Study: nonbelievers have small brains

OK, so Religion News Service has a provocative story on a provocative study that I’ve seen in a few papers. But the headlines that are running with the story are curious, to say the least.

Basically the study says that Protestants, like myself, without a “born-again” experience (I’m assuming, although the article doesn’t tell us anything about how that term is defined in the story, that my baptism doesn’t get counted as a “born-again” experience) have bigger brains than … Catholics, Protestants with a “born-again” experience, and the religiously unaffiliated.

And yes, I realize the entire study is somewhat obnoxious and I say that even though my peeps supposedly fared the best.

But do the headlines boast that my kind of Protestants win the brain-size prize? Do the headlines say that Catholics have tiny amounts of gray matter? Do they assert what I put above? (And yes, I realize that the religious unaffiliated would include more than just non-believers.) Or do they say that “born-again” Christians are idiots? Let’s roll the tape:

USA Today: Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains

Houston Chronicle: Study: Born-again Christians have smaller brains

Beliefnet: Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains

I mean, technically it’s true. The study, which looked at a grand total of 268 adults, did say that “born-again” Christians had smaller hippocampal volume. But wow do the headlines above give a different impression than picking on Catholics, nonbelievers or the unaffiliated. Here’s the abstract for the study, in case you’re interested.

And if you want an indication that most people only read headlines and skim the rest, take a gander at the comments of the USA Today story where everyone seems to think that the study proved that nonbelievers are smarter than Christians.

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  • Adam Bradley

    I’m reading the study now (I can see the whole thing at the address Mollie gave, probably because I’m accessing the Internet from a university campus). Here’s how they defined “born-again”:

    Born-again status was assessed with the question, “Are you a born-again Christian?” This was defined as: “A conversion experience, i.e., a specific occasion when you dedicated your life to Jesus.” Participants responding no were assessed for life-changing religious experiences with the question, “Have you ever had any other religious experience that changed your life?”

    By my reading (well, skimming), the researchers were interested in changes in the size of a specific part of the brain (the hippocampus) over time. The groups studied differed in rates of atrophy, not necessarily overall size.

    Overall, the articles don’t look that bad, at least once you get past the headline. Unfortunately, as Mollie noted, the headlines are all a lot of people (at least, a lot of website commenters) seem to read.

  • Dave

    Yeah, the hippocampus is only one part of the brain, and is buried in its structure. The parts that control judgment, for example, are on the surface.

  • TheresaEmilyAnn

    So really the question is How does a smaller hippocamp in the brain affect health, longevity, ability to think, process anything else in the brain… If you answer that then you might have something to talk about.

  • Dave

    From Wikipedia:

    The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other mammals. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.

  • Martha

    So I’m officially stupider than you, Mollie?

    Well, I won’t argue about that one :-)

  • Mollie


    Well, this is what I’m going to claim with all of my Catholic, born-again and nonbelieving friends. Particularly when they’re winning an argument.

  • Martha

    To be more serious, it sounds like a fascinating study (the atrophy of the hippocampus over time, particularly in later life) and this is the kind of weird little artefact thrown up which (I would guess) the researchers are wanting to study further, which means more funding.

    268 is a very small group to start making any general pronouncements, but the differentiation between mainline Protestants and others is intriguing – so being a bit religious but not too much or not too little is the optimum? Were there other factors, e.g. these Protestants were of a particular social class/educational attainment, as compared to the other participants? Money does make a difference to life-long health, unfortunately :-(

  • Anthony Sacramone

    The real point is in Mollie’s headline: Why did the MSM emphasize born-againers and not atheists in their headlines? Why not do the counterintuitive thing, which is to imply that atheists have smaller brains than, say, United Methodists? Because it’s easier to taunt born-again Christians, especially in light of this Camping nonsense, than it is to do the same to the “unaffiliated,” which is acceptably postmodern, or even Catholics, who will tend to push back on such biased reporting with impressive alacrity and vigor.

  • Sjmatt

    Just want to emphasize what Martha briefly mentioned: 268 is a VERY SMALL sample size for any study, and especially one dealing with humans. This is the sort of study that gets done with the limited funds available to a lab and helps to justify more in depth research in the future. This type and size of study, while it can show a fascinating trend, or raise some interesting questions, CANNOT and DOES NOT prove anything. Thus we have a classic example of media not fully understanding the scientific process and jumping to conclusions while only being given correlations. Many times journalists don’t ‘Get Science’ just as much as they don’t ‘Get Religion.’

  • Will

    I seem to remember a whoop-de-do over a study claiming to show that male homosexuals have smaller hippocampi than women or straight men, and whether this showed it was linked to sexual attraction to women.

    Does this means that atheists are gay? Or that this is the reason for The Scandal? (Ooops, I forgot that The Scandal has nothing to do with homosexuality, nothing to see here.)

  • carl

    Couldn’t these headlines be just a marketing strategy? Let’s say you want to sell papers. You want a headline that will grab attention by either a) irritating a reader or b) pandering to a reader. Emphasizing the ‘born-again’ connection does both. It polarizes the readership by either attacking or supporting the readers’ religious presuppositions. Lumping ‘born again’ believers in with atheists and Catholics would tend to blur this ideological impact. So instead they cast the story in the context of the culture war as a hook to get someone to pick up the paper.


  • Jerry

    I found an article on brain size which indicates to me that this is a tricky area scientifically (even when staying away from studies comparing may homosexual brains to women’s brains):

    the strangest things seem to increase brain size. Scientists have found that the brains of London’s cab drivers enlarge and change as they learn complicated routes. Cab drivers who have been navigating the streets for years had significant structural changes, as they exhibited a larger posterior hippocampus and a slightly smaller front hippocampus

    So I guess that non-cab drivers are dumber than cab drivers? Or maybe this says something about those who think this is a meaningful finding?

  • Dave G.

    So I guess that non-cab drivers are dumber than cab drivers?

    You didn’t know that?

  • Sydney Penner

    Half seriously: there’s an easy explanation. Born-again evangelicals, Catholics, and nonbelievers all feel persecuted, rightly or not, in the US. Persecution is stressful. Stress, as we know from previous studies, can result in reduced hippocampal volume.

    So if only there weren’t so many journalists willing to write stuff that fosters said feelings of persecution, a lot of people would have bigger hippocampi.

  • Dan

    Someone should do a study on who has smaller brains: the headline writers or the authors of the study.

  • Andy Rowell

    Good comments everyone. I too read the whole study. I wonder if all of you can read it from that link. I think so.
    Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life

    It mentions almost all of the things you all have raised such as the role of hippocampus and stress.

    Here are the rankings from the table:

    Left Hyppocampus: Largest to Smallest [Smartest to Dumbest]

    1. Other Protestants
    2. Life Changing Religious Experience (recent)
    3. Born-again Protestants (recent)
    4. Born-again Protestants (years ago)
    5. Catholic
    6. No religion
    7. Life Changing Religious Experience (years ago)

    Right Hyppocampus: Largest to Smallest [Smartest to Dumbest]

    1. Other Protestants
    2. Catholic
    TIE 3. Born-again Protestants (years ago)
    TIE 3. Life Changing Religious Experience (recent)
    5. Born-again Protestants (recent)
    6. No religion
    7. Life Changing Religious Experience (years ago)

    I would say the headline should mostly pay attention to the bottom 2 findings.

    People with the smallest hyppocampus are not Christian. The smallest hyppocampus has had “life changing religious experience”–not a Christian conversion. The second smallest has no religion. This goes for both the right and left hyppocampus.