Faith brain

Bob Dylan sang, “Times they are a-changin’”. However much the grammar of this might offend you, the sentiment is undeniable and perhaps the greatest example of the rapid pace of change in the modern world lies not in technology, as you might have thought, but in something that has been stable for a very long time; religion. Where technology is ephemeral by nature, religion is intended to transcend time but our attitudes to religion are undergoing exponential change and this has implications not just for society but also, according to new research, for the structure of your brain.

In 1971 the “No Religion” option on the Australian census form gathered 6.7 per cent of responders. By 1991 that had risen to 12.9 per cent and by the 2011 census 22 per cent of people were reporting themselves as having “no religion”. The fastest growth sector for the non-religious was among 15-34 year olds where the figure was 28 per cent.

It is important to note though that “no religion” does not mean “atheist”. In 2011 there were 58,899 people who reported themselves as atheist. What “no religion” is meant to capture is the people who do not belong to an organised religion. In 1911 96 per cent of the Australian population were Christian while in 2011 that figure had dropped to 61 per cent. That drop of course does not mean a drop in spirituality. In 2011 for instance, there were 65,486 people who identified themselves as “Jedi” within the “not defined” category. However you slice and dice the figures there are still almost 5,000,000 people who identify that they have no religion and that means those five million people may have significantly different brains to the rest.

In a new study of adults aged 18-54 years religious and spiritual importance, as well as church attendance, were assessed twice over a five year period. The thickness of various portions of the brain was also measured at the end of the five year period.

The results showed that people who had identified religion or spirituality as being important to them had a thicker cortex at various points. There was no link between cortical thickness and attendance to church. Interestingly there was also a stronger thickening of the cortex in people where there was a strong familial tendency towards depression, especially in a brain area where a thin cortex disposes to depression.

This is not about making value judgements on the choice of being religious or non-religious. The meaning of cortical thickness is not a universally agreed phenomenon. Some hold that loss of cognitive function as we age correlates with thinning of the cortex but equally there are diseases where cortical thickness relates to loss of mental function. So this is not about saying “religion: good”, “non-religion: bad” or vice-versa. What the study does show is that the choice of whether religion is important to you does make a difference in how your brain develops, for better or worse.

It is a timely reminder that your choices shape your body, your mind, and your life so don’t make them lightly.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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