The Spell

A new study shows that the areas of the brain responsible for skepticism and vigilance become less active when under the spell of a charismatic person or group.  Effectively, the part of the brain most important in identifying psychological or religious manipulation can shut down just when it is most needed.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Danish researchers scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the pre-frontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and skepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were effectively deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience).

Personally, I’m thrilled to see basic science like this used to better understand human motivations, though a 40-person sampling is near insignificant. Would like to see more experiments of this type spanning the effects of true believers in religion, politics, environmental, corporatism, even the hard sciences. This experiment suggests to me that a healthy mind is always seeking a generative, dynamic balance between skepticism and confidence, always open to new information (both cognitive and meta-cognitive) that might inform and change one’s perceptions.

Brings to mind Peter’s documentary on the Iraq war in which he says, “You see what you want to see. You see it the way you want to see it. You see what you can bear to see.”

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