Researchers say that both belief in God and prejudice towards immigrants can be reduced by directing magnetic energy into the brain. People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems.
"We wanted to find out whether a brain region that is linked with solving concrete problems, like deciding how to move one's body to overcome an obstacle, is also involved in solving abstract problems addressed by ideology," explained Dr Keise Izuma from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA).
Dr Izuma and his team performed an innovative experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation - a safe way of temporarily shutting down specific regions of the brain. They targeted a part of the brain located a few inches up from the forehead that is associated with detecting problems and triggering responses that address them.
In the study, half of the participants received a low-level "sham" procedure that did not affect their brains and half received enough energy to lower activity in the target brain area. The participants were first asked to think about death and then were asked questions about their religious beliefs and their feelings about immigrants.
The findings revealed that people in whom the targeted brain region was temporarily shut down reported 32.8 percent less belief in God, angels or heaven. They were also 28.5 percent more positive in their feelings toward an immigrant who criticized their country. This interest in the brain basis of ideology led the team to focus on religion and nationalism.
"We decided to remind people of death because previous research has shown that people turn to religion for comfort in the face of death," Dr Izuma noted. As expected, the researchers found that when they experimentally turned down that specific part of the brain, people were less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas despite having been reminded of death.
"Whether we're trying to clamber over a fallen tree that we find in our path, find solace in religion, or resolve issues related to immigration, our brains are using the same basic mental machinery," noted Dr Colin Holbrook, lead author of the paper. The research was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience