Thursday, October 6, 2011

Week 1 - Religion's Negative Effects on Brain Development and Functions

The first topic I've decided to talk about is kind of a big one, I may end up going over some other ones on my list accidentally because it's so broad of a topic.

I'm going to discuss the negative effects on the brain, including child development, that religion presents. At the end I'll provide whatever links I may have used to back up what I've said. I intend on saying only things that I can back up.


Religion has come to be known as the "virus of the mind," and rightfully so. When presented at an early age, it can have devastating impacts on a child's normal cognitive development. At an early age, children are still learning about the world around them, who they are and how they fit into it. Their brains are nowhere near as developed as a functional adult's brain. No one would dare demand a child to choose which political party he wants to be affiliated with, yet seem completely fine with tagging a religious group to place him in. A child cannot understand things like religion, heaven or hell, God, or the Devil. A child will go along with what the parent says because a child wants approval from their parents and they wouldn't sacrifice possible loss of love or support by going against their words, especially on things they don't really understand or fully appreciate. Children are also incredibly susceptible to whatever an adult may say to them, since a main feature of a developing child is to "believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you" because adults are the first-most source for them to get information about the world and themselves. As Richard Dawkin's put it in his book "The God Delusion," "There is no such thing as a Christian child. Only a child of Christian parents."

 When you tell a child, "Be good or God will stop loving you and you'll go to Hell to burn for all eternity," that child does not develop a proper sense of morality on his own. Instead, he adopts what he is told out of fear and guilt. He no longer does things simply because "it's the right thing to do," but instead does them "because he's told to" or "he's scared of being punished." When you introduce a person with that kind of mentality into the world, they can be incredibly dangerous. Imagine that kind of person being told he'll be punished if he doesn't blow himself up in a suicide bombing, that God wants him to do it and it's the right thing to do? It's not so hard to imagine, if you think about it. Just look at 9/11.They become brainless soldiers conditioned to act out any atrocity in the name of their religion without feeling any human remorse or guilt for that action, because "that's what the Bible tells them is morally acceptable."

Children grown up in religious households also tend to lose their ability to make cognitive decisions on their own. Intellectualism is frowned upon. A child is taught never to question, to follow blindly with "faith." They better they are at it, the more glorified they are in their community for having such "deep faith." Faith is the absence of proof, believing to believe. A person's brain simply cannot develop properly when it's deprived of simple learning techniques such as cognitive decision making.

Atheist frontrunners such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins use the term "child abuse" to describe the harm that some religious upbringings inflict on children. They claim that children are especially vulnerable to mental harms related to religion, including:
  • Terrorized by threats of punishment, such as eternal damnation in a fiery hell
  • Extreme guilt about normal, healthy sexual functions
  • Trained to disrespect science and reason
  • Indoctrinated into a particular religious faith, thus depriving the child of the opportunity to make their own free inquiry later, when they are mature

And as the capacity for believing is strongest in childhood, special care is taken to make sure of this tender age. This has much more to do with the doctrines of belief taking root than threats and reports of miracles. If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one's own existence.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, On Religion: A Dialogue

"God Spots"

In 2009 there was a study done where scientists believed they found several areas in the brain connected to the forming of religious beliefs, which they coined as the "God Spots." These parts of the brain are assumed to control religious belief, that the brain has evolved throughout time to be sensitive to any form of belief that "improves chances of survival." Back in the per-historic ages and even so recently as a few hundred years ago, religion was indeed very important to our survival. We did not possess the knowledge we do now about the world we live in, but thanks to science, many of these mysteries have been explained. However, with that said, it appears that religion has been nothing more than an evolutionary adaption to ensure our survival, and nothing more. When the tadpole walked out of the water, it grew legs and got rid of it's tail. Religion as an evolutionary adaption to our survival as a species is no longer necessary. "Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable."

Religion protects against anxiety during the performance of thinking tasks. This is consistent with evolutionary theories that state that religion evolved as a result of human "need". It is possible that this need was anxiety reduction. The implication of having less anxiety is also intriguing as it may explain why we hold onto our religious beliefs. It may also explain why wars based on strong religious conviction may continue for so long - they may have an anxiety reducing effect that people become addicted to. When our beliefs are invested in something greater than ourselves, they protect us from anxiety because our attention is not on what is going on inside of us. Lower ACC activation may reflect attention directed elsewhere.

