Field of Science

Religious nonsense is easier to understand than regular nonsense

There's a particular brain wave that gets triggered when you hear stuff that doesn't make sense.

It's called the N400, and it's triggered by sentences like "I like my coffee with cream and socks". Although each individual word makes sense, and although the grammar is fine, the semantics is screwy - the meaning of those words is pretty unexpected.

Sabela Fondevila and a team from the University of Madrid wanted to find out if religious stories had the same effect. Religious stories typical have some pretty far out indicidents, of course - walking on water, that sort of thing. Are these stories nonsensical, though, or is there some kind of method to their madness?

So they got their subjects to read some carefully phrased sentences describing religious miracles, some matched sentences that had the same grammatical stucture but with random nonsensical claims, and also some completely sensible ones.

To make sure that the religious statements were unexpected and unfamiliar, they took their miracles from non-biblical texts - Hindu, Mesoamerican, Japanese, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, African, Australian, Chinese, Polynesian, and Inuit.

So, for each nonsensical religious sentence, like "Under the Earth lives the wind", there was an equivalent pure nonsense sentence: "Under the Earth lives the dining-room", and a sensible statement "Under the Earth lives the mole". Another example is "With a hook, from the bottom of the sea, he took out the islands" paired with "With a hook, from the bottom of the sea, he took out the problems". The sensible statement had him hooking up a fish.

What they found was that the size of the N400 wave was largest for the pure nonsense, and smallest for the sensible sentences. The religious statements were in-between.

This suggests is that the religious statements, although nonsensical and clearly impossible, were not such hard work to understand. For whatever reason, they seemed more sensible than the pure nonsense statements.

Just to make sure of it, they also asked a different group of people straight out: “How easy is it for you to imagine a context (books, films, newspapers, etc.) in which these statements may appear?” Sure enough, the religious statements were thought to be considerably more plausible.

Fondevila thinks that this is further support for the idea that religions are minimally counterintuitive. Previous research has suggested that gods, like comic book characters, tend to be mostly normal with a few special powers.

The theory goes that the most memorable stories are those that are grounded in reality, but have a few counterintuitive twists that make them stand out. And there's some evidence to support this.

So the ideal god is magical enough to make him interesting and worthy of our special attention as something that could just about be real. But not so magical as to be utter nonsense!
Fondevila, S., Martín-Loeches, M., Jiménez-Ortega, L., Casado, P., Sel, A., Fernández-Hernández, A., & Sommer, W. (2011). The sacred and the absurd—an electrophysiological study of counterintuitive ideas (at sentence level) Social Neuroscience, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2011.641228

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


  1. Fascinating.
    I agree with your final paragraphs that adding just a touch of fantasy makes the myth more palatable.

    However, I wonder if this study is pointing at another phenomena:

    Some imagination structures seem more plausible than others. Religions capitalize on those structures. I think good fantasy fiction capitalizes on them too.

    I agree that "The wind lives under the Earth" seems much more sensible than "The dining-room lives under the Earth." But I am not sure why. Maybe fantasy writers could tell us.

    When I tell my children make-believe stories, I quickly learn which fantastic images capture them better than others, and none of my stories are religious.

    Maybe if Russell had said his teapotflew around in a volcano rather that orbiting the sun, people wold have found his analogy less helpful, because no matter how fantastic, the later just seems a little less fantastic to the human mind.

  2. How about metaphor?

    When I read "under the earth lives the wind" my metaphor alarm is triggered, and I go into poetry mode.

    But reading the "dining room" variation I'm put into pun-mode and I start looking for the punch line.

  3. I was totally going to say what squidocto said: researchers show evidence that certain non-sensical statements can be interpreted as metaphors.

  4. I wonder if this same thing would apply to popular deepities in general.

  5. While I haven't read the original study and so could be off-base or stating something the authors cover, the first thing that stood out to me is that this could simply be the bias toward social information that humans have.

    Like in this paper:

    Mesoudi, A., Whiten, A., & Dunbar, R. (2006). A Bias for Social Information in Human Cultural
    Transmission. British Journal of Psychology, 405-423.

    It looks like they controlled for this given your examples are two non-agent sentences and two sentences with agents present. But I would like to see the original paper to see if this was fully controlled for. Since, after all, gods are social agents and they might have simply found that people are better at understanding social information like with the Wason selection task.

  6. @ squidocto
    And why couldn't a dining-room be a metaphor any more than wind. I don't get the "metaphor" explanation.

  7. Sabio: I'm not sure I can say. Yours is a reasonable question. My point is speculative, not a criticism (I haven't read the paper, so I can't critique it).

    I'll try again, though. The "wind" version is vague. The "dining room" variation is a more specific-- it conjures a visual image of a dining room in the ground, which strikes me as silly, nonsensical.

    It makes me think of my 4-year-old nephews, whose idea of "joke" is to start a sentence that seems to make sense, then end it with a word that obviously doesn't fit. Basic humor.

    However, if you try the same thing but end with a word that isn't obviously out of place, then it makes you think: why that word? What does it mean?

    I find studies of the kind discussed here interesting because they not only are a window on religious thinking, but are also perhaps a window on artistic thinking -- and how close, or far apart, are they?

  8. "I like my coffee with cream and socks" actually comes very close to making sense in Norwegian. There is just a small vowel difference between socks (sokker) and sugar (sukker). In fact it sounds like a great joke for a 4 year old.

  9. Whose idea of nonsense are we using? "the wind under the earth" is a classis interpretation of one of the I Ching's hexagram, so anyone knowing the I Ching would not be surprised to find the concept expressed in a book. Dining rooms are a bit less archetypal, so they seem less likely to be found.

    From Wikipedia, sv Hexagrams (I Ching):
    Hexagram 46 is named 升 (shēng), "Ascending". Other variations include "pushing upward". Its inner trigram is ☴ (巽 xùn) ground = (風) wind, and its outer trigram is ☷ (坤 kūn) field = (地) earth.

  10. I think that you're right that the reason the 'religious' statements are easier to digest is because we are for some reason more familiar with the general image being depicted - we understand it as a metaphor.

    But then, as Sabio points out, why is it that these particular statements are understood as metaphors, but not the others?

    They carefully set up the phrases so that they were matched for subject type and target word (person, animal, artifact, plant etc). They also matched the violations of real world (biological, physical and psychological).

    I think part of the reason is that we hear these kinds of things a lot - we're used to hearing magical things about the moon, so if someone says "From his mind emerged the moon" it's more expected and so easier to digest that "From his mind emerged the house).

    A lot of the examples they give involve astronomical features, or powerful animals like serpents and falcons.

    So perhaps they are only 'minimally counterintuitive' through repetition of similar stories.

  11. I'm pretty certain that the concept of God and his religious commands are man made. I'm also pretty certain that the events described in the Torah actually happened at some point in history. What I cannot understand is why humans have this need to believe in the 'unbelievable'.

    At this time of year when millions believe (or at least convince their kids) that ONE fat man in a red and white trimmed suit will enter their houses via the chimney and deliver presents to everyone in the world, believe that a man died and then rose from the dead, that his mum gave birth without having sex you have to ask: How has this story lasted so long and why have so many died to protect this viewpoint?


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS