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Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains

By YONAT SHIMRON
c. 2011 Religion News Service

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) For decades, mainline Protestants have been beset by bad news: declining numbers, aging membership, waning cultural influence.

A new study from Duke University Medical Center, however, gives these Protestants one reason for cheer: they seem to have larger brains than born-again Christians, Roman Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated.

The study, which examined the hippocampus region of the brain, found that Protestants who did not have a “born again” experience had significantly more gray matter than either those who reported a life-changing religious experience, Catholics, or unaffiliated older adults.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Templeton Foundation, included at least two MRI measurements of the hippocampus region of 268 adults between 1994 and 2005.

It found an association between participants’ professed religious affiliation and the physical structure of their brain. Specifically, those identified as Protestant who did not have a religious conversion or born-again experience — more common among their evangelical brethren
– had a bigger hippocampus.

Amy Owen, a psychologist who did a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke and was the main writer for the study, said she hoped others would try to reproduce the study or offer other reasons for the association.

“There may be more factors responsible for the correlation,” she said of the study published on March 30 in “PLoS One,” a peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication.

Participants, all 58 or older, were initially recruited for a larger study on the effects of depression in the elderly. That study is ongoing. For this study, researchers ruled out depression or lack of social support as reasons for the smaller brain size, or hippocampal atrophy.

The hippocampus is an area buried deep in the brain that helps regulate emotion and memory. Atrophy or shrinkage in this region of the brain has long been linked to mental health problems such as depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

So why would born-again Protestants, Catholics and those with no religious affiliation have a smaller hippocampus? Researchers speculate it may have something to do with the stress of belonging to a minority group. Chronic stress floods the brain with hormones that, over time, may damage the hippocampus.

Sociologists of religion, meanwhile, aren’t buying it. They say the researchers’ theory flies in the face of U.S. religious demographics. While it’s true that evangelicals are a minority, they’re a sizable one — 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to Gallup Polls — and not exactly a stressed-out minority, especially in the South.

“There are probably more born-again Protestants than non-born-again Protestants, and just about as many Catholics as either born-again or non-born- again Protestants,” said David Roozen, sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    Nice, can we spend even more money on this stuff? Oops small brain response.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Guess my brain must be OK then! :o)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan did you read the article? your brain is small also according to the article miss religiously unafiliated. lol

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    The other thing is the small-brained people may be going into Altzheimers, or depression, or stress, or any other manifestation of mental problems. Maybe it’s just a genetical thing, or maybe they shouldn’t have even bothered with this enlightening poll and article.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Who said I am unaffiliated, cknuck? You assume a lot because of my posting name. You have no idea just what my affiliation is. Thus my brain is fine. And yes, I read the article—

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    you are affilliated pagan? at any rate not affilliated with those Protestants with the large brains, a strong indicator would be that you are taking this seriously.not that I think you have a small brain at all but the article that you take so seriously does.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Actually, cknuck—I’m not taking it seriously—it is rather interesting whether there is any actual truth to it or not. Maybe my brain got smaller when I decided not to take Christianity as my choice of beliefs. :o)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan I am sure your brain is just fine probably in better shape than mine

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Thanks cknuck—IMO, both our brains are probably in fine shape–even if they don’t agree on many things!

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