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Does Brain Scanning Research Reveal Your Real Religious Belief - More Than Church Attendance?

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A new brain scanning study has found that high personal importance of religion or spirituality in your life is associated with thicker cortex in several brain regions.

Some of these same regions were found to be associated with a higher risk for developing clinical depression, if that part of the brain cortex was thinner.

The study, entitled, Neuroanatomical Correlates of Religiosity and Spirituality - A Study in Adults at High and Low Familial Risk for Depression, concludes that a higher importance of religion or spirituality was associated with thicker cortex in certain brain regions, possibly conferring greater resilience to the development of depressive illnesses.

The study, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association - Psychiatry, focused on those with a high or low familial risk for developing clinical depression, because of a previously strong family history of this psychiatric diagnosis.

The team of academics who conducted this Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) study, led by Dr Myrna Weissman, from Columbia University, argue that this brain finding could account for why being religious or spiritual, in certain circumstances, might contribute to improved resilience to depressive psychiatric illnesses.

Being religious or spiritual, possibly by expanding a physical brain reserve, counters to some extent the vulnerability that brain thinning in those areas poses for developing depression that runs in families.

For those attending church services this Easter weekend it may be surprising that the study found it was the personal importance of religion or spirituality in your life, but not the frequency of attendance of church, that was associated with thicker brain areas. In a sense the brain scans revealed your true faith more than church attendance did.

The same team had previously reported a 90% decreased risk, assessed over a 10-year period, of developing clinical depressive disorder in those from families where there was a high incidence of depression, if religion or spirituality was highly important to the adult studied.

Several others studies have found that intensity of religious experiences is associated with increased blood flow in similar brain regions found to be structurally thicker in this study.

The authors of this new study, Lisa Miller, Ravi Bansal, Priya Wickramaratne, Xuejun Hao, Craig Tenke, Myrna Weissman and Bradley Peterson, found that, oddly, a high frequency of attendance of religious services was not associated with brain thickness, yet rating religion or spirituality as personally important in your life was.

This appears a paradox - people who go to church a lot were not reaping the same benefit in their brains, in terms of protecting from depression, as those who believed that religion or spirituality was important to them.

The authors point out that although some may go to church in order to promote their spirituality, others may attend whether or not religion is genuinely personally important to them. In this study 49 participants reported high church attendance, yet only 21 of those also reported high importance of religion or spirituality in their lives. The remaining 28 participants may be attending services for a host of non-religious reasons, which may include social support.

This research found that the participants who frequently attended religious services were in fact at increased risk of depression, suggesting that a subset of participants may attend religious services for comfort or management of depressive symptoms.

Although frequent attendance may express, sustain, and cultivate personal importance of religion or spirituality, these findings suggest that religious beliefs and experiences, and not overt behavior (such as attending church a lot), are associated with brain thickness.

That going to church might not be the key to the protective effect of religion or spirituality on those predisposed to depression, through a high risk family history, is further bolstered, according to Myrna Weissman and her colleagues, by other recent research. For example, those who regularly meditate also have certain thicker brain regions. Another recent study found that meditation training for eight weeks increased cerebral gray matter density in specific brain areas.

The authors of this study, from Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, are not claiming that religion or spirituality generally protects you from depression. Instead, they are suggesting that if you consider that religion or spirituality in your life are important, then that appears to confer a neuroanatomical resilience. And that is in those who otherwise are predisposed to developing depressive illness, due to a strong family history for this kind of psychiatric problem.

Previously, we reported some other new research, from a team of academics led by Professor Michael King from University College London, where over 8,000 people were investigated, revealing that those who held a religious or spiritual understanding of life, had a higher incidence of depression compared with those with a secular life view.

Entitled Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort study, the investigation had been published in one of the most respected academic psychiatric journals, Psychological Medicine.

Perhaps one way of resolving the differing results is that the Psychological Medicine study was conducted on populations outside the USA - in the UK, Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Portugal and Chile. It could be that how important religion is in your country and culture, as well as the particular population studied, also has an impact on your brain and psychology.

Generally speaking Europeans are perceived as less religious than North Americans.

In the Psychological Medicine study, their findings varied by country; in particular, people in the UK who had a spiritual understanding of life were the most vulnerable to the onset of major depression. Yet, regardless of country, the stronger the spiritual or religious belief at the start of the investigation, the higher the risk of onset of depression over the next year.

In the specific situation of where you inherit a brain that might be predisposed to developing depression, it appears that higher importance of religion or spirituality in your life, perhaps in the USA at least, could be protective. It is also notable that the more recent brain scanning study found it was sustained interest in religion or spirituality, over a longer period, which was most strongly associated with thicker brain structures, rather than reporting a high level of spirituality at only one point in time.

However, given the not dissimilar findings on the brain effects of meditation, whether these structural brain changes and protective effect of religion or spirituality, are something specific to beliefs in God, is open to question.

Science is revealing that merely attending religious services may not deliver brain or mental health benefits, instead these appear linked to what you really believe.

Neuroscientists might now be able to tell, by examining your nervous system using the latest brain scanning technology, what you really believe, in the inner depths of your 'soul', but which you keep hidden from the rest of the congregation.

A private inner space that was supposedly only before accessible to God?

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