What can be Concluded from the Use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to Remove Faith?

Not long ago, Scarlett Johannsen starred in a movie named Lucy, a sci-fi thriller about a young woman who becomes super-human as the result of ingesting some drugs that she had been forced to carry inside of her body. Movienewz summarized the basic plot this way:
Lucy (Johansson), a woman living in Taipei, Taiwan, works as a drug mule. When Lucy accidentally swallows her cargo, the drug changes her into a metahuman. She can absorb knowledge instantaneously, move objects with her mind and can’t feel pain.

The idea behind the movie is the myth that we only use one-tenth of our brain power. Morgan Freeman, who with Samuel L. Jackson seems to be in almost every major motion picture released, plays the wise professor who understands the human brain. During one scene in the movie (as shown on the trailer), the Morgan Freeman character lectures a class about the human mind intoning, “It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent. Interesting things begin to happen.” (Just for the record, it is clear that the idea that we only use 10% of our brain capacity is a myth. A good refutation can be found in the article from Scientific American entitled “Do we really use only 10 percent of our brains?” by Barry L. Beyerstein of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University.)   Of course, Lucy continues to expand her brain potential, and at the end…well, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen the movie. But as her brain potential begins to expand, she begins to do remarkable, super-human things.

Regardless of the truth or falsity of the 10% claim, watching Lucy we are left wondering what would happen if we could use 100% of our brain potential. And most of us conclude, rightly, that if we could somehow access more of our brains, it would be better. We instinctively conclude that using more of the brain will make us smarter.

Earlier today, I learned of a new study in Britain where the scientist are using a new process called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and the results have been somewhat concerning for people of faith. According to the Express, “Scientists claim they can change your belief on immigrants andGod – with MAGNETS.”   The article states: 
A bizarre experiment claims to be able to make Christians no longer believe in God and make Britons open their arms to migrants in experiments some may find a threat to their values. Scientists looked at how the brain resolves abstract ideological problems. Using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), researchers safely shut down certain groups of neurones in the brains of volunteers.
 TMS, which is used to treat depression, involves placing a large electromagnetic coil against the scalp which creates electric currents that stimulate nerve cells in the region of the brain involved in mood control. Researchers found the technique radically altered religious perceptions and prejudice.
Belief in God was reduced almost by a third, while participants became 28.5 per cent less bothered by immigration numbers.

Very interesting. The author of the article continues: 
Dr Keise Izuma, from the University of York, said: "People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems.
 "We wanted to find out whether a brain region that is linked with solving concrete problems, like deciding how to move one's body to overcome an obstacle, is also involved in solving abstract problems addressed by ideology."
 The scientists targeted the posterior medial frontal cortex, a brain region a few inches up from the forehead that is associated with detecting and responding to problems.
 Volunteers were asked to rate their belief in God, heaven, the devil, and hell after undergoing pre-screening to ensure that they held religious convictions.
 Dr Izuma said: "We decided to remind people of death because previous research has shown that people turn to religion for comfort in the face of death.
 "As expected, we found that when we experimentally turned down the posterior medial frontal cortex, people were less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas despite having been reminded of death."

So, what’s the conclusion? I am certain that some people will read this study and immediately conclude that belief in God is nothing more than something that happens in the brain. After all, it was only a few years ago that the earlier-mentioned Scientific American also published an article announcing that scientists had discovered a “Godspot” in the brain.  According to that article, 
A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences, according to a study that analyses why religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history.
Scientists searching for the neural "God spot", which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief.
 * * *
 Scientists are divided on whether religious belief has a biological basis. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

Thus, some might conclude that this is more evidence that belief in God is not a belief in something outside of the believer, but a mere brain event that is biologically explainable. But I arrive at two different possible conclusions arising out of the study. As the article points out, the scientists are using TMS to “shut down” certain groups of neurons in the brain. When these neurons are shut down, almost a third of the formerly religious people lose their faith.

The first thing to note is that even with this part of the brain shut down by TMS, more than two-thirds of the people maintained their faith in God. When a study produces less than 33% of a change, one could make an appropriate note that belief in God apparently is unaffected by the shut down in the majority of people. (In some situations in politics, 67% is considered a super-majority. Thus, I think it is safe to say that the TMS shutdown had no effect on a super-majority of the people.) Is it not fair to conclude that for a super-majority of the people the shutdown of a part of the brain had no effect on belief in God and therefore belief in God is not a brain event?

Second, and more amusingly, let’s suppose that the study does show that shutdown of part of the brain by TMS results in a loss of faith.  What might we conclude from that? Well, as was suggested by the movie Lucy, use of a larger percentage of the brain is a good thing. It makes us smarter. So, if shutting down a part of the brain results in a loss of belief in God, what does that say about atheists? Doesn’t it suggest that atheists are not using as much of their brain as Christians? Given that atheists like to claim that they are smarter than Christians, isn’t this scientific evidence that Christians use more of their brain potential and are consequently smarter? Just wondering. 


Joe Hinman said…
great post man. If you don't mind I'm going to make you a guest blogger an post it on Meta's blog.

I have not read any of the literature but if those researchers are like the one's who claim to produce religious experience by manipulating the brain, (I researched that for my book Trace of God, Joseph Hinman, on Amazon), they probably had no control for establishing either what a believer is or what losing belief would be.

they prove nothing.

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