Brain differences between believers and
Believing in God can help block anxiety and
minimize stress, according to new University of Toronto
research that shows distinct brain differences between
believers and non-believers.
In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael
Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task – a well-known
test of cognitive control – while hooked up to electrodes that
measured their brain activity.
Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed
significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex
(ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by
signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a
result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake.
The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed
in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own
errors, and the fewer errors they made.
"You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical
alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a
mistake or experiences uncertainty," says lead author
Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University
of Toronto Scarborough. "We found that religious people or
even people who simply believe in the existence of God show
significantly less brain activity in relation to their own
errors. They're much less anxious and feel less stressed when
they have made an error."
These correlations remained strong even after controlling for
personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also
found that religious participants made fewer errors on the
Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts.
Their findings show religious belief has a calming effect on
its devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious
about making errors or facing the unknown. But Inzlicht
cautions that anxiety is a "double-edged sword" which is at
times necessary and helpful.
"Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too
much, you're paralyzed with fear," he says. "However, it also
serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we're
making mistakes. If you don't experience anxiety when you make
an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your
behaviour so you don't make the same mistakes again and
University of Toronto
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