By directing magnetic force – so-called TMS, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation – towards the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) of the brain, scientists from the University of York have found a relatively strong link between religious faith and intolerance. Anyone surprised?
The targeted region of the brain is associated with detecting and solving problems that threaten the individual’s security. The threat in this study was being reminded of death and mortality. Thinking of death and mortality normally lead to stronger beliefs in divine beings and afterlife.
But after the targeted brain region – pMFC – was temporarily shut down, the subjects were instead less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas. In fact, they reported 32.8 per cent less belief in God, angels, or heaven after having their pMFC turned down! And at the same time they were also 28.5 per cent more positive in their feelings towards an immigrant who before the TMS treatment had criticised and derogated their native country.
The explanation? People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems. That is, they embrace – by trial and error learning and/or priming – a system of ideas and ideals, and this system then becomes their primary tool to reduce the fear factor (anxiety) in their lives. Individuals of the same group (community) often learn from each other how to handle what causes fear and/or anxiety (in this case initiated by worry of death/mortality).
So belief in divine beings – as well as intolerance towards strangers threatening the harmony witihin a group of people – can be seen as a spin-off effect from ordinary problem solving.
People cleave to ideological convictions with greater intensity in the aftermath of threat.
The posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) plays a key role in both detecting discrepancies between desired and current conditions and adjusting subsequent behavior to resolve such conflicts.Building on prior literature examining the role of the pMFC in shifts in relatively low-level decision processes, we demonstrate that the pMFC mediates adjustments in adherence to political and religious ideologies.
We presented participants with a reminder of death and a critique of their in-group ostensibly written by a member of an out-group, then experimentally decreased both avowed belief in God and out-group derogation by down-regulating pMFC activity via transcranial magnetic stimulation.
The results provide the first evidence that group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, and point to a shared cognitive mechanism underlying concrete and abstract decision processes.
We discuss the implications of these findings for further research characterizing the cognitive and affective mechanisms at play.