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Does religion shrink your brain?
Some researchers argue that outspoken religious commitment is a sign of mild dementia.
Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at studies suggesting that religion rots your intelligence and that religion rots teens’ intelligence, and, not surprisingly, both theses fell apart. Now here is a different, more solid proposition.
In “Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life,” Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University found that in late life there was greater atrophy in the hippocampus (associated with memory) among individuals who have been “born again,” as well as those with no religious affiliation. Hippocampal volume change has been linked to depression, dementia, and Alzheimer syndrome. Of course, we’ve already been told that “many scientists view "outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.", a charge aimed at genome mapper Francis Collins, who makes no secret that he is a Christian, but this is a serious look at the subject.
Unlike the earlier studies we’ve look at, Owen et al’s evaluation of the MRIs of 268 men and women aged 58 and over appears sound:
The participants were originally recruited for the NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly study, and chosen because they answered some additional questions regarding their religious beliefs and affiliation. So the obvious bases were covered.
In “Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain: A study links life-changing religious experiences, like being born again, with atrophy in the hippocampus” (Scientific American, May 31, 2011) neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D. observes, “ It is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression.” He adds that the study is “unique” in that
He might have added that “no religion” had the same effect on the hippocampus. The real winners in this study were people who were conventionally religious but had never had a spiritual or “born again” experience.
It’s well established that religious belief and practice are usually associated with better health. Mario Beauregard and I devoted an entire chapter of The Spiritual Brain to studies in this area (Chapter 8), and a number of books have unpacked them as well. There is also good evidence that “negative”religious beliefs are bad for one’s health. As we noted in TSB,
So beliefs matter, whether positive or negative. But why should strong beliefs, pro or anti-religion, be worse for the hippocampus than lukewarm belief?
The authors suggest that one factor might be stress, noting that both extremes are minority positions. That makes intuitive sense because minority status entails more conflict over beliefs, independent of content. Newberg adds, among other thoughtful suggestions, that some
That, of course, accords with religious history: The people who have encountered God are usually remembered not for a less stressful life but a more meaningful one.
(Note: Here’s a story, now available online, about a very old man who had a spiritual experience after a major assault on his brain.)
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
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