Believers Less Stressed: Study
CAIRO — The brains of religious people are calmer in the face of uncertainty and less stressed in the face of error than non-believers, a Canadian study has found, triggering calls for more studies on the correlation between religiosity and brain activity.
“Religious people or people who believe in God are less anxiously vigilant after they’ve made an error,” Michael Inzlicht, a University of Toronto psychology professor and the study co-author, told the Canadian Press on Thursday, March 5.
The study involved a small group non-believers and faithful from diverse religious background, including Muslims, Christians, Hindu and Buddhists.
Participants were asked to complete a “religious zeal questionnaire,” about their belief in God and their level of religiosity.
The volunteers were then asked to perform a Stroop task — a well-known psychological test that measures the reaction time while performing tasks such as identifying colors quickly.
The subjects were hooked up to electrodes that measured activity in the area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is involved in emotion control and helps people to modify behavior during an anxiety-producing event such as making a mistake.
“It fires when you’ve made a mistake, when something is not right, when you’re facing a situation where you don’t know what to do,” Inzlicht explained.
Scientists found that religious participants showed significantly less activity in the ACC compared to non-believers, suggesting they were experiencing less anxiety during the test when they made mistakes.
The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, the study found.
“For the religious people, they were less likely to have this kind of anxious uh-oh response, they were more OK with the error, they were less vigilant after they made an error,” said Inzlicht.
“They seem to be calmer. They seem to deal with it with more equanimity.”
Scientists say their study affirmed that there is a correlation between religiosity and brain activity.
“We still don’t know exactly why. What’s the mechanism behind this?” Inzlicht said.
The authors thus believe that their findings require further investigation.
“We’re exploring now the order of causation. What causes what?” Inzlicht said.
“Is it possible that someone who’s born with this kind of brain activity is attracted to religion, or is it the other way around that religion leads one to have this kind of brain?”
David Reed, professor emeritus of pastoral theology and a research professor at Wycliffe College, isn’t surprised by the study results.
“Religious people, and I’m speaking for Christians but also other faiths as well, have some larger purpose other than themselves,” he told the Globe and Mail.
“They have a more longitudinal view of life, in that they take it beyond death.”