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

Jeffrey M. Schwartz

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 ... 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.