Are religious feelings just the result of brain activity? A new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience showing that belief in God can be modulated by shutting down a part of the brain seems to suggest that is the case.

The study, led by Dr. Keise Izuma, a psychologist at the University of York, used transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt the posterior medial frontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with problem-solving.

Reasoning that people often turn to ideology to solve problems, Izuma, together with a team from UCLA, explored what effect shutting down the problem-solving part of the brain would have on religious and nationalistic dilemmas.

In the study, half of the participants received low-level stimulation that had no effect on the brain, and the other half were zapped with enough energy to decrease brain activity in the PMFC. They were then told to think about death and asked about their feelings on religion and immigrants.

Izuma theorized that thinking about death would lead people to turn to contemplate religion, a common source of solace. “As expected,” he said in a press release, “we found that when we experimentally turned down the posterior medial frontal cortex, people were less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas despite having been reminded of death.” Specifically, participants whose brain activity was decreased had 32.8 percent less belief in God, angels, or heaven and in the Devil, demons, and hell than those who received the sham treatment.

Turning participants’ thoughts toward ethnocentric attitudes, the researchers had people read two essays purportedly written by recent immigrants: One praised the U.S., while the other criticized it. People who received magnetic stimulation were 28.5 percent more positive in their feelings toward immigrants with sentiments against their country than those who didn’t.

Decreasing activity in the PMFC, it seems, causes people to be less ideologically motivated in their reactions to nationalistic threats or religion. It’s thought that this part of the brain evolved to deal with basic problem solving — simple functions, like climbing over trees — but, given their results, the researchers suggest it’s been repurposed to deal with more abstract issues. (Figuring out why religious beliefs and ethnic attitudes are affected will require a lot more research.)

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