Religious involvement reduces distress, professor says

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A high level of religious involvement reduces distress, according to research discussed in a lecture Thursday morning in the Thomas L. Martin Building.

Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at Toronto University, explained his research in a lecture called “Religion and the Brain: Exploring Neuroaffective Correlates of Meaning.”

“Some of you may be asking why I’ve been looking at the brain when we study something sacred like religion,” Iznicht said. “I don’t care that much about the brain, actually. I care about the mind. I care about psychology. But it turns out that actually, because of the connection between the brain and the mind we can learn a lot about the mind and psychology by studying the brain.”

Inzlicht noted the rate of religiosity is considerably lower in psychologists than it is in academics in general.

“More psychologists are actually atheists than theists, and this is reflected in the kind of work that psychologists conduct,” Inzlicht said.

He referred to data concerning how often religious subjects are included in psychology journals. Inzlicht said .008 percent of psychology articles discuss religion.

“These are top journals kind of ignoring religion,” Inzlicht said.

Despite this, Inzlicht said, many studies support the idea that religion promotes happiness, physical health and mental health. He added that neuroscience, while seen by many as not helpful or “voodoo,” is an important and legitimate way to conduct studies about mental activity.

“You can look at things pretty much as they occur within the brain,” Inzlicht said. “It’s really quite an amazing technology.”

Inzlicht explained that religion is seen in psychology as a way to create meaning.

“Religion fulfills the need to create and sustain meaning in people’s lives,” Inzlicht said. “Meaning, at some very basic level, is a coherence between beliefs, goals and the environment.”

He explained religion provides an inscrutable meaning system, referring to the explanation for things not currently understood as having a place in God’s plan that we either cannot understand, or will understand in the future.

Inzlicht said anxiety, or distress, is measurable within the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain near the front of the skull. His research involved measuring error-related negativity in that part of the brain. Error-related negativity is highly related to distress.

Inzlicht measured this error-related negativity as he presented situations and tests designed to trick, or induce error, to religious and nonreligious believers in God. The test was given to atheists, as well.

“The reason that religion lowers anterior cingulate cortex activity is because it imbues life with meaning,” Inzlicht said. “So there should also be a connection between meaning and order, and low anterior cingulate cortex activity.”

Inzlicht explained that this research showed that besides making fewer mistakes in the given situations and tests, those who were more religious experienced less error-related negativity when making mistakes than those who were less religious or atheist.

Differences in error-related negativity between religions, however, has not been established.

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