Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The factor structure of Religiosity and its neural substrates

A new article in PNAS by Grafman et al, argues that Religiosity can be broken down into three factors and the underlying machinery that these factors use are basic Theory Of Mind (ToM) circuitry, thus substantiating the claim that religion occurred as a byproduct of basic ToM related adaptations, although not ruling out that once established Religion may have provided adaptive advantage.

First a detour. I am more interested in this study as I had once claimed that Schizophrenics were more religious than Autistics and I have been maintaining that Religion is just one aspect of an underlying hyper-mentalizing to hyper-physicalism continuum on which these two spectrum disorders lie on opposite ends. The case for less ToM abilities in ASD seems to be fairly settled; its also becoming apparent that in Schizophrenia spectrum disorders you have excess of ToM abilities; This study by showing the ToM to Religion linkage, fills in the gaps and another puzzle piece falls in place.

On to the study. The authors first show that Religious Belief can be split into three factors. they use a novel (to me) technique of Multi Dimensional Scaling (MDS) to tease out the factors associated with religious belief. I have not checked how MDS works, but I assume it is similar to Factor analysis and can give us reliable factor structure underlying the data. They build on previous research and discovered the following three factors:

  1. God’s perceived level of involvement,
  2. God’s perceived emotion, and
  3. religious knowledge source. 
The first factor refers to endowing intentionality to superantural agents like God; the second factor refers to endowing emotions to God an dthe thierd factor refers to the source of the religious beliefs- whether it is doctrinal or derived from experience. Thus the trinity of intention, emotion and belief - alos the trinity involved in ToM tasks. The authors do a good job of describing the factors, so I'll let them do it.

Dimension 1 (D1) correlated negatively with God’s perceived level of involvement (–0.994), Dimension 2 (D2) correlated negatively with God’s perceived anger (–0.953) and positively with God’s perceived love (0.953), and Dimension 3 (D3) correlated positively with doctrinal (0.993) and negatively with experiential (–0.993) religious content. D1 represents a quantitative gradient of a single concept and we will be referring to it as ‘‘God’s perceived level of involvement.’’ D2 and D3 represent gradients of contrasting concepts; we will be referring to them as ‘‘God’s perceived emotion’’ (D2) and ‘‘religious knowledge source’’ (D3).

God’s perceived level of involvement (D1) organizes statements so that ‘‘God is removed from the world’’ or ‘‘Life has no higher purpose’’ have high positive coordinate values, while ‘‘God’s will guides my acts,’’ ‘‘God protects one’s life,’’ or ‘‘God is punishing’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lie statements implying the existence of uninvolved supernatural agents, and on the negative end lie statements implying involved supernatural agents.

God’s perceived emotion (D2) ranges from love to anger and organizes statements so that ‘‘God is forgiving’’ and ‘‘God protects all people’’ have high positive-coordinate values, while ‘‘God is wrathful’’ and ‘‘The afterlife will be punishing’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lie statements implying the existence of a loving (and potentially rewarding) supernatural agent, and on the negative end lie statements suggestive of wrathful (and potentially punishing) supernatural agent.

Religious knowledge (D3) ranges from doctrinal to experiential and organizes statements so that ‘‘God is ever-present’’ and ‘‘A source of creation exists’’ have high positive-coordinate values, while ‘‘Religion is directly involved in worldly affairs’’ and ‘‘Religion provides moral guiding’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lies theological content referring to abstract religious concepts, and on the negative end lies theological content with moral, social, or practical implications.

This breakup of religiosity into three factors is itself commendable, but then they go on to show, using fMRI data that these factors activate areas of brain associated with ToM abilities. I don't really understand all their fMRI data, but the results seem interesting. Here is what they conclude:

The MDS results confirmed the validity of the proposed psychological structure of religious belief. The 2 psychological processes previously implicated in religious belief, assessment of God’s level of involvement and God’s level of anger (11), as well as the hypothesized doctrinal to experiential continuum for religious nowledge, were identifiable dimensions in our MDS analysis. In addition, the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.

This study defines a psychological and neuroanatomical framework for the (predominately explicit) processing of religious belief. Within this framework, religious belief engages well-known brain networks performing abstract semantic processing, imagery, and intent-related and emotional ToM, processes known to occur at both implicit and explicit levels (36, 39, 50). Moreover, the process of adopting religious beliefs depends on cognitive-emotional interactions within the anterior insulae, particularly among religious subjects. The findings support the view that religiosity is integrated in cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis (2–4). The evolution of these networks was likely driven by their primary roles in social cognition, language, and logical reasoning (1, 3, 4, 51). Religious cognition likely emerged as a unique combination of these several evolutionarily important cognitive processes (52). Measurable individual differences in these core competencies (ToM, imagination, and so forth) may predict specific patterns of brain activation in response to religious stimuli.

As always I am excited and would like to see some field work being carried out to determine religiosity in ASD and Schizophrenia spectrum groups and see if we get the same results (less religiosity in autism and more religiosity in schizophrenics) as predicted, based on their baseline ToM abilities.

PS: I was not able to use the DOI lookup fetaure of Research Blogging, but the DOI of article is 

* Dimitrios Kapogiannis,, * Aron K. Barbey,, * Michael Su,, * Giovanna Zamboni,, * Frank Krueger,, * and Jordan Grafman (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief PNAS

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William said...
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smartdogs said...

Interesting. I just finished a couple of posts on abstract rewards and ToM in social animals like dogs and wolves based on an article that just came out in Seed (sorry, I don't know how to embed a link).

You now have me wondering if the ability to find abstractions rewarding, empathy, cooperation, ToM and religion are a group of phylogenetic mental processes.

Great post.

Sandy G said...

Hi smartdogs,

I agree with you that empathy, cooperation, ToM , religion and finding abstractions rewarding may fall under one group (the psychotic spectrum) while the reverse may fall under a different grouping.

Thanks for sharing your perspectives and would have loved to get the link to seed article!

Ron C. de Weijze said...

Is this a solution to the mind-body problem? I can see it as a way to turn belief into a reality, apart from enactment. Now, to me the question is which came first: the neural substrate (the word "substrate" itself suggests posteriority already) or the belief.