The study conducted by Inzlicht and colleagues (2009) found that stronger religious zeal and greater belief in God was associated with decreased reactivity of the brain's error detection center (ACC) and fewer wrong answers. Since the ACC is also implicated in anxiety and self-regulation, the authors concluded that having a strong religious belief acts as a buffer against anxiety and minimizes the experience of error by decreasing ACC activation, thereby reducing the reaction to error. As a preliminary thought this would suggest that having a strong religious conviction may obscure awareness of our own errors, in other words they lack a "bullshit-detector". Is this the reason that religious wars continue for so long? Is it possible that regardless of the specific religious belief, having a strong belief makes both sides less aware of mistakes they are making?

One of the areas of the brain that is associated with the "God Spots" is the frontal lobes of the cortex, which coincidentally are also connected to functions such as reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and drive. It also affects the ability to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions (or better and best), override and suppress unacceptable social responses, and determine similarities and differences between things or events.

Another area of the brain associated with the God Spots is the temporal lobe, which affects auditory pperception, processes es semantics in speech and vision, and aids in the formation of long-term memory. This part of the brain is what is majorly effected during an epileptic seizure, in which many sufferers claim to have religious experiences during.

"When we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us, it offers us the opportunities to believe in God. When we don't have a scientific explanation for something, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations. Maybe obeying supernatural forces that we had no knowledge of made it easier for religious forms of belief to emerge."- " Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda.

Virus of the Mind: Religion as a Mental Illness

In Richard Dawkin's Book "The Selfish Gene," Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to describe informational units that can be transmitted culturally, analogous to genes.He later used this concept in the essay "Viruses of the Mind" to explain the persistence of religious ideas in human culture.

Dawkins argues that religious ideologies are a set of ideas and concepts working together to ensure the perpetuation and proliferation of the religion itself. For instance, one important concept in Christianity is raising one's children to be Christians. This is proposed to work together to protect the religion from competition from other "memes". In this context, religion is criticized for being maladaptive in that it can cause the carrier of that 'meme" to act irrationally, misallocate resources and feel guilt, fear or other negative emotions without real reason.

Atheist frontrunners such as Dawkins also argue that religious belief often involves delusional behavior. American author Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation compares religion to mental illness, saying it "allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy."

There are also psychological studies into the phenomenon of mysticism, and the links between disturbing aspects of certain mystic's experiences and their links to childhood abuse. In another line of research, Clifford A. Pickover explores evidence suggesting that temporal lobe epilepsy may be linked to a variety of spiritual or ‘other worldly’ experiences as referenced above, such as spiritual possession, originating from altered electrical activity in the brain. Carl Sagan, in his last book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, presented his case for the miraculous sightings of religious figures in the past and the modern sightings of UFOs coming from the same mental disorder. According to Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, "It's possible that many great religious leaders had temporal lobe seizures and this predisposes them to having visions, having mystical experiences." Dr. Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of the brain artificially with a magnetic field using a device nicknamed the "God helmet," and was able to artificially induce religious experiences along with near-death experiences and ghost sightings.
Some forms of temporal lobe tumours or epilepsy are associated with extreme religiosity. Recent brain imaging of devotees engaging in prayer or transcendental meditation has more precisely identified activation in such sites — God-spots, as Vilayanur Ramachandran calls them. Psilocybin from mushrooms contacts the serotonergic system, with terminals in these and other brain regions, generating a sense of cosmic unity, transcendental meaning and religious ecstasy. Certain physical rituals can generate both these feelings and corresponding serotonergic activity.  Neuropsychology Professor John Bradshaw

Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain

A study links life-changing religious experiences, like being born again, with atrophy in the hippocampus.  The study, published March 30 in PLoS One, by by Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University, showed greater atrophy in the hippocampus in individuals who identify with specific religious groups as well as those with no religious affiliation. The hippocampus plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.
In this study, Owen et al. used MRI to measure the volume of the hippocampus, a central structure of the limbic system that is involved in emotion as well as in memory formation. They evaluated the MRIs of 268 men and women aged 58 and over, who were originally recruited for the NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly study, but who also answered several questions regarding their religious beliefs and affiliation. The study by Owen et al. is unique in that it focuses specifically on religious individuals compared to non-religious individuals. This study also broke down these individuals into those who are born again or who have had life-changing religious experiences.

The results showed significantly greater hippocampal atrophy in individuals reporting a life-changing religious experience. In addition, they found significantly greater hippocampal atrophy among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.
The authors offer the hypothesis that the greater hippocampal atrophy in selected religious groups might be related to stress. They argue that some individuals in the religious minority, or those who struggle with their beliefs, experience higher levels of stress. This causes a release of stress hormones that are known to depress the volume of the hippocampus over time. This might also explain the fact that both non-religious as well as some religious individuals have smaller hippocampal volumes.


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