Brain Damage–Is Religion Wrecking People’s Thinking?

(Hat tip to Religion Gone Crazy for this)

There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.
And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon –
Pink Floyd, Brain Damage


The auto-response on this from the religious would be, “oh, wait, that’s just a video, it doesn’t count”. Countless excuses will ensue, mixed in deeply with cries of ‘persecution!’, accusations of confirmation bias, pathetic excuses, you know the drill.

Regardless, Scientific American released this article mid-2011, titled:

Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain

The article, “Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life,” by Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University represents an important advance in our growing understanding of the relationship between the brain and religion. The study, published March 30 in PLoS One, showed greater atrophy in the hippocampus in individuals who identify with specific religious groups as well as those with no religious affiliation. It is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression.

A number of studies have evaluated the acute effects of religious practices, such as meditation and prayer, on the human brain. A smaller number of studies have evaluated the longer term effects of religion on the brain. Such studies, like the present one, have focused on differences in brain volume or brain function in those people heavily engaged in meditation or spiritual practices compared to those who are not. And an even fewer number of studies have explored the longitudinal effects of doing meditation or spiritual practices by evaluating subjects at two different time points.

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.

For those of you unfamiliar with the hippocampus:

The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain. The hippocampus is closely associated with the cerebral cortex, and in primates is located in the medial temporal lobe, underneath the cortical surface. It contains two main interlocking parts: Ammon’s horn and the dentate gyrus.

This makes for interesting reading:

Although it had historical precursors, this idea derived its main impetus from a famous report by Scoville and Brenda Milner describing the results of surgical destruction of the hippocampus (in an attempt to relieve epileptic seizures), in a patient named Henry Gustav Molaison, known until his death in 2008 as H.M. The unexpected outcome of the surgery was severe anterograde and partial retrograde amnesia: H.M. was unable to form new episodic memories after his surgery and could not remember any events that occurred just before his surgery, but retained memories for things that happened years earlier, such as his childhood. This case produced such enormous interest that H.M. reportedly became the most intensively studied medical subject in history.

This would go a long way towards explaining much of the flatline behavior of the true believer.

It also lends new meaning to the term, ‘shrinkage’.

Till the next post, then.

This entry was posted in And now for something completely different, Delusion, Education, Mythology, Psychology, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Superstition. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Brain Damage–Is Religion Wrecking People’s Thinking?

  1. Mark says:

    I have always said that religious types have a lower spatial IQ, now I have proof. If one remembers, the spatial IQ section of an IQ test deals with logic. This explains Perry and Bachman.
    I have had my IQ tested professionally at ISU and my spatial IQ was way, way up there, where as I scored normally with the other subjects. (actually below average with spelling and grammar) For a total IQ score all sections are added up and divided to produce a mean average. My total IQ was 128 and it was my high spatial IQ that pushed my total above average. I’m a logical guy.
    I wonder how many other atheists would score high on the spatial IQ section of an IQ test. You can pick one up at your local bookstore. I have used both, the bookstore type and professionally by University personnel, and as long as one does not cheat on the bookstore type, they are accurate. There were only a few points difference between the two test in my case.

  2. Mark says:

    Now that I think of it, the university test was probably harder as they asked me questions like the speed of light and to remember groups of numbers…some I had to repeat in reverse order.

  3. Bronze Dog says:

    Just to add my anecdote, I’m an atheist with Aspergers, and part of my diagnosis involved taking an IQ test. IIRC, I had high scores for spatial logic and something else, while I was merely average in processing speed and working memory.

  4. ChuckA says:

    Spot ON, KA
    (or maybe…BINGO?…”Bed time for (shrunken brained) Bonzos”, AGAIN?)

    I’ve long contended that most, if not all, tribal based religions throughout mankinds’ demonstrably insane history were initially instigated by the most outrageous, “top-dog” seeking, delusional tribal lunatics, who, not surprisingly, were frequently, if not inevitably, the most highy respected, priestly suck-up, “knowledge keepers” and purveyors of drugs.
    Sepecifically, of course, the all-too already shrunken brain Chief’s/Pharoah’s/King’s & Queen’s/Tribal Pimp’s very own…hand (& private parts?) holding closest companion(s).
    “Yes, Mr. Doody!…of COURSE, Mr. Doody!…Thank you SO much, Mr. Doody for my ‘Holier than Thou’ title!”
    And we all know the auto-respected (shrunken brained?) titles; starting with the most prevelant one that Christopher Hitchens so often criticised…
    And then, starting back at the top of the pecking order chain, there’s everything from: “Your Highness”, “Your Holiness”, “Most Reverend”, “Your Honor”, yada-yada, to (think: the current 2012 electorate?)…
    “You’re outa your friggin’ (shrunken) mind…
    and YOU…demonstrably ignorant, hypocritical Repiglican asshole that you are…
    wanna be OUR…next PRESIDENT?

  5. Isn’t the hippocampus part of our “animal” brain? Seems like it deals more with emotions and memories than logic, unless I’m missing something. If the study were focusing on the frontal lobe, the title of your post would be more accurate.
    I read the study, very fascinating. The researchers seemed to conclude, tenuously, that it’s longitudinal stress that deals the blow to the hippocampus, and being perceived as a minority could contribute to that longitudinal stress. Noteworthy for this blog–those who identified as “non-religious” did worse than “non-born-again Protestants.” Just saying…

  6. KA says:

    I think that anything that shrinks portions of the brain is likely to be deleterious to the thought processes.
    & I’m pretty sure that memory is interlinked w/logic.

