Pilot Study Examines Brain’s Reaction to Religious Symbols

Study and Commentary Open Multi-Disciplinary Dialogue on Intersection of Neuroscience and Religion

Building on his work in neurotheology, Andrew Newberg, M.D., published a pilot study examining the effect of religious symbols on brain function in the latest issue of Spirituality in Clinical Practice. The first-of-its-kind study is published with corresponding commentary from a multi-disciplinary group, which discusses the broad implications for various scholarly domains.

“With this study, we are taking the initial steps in exploring the fascinating, multidisciplinary link between the brain and religion,” said Newberg, Director of Research at Thomas Jefferson University’s Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine. “Our results demonstrate changes in cerebral blood flow in the primary receptive areas of the brain, implying a pre-conscious, pre-emotional impact of the symbols.”

Newberg and his co-authors used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan 20 healthy volunteers, with a range of religious backgrounds, while viewing symbols (positive or negative), with or without religious content, as well as neutral symbols.

The study sought to determine the relationship between different levels of visual processing (unconscious primary and higher cognitive) related to observing religious symbols, and the associated impact of religious beliefs and attitudes with the goal of determining if religious symbols interact with the brain on a primary level.

The study results suggest that early-stages of visual processing for religious symbols was different if the study participant felt the symbol was “negative” or “positive.” In addition, processing of negative religious stimuli may be suppressed in the brain. But the other important finding is that religious beliefs appear to shape how the brain actually responds to the symbols. As Kyle Johnson, a co-investigator states, “The findings suggest that religious beliefs, negative or positive, might actually alter the way in which people perceive reality.”

In an accompanying commentary, Newberg proposes future questions to be explored including how different cultures respond to religious symbols and how future spiritual practices could be developed with better understanding of how symbols affect the brain.

The project was supported by a grant from the Effie and Wofford Cain Foundation.

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Thomas Jefferson University (TJU), the largest freestanding academic medical center in Philadelphia, is nationally renowned for medical and health sciences education and innovative research.   Founded in 1824, TJU includes the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (SKMC), one of the largest private medical schools in the country and ranked among the nation’s best medical schools by U.S. News & World Report, and the Jefferson Schools of Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions, Population Health and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.  Jefferson University Physicians is TJU’s multi-specialty physician practice consisting of the full-time faculty of JMC.  Thomas Jefferson University partners with its clinical affiliate, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.

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