Saturday, December 29, 2007

This is your brain on Faith

This is interesting but the study, most likely, would not have made it to Time magazine without Sam Harris. But this is good stuff:
Sam Harris is best known for his barn-burning 2004 attack on religion, The End of Faith, which spent 33 weeks on the New York Times best-seller List. The book's sequel, Letter to a Christian Nation also came out in editions totalling hundreds of thousands. Last Monday, however, the combative Californian produced a shorter (seven pages) and seemingly calmer publication that will be a hit if it reaches 10,000 readers: "Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty." It appears in the respected journal Annals of Neurology. And Harris, 40, claims it has little if any connection to his two popular books.
This paper is about how brain processes belief:

Harris and two co-authors ran 360 statements by 14 adult subjects whose brain activities were then scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) devices. It suggests that within the brain pan, at least, the distinction between objective and subjective is not so clear-cut. Although more complex assertions may get analyzed in so-called "higher" areas of the brain, all seem to get their final stamp of "belief" or disbelief in "primitive" locales traditionally associated with emotions or taste and odor. Even "2 + 2 = 4," on some level, is a question of taste. Thus, the statement "that just doesn't smell right to me" may be more literal than we thought.

Harris tested how the brain responded to assertions in seven categories: mathematical, geographic, semantic, factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious. All seven provided some useful data, but only the ones relating to math and ethics produced results clear enough to give a vivid picture of the way the simple and the complex, the subjective and the objective intertwine. Regardless of their content, statements that the subjects believed lit up the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a location in the brain best known for processing reward, emotion and taste. Equally "primitive" areas associated with taste, pain perception and disgust determined disbelief. "False propositions may actually disgust us," Harris writes.

And the planned follow-up study sounds fascinating:

But his next neurological enterprise may be another matter. He is planning an fMRI run that will concentrate specifically on religious faith, which Harris thinks he now knows how to plumb more deeply. He also plans to set up two different subject groups — the faithful and non-believers. "That way," among other things, he says, "you can ask, 'Do believers believe that Jesus was born of a virgin the same way that nonbelievers believe that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks?'" It may turn out that the brain treats religious faith as its own special category of belief unlike ethics and math.

Read the full Time magazine article here.