Study: non-Christians’ brains atrophy

The other day we looked at the way the media handled a study that showed that Protestants who don’t identify a “born-again” experience had less hippocampal atrophy than Catholics, non-believers and those who do claim a “born-again” experience. I noted that all the headlines I could find highlighted that “born-again” Christians had “smaller brains.”

In the previous post, I looked only at how odd it was that Catholics and non-believers were spared this indignity, even though, the story claimed, all scored lower than Protestants.

A commenter read the study and pointed out that the greatest atrophy in the right and left hippocampi were put in a chart, which I’ve typed in below:

Left Hippocampus atrophy
.06 Other Protestants
-.01 Life-Changing Religious Experience (new)
-.05 Born-again (new)
-.15 Born-again (baseline)
-.22 Catholic
-.28 None
-.45 Life-Changing Religious Experience (baseline)

Right Hippocampus atrophy
-.05 Other
-.12 Catholic
-.15 Life-Changing Religious Experience (new)
-.15 Born-again (baseline)
-.20 None
-.21 Born-again (new)
-.32 Life-Changing Religious Experience (baseline)

(The commenter had “no religion” and “baseline LCRE experience” in the lowest spots for both hippocampi but I found different results.) Again, we see that the main thing is that “other” Protestants had the least atrophy in both their left and right hippocampi. But what’s also noteworthy is that those who are not Christian — reporting a non-Christian religious experience at the time they entered the study or reporting no religious belief, have the greatest atrophy. Born-again Protestants, whether newly converted or in their past, generally have less atrophy.

Out of curiosity, I read up a bit on the hippocampi and was surprised at just what a small part (if terribly important) part of the brain they were. But I note that this study didn’t measure the size of the hippocampi so much as the relative size at the beginning and end of the study. So when the headlines tell us that one group has a “smaller brain” than another group, they are wrong. At least, there’s no way they could know it from this study. This study measured how much this tiny portion of the overall brain atrophied over time.

So much of the coverage was flawed that I’m troubled by the whole episode.

Now, since I’ve spent so much time harshing on the media coverage of this study, I thought I’d also point out a story on the same study that did not follow the herd. It was headlined “A little bit of belief can be a godsend for your brain.”

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  • Randy

    I am not sure what category I would fit into. I am Catholic. I would say I am born again in the sense Jesus talks about in John 3. I have has a Life-Changing Religious Experience years ago. I also had one more recently. So I fit in about half the categories.

    I wonder this because Catholics seem lumped together. I would say many Catholics are similar to mainline protestants in their religious thinking. But more and more are not.

    In particular the idea that having to defend your faith prevents hippocampus atrophy. I defend my faith a lot but most Catholics don’t. I think that would be interesting if it could be proved with a bigger study.

  • Tomas Rees

    I covered it on my blog under the headline “Mainline Protestant’s brains rot slowest” :) The results probably have nothing to do with belief – more likely to be explained by affiliation/social integration.

  • sharon d.

    The Bad Brains album cover had me looking for the hippocampus atrophy rates of Rastafarians.

  • Will

    Likewise, I think of someone I know fairly well, who is on the evangelical side. He says something like “I am pretty sure I am born again, but I can not point to the moment I had my ‘conversion experience’.”

  • mattk

    Seems like some reporters don’t get science, either.

  • shane

    Probably not the point, but my reading of the article is that they compared hippocampus mass from one point to another and then reported the correlation coefficients over time (noting some error based on sample size, which is another consideration all together when interpreting results).

    My reading of this study is that they never tested their conclusions between groups.

    Regression tries to predict one value from another while two-sample tests (t-test between groups) asks whether groups differ.

    In the table the predicted values for Catholic, LCRE and None aren’t *that* different. What I mean by that is that with the error, the predictions overlap. Everything else is statistically insignificant.

  • Dave Powers

    Does it say anything about born-again brains being smaller but more efficent? I like this study but think it needs more work.

    in Christ,

    Dave Powers