Field of Science

Supernatural believers see minds at work behind random patterns

“Theory of Mind” is the term used to describe the mental ability to put yourself inside the mind of someone else – to imagine what it is that they are thinking. Recently, there’s been some evidence that people who do not have a strong theory of mind are more likely to be atheists.

For example, studies have found that autistic-spectrum people are more likely to be non-believers, and maybe also atheists' preferences for video games could be connected. The basic suggestion is that belief is a natural extension of our ability to recreate minds in our own head.

But it seems unlikely that atheists as a whole are weak at figuring out what others are thinking. Perhaps they just don’t fire up those mental circuits at inappropriate times. Which is what Tapani Riekki and Marjaana Lindeman (University of Helsinki), along with Tuukka Raij (Aalto University, Finland) wanted to investigate.

They took 12 believers and 11 sceptics and strapped them into an MRI machine to watch some animations.

These animations showed geometric shapes either moving randomly or acting with some kind of purpose towards each other. For example, they could be moving around as if they were children playing a game of tag.

Both groups tended to correctly rate the ‘intentional’ animations as having a purpose behind them, and tended to spot the random ones.

But believers were more likely to see purpose at work in both sets of animations – both intentional and random. You can see this at work in the brain scans. These show the brain circuits involved in Theory of Mind at work.

For the sceptics, watching the random animations drew a virtual blank , while the believers brains were firing away (the intense orange in the bottom image).

What was particularly interesting was when they contrasted brain activation in the two conditions. They found that for sceptics, Theory of Mind activation was stronger to intentional than to random movements, but for supernatural believers, this difference was missing and there was even a hint towards a reverse pattern.

The believers had a ‘hyperactive’ Theory of Mind.

What may have been going on is that, once they came to a belief that there was intention behind the movements, the believers may have begun searching to understand it – thus activating the neural circuits associated with the Theory of Mind.

All this suggests is that it’s not just ability to develop a Theory of Mind that’s linked to supernatural beliefs. Rather, what’s critical is the ability to apply it appropriately.


ResearchBlogging.org
Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., & Raij, T. (2014). Supernatural believers attribute more intentions to random movement than skeptics: An fMRI study Social Neuroscience, 9 (4), 400-411 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2014.906366

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Children with a religious upbringing have difficulty telling fantasy from reality

There’s a long-standing debate over whether we humans are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, or whether it’s learned. Well, here’s a study that shows the importance of young children’s environment in determining credulity.

The basic set-up was simple. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University) and colleagues recruited 33 kindergarten kids in the USA (that’s 5-6 year olds). Half went to state-run schools, which are mostly religion free, while the other half went to schools run along Christian lines. The state-school kids all came from non-churchgoing families, whereas the kids from religious schools all came from churchgoing families.

Then they read them a series of stories, loosely based on magical stories from the bible, but carefully disguised. They varied these stories so that sometimes they referred to magic, sometimes not.

Just to be sure of it, sometimes they changed the story a bit so that it was unfamiliar, and not recognisably biblical. For example, here’s the variants they told of the ‘Moses parting the red Sea’ Bible story:

Familiar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his magic stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Familiar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his magic stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

The point was to try to see what cues lead these children to decide if the story was fantasy or reality. Importantly, at no point did any of the stories mention God or divine intervention.

As you can see in the graphic, the secular kids were much less likely to say the stories were real. They could pick up on the cues in the story, and figure out that it must be fantasy.

And they could do that at aged 5-6!

It’s critical to realise that both groups of kids – religious and secular – knew the difference between fact and fantasy. Both groups could recognise real versus fictional characters.

And although this was a small group, it mirrors what they saw in an earlier study, in which religious kids (whether churchgoing or non-churchgoers attending a religious school) said religious stories were real and also were more likely to say that non-religious, fantasy stories were real.

The authors conclude that the reason the religious kids were more likely to believe that these stories were real is that they “have a broader conception of what can actually happen”.

Now, what this study doesn’t tell us whether a religious upbringing makes kids more credulous, or a secular upbringing makes them more sceptical.

But it does show that critical thinking is crucially influenced by environment, and from a very early age.


ResearchBlogging.org
Corriveau, K., Chen, E., & Harris, P. (2014). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12138
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

What are the religious disgusted by?

Religious people often seem to have strong taboos. Think of any religion, and there is usually some proscribed activities or objects, and an emphasis on purity. Maybe religion is connected to a heightened sense of disgust?

Uri Berger and David Anaki, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, were looking to see how one questionnaire often used to measure disgust, the Revised Disgust Scale (DS-R) functioned across a diverse group of Israeli citizens. Most studies in the past have used students (and mostly women), but the 1427 participants in their study had an average age of 33, and only half were women.

The DS-R has 27 questions and, like others, Berger and Anaki found that they fell into three groups of closely related questions.
  • Core disgust: related to disease and eating
  • Animal reminder: related to sex, death, and hygiene
  • Contamination: related to, well, contamination
Overall they found that religion doesn’t really explain why some people are more easily disgusted than others. It only explained 1.4% of the variation – gender was ten times more important (women were more easily disgusted than men).

What was interesting is the relationship between religion and different types of disgust. Religious people were actually less disgusted by contamination than the non-religious, and only a bit more disgusted by ‘core disgust’.

But this was more than made up for by the disgust felt by the religious over reminders of our animal nature.

So it could be that religion changes the things that disgust us. Certainly it seems to affect the broad domains of disgust, but there’s probably more to it than that. As Berger and Anaki comment:
[It] may be that demographic elements do not modulate levels of disgust per se as much as they impact the context in which disgust is activated. For example, the dietary differences in Jewish and Hindi religions caused the variation in subjective disgust evoked in devotee’s response to a potential consumption of ‘‘forbidden animals’’; Jews who consume beef are repelled from pork consumption, while the vice versa applies for non-vegetarian Hindus. However, the level of religious devoutness may only slightly modulate the intensity of that subjective disgust.

ResearchBlogging.org
Berger, U., &Anaki, D. (2014). Demographic influences on disgust: Evidence from a heterogeneous sample Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.016

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.