left biblioblography: Brain Damage–Is Religion Wrecking People’s Thinking?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brain Damage–Is Religion Wrecking People’s Thinking?

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasis
(Hat tip to Religion Gone Crazy for this)

There's someone in my head but it's not me.
And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon –
Pink Floyd, Brain Damage


The auto-response on this from the religious would be, “oh, wait, that’s just a video, it doesn’t count”. Countless excuses will ensue, mixed in deeply with cries of ‘persecution!’, accusations of confirmation bias, pathetic excuses, you know the drill.

Regardless, Scientific American released this article mid-2011, titled:

Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain

The article, “Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life,” by Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University represents an important advance in our growing understanding of the relationship between the brain and religion. The study, published March 30 in PLoS One, showed greater atrophy in the hippocampus in individuals who identify with specific religious groups as well as those with no religious affiliation. It is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression.

A number of studies have evaluated the acute effects of religious practices, such as meditation and prayer, on the human brain. A smaller number of studies have evaluated the longer term effects of religion on the brain. Such studies, like the present one, have focused on differences in brain volume or brain function in those people heavily engaged in meditation or spiritual practices compared to those who are not. And an even fewer number of studies have explored the longitudinal effects of doing meditation or spiritual practices by evaluating subjects at two different time points.

In this study, Owen et al. used MRI to measure the volume of the hippocampus, a central structure of the limbic system that is involved in emotion as well as in memory formation. They evaluated the MRIs of 268 men and women aged 58 and over, who were originally recruited for the NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly study, but who also answered several questions regarding their religious beliefs and affiliation. The study by Owen et al. is unique in that it focuses specifically on religious individuals compared to non-religious individuals. This study also broke down these individuals into those who are born again or who have had life-changing religious experiences.

The results showed significantly greater hippocampal atrophy in individuals reporting a life-changing religious experience. In addition, they found significantly greater hippocampal atrophy among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.

For those of you unfamiliar with the hippocampus:

The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain. The hippocampus is closely associated with the cerebral cortex, and in primates is located in the medial temporal lobe, underneath the cortical surface. It contains two main interlocking parts: Ammon's horn and the dentate gyrus.

This makes for interesting reading:

Although it had historical precursors, this idea derived its main impetus from a famous report by Scoville and Brenda Milner describing the results of surgical destruction of the hippocampus (in an attempt to relieve epileptic seizures), in a patient named Henry Gustav Molaison, known until his death in 2008 as H.M. The unexpected outcome of the surgery was severe anterograde and partial retrograde amnesia: H.M. was unable to form new episodic memories after his surgery and could not remember any events that occurred just before his surgery, but retained memories for things that happened years earlier, such as his childhood. This case produced such enormous interest that H.M. reportedly became the most intensively studied medical subject in history.

This would go a long way towards explaining much of the flatline behavior of the true believer.

It also lends new meaning to the term, ‘shrinkage’.

Till the next post, then.

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