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Study: Born-again Christians have smaller brains

An Article from:

1. Religion News Service

2. Blog Chron.Com

Believe It or Not

News and trends from the religious realm with Kate Shellnutt

Study: Born-again Christians have smaller brains

“Small-brained” seems like an insult a non-believer might hurl at a born-again Christian, but no, this is for real. The Religion News Service reports:

For decades, mainline Protestants have been beset by bad news: declining numbers, aging membership, waning cultural influence. A new study from Duke University Medical Center, however, gives these Protestants one reason for cheer: they seem to have larger brains than born-again Christians, Roman Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated.

The study, which examined the hippocampus region of the brain, found that Protestants who did not have a “born again” experience had significantly more gray matter than either those who reported a life-changing religious experience, Catholics, or unaffiliated older adults.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Templeton Foundation, included at least two MRI measurements of the hippocampus region of 268 adults between 1994 and 2005.

That’s right, this study found an association between brain size, specifically the hippocampus region, and a person’s affiliation within Christianity, with the “born again” experience [as well as Catholicism and lack of religious affiliation] correlating to less grey matter.

Here is the abstract for the study itself, published earlier this spring the science journalPlosOne:

Despite a growing interest in the ways spiritual beliefs and practices are reflected in brain activity, there have been relatively few studies using neuroimaging data to assess potential relationships between religious factors and structural neuroanatomy. This study examined prospective relationships between religious factors and hippocampal volume change using high-resolution MRI data of a sample of 268 older adults.

Religious factors assessed included life-changing religious experiences, spiritual practices, and religious group membership. Hippocampal volumes were analyzed using the GRID program, which is based on a manual point-counting method and allows for semi-automated determination of region of interest volumes.

Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again. These associations were not explained by psychosocial or demographic factors, or baseline cerebral volume.

Hippocampal volume has been linked to clinical outcomes, such as depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. The findings of this study indicate that hippocampal atrophy in late life may be uniquely influenced by certain types of religious factors.

The RNS story said shrinking of the hippocampus, medically linked to mental health problems, could be due to the stress of affiliation with a minority group, but sociologists of religion say that doesn’t make any sense.

“There are probably more born-again Protestants than non-born-again Protestants, and just about as many Catholics as either born-again or non-born- again Protestants,” said David Roozen, sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary.

So do the results really have any meaning to us? Or are these results as off-the-wall as they seem at first glance?

It’s certainly easy for this research to fuel Christian stereotypes (as I mentioned at the start of the post), mainly the idea that belief is an intellectually inferior position to unbelief.

But perhaps this may be a step to help us better understand the nature of those spiritual experiences that we can’t otherwise explain and better know how our minds connect with the divine.

————————————

( From Religion News Service )

Study finds brain differences based on faith

DURHAM, N.C. — For decades, mainline Protestants have been beset by bad news: declining numbers, aging membership, waning cultural influence.A new study fromDuke University Medical Center, however, gives these Protestants one reason for cheer: they seem to have larger brains than born-again Christians, Roman Catholicsand the religiously unaffiliated.

  • A study of believer's brains, based on scans such as this image of a normal brain, finds size differences  among denominations and those with no religious identity.

    By Gary Small, UCLA School of Medicine

    A study of believer’s brains, based on scans such as this image of a normal brain, finds size differences among denominations and those with no religious identity.

By Gary Small, UCLA School of Medicine

A study of believer’s brains, based on scans such as this image of a normal brain, finds size differences among denominations and those with no religious identity.

The study, which examined the hippocampus region of the brain, found that Protestants who did not have a “born again” experience had significantly more gray matter than either those who reported a life-changing religious experience, Catholics, or unaffiliated older adults.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Healthand the Templeton Foundation, included at least twoMRI measurements of the hippocampus region of 268 adults between 1994 and 2005.

It found an association between participants’ professed religious affiliation and the physical structure of their brain. Specifically, those identified as Protestant who did not have a religious conversion or born-again experience — more common among their evangelical brethren — had a bigger hippocampus.

Amy Owen, a psychologist who did a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke and was the main writer for the study, said she hoped others would try to reproduce the study or offer other reasons for the association.

“There may be more factors responsible for the correlation,” she said of the study published on March 30 in “PLoS One,” a peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication.

Participants, all 58 or older, were initially recruited for a larger study on the effects of depression in the elderly. That study is ongoing. For this study, researchers ruled out depression or lack of social support as reasons for the smaller brain size, or hippocampal atrophy.

The hippocampus is an area buried deep in the brain that helps regulate emotion and memory. Atrophy or shrinkage in this region of the brain has long been linked to mental health problems such as depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

So why would born-again Protestants, Catholics and those with no religious affiliation have a smaller hippocampus?

Researchers speculate it may have something to do with the stress of belonging to a minority group. Chronic stress floods the brain with hormones that, over time, may damage the hippocampus.

Sociologists of religion, meanwhile, aren’t buying it. They say the researchers’ theory flies in the face of U.S. religious demographics. While it’s true that evangelicals are a minority, they’re a sizable one — 40% of the U.S. population, according to Gallup Polls — and not exactly a stressed-out minority, especially in the South.

“There are probably more born-again Protestants than non-born-again Protestants, and just about as many Catholics as either born-again or non-born- again Protestants,” said David Roozen, sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary.

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