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Religion Is Good For Your Brain 529

Posted by timothy
from the still-looking-for-a-nice-atheist-church dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Sheila M. Elred writes in Discovery Magazine that a recent study has found that people at risk of depression were much less vulnerable if they identified as religious. Brain MRIs revealed that religious participants had thicker brain cortices than those who weren't as religious. 'One of the worst killers of brain cells is stress,' says Dr. Majid Fotuhi. 'Stress causes high levels of cortisol, and cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. One way to reduce stress is through prayer. When you're praying and in the zone you feel a peace of mind and tranquility.' The reports concluded that a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression. The social element of attending religious services has also been linked to healthy brains. 'There's something magical about socializing,' says Fotuhi. 'It releases endorphins in the brain. It's hard to know whether it's through religion or a gathering of friends, but it improves brain health in the long term.'" (Read more, below.)
"Listening to sermons and reading religious works like the Bible may also invoke a cognitive benefit. "You're exercising your higher cortical function, thinking about complex concepts that require some imagination," says Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University and a professor of psychiatry. According to Koenig the benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. "In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they're more optimistic, they experience less depression, less anxiety, and they commit suicide less often. They don't drink alcohol as much, they don't use drugs as much, they don't smoke cigarettes as much, and they have healthier lifestyles. They have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, probably better cardiovascular functioning, and probably a healthier hormonal environment physiologically—particularly with respect to cortisol and adrenaline And they live longer." So where does that leave non-believers? "Out of luck, I guess," Koenig jokes. "Actually, I would suspect that people doing the types of things like religious people do — socializing, doing similarly complex cognitive tasks, would have similar benefits. But it is interesting that religion provides that whole package of things that people can adopt and pursue over time." Dr Dan Blazer says the study is very interesting but is still exploratory and that spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status. "It's hard to study these things," concludes Fotuhi . "It's why research has stayed away from them. But there does seem to be a strong link between spirituality and better brain health.""
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Religion Is Good For Your Brain

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  • Whatever (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @08:31AM (#46491229)
    You can go pray to your invisible sky daddy. I'll just continue believing in sanity and meditation.
  • Religion... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @08:32AM (#46491235)
    A thinking person should investigate religion, but not necessarily buy into it.
  • No surprise (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gweihir (88907) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @08:36AM (#46491255)

    Religion makes you stupid. In particular the ability to recognize your true situation is something the mental pathogen needs to degrade in order to retain its ability to infect and spread. Hence all perceived gains come at a heavy price: You become less human and both free will and rationality is partially suspended by the malicious meme. The claim that this "improves brain health" just shows the effect at work. It is a misdirection that stems from the defensive strategy of the pathogen.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @08:40AM (#46491271)

    Yeah and the article doesn't go into all the disadvantages of religion which far out weigh the advantages.

  • by inasity_rules (1110095) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @08:45AM (#46491287) Journal

    I am not sure we read the same article. Not to invoke an argument, but the TFA talks about listening to sermons and reading the bible. It even ends with '“My personal belief is that having a strong belief is key to getting the benefits,” Fotuhi said.'

    Right or wrong, the article says what it says.. The fact that you missed this would suggest you may need to check your confirmation bias filters a bit.

  • by inasity_rules (1110095) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @08:52AM (#46491327) Journal

    I am not commenting on the correctness of the article, merely OP's interpretation.

  • by Thruen (753567) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @09:24AM (#46491553)
    Actually, you're commenting on the OP's interpretation of the article author's interpretation. The study says exactly what OP says it does, that religious activity reduces stress filters, the author's personal opinion is given to create bias and it appears to have worked on you.

    It's my personal belief that it has nothing to do with how strongly you believe in any particular religion, and you'd likely see the same benefits from taking time to reflect on your own or discussing matters with supportive friends and family. You can feel free to try to correct my interpretation, as long as you understand it's only your own opinion and possible that of the author against mine, this study does nothing to prove either of us wrong.

    Any time I read something saying religion is good or bad in any way, I take it with a grain of salt. There doesn't seem to be anyone studying religion who doesn't have a desired outcome going into it.

