I saw this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer and I had to read it. The article starts out, “Older adults who say they’ve had a life-changing religious experience are more likely to have a greater decrease in size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical to learning and memory, new research finds. According to the study, people who said they were a “born-again” Protestant or Catholic, or conversely, those who had no religious affiliation, had more hippocampal shrinkage (or “atrophy”) compared to people who identified themselves as Protestants, but not born-again”.
To be fair and not sound as though I am not presenting all the facts, the article goes on to say, “As people age, a certain amount of brain atrophy is expected. Shrinkage of the hippocampus is also associated with depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers asked 268 people aged 58 to 84 about their religious affiliation, spiritual practices and life-changing religious experiences. Over the course of two to eight years, changes to the hippocampus were monitored using MRI scans. The researchers suggested that stress over holding religious beliefs that fall outside of the mainstream may help explain the findings.”
It goes on to say, “One interpretation of our finding — that members of majority religious groups seem to have less atrophy compared with minority religious groups — is that when you feel your beliefs and values are somewhat at odds with those of society as a whole, it may contribute to long-term stress that could have implications for the brain,” Amy Owen, lead author of the study and a research associate at Duke University Medical Center, said in a Duke news release. The study authors also suggested that life-changing religious experiences could challenge a person’s established religious beliefs, triggering stress. “Other studies have led us to think that whether a new experience you consider spiritual is interpreted as comforting or stressful may depend on whether or not it fits in with your existing religious beliefs and those of the people around you,” David Hayward, research associate at Duke University Medical Center, added. “Especially for older adults, these unexpected new experiences may lead to doubts about long-held religious beliefs, or to disagreements with friends and family.”
The hippocampus has several important functions, including spatial, contextual, and episodic learning and memory. The hippocampus may also influence the generation of attention and emotion through connections with the amygdala, and moderate cortical arousal and responsiveness through interconnections with the amygdala, hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex, and other areas [. Global cerebral atrophy occurs as a result of aging , but atrophy rates differ between brain regions. Rates of atrophy for the hippocampus have been found to accelerate during late life . This atrophy has been associated with mental health outcomes, including depression and dementia in later life. Studies have also identified the hippocampus as a brain region potentially involved in religious beliefs and spiritual practices. Initial findings indicate that the hippocampus is activated during meditation, and that larger hippocampal volumes are associated with long-term meditation practice. Among certain epilepsy patients, smaller hippocampal volumes have also been associated with hyper-religiosity.
Building on evidence from research with meditation and temporal lobe epilepsy, within the context of hypothesized mechanisms of stress and glucocorticoids, this study focused on the potential role of religious factors in hippocampal atrophy. The objective of the present study was to delineate the pattern of prospective relationships between religious factors and hippocampal volume change in a large sample of older adults.
One way of interpreting these findings is within the context of the hypothesized impact of cumulative stress on the hippocampus. While some religious variables have been found to be associated with positive mental health, other religious factors may be a source of stress.
There is evidence that members of religious groups who are persecuted or in the minority might have markedly greater stress and anxiety as they try to navigate their own society. Other times, a person might perceive God to be punishing them and therefore have significant stress in the face of their religious struggle. Others experience religious struggle because of conflicting ideas with their religious tradition or their family. Even very positive, life-changing experiences might be difficult to incorporate into the individual’s prevailing religious belief system and this can also lead to stress and anxiety. Perceived religious transgressions can cause emotional and psychological anguish. This “religious” and “spiritual pain” can be difficult to distinguish from pure physical pain. And all of these phenomena can have potentially negative effects on the brain.
One thing I am reading into this is a struggle between what you have learned and what you are being told. To some people, this is hard to reconcile. All of their lives they have been told religion was one way, but now they are hearing something totally different. On one hand, for example, they are told Jesus loves everybody. Now, they hear God hates homosexuals and Liberals. They hear God hates the U.S. because of how the U.S. treats homosexuality. They hear if someone is of a different religion and if someone is not the same, then they are “bad” and God hates them as well. This causes stress and this causes atrophy.
I would suggest the people with this conflict try to reconcile the differences by finding a common message, such as “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”.
Seems in today’s climate, that is not easy.