Thursday, March 05, 2009

Atheists Are Neurotic and Religious Zealots Are Antisocial

"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:
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.
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.

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:

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.
What 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?
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

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]


At March 05, 2009 10:26 AM, Blogger Greg said...

So atheists are more worried about their mistakes than religious people are. Is this a big surprise?

Maybe this is simply a sort of mental immunization effect caused by glossing by all of the cognitive dissonance created by believing a religion.

At March 07, 2009 9:57 PM, Blogger The Science Police said...

Dear Neurocritic

Following your blog and those of kindred spirits (e.g., has finally galvanized us into action.

This is us, throwing our Prussian Pickelhaube Helmets into the ring.

Thanks for all you've done to help us get off our collective asses.

The Science Police

At March 07, 2009 10:35 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Greg - You're right, it's not especially surprising...

And a big Welcome to the Blogosphere! to you, The Science Police!

At March 10, 2009 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would an atheist worry about mistakes? If the universe is purposeless, than what difference mistakes?
A religious person believing the universe has purpose might worry about mistakes.
I'll bet this study isn't replicated.

At March 10, 2009 4:40 PM, Blogger Seán Ó Nualláin said...


I’ve just published what I believe is a breakthrough paper on meditation and consciousness (formal abstract and link below) which may relate to this debate. It is the first to interrelate the work on synchronized gamma in consciousness with the well-attested work on gamma in meditation. It adduces experimental and simulated data to show that what both have in common is the ability to put the brain into a state in which it is maximally sensitive and consumes zero power, briefly. It is argued that this may correspond to a “selfless” state and the more typical non-zero state, in which gamma is not so prominent, corresponds to a state of empirical self. Thus, the “zero power” in the title refers not only to the power spectrum of the brain as measured by the Hilbert transform, but also to a psychological state of personal renunciation.

While the general perspective is compatible with panpsychism, a more practical consequence is that the beneficial health effects of meditation may partly be due to the fact that the brain’s “dark energy” consumption normally absorbs about 18% of the body’s metabolic production. During these monets of “zero power” this energy is freed up for repair and healing.

The paper is;

Zero Power and Selflessness: What Meditation and Conscious Perception Have in Common (Sean O Nuallain) and it’s at


This paper attempts to reconstrue the art and science of meditation in the context of an overall theory of cognition, and with reference to evidence from simulated and real data analysed in a neurodynamical framework. First, we discuss the phenomenology of meditation and its relation to the known evidence. It is argued that meditation is on a continuum with the types of conscious mental activity characterized by synchronized gamma. Specifically, it is suggested that gamma synchrony in meditation allows the normally prominent background noise of the brain momentarily to subside. Secondly, a set of experiments using both simulated and real data and interpreted in a neurodynamical context that bear on the issue of meditation is described. Thirdly, the theoretical and experimental frameworks are brought together into an overall perspective that impacts on cognition as on applied experientialism. Most of the material alludes to books and other refereed published material by the author.

At March 11, 2009 4:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Religious people' according to this study are fundamental Christian zealots ... I'm glad I now know that religious persons are just trying to ease their existential pain ... those poor saps.

Religious persons cope with existential uncertainty:

"strengthening convictions and narrowing attention away from inconsistencies"

This is due to the religious person's 'blind faith', I'm guessing? Those religious persons, gotta love'em.

‘‘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.’’

Those religious persons, always out to make war to protect their faith ...

"These results suggest that religious conviction provides a framework for understanding and acting within one's environment, thereby acting as a buffer against anxiety and minimizing the experience of error."

That's it, from now on I refuse to hire any 'religious persons' ...

At March 11, 2009 1:15 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous #1 - It is interesting to consider an inversion of the findings. In religions where guilt is a primary motivating force (e.g., Judaism, Catholicism), one can imagine higher levels of neuroticism and greater concern about making mistakes. Conversely, a recent paper suggested that Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating (Vohs & Schooler, 2008) and perhaps greater indifference to making mistakes.

Anonymous #2 - To clarify the religious preferences of the study participants, not all were fundamentalist Christians. In Study 1: 39% Christian, 21% Muslim, 14% Hindu, 11% Buddhist, and 15% other (including nonreligious). In Study 2: 33% East Asian, 33% South Asian, 28% Caucasian, and 6% other (they did not record religious affiliation for Study 2).

At March 11, 2009 2:03 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Administrator - It costs $59.00 to purchase your paper, so I doubt many of us will be reading it. However, synchronized gamma in the human scalp-recorded EEG can be attributed to microsaccades under many conditions (Transient Induced Gamma-Band Response in EEG as a Manifestation of Miniature Saccades, Yuval-Greenberg et al., 2008).