    That said, this article seems a bit silly, all they're really saying is that people need a release, something anyone alive today can tell you. For some, that release is religion, for others it could be anything. This is not news.
  • by geekmux (1040042) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @09:43AM (#46491671)

    Religion has found itself at the very root of many, many conflicts throughout our history, with religious wars raging on for hundreds of years. Countless lives have been lost due to this.

    THAT is an activity we now want to call a anti-depressant?

    And people have the gall to call atheists evil for lacking faith.

  • Re:Whatever (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SuperTechnoNerd (964528) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @10:54AM (#46492099)
    Agreed, Meditation can achieve the same results without believing in fantasy. Break out the incense people!
  • Re:Religion... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hoggoth (414195) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @11:17AM (#46492267) Journal

    But, as someone who was not indoctrinated in religion when I was young and impressionable, how do I determine which of the following ideas to believe and follow:

    1) Organized religion
    2) Unicorns
    3) Astrology

    From my point of view these all share equal likelihood of being true, have equally convincing evidence, and all have proponents. Not being totally facetious here, from inside the "group" this may seem obvious to you, but from outside it doesn't. Why Jesus? Why not Buddha? Why not Zeus? Why not Wicca? Why not Xenu? And if I decide all but one of these ideas are poppycock, then how does one of them stand the same test of scrutiny?

  • by hoggoth (414195) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @11:31AM (#46492353) Journal

    Organized religion is a package of beliefs and behaviors that have been honed over tens of thousands of years to provide people with things they need both psychologically and socially. Until recently religious behavior couldn't really have been separated from the rest of tradition and society. It was one "package". Having all of these things wrapped up in one package makes it easier to teach and train people to follow good ideas, like "don't eat food that spoils quickly" and "don't spread STDs with promiscuous sex". Now that we have better understand of which behaviors are helpful we may not need all of the extra baggage that traditionally came with religion. But where is the new "package" of useful behaviors to replace the old ones? Often if you discard religious tradition you also discard good guidelines for living, and instead rely on random trends or worse profit-motive marketing for your guidelines.

    I suspect religious people will get angry at this line of reasoning, thinking I am missing the entire "point" of religion. From one point of view I am discounting the whole purpose of their religion. But regardless of the supernatural truths of the universe, it is certainly true that religions carry a great deal of traditions and guidelines for living beyond the purely spiritual.

  • Re:Whatever (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Phernost (899816) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @11:31AM (#46492355)

    Believing in an unprovable comforting fantasy causes less stress than facing cruel harsh realty ... SHOCK!

  • Re:Religion... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @12:19PM (#46492713)

    I don't think whether religion is fantasy or not is what's being discussed. We all know that a teddy-bear is just a cloth bag with soft filler..."it's not real"...yet it comforts the child and helps her to develop normally.

    I'm an atheist (and not socially inclined, to boot). I may be "right" about a bunch of stuff, but I'm not the happiest puppy in the pound.

  • Re:Religion... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ol Olsoc (1175323) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:00PM (#46493027)

    Another thing about religion is that it contains 84% of the worlds population. A critical mind wouldn't dismiss such an overwhelming (albeit declining) majority as totally worthless to the human condition.

    All religions I know of are attempts by people to control things that they can't control. Imagine early multi-diety religions. Sun God, Rain God, Earth God, Fertility God, and more, but let us take the first few examples.

    You are a farmer in a village, and you have an understanding that your crops need sun and rain to grow. As happens in nature, there are good years, and there are bad years. Some years, the crops come in well, others, not so good. You know the more sun, the better, and when it didn't rain much that one year, th eearth cracked and your village almost starved.

    Humans have an amazing ability to find patterns. We can see cause and effect very well. Do this, and that happens. So we look for cause and effect - patterns - in everything.

    So the farmer thinks of what he did differently during years of sufficient rainfall. Say it was a simple looking at a cloud, and hoping it drops water. And it does. Better hope that again!

    But then it doesn't work the next time. So the farmer thinks he must have done something wrong. So he modifies his wishing method

    Aound the time of changeover to more agricultural societies, wise people were able to remove themselves from subsistence farming and to dispense wisdom. Needless to say, people would seek wisdom in matters of having life turn out the way they wanted it to.

