Harris tested how the brain responded to assertions in seven categories: mathematical, geographic, semantic, factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious. All seven provided some useful data, but only the ones relating to math and ethics produced results clear enough to give a vivid picture of the way the simple and the complex, the subjective and the objective intertwine. Regardless of their content, statements that the subjects believed lit up the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a location in the brain best known for processing reward, emotion and taste. Equally "primitive" areas associated with taste, pain perception and disgust determined disbelief. "False propositions may actually disgust us," Harris writes.
Is there a practical application here? He speculates that if belief brain scanning were sufficiently refined it could act as an accurate lie detector and help control for the placebo effect in drug design.
Harris says there is no critique of faith hidden somewhere in his brief paper. But his next neurological enterprise may be another matter. He is planning an fMRI run that will concentrate specifically on religious faith, which Harris thinks he now knows how to plumb more deeply. He also plans to set up two different subject groups — the faithful and non-believers. "That way," among other things, he says, "you can ask, 'Do believers believe that Jesus was born of a virgin the same way that nonbelievers believe that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks?'" It may turn out that the brain treats religious faith as its own special category of belief unlike ethics and math.
But that is not what Harris expects to find. He suspects the machines will show that "belief is belief is belief." And that conclusion, he admits, may put him at loggerheads with familiar foes. No one, he says, could accuse him or anyone else of trying to disprove God's existence on the basis of an fMRI. But faith is more vulnerable. "People who feel that religious faith is a singular operation of the brain — if they admit that it's an operation of the brain at all — would object to what I'm doing, since it may show that faith is essentially the same as other kinds of knowing or thinking. The whole thing will seem fishy to anyone who thinks we have immaterial souls running around in our bodies."
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith
Sam Harris, Neuroscience researcher and author of "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation," recently co-authored a study entitled "Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty." And Time.com has an interesting article about it: