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New study claims to reduce belief about God with magnets

Updated on September 1, 2016

The Mind And God


Here's How the Science Works

Electromagnetic energy has long been associated with altered consciousness in humans. Scientists have suggested a link between exposure to electromagnetic fields and a person’s thinking they have seen a ghost, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) has long been used in the treatment of certain nervous disorders – most notably, depression.

This same procedure – which uses magnetic fields to stimulate or dampen certain nerve cells in the brain – was recently employed by Dr. Keise Izuma and a team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in an experiment which has been grabbing headlines lately for its provocative findings.

Dr. Izuma and her team decided to tamper with certain beliefs held by people with more traditional views. They did this by using TMS to dampen a part of the brain which people use to detect problems and then find solutions to those problems. The two beliefs the scientists chose to focus upon were religious beliefs and feelings related to immigrants.The team started by screening the applicants to the experiment to make certain the crowd they chose held the beliefs that they were targeting. Such screening processes generally involve questionnaires with dozens of redundant questions about the subject matter. The redundancy in these tests is to make certain that the person answering is genuine by making certain that they answer the questions consistently.

Since this particular experiment was measuring beliefs related to God and to immigrants, the questions would likely have been on a scale so that the team could get a percentage of the intensity of the beliefs the people in question held.

First, the team separated the subjects into the control group, who received a “sham” treatment which really didn’t do anything to them, and the actual treatment group who were subjected to the TMS. Next, since the area of the brain being effected dealt with: a.) Detecting problems and b.) Seeking solutions, the team needed to produce some kind of trigger which these participants would see as a problem and resort to a solution. As it related to religion, the team chose “death” as the worthy trigger. As predicted, when asked to contemplate death, the subjects from the control group did tend to fall heavily on their religious beliefs as the solution, whereas the subjects from the treatment group reported, as the press release states, “…32.8% less belief in God, angels, or heaven.”

These two groups were then allowed to read several essays about the United States, one of which was very critical, and told that these were written by immigrants. The subject group did not find this essay as threatening as did the control group. People have certain ideologies which they look to for comfort when they feel threatened. In this experiment, they were affected with a magnet, and then presented with particular threats, these threats being “death” and “immigrants who speak out against your patriotic idealism.” Under normal circumstances, these particular people would have fallen back upon their religious beliefs for comfort in the face of death, and upon their patriotic and political ideology in the face of alien infringement. However, after having their brains thus effected, they were less likely to feel threatened by such things, and therefore, to reach for these ideological comfort blankets. This would make sense in light of the fact that these same methods are used to treat anxiety and depression. Thus, when a person enters the study, and is prompted with a questionnaire which asks them such things as “In light of your impending death, how much do you lean on your belief in God for comfort on a scale of 1 through 5” and they answer 5, and then leaving the study, they answer “2” to the same question, the scientist concludes that they have experienced a significant decrease in their beliefs “About God.” However, as one pundit has observed,

“Scientists in some fields have convinced themselves they can quantify the unquantifiable. They believe hideously complex human emotions can be adequately represented on scales of 1 to 5 (or some other bounds). For instance, on a scale of -4 to 4, how much do you agree with the statement, ‘There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God’? Before you answer, consider. Is the distance in belief from 3 to 4 the same as it is from 2 to 3, and from 1 to 2, and so on? Are these distances exactly the same in all people? What happens if the scale were to be changed from -4 to 4 to one from 1 to 9, which is the same length? Would the results be the same? Does everybody agree on the precise definitions of ‘all-powerful,’ ‘all-knowing’ and so on?”

Many articles related to this study carry titles such as “Directing Magnetic Energy Into The Brain Can Reduce Belief In God, Prejudice Toward Immigrants”, “Scientists reduce belief in God by shutting down the brain’s medial frontal cortex,” and the far more on-the-nose “Scientists Claim Zapping Brains with Magnets Can Treat Belief in God”.

All of this may leave the reader with the general impression that the subjects were temporarily converted into atheists by the treatment. However, if one looks at the methodology, this is not at all what happened. People either believe in God or they do not. If the study read "33% of the subjects reported no longer believing in God," this would be a fairly astounding change to occur in one "treatment." But in most articles reporting on this finding, the wording reads "subjects reported a 33% decrease in their beliefs in God." This type of rhetoric has a tendency to be misleading. Since the heart of the test was related to detecting problems and seeking solutions, presumably dampening this section of the brain would have made anyone feel less threatened by things that otherwise made them uncomfortable. Under the same treatment, atheist extremists would have felt less threatened by religious fundamentalists, and arachnophobes would have felt less inclined to reach for the bug spray when an eight-legged critter manifested itself.

Ultimately, though, whether or not one can come up with some sort of treatment which can artificially rid people of their beliefs in God, this does not become an argument against the existence of that same God. Nor does it imply that such a treatment ought to be used against people.


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