Also, synchronized gamma does not consume "zero power." In fact, the hemodynamic signal of fMRI correlates closely with synchronized gamma oscillations in visual cortex (Niessing et al., 2005).

At March 19, 2009 8:52 PM, Blogger Seán Ó Nualláin said...

With the greatest of respect, the comment by the "Neurocritic" above betrays startling ignorance

Nobody is saying for a second (or whatever sampling criterion) that gamma synchrony ipse facto leads to zero power. However, the point being made is that we are able precisely to calculate the effect gamma has on the "dark energy' of the brain (which constitutes 18% or so of total body metabolism). This uses the Hilbert transform, a more precise index than simple Fourier for this context.

To continue; if Neurocritic wants to debate, while I feel there is a steep learning curve, I would recommend the following path;

1. Read the work with Walter Freeman I published last year in "integrative Neuroscience"

2. Do some DSP, find out what the hilbert transform is

3. Until then, stop making a complete ass of himself

St Patrick's week - Great to be Irish, if only for the week


At March 19, 2009 9:01 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Sean - With the greatest of respect, your comment betrays startling pomposity.

If you're going to spam my blog (and many others) with your irrelevant self-promotion, I can pretty much say whatever I want without learning about the Hilbert transform and the "dark energy" of the brain.

At March 23, 2009 2:20 PM, Blogger Seán Ó Nualláin said...

First of all, there is no spamming involved - all my comments go through a moderator, including in this case your good self. So to include a comment and then accuse someone of spamming is difficult to understand.

Secondly, I have maintained the rights of the paper and am happy to continue to send it gratis to anyone who wants to read it and then comment on it, as I have already done.

When the person in question does so, they will find that my findings
of "null spikes" are completely independent of the synchronization of gamma; the argument is considerably deeper. Wrt artifacts like blinking etc, these have been handled by the Freeman lab methodology used in my paper for some decades now.

At March 26, 2009 4:51 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

I meant "spamming" in a figurative sense, not a literal sense. I publish all comments, except for real spam that sells stuff [but on occasion it's entertaining] and personally insulting invective from anti-psychiatry trolls.

At March 29, 2009 12:58 PM, Blogger HumanProject said...

Anonymous #1 professes the "Santa Clause" theory of religion, which is that the reason to "be good" is because Santa knows if you're naughty or nice and you don't want to get coal for Christmas.

Philip Zuckerman and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi are examples of scholars who explained that in the contemporary world, the behavior of the non-religious tends to be more moral (in terms of concern for others) than the behavior of religious believers.

Example, Zuckerman's book: “Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment”

For Christians, is this because the Christian God is easier to fool than Santa Claus -- sin your whole life and then a quick death-bed conversion and you're all set... Or better, a little shopping around and you can find the denomination whose brand of in-group superiority is just right for your particular history.

At March 29, 2009 1:03 PM, Blogger HumanProject said...

BTW, this was hilarious, thanks for the chuckle...

If you're going to spam my blog (and many others) with your irrelevant self-promotion, I can pretty much say whatever I want without learning about the Hilbert transform and the "dark energy" of the brain.

At March 29, 2009 6:49 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Hi Human Project,

Thanks for mentioning Zuckerman's book, I hadn't heard of it before. It's not a message that devout Christians want to hear. They'd rather believe in Santa Claus...

And I'm glad I made you laugh!

At April 01, 2009 7:04 PM, Blogger Seán Ó Nualláin said...


"I can pretty much say whatever I want without learning about the Hilbert transform and the "dark energy" of the brain......."


And creationists too can ignore the last few hundred years of science.

Then again, isn't there a little clash about that somewhere in American culture?

At April 01, 2009 7:32 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

This is getting old, Dr O Nuallain. Just because I don't want to read your paper doesn't mean I'm a creationist. Have you read any of the other 467 posts in my blog (besides this one)? Hmmm?

At April 08, 2009 4:25 AM, Blogger Nerissa said...

"Anonymous" missed a subtlety. True believers can not make mistakes. They do what their religious leaders tell them to do except when they feel like doing something else. In which case they may obtain easy forgiveness from their religious leaders by confessing (and often by writing a check to them).

Atheists answer to higher moral values than an invisible super buddy (as interpreted by self-serving religious leaders). Not only are mistakes possible there is no easy forgiveness for making them.

Anonymous said: "Why would an atheist worry about mistakes? If the universe is purposeless, than what difference mistakes?

A religious person believing the universe has purpose might worry about mistakes...."

At April 09, 2009 2:16 PM, Blogger AmiyaMax said...

I completely agree with the title.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker