Shutting down part of brain changes views on God, immigrants: study
Researchers out of the University of York, in England, and the University of California, Los Angeles, used magnetic energy to safely and temporarily shut down specific regions of the brain.
Christina Commisso, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, October 14, 2015 3:04PM EDT
Temporarily shutting down part of the brain that's responsible for problem solving can supress your religious views and prejudices toward immigrants, a new study has found.
Researchers out of the University of York, in England, and the University of California, Los Angeles, used magnetic energy to safely and temporarily shut down specific regions of the brain of some study participants.
When the posterior medial frontal cortex -- a part of the brain located near the surface and roughly a few inches up from the forehead -- was shut down, participants reported a decrease in their religious convictions and were more positive toward new immigrants critical of their country.
"This is the first study ever to try and manipulate ideology on such an abstract level," UCLA research scientist Colin Holbrook told CTVNews.ca.
The part of the brain involved in the study is responsible for problem detection and helps orchestrate responses to problems.
In the study, half of the approximately 40 participants were part of a control group that received a low-level "sham" procedure that did not affect their brains. The other half received enough energy to lower activity in the target brain area.
Participants were reminded of their inevitable death and asked about both positive and negative aspects of their religious beliefs.
"By positive, I mean God, angels, heaven versus devil, hell and demons," Holbrook explained.
The findings -- published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience on Wednesday -- showed that when the brain was temporarily shut down, participants showed a 32.8-per-cent decrease in their belief in God, angels, or heaven.
"We decided to remind people of death because previous research has shown that people turn to religion for comfort in the face of death," Keise Izuma, of the University of York's psychology department, said in a news statement. "As expected, 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."
To test feelings of nationalism, the participants read two essays written by recent immigrants: one that was flattering of the United States, and one that was critical of the country.
The researchers, who worked with the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, found that the magnetic stimulation had the greatest effect on reactions to the critical author. Participants were 28.5 per cent more positive in their feeling toward the immigrant who criticized their country.
"The immigrant who's very critical, they're calling into question group values, to some extent they're challenging the group and they may be undermining deep-seated conviction on the part of the participant," Holbrook said.
He added that when someone is challenged about their values, they'll often "double-down" and become even more hostile toward the critic.
"When we disrupted the brain region that we thought would be implicated in producing this kind of ideological doubling down, sure enough, we found a less negative, less hostile reaction to the critical immigrant."
Holdbrook said the reduction in both religious beliefs and prejudice illustrates the extent that these views are influenced by the part of the brain involved in detecting threats.
He said he was very surprised that the shift in ideology was not driven by emotions, as the participants did not report any difference in their emotional states during the experiment.