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UCLA

Making Belief

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By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM


Shortly before Sam Harris became a New York Times best-selling author, he was a UCLA doctoral student in neuroscience, a mere dissertation away from his Ph.D.

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But in 2004, Harris took some time off to write The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The book sold wildly and Harris was anointed a leader of America's atheist awakening.

After writing another bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation, and traveling the speaker circuit, Harris returned last fall to his doctoral research. His latest writings were published this January, not in a book but in the scholarly Annals of Neurology, and the subject wasn't faith but research into the physiological distinctions between belief and disbelief.

The study tested the hypothesis that belief "might have a functional localization in the brain and the design of the study was to isolate such regions," explains Mark S. Cohen, Harris' thesis adviser and professor of psychiatry at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, who co-authored the study with Harris and Sameer Sheth Ph.D. '03, M.D. '05 of Massachusetts General Hospital. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists found that a region of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty acted differently depending on subjects' acceptance of statements they were given while inside the machine. A portion of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex appeared to be at least partly responsible for discerning belief of all kinds, whether it's "a personal God exists as described in the Bible" or "George Bush is president of the United States."

"It has no relevance to the question of whether or not there is a God," Harris says of the findings. "Even if we had a perfect belief detector, we still can't tell you what is true in the world. You put somebody in the scanner who believes Elvis is still alive, and all we will be able to tell you is, 'Yes, he does believe Elvis is still alive.' "

Still, Cohen observes, "This study demonstrates convincingly that fMRI has the power and sensitivity to probe levels of human cognition that subjects may not be conscious of." In the planning stages: a follow-up study to explore differences in neurological activities between those who believe in God and those who don't, with non-believers as the control group.

"If you are given a proposition you truly don't believe, it is just mere words," Harris concludes. "The moment you give them credence, a complete transformation of your neurology and psychology and physiology occurs. Belief is the hinge upon which the door to behavior and emotion swings."

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