Use MRI for: Imagining God?

A recent fMRI neuroimaging study from the University of Chicago asks a fascinating question:

“Religion appears to serve as a moral compass for the vast majority of people around the world. It informs whether same-sex marriage is love or sin, whether war is an act of security or of terror, and whether abortion rights represent personal liberty or permission to murder. Many religions are centered on a god (or gods) that has beliefs and intentions, with adherents encouraged to follow “God’s will” on everything from martyrdom to career planning to voting. Within these religious systems, how do people know what their god wills?”

Using fMRI, they saw that the same areas of the brain were used to reason about one’s own beliefs and God’s beliefs, but different regions of the brain were used when reasoning about another person’s beliefs. In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs.

In other words, if you believe in God, you’re probably subconsiously endowing God with your beliefs (at least on controversial issues*), and not the other way around.

They continue:

“People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.”

Perhaps those who believe that God lives within them would suppose that self-referential-type activation is evidence of God, inside them fiddling with their neurons, aligning their beliefs with his. This would be valid except for the fact that the controversial topics used in the study polarise Christians as well as non-Christians.

The New Scientist put it wryly: “God may have created man in his image, but it seems we return the favour.”

Of course, we are all convinced that our beliefs are true and not purely a function of our imagination. But whether a belief is true or not, religious belief does require imagination. This is because the “transendental social” – the ability to understand social roles and groups in an abstract way, which is necessary for religious expression – depends on imagination.

In other words, imagination is necessary for social life, and is naturally present in religious belief. That religious belief depends on imagination might seem a little unfair to persons of religious faith with a poor imagination. Can we blame their Creator for this? 😉

Getting Rid of the Chaff
So whilst imagination is necessarily present in religious belief, how does one identify which of one’s own beliefs are just pure imagination – and not actually true? Can we tell if we’re projecting our beliefs onto God, as seen in the fMRI study above? This is hard to answer by self assessment because our desire to validate our world views and beliefs is very strong. To combat uncertainty and maintain control has long been considered a primary and fundamental motivating force in human life and one of the most important variables governing psychological well-being and physical health.

In cases where our beliefs are incorrect, we are quite likely to delude ourselves, to maintain a sense of control. We seek only information which supports our point of view (selective exposure), ignore information which does not support our view (selective attention), and perceive ambiguous information as being consistent with our view (selective interpretation). For example, Whitson and Galinsky tested whether lacking control increased the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli. They reported (Science, 2008) that subjects saw images in noise, formed illusory correlations in stock market information, perceived conspiracies, and developed superstitions, to maintain control:

“Experiencing a loss of control led participants to desire more structure and to perceive illusory patterns. The need to be and feel in control is so strong that individuals will produce a pattern from noise to return the world to a predictable state.”

*The study used controversial subjects such as the death penalty, same-sex marriage, and abortion.