    So the farmer goes to see the wise guy. The wise guy tells the farmer he needed to use a more powerful "hope" or supplication to the rain. Maybe it worked, and the wise guy is looked at as very wise, one hwo can control things, one who can make the rain fall. Then it doesn't one year. The wise guy decides that the farmer needs to show his appreciation for the rain, maybe to show the rain god that he has faith in it. So now he must do something to show that faith. Enter sacrifices. Some times they work, some times they don't. Eventually, you have people praying and sacrificing and worshipping many gods.

    But something is missing. People die. They cease to exist after some time. Wouldn't it be great if a person could live forever? That would be the ultiimate control over natureReligion to the rescue. Now we have religions springing up where an entity in each person, a soul as it were, would transcend life on this earth, and by practicing the correct actions, this soul would go ot a wonderful place. If not, this soul would be tortured for eternity.

    Then the old pattern recognition thing would kick in, and we would see different people following different patterns in order to achieve their reward for their soul. This is how we get different flavors of similar religions, where some are peaceful, some expect people to do good works here on earth, some the entrance test is simple acceptance, then you have it made, and some that encourage that you engage in violence, and that you are supposed to kill others as an entrance rite.

    All based on the idea that you as a person can exercise control over things you cannot control.

    All based on suspension of disbelief.

    All of them based on "I am doing it correctly, you are not."

  • Re:Religion... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:01PM (#46493041)

    moreso: if you look at the world's worth of religions and if you are able to remove yourself from your own religion, you should be able to see that each little group of people is asserting things that are quite opposite or in conflict with the other group's views.

    we can go around the world and measure where water boils and freezes, and if we keep the altitude constant, the values all agree.

    otoh, if you go around the world and ask about creation myths, you get different answers, and the people answering all seem to think THEIR view is correct and others are wrong.

    that one thought experiment, alone, was enough to convince me that all relgions are made-up and no one has any clue at all what the true reality is.

    some things don't have easy answers. its better (for me, at least) to admit that than to make up synthetic answers.

    finally, there is the group control aspect of religion. aside from the 'sleep well at night' concept, there is a lot of the 'do as I tell you or you will be punished, and by a guy with a much bigger stick than I have!'.

    none of that is really productive to the modern thinking mind.

  • Re: Whatever (Score:5, Insightful)

    by canadian_right (410687) <> on Saturday March 15, 2014 @01:50PM (#46493407) Homepage

    Divisive? If your neighbors were trying to teach everyone that children should dress in black and play on highways at night would you call it divisive to point that isn't a good idea?

    All the benefits of religion can be had from secular means that don't encourage magical thinking, which has a long track record of having numerous bad side affects.

  • Re:Religion... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thegarbz (1787294) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @06:11PM (#46495021)

    Another thing about religion is that it contains 84% of the worlds population. A critical mind wouldn't dismiss such an overwhelming (albeit declining) majority as totally worthless to the human condition.

    The person who discovered smoking causes cancer originally sat on the results of the study for more than a year to expand it's scope because he didn't believe something that the vast majority of the population does could be bad. I say it's quite the opposite. Believing that something has benefits purely because other people do it is a classic sign of a mind that is giving up freethinking making them a perfect candidate to actually follow a religion.

    As for calling atheist gatherings religious, that only shows your grasp of the English language. There's no possible use of the word religious which may be invoked in a way that doesn't relate the belief in a deity or following a religion. You would do well to find yourself a different word.

  • Re:Whatever (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ClickOnThis (137803) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @09:41PM (#46495977) Journal

    Meditation and prayer are almost two same things.

    Not really, in the case of prayer as practiced by the Abrahamic religions.

    What distinguishes prayer from meditation is a stimulation of the rational mind, as opposed to a relaxation of it. Abrahamic-style prayer is a kind of one-way "discussion" that follows a rational course, whereas meditation is an exercise in repeating certain phrases or sounds in your head in order to achieve a relaxed or receptive condition.

    Note that I'm not at all trying to say that one is better than the other. They're just different.

If you aren't rich you should always look useful. -- Louis-Ferdinand Celine