By Margarita Nahapetyan
Canadian scientists from the University of Toronto found that there are differences in the brains of religious people and those who are not. New findings show that people who believe in God experience less anxiety and stress compared to non-religious individuals.
The results were based on two studies conducted by Michael Inzlicht, assistant professor of psychology at the University's Scarborough campus. In both studies the scientists performed a Stroop task, a well-known psychological test that uses electrodes to monitor the brain activity of the individuals. During the Stroop test, all the participants were evaluated for their ability to inhibit one reaction in order to do or say something else that gives a correct answer. For example, a subject can be asked to quickly name the color ink in which a word is printed, though the word itself states a different color.
The first experiment included 28 student volunteers from Toronto, who came from a variety of religious backgrounds - Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and non-religious. All the participants were asked to fill in an assessment of their religious convictions. The second experiment involved 22 students that came from a different ethnic and racial backgrounds - East Asian (33 per cent), South Asian (33 per cent), Caucasian (28 per cent), and 6 per cent of others. The experts measured the level of their belief in God by 2 criteria - definite "God exists" and definite "God does not exist."
The results showed that compared to non-believers, the students with high levels of religious beliefs, experienced less activity in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulated. This portion of the brain helps to modify behavior be sending signals when attention and control are in need, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making an error. The more religiousness individuals expressed, the better their test results were.
These correlations remained strong even after factors such as personality and mental abilities have been taken into consideration, said Prof. Inzlicht. The findings, he added, showed that believing in God had a soothing effect on religious participants, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making mistakes or facing the unknown.
The scientist said that people should not extrapolate too much from the results of the test to real life, warning that anxiety is a two sided condition that in some cases might be helpful and necessary. Excessive state of the condition may leave a person "paralyzed with fear," he noted, but the good side of it is that anxiety sends people warning signals and alerts when they are doing something wrong. If not for that, people will not have any other impetus or stimulus to improve their behavior and never repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Many previous studies have tried to find out whether religion has a positive impact on mental health, and the scientists say that they still plan to continue to investigate on religious belief in the nearest future. The goal is to determine what are the psychological dimensions that lead individuals toward believing or, just the opposite, away from it. Researchers want also to find an evidence that faith in God is a desirable feature of evolution, and plan to establish what aspects of religion can be attributed to nature, and which must be taught.
The study is published online in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science.