6 Weird Ways Religion Is Influencing Your Brain (as proven by science)

It should probably come as no surprise that my belief in a God resides somewhere between Father Christmas and England’s chances of ever winning another World Cup. Oh I’ve tried. As a wide eyed and impressionable pre-teen I was given a copy of the bible during an early Religious Studies class. Ok, I left it to rot at the bottom of my school bag, but I did eventually fish it out to see what the fuss was about.

I didn’t get very far. The only belief I gained was that fiction was supposed to entertain. Something I was forced to revisit 20 years later when I gave up watching The Wire for the very same reasons.

My apologies; I have to be careful not to show ignorance to those who believe in a God or a higher power, because, quite frankly, who knows? I am sure your faith comes from a place of absolute sincerity, so it’s not for me to tell you otherwise. Also, this isn’t the place to explain why I don’t believe in God. That’s for another time.

There are believers and non-believers the world over and there is little chance to convince either their stance is wrong. My only goal here is to present the information I have collected for your own curiosity and judgement.

Of course, there is a greater point to this article, but you’ll have to read to the end to see it.

1. Religion induced stress creates atrophy in the hippocampus

A study published in March, 2011 lead by Dr Amy Owen at Duke University offered a unique insight into how the hippocampus differs between believers, non-believers and those who had a unique religious experience. 268 men and women over the age of 58 had their MRI’s evaluated as part of another study titled ‘NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly’, but were also asked further questions about their religious beliefs.

They discovered significantly greater atrophy in the hippocampus area of the brain for born-again Protestants, Catholics and the non-religious, compared to Protestants not identifying themselves as born-again.

So what does this mean?

A theory is put forward that people who experience persecution or belong to a minority religious group suffer greater stress than others. Also, a spiritual experience, even if this was positive, creates a feeling of stress as it challenges existing belief systems. Interestingly, this ‘spiritual’ pain – perhaps through previous transgressions or lifestyle, is often interpreted by the brain the same way as physical pain.

The results indicate that while faith has been shown in some circumstances to reduce stress – being part of a minority group or experiencing a spiritual event can negate this benefit altogether.

Which leads us to…

2. The stronger your beliefs, the higher the risk of depression (in the UK)

The idea that religion acts as a buffer between life’s misfortunes and your mental wellbeing is being challenged by researchers led by Professor Michael King from University College London. In total, 8318 religious and non-religious people were monitored at 6 and 12 month intervals as they visited general practices in their respective countries.

In the year following the initial study; 10.5% of those with a spiritual background  and 10.3% with a religious background reported experiencing depression, compared to just 7% of the secular group.

Although this study spanned 7 countries, including Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Portugal and Chile, the findings were only significant in the UK. Here, spiritual participants were three times more likely to experience depression than the secular group. Among participants who were spiritual or religious, those who described their belief as being strong were twice as likely to experience depression as participants who held a weaker belief.

3. People with religious beliefs are more vulnerable to compulsive behaviour

Muslim and ultra-orthodox sects of Judaism both demonstrate symptoms of obsessive compulsive behaviour. If a mistake is made by a Muslim during the Wudu act of washing their body before prayer, the whole process must be restarted. Likewise with Judaism – followers must live by certain strict rules and if these are not adhered to, obligations must be repeated until the law is fulfilled.

Similar traits are also observed in other religions. For instance; some Christians may believe that their own private thoughts are equivalent to physical actions, which is a concept known as moral thought-action fusion (moral TAF). All three behaviours are symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and it’s this link between religiosity and OCD that intrigued researchers from the University of Parma in Italy.

Devout Catholics (highly religious) were studied alongside nuns, priests (moderately religious) and those without any religious involvement (low religious) to determine, via a series of questionnaires, which group scored higher on key features of moral TAF. As expected, the HR group displayed higher levels of obsessionaility and OCD-like behaviour compared to the other groups.

Ian Hancock, an expert in OCD from Dumfries and Galloway Primary Care NHS Trust, believes that people with OCD tend to exaggerate their own sense of responsibility for events, often when no blame could possibly be attached to them, which in turn, could increase the likelihood of seeking a religious lifestyle.

4. Visual processing is influenced by existing belief systems

Scientists have already discovered that westerners look at photographs differently than Asians – by fixing their gaze onto a person or a fixed object rather than taking in the entire image to identify the context. However, studies are now suggesting that perception also differs wildly between religious and non-religious people within the same culture.

