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Animal magnetism

Oliver Tomkins

Physiologists at the University of York and the University of California have discovered that shutting off a certain area of the brain can alter a subject's belief in God and views on immigration.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a procedure usually used with the mood control centres of the brain to treat depression but here it has been used to reduce activity in the prosterior medial frontal cortex, positioned just above the forehead, the part of the brain responsible for problem solving.

Dr. Izuma has said that the purpose of this research was to study the connections between ideology and decision making because of how people turn to their beliefs when confronted with decisions and problems.

Approximately 40 people took part in the study. Half of the participants were given a reduced treatment causing no change in the brain while the other half received the full treatment and had the activity in the target brain area lowered.

Participants were reminded about death, an idea closely tied with religious belief, and then asked questions about the negative and positive aspects of belief. Colin Holbrook of UCLA told CTV news that 'By positive, I mean God, angels, heaven versus devil, hell and demons.'

The questions covered a range of topics relating to belief God, heaven and angels and then responses were measured using a version of the Supernatural Belief Scale. The findings show that shutting of this area of the brain caused a 32.8per cent reduction in belief in these ideas.

'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.' explains Dr. Izuma in a news statement.

After this, the subjects were given two essays written by recent immigrants to test levels of nationalism after the procedure. One essay was positive towards the US while the other took a critical stance against the country.

The people who did receive the TMS procedure were 28.5 per cent more positive towards the critical writer than those who did not.

'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,' he continued. '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.'