that all the Christians who fail to do the hard work of thinking are actually living in opposition to what they believe.

    Well, I'm not sure if you would be happy that Christians are hypocrites, but I figured that you would be encouraged to know that if Christians were to take their faith seriously, they would either become agnostic comrades or fun conversation partners who are Christians. ^_____^

  6. Lou,

    Yes. I did a post on Spiegel's book.

  7. Augustin,

    The passage you refer to "take captive every thought" ( 2 cor. 10:5) is actually telling Christians to not be open-minded. Its telling them to be careful of any thoughts that are against their faith.

  8. Ahswan: "Now they need to do a similar study with devotees of Richard Dawkins or Obama..."

    Um, Ken did argue that this is not simply a Christian issue, but rather something we all do. I'm sure there are many "devotees" of Dawkins and Obama who "put their mind in neutral" when listening to them, just as there are those devotees of William Lane Craig and Glenn Beck who do the same.

  9. I agree with the study, but I think one simple explanation is the type of semi-hypnotic trance that people are in when listening to a sermon. This also explains why people tend to fall asleep during sermons.
    This would be exaggerated in the case of the Pentacostals due to the "ra ra" and the singing, waving arms in the air etc. They are then in a trance like state ready to accept the idea of talking in tongues.
    Repetition of boring, nonsense talk is a good way to hypnotise the audience. I am sure that most of the congregation do not really understand half of what is being preached, or if they do, they don't really give it much thought or care.
    I do not think the same applies to Dawkins debates or lectures, as the audience are all too willing to criticise. Have you ever tried to stand up in church and say to the preacher "What you just said is all wrong"?