A study in the Netherlands set out to determine whether religious belief gave any bias to how someone may process visual stimulation in everyday life. A Group of 50 Dutch Calvinists and atheists were 100% matched on race, gender, IQ, age and even the type of education they received before being set a series of computer based visual challenges. They each had to indicate as quickly as possible whether they had seen a large or a small shape by pressing a particular key.

Researchers were keen to discover whether religion had any effect on global and local processing of imagery. In a nutshell, this refers to the tendency to either focus on larger or smaller features within an image.

The results showed that Calvinists were more likely to favour a local observational bias while the atheists were shown to have a higher global precedence. This indicates that a religious upbringing or an existing belief system can alter perception and could lead to a different interpretation of the same incident.

5. People with a lower IQ are more likely to turn to religion

A review of 63 separate scientific studies stretching back to 1921 by Professor Miron Zuckerman found ‘reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity’ among 53 of the studies – 35 of which were significant compared to just 2 significant positive correlations.

Controversially, it is claimed a child will be less likely to seek a religious lifestyle if they display an above average intelligence during their early years.

Factors such as gender and education were shown to have no effect on the findings; and for the purposes of this study, intelligence was defined as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience”.

The researchers also note that higher intelligence lends itself to self-regulation and perceived control over life events which often negate the need to seek some of the benefits that religion is said to provide.

6. A belief in God reduces the analytical mind and promotes intuitive thinking

A Havard study set out to discover whether there was a link between intuition and a belief in God. The three part study included a series of maths questions with deliberate intuitive yet incorrect answers such as;

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The response $0.10 springs immediately to mind, but the correct answer is $0.05.” (Seriously, really think about it).

Participants who gave an intuitive answer, regardless of whether they were correct, were shown to be 1.5 times more likely to have reported having an experience that convinced them of the existence of God.

The participants were also asked to write about a situation in which they either used an intuitive or reflective approach that led to either a good or bad outcome. As was predicted, a mindset favouring intuition significantly increased self-reported belief in God.

What you can take from this article


I apologise for the scientific jargon and heavy reading. Thank you for making it this far without falling asleep and face planting the keyboard (or whatever is front of you).

So what was the point of all that?

The point, my dear friends (and handsome strangers), is to hopefully demonstrate the thinking traps and bad habits we’re all guilty of when trying to navigate our crazy lives.

Perhaps I’m being unfair on you religious peeps by singling you out as an example of bad logic, but like I said earlier; it’s not for me to argue against your beliefs. To be honest, it doesn’t make any difference what is out there, beyond the scope of human consciousness.

What I’m about to say is relevant to everyone.

You know; advice like…

Don’t live your life through the values of others.

Life is full of arbitrary rules and regulations we must follow to prevent the bad shit from reigning down and burning all our souls. Sorry, I’m being overly dramatic, but I wrote about several of them here.

We must do this, we must do that, we must do what we are told, when we are told and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It’s all a lie.

Your friends and family have the best intentions for you, they truly do. Every piece of advice you are given is handed to you with the utmost sincerity, but it is human nature to offer what we want for ourselves.

What is right for someone else may not be the best option for you. Sure, take advice when it is offered, and ask for advice when you feel confused, but ultimately, any decision must be yours and yours alone.

If something doesn’t feel right – do something else.

Take responsibility for your life choices – live in the present moment

Very few of us are living in the now.happy-couple-on-the-beach-at-sunset-600x375

Our body may exist in the present moment, but our minds are usually worrying about something stupid from our past or stressing out about something equally idiotic in the future.

Either way; we’re not doing the right thing, right now.

I’ve said this many times. Everything you will ever do happens in the present moment, so it stands to reason that this point in time is where all the good shit happens.

If your thoughts are in a different place to your physical body; they don’t deserve to be together. It’s a double act that relies on both members for a truly unique performance.

Think about it…

Bert would be nothing without Ernie.

Luis Suarez would be nothing without his teeth.

And Siegfried would be nothing without that tiger (sorry Roy, Mantecore owned your ass)

Right here, right now. If you’re anywhere else, you’re not truly living.

Accept that you don’t know all the answers

Did you know…?

The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. Of course, with certain individuals; the less you know, the less proof you need to know, and no one can tell you otherwise… but enough of that.

