June 22, 2018 — What does God look like in the brain? Professor Adam Green of the Department of Psychology aims to use neuroimaging to address this question, and to tell whether people with different levels of belief picture a higher power in different ways.
Green has received a three-year, $925,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the neural activity associated with thoughts on God.
The study will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to locate the areas of the brain that become active when subjects are asked to picture their personal image of God, as well as both real-life people and imaginary characters. Green and his colleagues at Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, and Arizona State University will compare the neural pathways that activate in response to the “God” stimulus to those for unequivocally real or fictional people.
The fMRI tool divides three-dimensional images of the brain up into about 50,000 tiny boxes, called voxels, and allows researchers to observe how each voxel activates and interacts with other voxels. Researchers can use these patterns to determine the similarity of concepts in the brain.
“If I’m thinking of baseball vs. basketball, I can see that those patterns differ from each other — but they’re more similar than when I’m thinking about, say, asparagus,” Green said. “So in this case, we looked at representations of God relative to things that are patently real, like your father, and things that are patently fictional, like Superman. So where does the idea of God fall on that spectrum? And, as a related question, is everyone representing more or less the same thing but some people just believe in it more, or are people representing fundamentally different things?”
The study will examine 90 subjects who hold varying degrees of belief in God, from nonbelieving to devoutly religious. The initial study will be limited to subjects from a Protestant Christian background for ease of interpreting results, but Green hopes to conduct the same tests among members of other religious traditions in the future.
“If you’re talking to someone with a pantheistic view or any number of other religious views, you can’t even ask the same questions as you would for the Judeo-Christian or monotheistic group,” Green said. “So we’ll get a foothold based on this group, and then if we want to then try it with other groups, we can do that. But if you put everyone in the same group, you won’t find anything systematic.”
Most of Green’s research funding comes from government entities like the National Science Foundation, which is funded by Congress and has no explicit ideological alignment. To their credit, according to Green, the private Templeton Foundation — who he has worked with once before — has also remained completely agnostic about his research design and results.
“They’re really interested in a rigorous, hard-science approach to this — they don’t just want research that supports a particular agenda,” Green said.
One impressive feature of the grant is that the proposal was spearheaded by Adam Weinberger, a Georgetown Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology’s lifespan cognitive neuroscience track who works in Green’s lab. Graduate students do significant leg work in writing grant proposals, and Weinberger was particularly influential in shaping the structure of the proposed experiment.
“It’s unusual for a graduate student to play a principal-investigator-level role,” Green said. “But we were in a position to allow it, and I was so thrilled to have him acknowledged for the thought and organization he put into this. It’ll help distinguish him even from other high-achieving students.”
Weinberger hopes that the experience will help prepare him for his own career in psychology research.
“This was by and large an entirely new exercise for me, and I was able to gain experiences not typically afforded to graduate students,” Weinberger said. “I think the experience provided me with a window into all of the tedious-but-crucial activities that go into grant writing, which will serve me well for future grants.”
— Patrick Curran