Raleigh’s News & Observer reported recently on the strange results of a project conducted by scientists at Duke University. Three researchers at a social event began to wonder if they could determine how religion affects the brain.
As a preliminary approach, the group took a look at more than 10 years’ worth of brain images they’d accumulated from volunteers. The subjects had been asked only a few questions about their religion or religious practices, but they were enough to get started.
Researchers decided to examine the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps us form new memories. The hippocampus, in the central part of the brain, shrinks with age, adversely affecting our memory. Some earlier studies had shown that religious people tend to have better performing memories, so the scientists postulated that folks who spend a lot of time in prayer or other religious practices would have the slowest shrinking hippocampi.
Boy, were they surprised. In the brain images they examined, prayer and church attendance had no observable effect on the speed with which a person’s hippocampus shrinks. What seemed to matter most — amazingly — was denominational affiliation. The fastest-shrinking hippocampi belonged to “born-again” Protestants, followed closely by Catholics and those who claimed no religious affiliation.
Those whose hippocampi shrank the least were mainline Protestants such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists.
In a further surprise, researchers noticed that those whose hippocampi shrank the fastest were believers who reported having had a “life-changing religious experience.”
All of that sounds like bad news for Baptist brains, given that we put a lot of stock into life-changing religious experiences. Fortunately, the results are admittedly very preliminary and based on data that lacked some important controls. It would take a lot more study with more carefully targeted questions to reach any firm conclusions.
In the meantime, however, it looks like we’d better enjoy those life-changing experiences while we can — we may not remember them for long.
[Image from http://www.memorylossonline.com/glossary/hippocampus.html]