June 3, 2011
Does "Born-Again" = Small Brain?
An odd study (finally) gives Mainliners something to celebrate.
A study released last week by the Duke University Medical Center finds that Mainline Protestants have larger brains, literally, than "born-again" Christians, Roman Catholics, or the religiously unaffiliated. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Templeton Foundation, discovered that "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."
What is the hippocampus, you may be asking? It is an area deep within the brain that regulates emotion and memory. A small or shrinking hippocamus is often associated with mental health disorders like depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's.
So why would those with born-again experiences have a smaller hippocampus? Some researches speculate it has to do with stress.
Specifically the stress of belonging to a minority group. Apparently constant stress releases hormones that soak the brain and, over time, damage or shrink the hippocampus.
Others think this theory is silly:
The 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% 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.
Read more about the research.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway at GetReligion isn't too concerned about the study, but rather the way it's being reported. Rather than focusing on the fact that the non-religious (or religiously unaffiliated) have smaller brain volume, all of the major newspapers running the story focused on born-again Christians. Check out these headlines:
USA Today: Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains
Houston Chronicle: Study: Born-again Christians have smaller brains
Beliefnet: Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains
She goes on to observe:
I mean, technically it’s true. The study, which looked at a grand total of 268 adults, did say that “born-again” Christians had smaller hippocampal volume. But wow do the headlines above give a different impression than picking on Catholics, nonbelievers or the unaffiliated.
And if you want an indication that most people only read headlines and skim the rest, take a gander at the comments of the USA Today story where everyone seems to think that the study proved that nonbelievers are smarter than Christians.
So, what's your take on the research and reporting? Interesting science, or just more excuses to give evangelicals bad press?