Study pinpoints neural basis for the interplay between a close relationship with God and enhanced sense of control

A recent study offers new evidence that having a close relationship with God serves the psychological purpose of enhancing one’s sense of control. The study was published in Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience.

Spiritual belief is a fundamental aspect of human culture, dating back to ancient times. Psychology researchers have explored this tendency toward supernatural belief, suggesting that a close relationship with God offers humans a sense of control and a coping mechanism

Study authors Shira Cohen-Zimerman and colleagues wanted to explore this interplay between a belief in God and a sense of control and to investigate the possibility that the constructs share a neural basis.

To do this, researchers conducted a lesion-mapping study among a sample of veterans who had served in Vietnam. The researchers were interested in exploring damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), an area of the brain that has been linked to “emotionally meaningful religious experiences” in addition to a sense of control. They accordingly divided their sample into veterans with vmPFC lesions, veterans with posterior cortex lesions, and veterans with no brain injury.

All participants responded to 17 items assessing their personal relationship with God (e.g., “I can talk to God on an intimate basis.”). They also completed a measure of sense of control which used the item, “How often do you feel powerless to get what you want out of life?”.

The researchers matched their participants according to age, handedness, and general intelligence pre-injury.

The analysis found that subjects with damage to the right vmPFC demonstrated an enhanced personal relationship with God when compared to subjects with posterior lesions or no lesions at all. The group with right vmPFC damage also showed greater perceived sense of control, compared to the group without brain injury.

Next, the researchers conducted mediation analysis to further examine the interplay between lesions in the vmPFC, sense of control, and closeness with God. They found that a stronger relationship with God mediated the relationship between lesions in the right vmPFC and increased sense of control.

“This pattern of results,” the authors report, “supports a model of right vmPFC damage enhancing participants’ sense of control through enhancing their personal relationship with God.”

As Cohen-Zimerman and team emphasize, their study is the first to pinpoint a neural basis for the interplay between a close relationship with God and a sense of control.

“Our findings indicate the importance of the close link between belief in God and a sense of control, and strengthen theories claiming that religion originated, at least in part, from the desire to avoid the threatening experience of perceiving the world as random and chaotic,” the authors highlight.

The authors further note that while functional imaging studies show that activation of vmPFC is associated with enhanced religious experience, this does not necessarily contradict their finding that damage to this area increased subjects’ personal relationship with God.

“In our view, the vmPFC does not directly enhance one’s personal relationship with God. In contrast, given that patients with stronger lesions in this area reported a personal relationship with God, we infer that it is likely that other, intact brain areas, enabled the strong personal relationship with God observed in these patients, and that the vmPFC normally plays an inhibitory role in modulating this effect.”

The researchers propose that their findings may have implications for patients dealing with brain injuries, particularly those with damage to the vmPFC. Such patients might improve their sense of control after injury by drawing on their faith.

The study, “Neural underpinning of a personal relationship with God and sense of control: A lesion-mapping study”, was authored by Shira Cohen-Zimerman, Irene Cristofori, Wanting Zhong, Joseph Bulbulia, Frank Krueger, Barry Gordon, and Jordan Grafman.

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