The difference betwen God, Santa Claus, and Humpty Dumpty is all in the mind

The difference betwen God, Santa Claus, and Humpty Dumpty is all in the mind April 19, 2009

Here’s a new study of brain activity of Christians who were either praying (i.e. a personal prayer), reciting the Lord’s Prayer, reciting a nursery rhyme, or making wishes to Santa Claus.

What they found was that, unlike the other activities, personal prayer lit up sections of the brain that seem to be connected normal social interactions. It activated so called ‘theory of mind’ processing.

In the graphic shown, they’re looking specifically at a region of the brain (the temporo-parietal junction) that is thought to be involved in figuring out why people are behaving the way they are.

In other words, these Christians (all members of a rather hardcore Danish Lutheran sect) seem to believe in a God who is like a good friend, with whom you can have a conversation, rather than a kind of disembodied, primal force.

All this won’t be terribly surprising to cognitive anthropologists, or to anyone who has made a close study of western religion as it is actually practised. But it will probably surprise theologians, who insist that that is absolutely not what God is – and take people like Dawkins to task for their naivety in suggesting otherwise.

As the study authors explain:

This finding … offers important insights to the study of theology, in which Christian doctrine on God’s nature includes abstract concepts like God’s omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, in terms of brain function, our results suggest that the Inner Mission [that’s the name of the Christian sect] participants mainly think of God as a person, rather than as an abstract entity.

In fact, this brain imaging study confirms an analysis from earlier this year showing that people very much treat prayer like a conversation with a friend. And it also confirms another recent imaging study, which found that other aspects of religious thinking also press into action fairly standard brain circuitry dealing with normal, real world interactions.

This new study has some rather interesting details, however. In addition to looking at what happens when these Christians engage in personal prayer, they also looked at the results or ritual prayer.

They found that reciting the Lord’s Prayer was pretty much the same as reciting a nursery rhyme. And remember that these were highly orthodox Christians, who take the Lord’s Prayer very seriously and recite it regularly.

The Rev Dr John Polkinghorne has recently opined that the sense of wonder that scientists feel (on good days) is “in a sense, an act of worship”. I rather doubt that, based on these results!

And what about poor old Santa Claus? Well, Justin Barrett argues that even fervent belief in St Nick is not the same as believing in God (basically on the somewhat tendentious grounds that adults don’t believe).

This study found that these Christians were completely unmoved by making wishes to Santa. Perhaps unsurprising, given that he is a false god and all that!

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ResearchBlogging.orgSchjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn050

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