The Table

The Brain and Self-Judgment: How Does Religion Affect the Pre-Frontal Cortex?

By Jeffrey M. SchwartzDecember 19, 2016


"[T]he same brain area that is used when you make evaluations about other people’s mental states, beliefs, and intentions is also used when you evaluate ... the state of your own mind and your own intentions."


Over the past decade, there has been significant advancement in understanding the function of the midline surface of the frontal cortex and its activation in tasks that involve recognizing traits as belonging to one’s self, as well as making judgments about the mental traits of others. One key finding has been that the lower part of the midline surface of the frontal cortex is consistently activated when people make assessments about traits they believe describe or are relevant to themselves. 


"Religious Christians, however, did not show increases in the 'It’s About Me' area when making these kinds of self-related assessments."


I have coined this region the “It’s About Me” area of the brain. Increased activity in this area has been correlated with increased thoughts about oneself.

Sitting just above the “It’s About Me” area is another region, the upper part of the midline surface of the frontal cortex, that multiple studies have shown is activated when people evaluate and make inferences of other people’s mental states, such as other’s beliefs or intentions. 



Furthermore, this area which is used to evaluate other people’s mental states is also involved in the appraisal and evaluation of stimuli that are related to one’s own self. So the same brain area that is used when you make evaluations about other people’s mental states, beliefs, and intentions is also used when you evaluate (as opposed to merely recognize) the state of your own mind and your own intentions. It is of great interest that this upper self-related area is involved in making evaluations of the self in relation to other people within social contexts.

Where We Process Self-Judgment

In a key study done in Beijing, very interesting differences were found in these two self-processing regions in religious Christians compared to non-religious subjects. In non-religious people, self-judgments (judgments about traits people believe describe themselves) were clearly associated with increases in the “It’s About Me” brain area. Religious Christians, however, did not show increases in the “It’s About Me” area when making these kinds of self-related assessments.

Instead, they showed increases in the upper area that sits next to and just above the “It’s About Me” area, the area used for making evaluations about others, even when only making simple self-judgments about traits they believed described themselves. These results indicate that Christian beliefs and practices not only weaken the neural representation of self-relevance in the “It’s About Me” area when thinking about one’s own personal traits, but also result in utilization of a different brain region, i.e., the upper brain area that is used when you make evaluations about other people’s mental states, for making simple assessments about traits they believe describe or are relevant to themselves.


"[D]enying oneself in order to live a spiritual life as dictated by Jesus may weaken the encoding process of self-relevant stimuli by the 'It’s About Me' area."


Further, the more a person considered the judgment of Jesus important to their subjective evaluations of self or others, the less activity was seen in the “It’s About Me” area and the more activity was seen in the upper evaluative judgment area when making assessments about traits they believe describe or are relevant to themselves.

A very important interpretation the authors of this study draw from these data is that denying oneself in order to live a spiritual life as dictated by Jesus may weaken the encoding process of self-relevant stimuli by the “It’s About Me” area. On the other hand, emphasis on evaluation of the self from God’s perspective may strengthen the evaluative process of self-referential stimuli undertaken by the upper evaluative judgment area.

It is quite interestingly this upper area that sits next to and just above the “It’s About Me” area that is involved in simply acknowledging or recognizing, as opposed to evaluating, aspects relevant to your own self-identity, and that Christian faith activates the evaluation area and quiets the “It’s About Me” area. Findings quite consistent to these were also found in Chinese Buddhist meditators by the same Beijing research group.


Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. is Research Psychiatrist in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is author of the best-selling You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life (Avery, 2011), Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (Harper Perennial, 1997), and The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (ReganBooks, 2003). Dr. Schwartz was assisted with this article by Knox Brown, a graduate student in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.


References

Shihui Han, Lihua Mao, Xiaosi Gu, Ying Zhu, Jianqiao Ge & Yina Ma (2008), "Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing," Social Neuroscience, 3:1, 1-15. Abstract: Christianity strongly encourages its believers to surrender to God and to judge the self from God's perspective. We used functional MRI to assess whether this religious belief is associated with neural correlates of self-referential processing distinct from that of non-religious people. Non-religious and Christian participants were scanned while performing tasks of personal-trait judgments regarding the self or public persons. We found that, while self-judgment was linked to better memory of traits related to the self than to others, self-referential processing induced increased activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) for non-religious participants but in the dorsal MPFC for Christian participants. In addition, the dorsal MPFC activity was positively correlated with the rating scores of the importance of Jesus’ judgment in subjective evaluation of a person's personality. Because the ventral and dorsal MPFC are respectively engaged in representation of stimulus self-relevance and evaluation of self-referential stimuli, our findings suggest that Christian beliefs result in weakened neural coding of stimulus self-relatedness but enhanced neural activity underlying evaluative processes applied to self-referential stimuli.

The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.

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