In 2015, religious and atheist forums exploded with news of an experiment performed out at the University of California. Social media feeds were splashed with headlines like “Directing Magnetic Energy Into The Brian Can Reduce Belief In God,” “Scientists reduce belief in God by shutting down the brain’s medial frontal cortex,” and the far more on-the-nose “Scientists Claim Zapping Brains with Magnets Can Treat Belief in God”.Joel Furches, “Magnets, the Human Brain, and God” at Patheos (December 19, 2022)
The New Atheist movement was pretty strong at that time (it did not become the godlessness that failed until a few years later). So what really happened here?
One method of studying the brain is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which temporarily disrupts the way a specific brain area operates. Observed changes in behavior during the disruption can provide insight into what that brain area does.
As Furches explains, the posterior medial frontal cortex (PmFC) of our brains notices and begins solving problems. If you see a grease mess on the table, you might reach for a paper towel without thinking about it (because the problem, once identified, does’ t need much mental focus).
The story begins with a group of neuroscientists who decided to test how the PmFC affected the behavior of white conservative graduate students with respect to immigration and religion. Here we will focus on religion. As usual, one group was the experiment group that got the treatment and the other was a control group that got, in this case, a light show. Participants (probably) did not know which group they were in.
After the session, participants were asked to write down their thoughts on their own deaths briefly, to prime them with thoughts of death. They were then given a test to assess religious conviction, via a Likert Scale by which they rate their certainty on a scale of 1 through 10:
The questions included
There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God …
Human beings have immaterial, immortal souls.
Some people will go to Heaven when they die.
The experimenters expected that people who had death on the mind, would be far more likely to grasp at their God-beliefs than those people who didn’t.
As expected, the people who got the light-show instead of the treatment were far more committed to their religious views – eagerly checking the “10” box on the one-to-ten scale. The other group, the people whose brain had been temporarily affected, were giving answers on the lower end of the scale.Joel Furches, “Magnets, the Human Brain, and God” at Patheos (December 19, 2022)
Turns out participants “reported an average of 32.8% less conviction in positive religious beliefs” than those who weren’t zapped. That’s 32.8% and not 32.7%, mind you. In science we demand precision! A wee p-value confirmed that this change was “statistically significant.” There isn’t space here to explain the horror of this statistical approach, but interested readers can learn more here.William M. Briggs, “Scientists Claim Zapping Brains with Magnets Can Treat Belief in God” at The Stream (October 15, 2015)
Briggs is referring to the fact that p-values — a means of showing the validity of research — were (and still are) under a lot of fire for “how easy it is to draw big claims from weak evidence” (p-hacking). So it’s not the most convincing way to demonstrate validity.
In the realm of conversion studies, what we can infer from this study is that religious beliefs are, to some extent, a problem-solving mechanism used to cope with the world around. In much the same way that one tends to pray more frequently when one is confronted with stress or catastrophe, that one reads one’s bible and attends church more frequently when the world around seems wrong…
It is during this “seeker mode” that the person is most susceptible to religious individuals and ideas.
Much like in our magnet experiment, the problem activates the PmFC, and problem solving commences. Ideas like God, the soul, heaven, and miracles become much more attractive during this period of discomfort.Joel Furches, “Magnets, the Human Brain, and God” at Patheos (December 19, 2022)
That’s assuming that anything much happened at all; hence Briggs’ warning. There is an active research area on religion and the brain, known as neurotheology. While it has been helpful in teasing out the relationships between religion and health, an encyclopedia entry on the topic notes a criticism: “One of the criticisms of neurotheology is that the field focuses too much on individual religious experiences, particularly the mystical ones, people have and that it does not take into account the other aspects of religions. For neurotheology to achieve its full potential as a field of study, it is important for any investigator to understand the complexity and diversity of experiences that are religious or spiritual. – (Encyclopedia.com) ”
That might be useful to keep in mind when evaluating this type of research. The 2015 paper is open access.
You may also wish to read: Neuroscientist: Spirituality helps health directly and indirectly. Andrew Newberg has spent thirty years studying the effects of spirituality using the techniques of neuroscience. Neurotheology, the intersection of neuroscience and spirituality, validates spirituality that is taken seriously enough to change values and lifestyle.