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And God Said, ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’

• June 21, 2010 • 3:24 PM

For believers, religion acts as an emotional buffer, making it less likely one will feel anxious after making a mistake.

Numerous studies have reported on the health benefits — both mental and physical — of religious belief. But precisely why faith is linked to higher levels of well-being and lower levels of mortality remains something of a mystery.

Newly published research provides an intriguing clue: When they make a mistake, religious people are less likely to get stressed out about it.

Last year, University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht discovered differences in brain activity between believers and nonbelievers. In his latest paper, just published in the journal Psychological Science, he reports on two experiments measuring “error-related negativity” or ERN. He and co-author Alexa Tullett describe ERN as “a neural signal that arises form the anterior cingulate cortex (of the brain) and is associated with defensive responses to errors.”

In one experiment, 40 university students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds performed a scrambled-word task in which they rearranged a set of words to create a grammatically correct sentence. For half of them, many of the sentences contained words that were religious in nature, such as spirit, divine and sacred.

They then performed a tricky test, in which they were asked to identify the color of a series of words that flashed before them on a screen. Some were seen in the color indicated by the word, but others were presented in a different color.

As they performed this cognitive exercise, their brain activity was monitored using 32 electrodes. Finally, they reported their belief in God on a one-to-seven scale.

The researchers found that theists who were exposed to religious concepts (via the sacred-word scramble) “showed low levels of distress-related neural activity” after learning of their own errors.

“Atheists, in contrast, showed a heightened neural response,” Inzlicht and Tullett report. “It appears that they reacted to their own errors more defensively.”

“Thinking about one’s religion, consciously or otherwise, acts as a bulwark against defensive reactions to errors,” they conclude. “It muffles the cortical alarm bell.

“If thinking about religion leads people to react to their errors with less distress and defensiveness — an effect that occurs within a few hundredths of a second — in the long run, this effect may translate to religious people living their lives with greater equanimity than nonreligious people, being better able to cope with the pressures of living in a sometimes-hostile world.”

Inzlicht and Tullett add there is evidence this dynamic applies not only to religious faith, but to any belief system that provides “meaning and structure” to one’s life. “Many varieties of beliefs could serve a palliative function if they allow people to feel that their world is stable, understandable and predictable,” they write.

Of course, that stability, understandability and predictability is largely an illusion — and often a destructive one when belief systems clash. But are we willing to give it up if it also means forgoing emotional security? The biggest question remains unanswered: Is there a way of living comfortably in uncertainty?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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