Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What to Make of This?

One of the advantages of living in the modern era is that we have access to scientific techniques far beyond those available even a few decades ago. This is particularly true as far as brain research goes, in that neuroscience has exploded over the last twenty years. Breakthroughs in brain science have been facilitated by more advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning techniques which have revolutionized the field. Back when I was in college the best functional scanning you could do used positron emission tomography (PET) which was a fantastic method of monitoring brain activity for about 45 seconds and then you were done.

This recent study came out back in May, and to a spiritual practitioner like myself raises more questions than it answers.

According to the study, people who said they were a "born-again" Protestant or Catholic, or conversely, those who had no religious affiliation, had more hippocampal shrinkage (or "atrophy") compared to people who identified themselves as Protestants, but not born-again.

As people age, a certain amount of brain atrophy is expected. Shrinkage of the hippocampus is also associated with depression, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

In the study, researchers asked 268 people aged 58 to 84 about their religious affiliation, spiritual practices and life-changing religious experiences. Over the course of two to eight years, changes to the hippocampus were monitored using MRI scans.

On the surface it would seem like the two groups associated with greater hippocampal shrinkage have little in common, and in fact are often genuinely hostile to each other. But apparently they experience some similar outcomes in old age at the neurological level.

In light of previous studies showing that religious affiliation seems to have some sort of benefit in terms of reducing stress and preserving brain function, these findings are intriguing. It may be that the type of religious affiliation one has makes a difference, and the "born-agains" wound up being lumped in with the overall "religious" group in said previous studies which hid this effect. However, why this would be the case is hard to explain.

"One interpretation of our finding -- that members of majority religious groups seem to have less atrophy compared with minority religious groups -- is that when you feel your beliefs and values are somewhat at odds with those of society as a whole, it may contribute to long-term stress that could have implications for the brain," Amy Owen, lead author of the study and a research associate at Duke University Medical Center, said in a Duke news release.

The study authors also suggested that life-changing religious experiences could challenge a person's established religious beliefs, triggering stress.

Having spent time in a "born-again" church when I was in high school I find this explanation hard to accept. The "born-agains" I knew cultivated a tight-knit community of like-minded people that generally centered around church activities. For the most part they spend very little of time interacting with people who are hostile to their beliefs. Furthermore, in some parts of the United States "born-again" Christianity is the majority religion. There isn't any information in the article about regional variations identified by the study, but I would think that a lack of such variation would tend to disprove the "minority religious group" explanation.

I can see where it might be a possibility for atheists, though, who are a tiny minority of the population and encounter unbelievable (to me anyway) hostility from religious believers of all stripes. It's also possible that there could be something to the "life-changing experience" idea, in that in a lot of cases both "born-agains" and atheists wind up radically changing their religious beliefs at some point in their lives, but still I have a hard time seeing how such a one-time event could have such far-reaching consequences in old age.

Personally, I would be tempted to connect hippocampal atrophy with a lack of active spiritual practice just from looking at these two groups and the overall study results. "Born-agains" go to church a lot but on the whole have a worldview in which their own work or practice has little to do with their idea of salvation. They tend to see God as in control of their lives and believe it to be presumptuous to try and influence anything, even their own level of realization. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, do no spiritual practice because they either reject spirituality or don't find it very important. However, the researchers do not believe that this is the case.

The researchers noted other factors related to hippocampal atrophy, such as age, depression or brain size, as well as other religious factors such as prayer or meditation, could not explain the study's findings.

What I would really like to see is a more detailed breakdown of this including full descriptions of the various practices surveyed. For example, "how often do you pray?" is not a very useful question. I'd much rather ask subjects their perspective on prayer - is it a practice that they see as requiring directed attention and discipline, or does it just consist of asking for what you want and kind of hoping that God does it? Meditation is similar, in that different approaches may have different consequences as the brain ages. And where on this spectrum would magicians fall?

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Gordon said...


I'm just gonna take a stab and say the hippocampus is responsible for "comfort with grey areas."

Hypnovatos said...

Im going to agree with your analysis and against the findings. I read those results, and i see two groups with rather "closed minds". I wonder if the single track mindedness is the RESULT of the lack of brain function in that area, and not the other way around. The only real way to study this is to study people through their whole lives and see if those people, before they became "born again" or atheist had a deficiency in that are to begin with. In other words, do ppl with this "disorder" gravitate towards these extremes? And if so... can they get a handicap parking pass... cuz i may have found a good reason to be born again :D

Ananael Qaa said...

Yes, that's a whole other area to look at in this study - whether or not the causality works the other way around. It could be that people with diminished function in the hippocampus are drawn in some way to both the "born again" and unbeliever worldviews.

We also don't know if it's a "disorder" per se. It might just be some sort of basic brain difference, in which hippocampus functioning is reduced but some other processing area is enhanced. The study only looked at a single brain structure.