Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers

I came across this article this morning about how faith in a god can help to reduce stress and block anxiety. According to Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, there are distinct differences in the brains of believers and non believers.

Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, and the fewer errors they made.

It seems the brains of believers shows significantly less activity, and therefore less stress and anxiety, in relation to their own errors.

"Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you're paralyzed with fear," he says. "However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we're making mistakes. [b]If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?[/b]"
my bold.

I think that last sentence explains a lot.
Perhaps it also just easier to have someone else to blame for your mistakes…The Devil Made Me Do It…; believers never have to accept responsibility for their mistakes.

The Stroop Task is in itself an interesting research tool.


I wonder if a change occurs in the brain activity of someone who was once a believer and who then becomes an atheist?

There are three options:

  1. Religiousness causes ACC inactivity. (possible)
  2. ACC inactivity causes religiousness. (seems a bit unlikely)
  3. Both ACC inactivity and religiousness have a separate but common cause (possible)

I’m leaning towards option number three, and here is why.

You don’t just wake up one morning with different religious views. It takes a lot of appealing to your reasoning circuitry before abandoning faith. So maybe religion is merely a manifestation, or symptom, of one or several more fundamental causes.

Therefor I’ll speculate that changing from a believer to an atheist is a byproduct of the increased use of “new” centers of the brain, while possibly shutting down some of the others.

So to answer your question, I think change in cerebral activity would have to precede or at least run concurrent with a change in religious views.


I think that an equally plausible case could be made for religious indoctrination of children producing reduced ACC activity. Activity at various sites in the brain is neuronal activity, and it is known from neurological studies that most neural pathways are forged at a young age. Although these pathways can be changed later, it becomes increasingly difficult with age.

It is a telling feature of religion and religious instruction that jarring facts and inconsistencies are simply glossed over or swept under the god-carpet. In this way, the errors and mistakes are made to appear unimportant, and so young children habitually subjected to religious thinking do not make much use of ACC cognition, effectively preventing the proper formation of the appropriate neural pathways in favour of others that sustain religious modes of thinking.

The reluctance to give up or to change beliefs is then just the difficulty of changing neural pathways, i.e. as much a breaking of an old habit as it is a different way of thinking. As any practising psychologist will attest, many habits and behaviours are purely psychological in origin, e.g. OCD, nail biting, shyness, etc., and require for their treatment a figurative “rewiring” of the afflicted’s brain through adapting existing neural pathways and possibly forging new ones.

Ramachandran’s book Phantoms in the Brain cites some cases where modified behaviour was attended by clear changes in neuronal brain activity. In fact, using various techniques to stimulate the formation of different pathways was found to be very successful in treating certain kinds of psychological disorder. For instance, direct visual feedback was given to patients about which part(s) of their brains were being used from moment to moment, and patients could change their thought patterns essentially by willing other parts of their brains into use. On this basis, I would be very surprised if a believer who becomes an atheist (or vice versa) does not show some changes, before and after, in brain activity. Moreover, I suspect that these differences will tend to become increasingly distinct over time as the revised neural pathways take a firmer hold.


This is good stuff, Luthon!

Do you mind if I use some of your ideas? Specifically these…

I had a look at the ACC, and although it is unethical to compare other neurological disorders like violence and schizophrenia with diminished activity in the ACC, it is nevertheless a common factor.

ACC - The brain’s “Oops” Centre / Sixth Sense
ACC - Impulsive violence
ACC - Schizophrenia

BTW. The ACC is also responsible for rational cognitive functions and acts as mediator between different parts of the brain during fact-based reasoning.


God on the Brain - Epilepsy or ACC Epilepsy

Thank you kindly, and please, by all means, feel free to use anything of mine on the forum as you see fit — with or without attribution. It’s all in the public domain in any case.


Could a brain injury, and in particular, to this area of the brain cause someone to start believing in god? Or are there other areas of the brain that would need to be affected too?

Would their sudden belief be the result of what the brain experiences while it’s in a coma?


In the case mentioned in the article, God on the Brain, they mention the case of Ellen, that experienced just that.

After her accident, she started becoming highly religious and experienced powerful religious visions that lasted between 15 minutes and three hours.

Professor Holmes is convinced that the blow to Ellen's head caused her to develop temporal lobe epilepsy.

“Her whole clinical course to me suggested the high probability that she had temporal lobe epilepsy. This would indicate to me that the spiritual visions she was having would not be genuine, but would be due to the seizures.”

I am not sure if she had a belief in God before, but the visions strengthened it at least.

Thanks for that interesting link, Sentinel.
The case I know about has some things in common with what was discussed in the article; the person I know was not religious before his accident. I also know that explaining to him that his experiences may be aa a result of the injury will not be acceptable to him, so I won’t even try.
He’s not having any seizures, but I will be more wary of the possibilty of that happening.


Perhaps it also just easier to have someone else to blame for your mistakes....The Devil Made Me Do It.....; believers never have to accept responsibility for their mistakes.

Perhaps the study should be expanded to investigate morality.

If nonbelievers are more likely to learn from their mistakes, it follows that nonbelievers would be careful about their actions and its impact on their immediate environment.

Nonbelievers who do good, or cause no harm, because of a clear, logical thought process, may have the edge (I am going to use a terrible “word” ;D, my apologies to intelligent Americans) “morality-wise” on believers.

Believers often unthinkingly do good because they are told to, and refrain from doing harm because they are threatened with hellfire.

I agree that the nonreligious might be more analytical; which is in line with this study. This report seems to point to the ACC’s ability to decide between right and wrong before an active decision had taken place. They may have found the source of our “little voice”.

"In the past, we found activity in the ACC when people had to make a difficult decision among mutually exclusive options, or after they made a mistake," Brown said. "But now we find that this brain region can actually learn to recognize when you might make a mistake, even before a difficult decision has to be made. So the ACC appears to act as an early warning system -- it learns to warn us in advance when our behavior might lead to a negative outcome, so that we can be more careful and avoid making a mistake."

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I can relate to this. A few years ago I was attacked and suffered some brain damage. I changed, not my religious believes, but my attention to detail. Never been a perfectionist but now I lose every thing, can’t remember where I parked the car. My wive had to change my clothes. My shirts, pants and socks are all the same. This way I can’t mismatch stuff. If it was not for the spell check, you could probably not read this (if you want a excuse you will find it :wink: but how about a grammar check?)

I am now intolerant of other peoples believes and that make my irritable. Lose my temper and then do things that I am not proud of later.

So I suppose that you can not expect people to change their outlook just like that but I am getting tiered of them trying to get me to change mine.

Tweefo, I fink I can help you’z. :smiley:

Tweefo, I fink I can help you'z.

What with the spelling? Thanks I need some, but in my favour I’ve got to add that I am typing this with one finger on my left hand. I used to be right handed.