  7. Robster says:

    ‘Spose if you’re silly enough to subscribe to the childish nonsense so beloved by religious persons, a reduction in intelligence is to be expected. What they should test for is: Was the believers brain compromised by the belief system, or was it compromised to start with perhaps leading to “faith”? That would be a good test. The researchers could gather some people yet to be tainted by religion and follow up with people who cast rationality aside and end up being completey conned by the fraud and a control group of uninfected people.

  8. Matt says:

    Bronze Dog, I’ve read your blog today and you sound very interesting. Please contact me at stathmk (at) and we’ll send messages. I’m the webmaster of the archives of a Skeptic Society at .

  9. I too tend to do well on logic tests, but not well on memory tests. I made a raw score of 88 on the Miller Analogies Test, which set the state record in S.C. at the time. The MAT is simply 100 A is to B as C is to ? questions. There’s no math or memory involved – just logic and a bit of trivia. I finished the test in less than half the allotted time and found it very easy. Yet I can’t do basic algebra. I’m a life-long atheist.

  10. Sue Blue says:

    Hmmm, very interesting – but, as we all know, correlation does not equal causation. Were the subjects’ hippocampi smaller to begin with? Did having shrunken hippocampi predispose them to religious delusion or did the religiosity cause the shrinkage? It’s well known that neurological damage or disorders such as temporal lobe epilepsy can cause religiously-themed hallucinations and delusions. Obviously, following people with a normal hippocampus before and after a religious conversion experience such as being “born again” to see if their hippocampus shrinks post-conversion would be really time consuming and difficult, but without it, I don’t see how this isn’t just an interesting correlation.
    It’s similar to the way that ignorance is correlated with religion in the bible belt. Is the ignorance caused by religiosity, or does ignorance cause religiosity? Is it a response to poverty, abysmal education, and cultural factors such as mistrust of science and education? Or is it all of these things?
    I’m not saying that religion doesn’t turn people into retards – there’s definitely something wrong with their thought processes. It’s a chicken-or-egg sort of thing; I just think the facts aren’t all in yet.

  11. ChuckA says:

    From my own personal experience, having been thoroughly indoctrinated “from birth” into Catholicism, it took me until my college days to even BEGIN the process of “deprogramming” myself. IMO, most, if not all, people who become “born-again Christians” would not succomb if it weren’t for AT LEAST having been indoctrinated in childhood to unquestionably accept the PARTICULAR notion of the “Judeo/Xtian” god’s existence…as well as believing that the Bible is unquestionably…”God’s Word”.
    I guess my point, here, in relation to VERY young children, is related to what Sue Blue said…
    “… if their hippocampus shrinks post-conversion would be really time consuming and difficult, but without it, I don’t see how this isn’t just an interesting correlation.”
    IOW…some kind of unbiased Scientific measurement would have to be accomplished BEFORE any religious “programming” had begun; and that, for all kinds of practical reasons, would undoubtedly be strongly (even violently?) resisted by parents; especially the “Fundie” types.
    (From ChuckA’s…”Scenes we’d like to see” file?)
    [Mother to Brain (and various..warped and/or ‘probing’) Research Scientist]:
    “You wanna do WHAT…to my dearest “gift from Gawd” child?…
    Get thee behind me, SATAN…(suddenly turning her head around)…
    NOW, what are you doing?…erm…
    on second thought…HARDER…DEEPER! (closeup of shit eating grin?)” 😈

  12. Yo, Bronze Dog! Fellow atheist as well as fellow Aspie. Did you know we have a discussion group on Atheist Nexus, btw? Also, recent Atheist Alliance International past president Stuart Bechman is also an Aspie (and on Atheist Nexus as well);

    I’ve often speculated if our A.S. gives us an extra layer of defense against ‘the God virus’, so to speak. I know that teleological reasoning just doesn’t fly with us. I also know hearing people say “everything happens for a reason” by which they invoke some religious notion always pisses me off severely.

    I’ll admit, I did go through a “religious phase” in Graduate school, but I blame that squarely on trying to wrap my noodle around Postmodern theory…and literally lost hold of my rational faculties for a time…and experienced in highly condensed form what some believers who leave struggle with for years…problem of evil, etc; it was all very surreal…but the biggest motivation for chucking it (and PoMo) and re-embracing atheism/humanism (after a brief, dark bout of nihilism) was that I realized what intellectual suicide the religious path was and I value my intellect far too much. “Goddidit” may satisfy some people, but it never has me.

  13. ernest says:

    Being the devils advocate.

    So how do you explain the various 30 and 40 or more year-olds who become atheists in later life. As an atheist, this sounds like poor science to me. To me it sounds like psychobable.

  14. John Myste says:

    To continue as Devil’s advocate, and perhaps borrow from Sue Blue, this “discovery” could easily be a post hoc fallacy.

    I have repeatedly read studies showing conservatives are more intelligent than liberals. I have also repeatedly read studies that liberals, of which I am one, are more intelligent than conservatives.

    I have read a study that showed that conservatives are genetically predisposed to less intelligent ideas.

    I have read the exact same study later, that showed the exact same thing, only about liberals.

    If there were a strong correlation between religion and lack of some forms of reasoning ability, I think you would need a more controlled test, a larger sample, and repeatedly validated study, by a supposedly objective variety of sources.

    Without these, this study is interesting and entertaining, but it is not science.

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