Know what I mean?

I love it when a student of mine points out something obvious that I’ve somehow missed. I don’t feel embarrassed or threatened because I will always be a work in progress. I may have played guitar for 16 years, but that doesn’t mean I know my shit inside out.

I know it upside down, but anyone can do that…

So I’m open to correction. If I have a gap in my knowledge, then I’m eager to fill it, regardless of the source.

This is how I strengthen my craft. I attack it from all angles and I question things I already believe to be true, even if it leads to the possibility that I may have looked at something the wrong way all along.

On the flipside – I may have strengthened my knowledge by running this ‘error check’, and if so, fantastic. Either way, I win. I’m in a stronger place than I was before.

Are you able to do this?

Are you open to trying out new foods in the hope you will find something new and exciting to taste or are you stuck in your ways, nibbling on the blandness that has filled your plate since you were knee high to a midget?

Is there anything you can add to your workout routine to improve your physique or are you content to keep shoving as much weight on to the bar as possible to fuel your rapidly expanding ego?

Do you question your religion as a means to test how strong your faith really is or do you refuse to even contemplate the possibility that another belief system may have the answers you so desperately seek?

Question everything.

You do not have all the answers.

The knowledge inside your head is just information you’ve picked up along the way. Some of it is true.. some of it will be false.

Which is which?

You have no idea. You think you know. But you can only guess.

What you knew yesterday isn’t the same as what you know today.

What you know today will be different from what you will discover tomorrow.

Let go of your ego. It’s stupider than you think.

Believe in yourself. Trust yourself to make the right decisions. Allow yourself to make the wrong decisions. This is growth.

And above all, whatever path you take in life, whatever you decide to do…

You will always be you.

Enjoy it.


What do you think about the content in this article? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Also, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends, thank you!

About Jamie

Jamie is a guitar teacher and writer who hates the typical 9-5 existence. After quitting his job to enter the world of guitar tuition, he created this blog to document his thoughts and struggles as he takes on societies norms armed with nothing more than his cheeky wit and undeniable charm - Give his Facebook page a like, add him on Twitter or follow his Google+ page and he will repay you with even more awesome words!


  1. Well, this is different isn’t it, Jamie?

    Religion aside, whenever blind belief in something occurs, it induces the things you mentioned in this article.

    Some objectivity and analysis is always a plus. Especially when you’re handed a book with zero evidence that what it’s claiming is true.

    I was raised a Muslim and have spent the majority of my life so far, off and on, questioning what it all means. For me, it isn’t about the rules, rituals and endless spiritual practices. It’s about the morals and values that the teaching brings. So I take what I want, and leave the rest.

    And those morals and values are no different to what other religions teach – and they’re the basics of being a decent human being, after all.

    – Razwana
    Razwana recently posted..What to call your mastermind group and how to take over the worldMy Profile

    • I like being different. Some people say weird, of course..

      I totally agree that religion is good as a way to teach morals and allow people to live a certain way. I even think it’s good that religious people can gather with like minded individuals and have that sense of togetherness, especially if they cannot find it in other areas of their life. In a sense, it’s like being a member of a club. My only gripe is people who allow their club to dictate what they can and can’t do in their private lives. When rules override instinct – that’s where I draw the line.

      If it’s legal, and you’re not harming anyone – surely that’s the way to become a good person and live a healthy, balanced life? Of course, like you say, you took what you needed and discarded the rest, which is the healthy way to approach anything, in my view.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Raz.

  2. Mihael Keehl says:

    You know Jaime, I was born in a country were majority of all the people are very cling into their religion (including me) simply because it’s trendy and with many people in your surroundings that are so religious you can’t help but be one in order for you to understand each other. I don’t know in England but here you can’t help but expect that everywhere you go there are people who are very very religious and willing to depend their faith no matter what. And like I said, I was the same until I started to question my faith if GOD truly exists or he’s just successful fictional character (well name and characteristics of GOD differ in every country and religion anyway). Wondering like “does he really exists ?”, “If he’s so powerful and full of compassion why he let humanity suffer ? (up until this day)”. and “And if Satan is evil then why he created Satan anyway ?” and more and more questions like that and stuff. Everytime the Pastor of a certain church preach us that this “GOD” is a loving father, I look at the world today and ask myself “Where’s the love ?” sometimes everything just don’t make sense after all. Then it seems like the words “respect one’s own religion” becomes the defense mechanism for some if you argue with their belief.

