Controlling the mind
Scientists have discovered that temporarily turning off a part of the brain can reduce prejudice and the fervour of religious beliefs in people iStock

For the first time, scientists have discovered that they can change the way people think about religion and politics by directing magnetic energy to their brains to temporarily shut off specific regions of the brain.

Scientists from the University of York and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) conducted an experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive, safe method of stimulating small areas of the brain that is used by doctors to treat severe depression, as well as to evaluate damage caused by injuries, strokes, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, movement disorders and motor neuron disease.

The study analysed the brains of 38 UCLA undergraduates from a multitude of races who were divided into two groups. One group had enough magnetic energy directed at their brains to temporarily shut down the posterior medial frontal cortex, a part of the brain located near the surface and roughly a few inches up from the forehead that is associated with detecting problems and triggering responses that address them.

The other group, meanwhile, received a much lower dose of magnetic energy that did not affect their brains in any way. After experiencing the magnetic energy, all the participants were asked to think about the concept of death, and then answer questions about their religious beliefs and feelings about immigrants.

The researchers discovered that the group which had the targeted brain region shut down reported 32.8% less belief in God, angels, or heaven, and were 28.5% more positive in their feelings toward an immigrant who criticised their country.

Their research, entitled Neuromodulation of Group Prejudice and Religious Belief is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Using magnetics to decrease prejudice and religious fervour

The researchers decided to focus on the posterior medial frontal cortex because it plays a key role in cognitive dissonance, where an individual holds two or more contradictory beliefs or ideals at the same time and becomes psychologically uncomfortable, thus seeking to reduce this feeling and avoid situations that increase it.

"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," said Dr Keise Izuma, a lecturer at the University of York's Department of Psychology.

"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."

The participants had been prescreened to make sure that they had strong convictions about religion, and to ensure that the participants would respond adversely to a Latino immigrant's criticisms of the US, participants who were "extremely liberal" or "Hispanic/Latino" were not chosen to take part. The resulting group was considered to be "politically moderate", so that the scientists could see if their minds could be changed.

The mind processes criticisms as ideological threats

To judge the participants' feelings about nationalism, the researchers gave them two essays to read that had been written by recent immigrants to the US. One of the essays was extremely positive about the US, while the other essay was extremely negative. Interestingly, the participants with a brain region temporarily turned off were more positive towards the immigrant that criticised their country, than the participants whose brains were unaffected.

"We think that hearing criticisms of your group's values, perhaps especially from a person you perceive as an outsider, is processed as an ideological sort of threat," said Dr Izuma.

"One way to respond to such threats is to 'double down' on your group values, increasing your investment in them, and reacting more negatively to the critic. When we disrupted the brain region that usually helps detect and respond to threats, we saw a less negative, less ideologically motivated reaction to the critical author and his opinions."

The researchers says that their findings are consistent with the idea that brain mechanisms, which evolved for relatively basic threat-response functions, are also used to produce ideological reactions. However, more research is needed to establish exactly why religious beliefs and ethnocentric attitudes were reduced.