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Thinking About God Relieves Stress (…if you believe)

John on August 6, 2010 at 1:06 am

Interesting study profiled on faith and stress from Live Science:

With two experiments, the researchers showed that when people think about religion and God, their brains respond differently—in a way that lets them take setbacks in stride and react with less distress to anxiety-provoking mistakes.

Participants either wrote about religion or did a scrambled word task that included religion and God-related words.

Then the researchers recorded their brain activity as they completed a computerized task—one that was chosen because it has a high rate of errors.

The results showed that when people were primed to think about religion and God, either consciously or unconsciously, brain activity decreases in areas consistent with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is associated with a number of things, including regulating bodily states of arousal and alerting us when things are going wrong.

Interestingly, atheists reacted differently. When they were unconsciously primed with God-related ideas, their ACC increased its activity. The researchers suggest that for religious people, thinking about God may provide a way of ordering the world and explaining apparently random events and thus reduce their feelings of distress.

In contrast, for atheists, thoughts of God may contradict the meaning systems they embrace and thus cause them more distress.

I think they’re probably partly right about why this works and why it doesn’t.

I believe that thinking about religion puts people in a more objective and less subjective frame of mind. Perhaps that sounds counter-intuitive since we’re used to hearing about the subjectivity of religion. What I mean is, speaking for myself, awareness of God is tantamount to looking at oneself from outside. Being aware that my experience is really just a small part of a larger tapestry over which I have little ultimate control. It’s a step outside of self and away from complete immersion in my own experience.

So, for instance, I suspect the people in the test were less stressed because they were mentally able to step back and think…what does it really matter if I fail. It’s not life or death. No biggie. Whereas people who weren’t in this frame of mind were more likely to get caught up in the moment and take the failure more personally.

As for the atheists, I can’t help but think of Sartre for whom “the gaze” was of significant philosophical importance. He believed that it was only the gaze of others that objectified our existence and made us truly self-aware. He saw this as a kind of theft, since in being viewed from the outside we became something specific rather than pure existence. The gaze alienates us from our being. So for him, the idea of a God who was omniscient, i.e. able to see everything at once all the time, was horrific. It was an end to pure freedom.

Not that I think atheists are running through all this as they take some test. But I do believe that what Sartre verbalized and formalized exists in a more basic form. It’s a feeling, the discomfort of being studied closely. Stare at a stranger long enough and they will shift in their seat or turn away. It’s awkward and distressing. I suspect this could be one reason why the atheists in the test felt more stress when God was introduced into the study.

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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