    Maybe I am blinded by the preaching or the popularity of the story of Jesus and everything that I started to group myself with people who believe in him. But in a way the good point about this so-called “Bible” is that some of it’s lesson are so damn true and a guide how the normal human should live, behave, and treat other people. Now, I don’t consider myself as a pure/ solid Christian nor an Atheist but as time goes by I already learned how to chew every information that is thrown in my face and keep away from mind conditioning technique of other people. The thing is, if you believe in GOD and you think it helps you improve your life then good for you, if not and think that it free you from all the worries of following the testament book, ten commandments, giving 10% tithes and mind conditioning and so on, then that sounds better.

    Hence after all who are we to judge one another ? As most of all religions says we are all brothers and sisters in this world, and if that’s true then it is only fitting that we support one another !!! 🙂 I like this post a lot, your very best by far !! 🙂

    Note: By the way Jaime some say that promoting self-empowerment (and not relying in God’s capability) is a work of evil anyway, so I’m starting to question if Jaime is a son of evil ?? hahahaha, kidding !! 🙂 Either way we still don’t know what is true or lie in this kind of belief, so if none at all is true “why not be GOD of your own story” instead ! 🙂

    • Ha, thank you Mihael. I haven’t been compared to the devil yet this week, I began to feel left out :p

      You’re totally right about questions having no answers. We seem to live in a world of organised chaos and the more answers we seek, the further we seem to find ourselves from the truth we want.

      Life lessons are good.. but only if they apply to our lives. Otherwise, what’s the point? Pick and choose what makes sense and use it sensibly is my motto. Blindly following something just because you were born in a certain country or household will eventually come back to bite you in the ass in some way. As the studies above show, if something isn’t quite right, it will negatively affect your brain. Something which is true whether it’s your religion, your job, your relationships or whatever.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Interesting stuff. The reason I stopped participating in organised religion was the requirement to park your brain as you entered the building. Easy and trite answers were not to be questioned – even if they were counter to a serious study of the bible. What we need are deep values that guide us intelligently rather than arbitrary and overly simplistic rules.
    Peter Ewin Hall recently posted..Tour de France TacticsMy Profile

    • Hey Peter, you’ve just made me think of Scientology with your comment. Several security guards frisking your mind as you walk in, making sure you aren’t thinking too much.

      Well, they probably don’t do that, but you never know what goes on.

  4. Haha, we’ve known about #5 long before there was science to prove it! 😉
    Ludvig Sunström recently posted..How to Become a MegaStar — And What it Takes to Become More Than EliteMy Profile

  5. Jamie,

    I was raised in a very religious background and naturally gravitated towards it when I felt like I needed answers to my life. I can attest that all the things you write about above are true. Thankfully, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I was getting though, and after several years of just having faith, I began to question my religious leaders. When I began to realize that everyone had a different opinion about the same Bible verses, I began studying ancient history, world religions, and eventually settled upon esoterics. I now know that the Bible was written by mystics and it is all allegory and myth to teach deeper spiritual lessons. My main point is that the Bible and other religious texts were never meant to be taken literally. Religion has certainly messed that up.

    Thanks for the great article and interesting facts.
    Joshua tilghman recently posted..Ten Similarities between God and ConsciousnessMy Profile

    • Hey Joshua, quite an apt name you have there 😉

      Anyway, I agree. The text was always meant to be open to interpretation and isn’t a definitive guide.

  6. Wow, very interesting – I had no idea it could affect the brain in so many different ways. This puts Marx’s statement about “religition being the opiate of the masses” into more perspective. You could think of it like a drug in some of the ways it was described here. Well, maybe not exactly, but it’s close.

    I really like the way you end it by saying to accept that you don’t know all the answers. I’ve always maintained that saying “I don’t know” is one of the smartest things you can do. In the grand scheme of things, we don’t know anything. And what we think we know is often subjective and based upon our values or opinions.
    Steve recently posted..7 Simple Ways to Live a Positive, More Fulfilling LifeMy Profile

    • Hey Steve, it’s amazing how little we know about anything. The wisdom, ‘the more you know the more you realise you don’t know’ is very true. Sadly. certain groups and individuals take this lack of knowledge as proof that something is from a higher power. Totally illogical.


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