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Are the ways that people think about God different from the ways they think about siblings, celebrities, or superheroes? A three-year study launched in 2019, led by neuroscientists Adam Green of Georgetown University, Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University, and David Kraemer of Dartmouth College, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, aims to increase our understanding of the ways believers and unbelievers conceptualize God in their everyday thinking using a sophisticated new approach to analyzing neuroimaging data.

The study will make use of a new data technique for analyzing brain scans. In past studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have looked for areas of a research participant’s brain that “light up” in association with a certain mental activity. The newer technique, called representational similarity analysis (RSA), takes fMRI data showing where mental activity is happening and applies machine learning techniques to compare the results of different kinds of mental activity — offering insight into how a particular concept or entity is represented in the brain. RSA has already been successfully applied to distinguish subjects’ mental representations of science concepts and characters in movies, but it has not previously been applied to how people think about religious concepts.

WHAT WE THINK ABOUT WHEN WE THINK ABOUT GOD

Green and Grafman, along with social psychologists Adam Cohen and Kathryn Johnson of Arizona State University, and neuroimaging expert James Haxby of Dartmouth, will work focus on will focus on two research questions: How is God represented in the brain relative to objectively real and not-real entities? And how similar or distinct are God representations in the brains of high belief, moderate belief, and unbelieving individuals? The researchers will work with with three groups of 25 participants from Protestant Christian backgrounds, with high, moderate and low self-reported belief levels. While undergoing fMRI scans, the subjects will be given prompts to think about attributes of God as compared to attributes of entities with different levels of familiarity, intimacy, or reality (such as their mother, or Tom Hanks, or Superman); then they will be asked to think specifically about the reality of God versus other entities, and to engage in more open-ended thought about God and other real or non-real entities. These results will be analyzed along with other psychometric and behavioral measures with the goal of understanding why some entities are represented more similarly than others.

The project’s leaders will share their findings in conference presentations and manuscripts, make datasets and research materials freely available, and host a capstone international conference on the cognitive neuroscience of religious belief.

“Despite the unfortunate popularity of the term ‘neurotheology’, surprisingly little neuroscientific research has been conducted on how people think about God. But not only do we not know much about the neural instantiation of concepts of God — we don’t even know much about how the brain deals with belief vs. unbelief in general,” says Nicholas Gibson, the John Templeton Foundation’s senior program officer for human sciences. “So this project has the potential to be groundbreaking on two fronts: it will expand the methodological toolbox for the scientific study of religion and give new insight into how belief and unbelief are represented in mind and brain.”

STILL CURIOUS?

Learn more about project leaders Adam Green, Jordan Grafman, and David Kraemer.

Read the 2008 paper that introduced RSA, the imaging analysis technique used in the study.