Religion and Brain Shrinkage

Religion and Brain Shrinkage

A study recently published found that, depending on religious affiliation, certain religious groups have greater amounts of hippocampus atrophies later in life as compared to those in mainline religions.  The groups with the most hippocampus atrophy are born-again Christians, Catholics, and ironically no religious affiliation.

The hippocampus is involved with learning and memory, but high levels of stress can cause shrinkage and when a person undergoes a life-changing religious experience, the size of the hippocampus can shrink.  Some of the reasons for this stress is a loss or change in friends, change of religious affiliation, being a member of a religious minority, and of course the profound religious experience one may have.

This study examined prospective relationships between religious factors and hippocampal volume change using high-resolution MRI data of a sample of 268 older adults. Religious factors assessed included life-changing religious experiences, spiritual practices, and religious group membership. Hippocampal volumes were analyzed using the GRID program, which is based on a manual point-counting method and allows for semi-automated determination of region of interest volumes. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again. These associations were not explained by psychosocial or demographic factors, or baseline cerebral volume.

The men and women in this study were age 58 and over.  This group included two groups of people who met the DSM-IV criteria for major depression and those who have never been depressed.  Excluded from the study were people diagnosed with neurological and other psychiatric illnesses, significant cognitive impairment, and substance abuse.  A baseline MRI was conducted at the beginning of the study and then another was done every two years, as well as religious, demographic, and psychosocial data done at the start and then every year until the end of the study.

In the final results of the study, there was more volume lost in the hippocampus for born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation in comparison to those who were never born-again.

These findings may reflect potential cumulative stress associated with being a member of a religious minority. Though religious factors have been associated with positive mental health studies have shown members of religious minority groups may also experience stressors related to these group affiliations . Greater hippocampal atrophy was also found to be longitudinally associated with reported life-changing religious experiences. Spiritual experiences not easily interpreted within an existing cognitive framework or set of religious beliefs have been shown in previous research to be detrimental to subjective well-being . Such experiences have the capacity to produce doubts regarding previously unquestioned convictions, potentially inducing cumulative stress even if the experience was subjectively positive. If the experience prompts a change in religious groups, existing social networks may also be disrupted. Thus, as possible sources of cumulative stress, both minority religious group membership and life-changing religious experiences may contribute to conditions that are deleterious for hippocampal volume.

Miller-McCune also mentioned in their report on this study, that meditation helps to prevent shrinkage of the hippocampus and while Buddhists are a minority religious group, they have less shrinkage in their brains.  They also suggest that meditation may counteract these the tendency for the hippocampus to shrink.

I find this study interesting because after I left the Church and was still studying religion, mythology, psychology, and other subjects, I was like a sponge when it came to learning.  Even after I suddenly had a profound experience in a Hindu class, my learning still did not stop.  Upon leaving religion, I have had less problems learning than when I was in it.  Ironically, I have also become healthier than I was, but we all grow older and I am a little more than a decade from age 58.  I do find it fascinating that those who are born-again or are Catholic, have shrinkage in their hippocampus greater than those who are affiliated with mainline Protestantism.  I was never born-again either, so that might make a difference also, but then again, I did have a vast amount of stress growing up in an abusive and Evangelical Fundamentalist family, so maybe I learned to compensate as a child.  Who knows, but the findings of this study are interesting and are a lot of food for thought.  Learning meditation from my Tao Buddhist son and taking up that in my life might not be such a bad idea.

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
  • This is really interesting. The more I read, the more I am left with the conclusion that meditation is very good for people. I wonder what it is about Catholicism that adds it to this group? When I was a kid, the statues were scary to me, especially Jesus hanging on the crucifix…I'm curious whether weekly exposure to the gory images adds to the shock/trauma in some way.


    • I felt the pain of the Crucifix. I felt the pain of the Crucifixion. What I call "mental Stigmata", which I think is what the Church refers to as "spiritual Stigmata". Even when I was growing up in an Fundamngelical church as a child, the Crucifixion was painful to me. When I told my mother I would have stopped it, because I thought it really happened, just as Washington was president and could not tell a lie as a boy (was that the pres? I get confused) when he chopped down his father's cherry tree, she threw a fit, because such barbarism was her salvation and protection from hell. Whatever. I can't tell you how relieved I was to find it was rewritten mythology and did not actually happen in reality. Even then I did not want anyone to die for me, esp in a brutal barbaric manner, done by humans. Even then I would scream, "It was the humans who did it."

      Shock and trauma is a stressor, so it could be possible, but what accounts for the all the empathy neurons that develop in some of us? The frontal lobes? I don't know.

    • this a fascinating report–i wonder what's going on in mine: i have my personal convictions but i have no religious affiliation and i've been thru CRUSHING stress in the past–should i expect my hippo. to be pinsized?(i don't meditate!)

      • lol I don't think it could get that small. Sometimes I wonder about these studies and reports. If it is true, then what explains the higher IQs among the non-religious and alike, with lower IQs in Fundies?

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