Belief in the supernatural, including the existence of God(s), ghosts and the efficacy of spiritual healing, is endorsed by most Americans (National Science Foundation 2006). Emerging research has strongly suggested that belief in the supernatural decreases when analytical thinking is encouraged (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012) and increases when stimulating intuitive thinking (Shenhav et al., 2011). This confirms earlier assumptions by cognitive science of religion (CSR) about the intuitiveness of religious thinking (Barrett, 2004). Despite these recent studies, the role of analytical and intuitive thinking in supernatural belief hasn’t yet been studied at the neural level. The aim of this project is to investigate this by using innovative neuroscientific techniques. In doing so, it will not only shed new light on the neural mechanisms underlying supernatural belief, but also directly test a specific hypothesis about the way analytic thinking may impact on supernatural belief.

We will investigate the role of cognitive inhibition in the formation and endorsement of supernatural beliefs in a novel way by using non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to suppress or enhance activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus, which has been shown to be involved in cognitive inhibition in lesion and brain imaging studies (Aron et al., 2004). Thus, by using tDCS we aim to reversibly modify cognitive inhibition and, consequently, the endorsement of supernatural beliefs in groups of believers and skeptics.

This project will also have a philosophical and ethical component. Our empirical investigation into the possibility of modulating supernatural belief using tDCS will be informed by input from ethicists; and the results of this empirical investigation will in turn feed into further philosophical reflection into the ethics of manipulating supernatural belief. We expect at least 3 peer-reviewed articles to result from this project.