Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Shocking News: Fundamentalists Have Small Brains!

In a blog just over a year ago, I cited an issue of Skeptic Magazine (Vol. 15, No. 2, 2009) by James Allen Cheyne, who made reference to a compendium of research which has shown an inverse correlation between religious belief and intelligence as measured by IQ.

Cheyne observed (ibid.):

"Correlations between measures of intelligence and reported religious belief are remarkably consistent. Approximately 90% of all the studies ever conducted have reported that intelligence (as measured by IQ) goes up, religious belief goes down."

At the time I noted it didn't appear so fantastic a claim, based on the statistics he cited, coupled with one's realization that just a moderate IQ (105-115) should be able to see that talking snakes (as in the "Garden of Eden"), plus guys living in whales' bellies, and a man who can walk on water...are all preposterous. No genuinely intelligent person could buy into any of these any more than a smart kid would buy into Santa Claus.

In more depth, Cheyne made reference to a particular type of thought he called ACH thinking- or abstract, categorical and hypothetical - which appeared to be mostly missing from believers' and which figured prominently on many IQ tests (such as the Raven's and Wechsler Similarities tests). Such tests featured many questions which constructed an abstract hypothetical from a particular category, then asked the person to predict the consequences, if any.

For example, some ACH type questions would be:

1) If Venus and Earth were to exchange orbits, what (if anything) would happen as a consequence to each planet to change it from its current conditions?

2) If a hollow equilateral pyramid were "opened" up and spread out in two dimensions, how would it appear?

3) We observe the red shift of galaxy clusters and interpret cosmic expansion. What would we conclude if all galaxy clusters showed a blue shift- but only up to 1 billion light years distant and no more?

4) If the gravity on Earth were suddenly decreased by half, theorize how would this affect energy costs in two named modes of transportation?

5) Imagine a sphere turned inside out, how would it look in 3 dimensions? In two?

None of the above are particularly "easy" but neither are they too difficult for a person aware of basic facts (e.g. that Venus is already closer to the Sun than Earth by about 1/3) but do require the ability to abstract from the conditions of the facts to the given hypothetical to infer the new situation, and assess it. This is the very ability that Cheyne shows is missing as one examines results for religious believers.

At the time of the blog, the question as to this IQ deficit in believers was mostly unanswered, but now there may be an empirical basis. (Particularly as Cheyne's largest IQ deficits were observed statistically in Christian Fundamentalists). In a new study, completed at Duke University Medical Center and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Templeton Foundation, it was 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 or unaffiliated (but still religious) adults. The measurments made focused on at least two MRI measurements of the hippocampus region of 268 adults between 1994 and 2005. 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, as well as atheists who had no religious orientation, period. Also interesting, is that those who professed a Catholic affiliation also had smaller brains, based on hippocampus size. (A putative comparison of brain scans is shown in the accompanying graphic but not exactly to scale so the magnification of the atheist brain scan and Protestant mainline one (center) must be adjusted by a longitudinal factor of about 1:11 and 1:14 smaller respectively compared to the fundy scan).

Biologically, we know 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. Damage, which may well be incepted by stress (say the stress of belonging to a minority group - as hypothesized by the researchers) may be one reason for the relative brain size deficit. But I believe a much more likely one (which will have to be tested-confirmed in the future with more detailed scans, say using PET (positron emission tomography) imagery and SPECT: single photon emission tomography, scans) is that the long term disuse of the application of the memory centers (based in the hippocampus) leads inevitably to long term decline (the typical average age of participants in the study was 58). In other words, "use it or lose it". If then the believer constantly disavows facts in critical thinking, and instead of marshalling those facts- say in original thought - has a tendency to rely on a single book or bible to "do his thinking for him", then his brain won't develop the flexibility or capacity of thought needed to adapt and it will lose mass- cells over time, i.e. shrink. This was already theorized as long ago as 1991 by Robert Ornstein in his Evolution of Consciousness.

The same can apply to Catholics, also found to have shrunken hippocampi, because they will reject their own critical thought and factual (memory) application, in favor or what the Pope or Vatican says. They will also tend to uncritically accept "saints", miracles and other bilge and pfolderol as replacements for reality. In each of these instances there will also plausibly be recurring failures in taking specialized tests (or IQ tests) which contain a large number of abstract, categorical and hypothetical (e.g. ACH) questions.

Obviously, more research and supporting tests need to be conducted, but it seems likely that at least the initial findings comport well with James Allen Cheyne's findings of lower IQs for believers, especially fundies. This ought to tell these folks that there is something deleterious to the brain in holding fast to 2,000 year old sayings (most butchered and bowdlerized) from sheep herding, semi-literate, and scientifically pre-literate nomads!

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