fMRI maps anatomical origins of belief in God

December 28, 2007
Larry Schuster
Larry Schuster

Can functional MRI detect the anatomic point of origin of belief in a personal God? That profound physiological and philosophical question has been answered in the affirmative by Mark S. Cohen, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the UCLA Brain Mapping Center.

Can functional MRI detect the anatomic point of origin of belief in a personal God? That profound physiological and philosophical question has been answered in the affirmative by Mark S. Cohen, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the UCLA Brain Mapping Center.Their 3T fMRI investigation of seven men and seven women, aged 18 to 45 years, found that states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in normal adults differentially activate distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices as well as the basal ganglia. The same regions are associated with primitive emotions such as disgust and anger. The correlation among beliefs, disbeliefs, and emotions led the UCLA researchers to insights about the heartfelt nature of strong convictions. Cohen, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science, was the senior author of a paper describing the results that was released Dec. 10, ahead of publication in the Annals of Neurology. Sam Harris, a graduate student in UCLA's Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center was first author.

Subjects were presented through a video-goggle display worn over their eyes with a series of short statements, including:

  • A personal God exists, just as the Bible describes
  • There is probably no actual Creator God
  • Jesus spoke 2467 words in the New Testament

After reading each statement, they were asked to evaluate its truth content with the press of a button, indicating "true" (belief), "false" (disbelief), and "undecidable" (uncertainty).

Volunteers also responded to statements from mathematics, geography, ethics, and semantics. These were designed to disclose the subject's belief, disbelief, or uncertainty regarding their veracity.Functional data were acquired on a 3T scanner in the anterior commissure-posterior commissure orientation using T2*-weighted echo-planar imaging. Anatomic images were acquired using a magnetization-prepared rapid gradient-echo sequence.Maps of blood oxygen level-dependent signal changes were the result of pairwise contrasts between each of the three task conditions.Cohen told Diagnostic Imaging that the research team was surprised by the high level of limbic system involvement. Previous fMRI research had implicated the limbic system with primitive behaviors."The data very strongly suggest that we do our believing with our gut. I think they tell us we are not going ahead and simply evaluating the facts," he said.The findings regarding limbic system involvement may explain why people hold on to beliefs long after demonstrable facts prove them wrong, he said.Dr. Richard Frackowiak, a professor of cognitive neurology at University College London in the U.K., was less surprised about the limbic system involvement. A judgment of the type used in the study also often elicits an emotional response, and the exercise may have resulted in cross-referencing to memories as well, he said.When the researchers contrasted belief and disbelief, across all stimulus categories, they identified a discrete region of MRI signal increase in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, specifically in rostral regions of the gyrus rectus and the orbitomedial gyrus, predominantly in the left hemisphere."These results suggest that the differences among belief, disbelief, and uncertainty may one day be distinguished reliably, in real-time, by techniques of neuroimaging. This would have obvious implications for the detection of deception, for the control of the placebo effect during the process of drug design," the UCLA researchers wrote."The reasons you might want to have a belief or truth detector is that you might be able to avoid a lot of mess associated with extracting information from people by other means, say instead of torture. Wouldn't it be much more humane?" Cohen said. "For me personally, the notion of having a tool that goes and looks inside your head and interrogates its private thoughts is a scary possibility, and that's not what this work is about and that's not our intent in any way."For more information from the Diagnostic Imaging archives:

Functional MRI sheds light on purchasing decisions

fMRI tests assumptions about behavior and thought

MRI reveals early brain changes linked to schizophrenia

Detecting lies with fMRI

Brain holds the key to lost memories