Monday, April 06, 2009

Different brain responses found in believers and non-believers -- to the advantage of believers

The very busy Michael Inzlicht is good at proving the obvious and the finding below is far from unexpected too. But there are some occasions when confirmation of the expected is useful and I think the study below falls into that category. Inzlicht is a Leftist and presumably Jewish Canadian so one can understand his obvious disappointment with his own findings below.

The original heading on this article was amusing: "Researchers find brain differences between believers and non-believers". If you did not read the article carefully, you could well be left with the impression that religious brains were structurally deficient -- which is not remotely what the research shows. That's not the fault of Inzlicht, however, just the usual hostility to religion that pervades the academy. The journal abstract is here

Believing in God can help block anxiety and minimize stress, according to new University of Toronto research that shows distinct brain differences between believers and non-believers. In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task - a well-known test of cognitive control - while hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain activity.

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.

"You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty," says lead author Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Toronto Scarborough. "We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They're much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error."

These correlations remained strong even after controlling for personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also found that religious participants made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts.

Their findings show religious belief has a calming effect on its devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making errors or facing the unknown. But Inzlicht cautions that anxiety is a "double-edged sword" which is at times necessary and helpful.

"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. 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?"


Phony Anti-Meat Doctors Getting Desperate For Publicity

This morning, a Washington Post blogger gave fear-mongering vegans at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) some long-overdue advice: “Lighten up!” Taking a page from their close friends at PETA, PCRM caught the attention of a major newswire this week with a publicity stunt involving a novelty cheeseburger at a minor-league baseball stadium in Michigan. The four-pound monster burger, said PCRM’s Susan Levin, shouldn’t be sold without a “dietary disaster” warning label. Because no one knows that eating 4,800-calorie burgers isn’t a healthy habit. Right.

The Post’s Jennifer Huget was not impressed:
Give me a break. I've got to think that PCRM has got bigger fish to fry…

Of course nobody's suggesting that monster burgers become a dietary mainstay. But this is clearly a prank, a silly attention-getting device. To suggest that it's likely to encourage widespread overindulgence in hypercaloric ground beef sandwiches is, I think, disingenuous. Seems health advocacy groups, like minor-league ball teams, sometimes need a bit of publicity.

I don't want to eat a big burger myself. But I defend other people's right to cram one in their face if they so choose.

PCRM looks silly indeed for ignoring the fact that Michigan’s minor-league fans are probably in on the joke with this gigantic burger. (For crying out loud, the thing has its own t-shirt.)

But Huget slightly misses the mark on one point: To PCRM, there are no bigger fish than getting Americans to stop eating meat. One shameless food scare, phony medical claim, and meaningless warning label at a time.


No comments: