Last year a study was performed by Sam Harris, Sameer A. Sheth and Mark S. Cohen where they used fMRI to observe the physical responses of the brain when a person was provided with statements that were taken to be true, false or otherwise. They found that different areas of the brain showed activity depending on how the subject perceived the statement.
Here is the abstract of the original study:
Objective: The difference between believing and disbelieving a proposition is one of the most potent regulators of human behavior and emotion. When one accepts a statement as true, it becomes the basis for further thought and action; rejected as false, it remains a string of words. The purpose of this study was to differentiate belief, disbelief, and uncertainty at the level of the brain.
Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 14 adults while they judged written statements to be “true” (belief), “false” (disbelief), or “undecidable” (uncertainty). To characterize belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in a content-independent manner, we included statements from a wide range of categories: autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual.
Results: The states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty differentially activated distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia.
Interpretation: Belief and disbelief differ from uncertainty in that both provide information that can subsequently inform behavior and emotion. The mechanism underlying this difference appears to involve the anterior cingulate cortex and the caudate. Although many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true” or its rejection as “false” appears to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions may actually disgust us.
Oliver Sacks, in a review of the study said,
Harris et al. note that reactions of assent are significantly prompter than those of dissent or uncertainty. This they take to support “Spinoza’s conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true,” an almost reflexive, if provisional, assent, to be followed by a more deliberate weighing and assessment. Human beings, in other words, are wired to “accept appearances as reality until they prove otherwise.” This seems to us to ring true.
The most provocative suggestion made by Harris et al. relates to their finding that all reactions of assent or acceptance (or belief, if one prefers) are neurophysiologically identical, whether propositional judgments are made in the highly charged realm of ethical or religious issues or the seemingly neutral realm of arithmetical statements. If such results can be duplicated, Harris et al. will have made a fascinating discovery.
The results of this original study have led to questions of whether religious faith ‘looks’ different than belief at the level of the brain and Harris is preparing for another study that will also use fMRI to observe the physical aspects of belief and faith.
In an attempt to find questions that will best suit the upcomming study Harris has set up four surveys and is looking for people who have opinions either way regarding Christianity to participate. If you are a Christian or an atheist/agnostic and you want to help them identify the most appropriate stimuli for the study you can complete one or more of the following surveys:
Each one has around 100 questions. I did C and it didn’t take too long.