Psychologists have discovered that it is possible to significantly change a person’s beliefs simply by targeting their brain with magnets. Using what’s known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, the researchers were able to temporarily shut down the part of the brain associated with detecting and solving problems.
People who were subjected to this treatment reported that their belief in God dropped by a third following the stimulation, while there was an increase in positive feelings towards immigrants.
The fascinating study was carried out by Dr. Keise Izuma from the University of York and Colin Holbrook from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They recruited 38 participants with an average age of 21 to take part in the study. Each of these participants said they had significant religious beliefs, and the majority of them held moderate to extremely conservative political beliefs. Political views were important because they suggested they were more likely to have stronger viewpoints on immigration.
Half of these participants formed part of a control group and received a low-level “sham” procedure that did not actually affect their brains. The other half received enough energy through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to lower activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC). This part of the brain, located near the surface and roughly a few inches up from the forehead, is associated with detecting problems and triggering responses that address them.
Following the treatment, all the participants were first asked to think about death before being asked questions about their religious beliefs and their feelings about immigrants. The death task including writing brief responses on the subject of their own death. To address their levels of prejudice, participants were asked to read two essays – one critical and one positive – written by an immigrant from Latin America about the US.
After reading each essay, participants rated how much they liked the person who wrote the essay and how much they agreed with their views. Religious belief was measured using a version of the Supernatural Belief Scale. Items were presented in random order and rated according to the same scale used in the immigrant ratings. Questions included: “There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God”, “There exist good personal spiritual beings, whom we might call angels” and “There exists an evil personal spiritual being, whom we might call the Devil.”
The findings, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, reveal that people whose brains were targeted by TMS reported 32.8 percent less belief in God, angels, or heaven. They were also 28.5 percent more positive in their feelings toward an immigrant who criticized their country. The researchers also found that the magnetic stimulation had the greatest effect on reactions to the critical author in the essay test. “We think that hearing criticisms of your group’s values, perhaps especially from a person you perceive as an outsider, is processed as an ideological sort of threat,” said Dr. Izuma. “One way to respond to such threats is to ‘double down’ on your group values, increasing your investment in them, and reacting more negatively to the critic,” he continued. When we disrupted the brain region that usually helps detect and respond to threats, we saw a less negative, less ideologically motivated reaction to the critical author and his opinions.”
The researchers said this reduction in both religious beliefs and prejudice highlights how much such views are influenced by the part of the brain involved with detecting threats. Given the similar percentages, there may also be a link between how strongly a person’s religious beliefs may influence their view on immigrants, and vice versa. Dr. Izuma said, “People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems. We wanted to find out whether a brain region that is linked with solving concrete problems, like deciding how to move one’s body to overcome an obstacle, is also involved in solving abstract problems addressed by ideology. We decided to remind people of death because previous research has shown that people turn to religion for comfort in the face of death. As expected, we found that when we experimentally turned down the posterior medial frontal cortex, people were less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas despite having been reminded of death.”
Dr. Holbrook added that the findings are consistent with the idea that regions of the brain that have evolved to deal with threats are “repurposed” to also produce ideological reactions. He further explained, “The most striking finding was that the shifts in ideology did not appear driven by shifts in emotion. The participants did not report any difference in their emotional states whether their brain area had been turned down or not. In addition, we observed a decrease in emotionally positive beliefs in God, and an increase in acceptance of an emotionally negative, harsh critic of the participants’ national groups. This shows that the findings were not driven by a general shift in responses to positive or negative emotional stimuli. Whether we’re trying to clamber over a fallen tree that we find in our path, find solace in religion, or resolve issues related to immigration, our brains are using the same basic mental machinery,” the researchers concluded.
More research is now needed to understand exactly how and why religious beliefs and ethnocentric attitudes were reduced in this experiment. The project was an interdisciplinary collaboration between the University of York and UCLA, including Dr. Holbrook and Dan Fessler from the Department of Anthropology and neuroscientists at UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center. Also included was Marco Iacoboni, a world authority on transcranial magnetic stimulation and Director of the Brain Mapping Center.
Brain stimulation can alter beliefs, study claims