"Religion is the Xanax of the people" (Inzlicht et al., 2009).
The clever quote above is from the latest paper to garner the _______ Are Neurotic and _______ Are Antisocial style of sensationalistic headline, a study that claims to reveal the Neural Markers of Religious Conviction. I was all prepared to hate the paper, but the authors are not unreasonable in their hypotheses and predictions.
But first, a little background. A year and a half ago, Amodio et al. (2007) published an eye-catching article in Nature Neuroscience that reported on supposed "hard-wired" differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. The typical media feeding frenzy ensued, complete with simplistic headlines (and some interpretive stretching on the part of the authors).
As we recounted in The Error of Prognosticating Political View by Brain Wave,1 there were:
...overblown quotes:That study is quite relevant here because Inzlicht and colleagues used the same neural measure as Amodio et al. (2007). Both experiments used EEG recordings, specifically event-related potentials. The ERP brain waves reflect electrophysiological activity recorded remotely from the scalp. While it's great for determining the temporal parameters of neural activity, it's not so great at determining where the activity is located in the brain.Are We Predisposed to Political Beliefs?. . ."In the past, people thought that…[political leanings were]…all environmentally influenced, a combination of biological dispositions as well as cultural shaping," says David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University. However, a new study, led by Amodio, indicates that political bent "is not just a choice people have, but it seems to be linked to fundamental differences in the way people process information."And the baseless assertion of innate differences between the brains of liberals and conservatives:brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently [sic] when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political divides may be hard-wired, according a study released Sunday.
The brain wave of interest is the error-related negativity (ERN), recorded at the time that people make mistakes in a task:
The ERN is evident as a large negative polarity peak in the event-related brain potential waveform that occurs when people make errors in reaction time tasks. It begins at the moment of the error and reaches a maximum about 100 milliseconds later (see Gehring et al., 1993, PDF). It is largest at fronto-central scalp locations and appears to come from an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex...There is some disagreement about what the ERN wave represents: a direct response to the mismatch between the intended action and the actual one, a more generic response to conflict in general, or an emotional response to f***ing up. And because EEG is recorded from the scalp, one cannot say for certain that the anterior cingulate is the sole origin.
What does all this have to do with that old time religion? Inzlicht et al. review the neuropsychology of anxiety and how religion serves to quell the angst:
XANAX OF THE PEOPLEWhat does anxiety have to do with the ERN wave?? It's larger in those with anxiety disorders, as Hajcak et al. (2004) have noted. And the hypothesis of the present paper?
One of religion’s primary functions may be to help people cope with existential uncertainty. In the words of St. Ambrose (ca. 390 AD), ‘‘amid the agitations of the world, the Church remains unmoved; the waves cannot shake her. While around her everything is in a horrible chaos, she offers to all the shipwrecked a tranquil port where they will find safety’’ (quoted in Durant, 1950, p. 79). Religion provides people with a meaning system that helps them navigate through and understand an infinitely complex and uncertain world (Peterson, 1999). It meets the fundamental need to comprehend the deepest problems of existence. Scholars of religion, from James (1902/2002) to Durkheim (1912/1954), have noted that religion imbues life with motivation, purpose, and meaning.
How is it that religion can bring about both peace of mind and zealous conviction? We suggest that religious conviction buffers against anxiety by providing relief from the experience of uncertainty and error, and in so doing, strengthening convictions and narrowing attention away from inconsistencies. We hypothesize that this muted response to uncertainty and error is evident neurophysiologically such that religious conviction is associated with reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a cortical system involved in a form of attention that serves to regulate both cognitive and emotional processing...Although it's simplistic of them to say the ERN reflects only ACC activity, they did avoid some of the pitfalls of Amodio et al.'s paper by taking into account personality factors that can influence this brain wave (hence, the "neurotic" and "antisocial" title).
We measured the amplitude of each participant’s ERN during the Stroop task and correlated these values with participants’ self-reported religious zeal (Study 1) and self-reported belief in God (Study 2). In both studies, we also measured other psychological variables to control for their impact on the hypothesized correlation between religious conviction and ACC activity. We expected greater religious conviction to predict lower ERN amplitudes in both studies, even after controlling for important personality traits and cognitive capacities.And that's what they found.
Fig. 1C (Inzlicht et al., 2009). The relation between religious zeal and anterior cingulate cortex activity: event-related potentials (ERPs) at electrode Cz for error-related negativities (ERNs) for people high and low in religious zeal.
The Religious Zeal scale was used to assess ardent religious conviction. Items included ‘‘I aspire to live and act according to my religious beliefs,’’ ‘‘My religious beliefs are grounded in objective truth,’’ and ‘‘I would support a war that defended my religious beliefs.’’ Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, self-esteem, and the need for cognitive closure were also assessed.
However, they repeat some of the drawbacks from Amodio's paper by reporting correlations but only showing a median split (presumably) in the figure (and we don't know if this group difference is significant). We also don't know anything about the reaction times, other than the odd finding that greater religious zealotry was associated with a larger Stroop interference effect (slower for BLUE than for RED) but fewer errors.
In Experiment 2 with a different group of subjects, the self-report measures were belief in God, political conservatism à la Amodio, and the Big Five personality inventory. Here, too, they found that greater religious belief correlated with smaller ERN responses to errors (and personality did not account for this).
Unexplained loose ends? I see at least two of them. First, the estimated localization of the ERN response within the ACC was centimeters apart in the two groups of subjects. Granted, estimated source localization for ERP is tenuous at best (especially with only 32 electrodes), but these two spots are in different functional regions of the ACC.
Fig 1D (top) and Fig 2D (bottom) - illustration of the generator for the ERN (in anterior cingulate cortex), as determined by source localization.
More critically, this experiment failed to replicate Amodio's finding: there was absolutely no correlation between self-assessed conservatism and the ERN wave! [as in this figure] I don't have a high need for cognitive closure, but it appears to be a glaring omission that this was not even mentioned in the paper. I'm feeling a very large error-related negativity at the moment. Maybe I need a Xanax. Or a religious experience...
1 For more on the same study, see Liberals Are Neurotic and Conservatives Are Antisocial, as well as David Amodio Responds to his neurocritics.
Amodio DM, Jost JT, Master SL, Yee CM. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neurosci. 10:1246-1247.
Hajcak G, McDonald N, Simons RF. (2004). Error-related psychophysiology and negative affect. Brain Cogn. 56:189-97.
Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, Kyle Nash (2009). Neural Markers of Religious Conviction Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02305.x
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