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Believe It Or Not: Skeptics Brains Are Different

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Do you believe in the supernatural? Or do you think that all-things-ethereal are full of hogwash?

If you’re not sure – or if you’re on the fence about such touchy matters – a brain scan might be able to help you out.

Researchers from Finland recently explored whether brain activity differed between supernatural believers and skeptics using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In the study, 12 supernatural believers and 11 skeptics began by imagining themselves in crucial, life-changing situations, such as critical junctures in a personal relationship. Then, the subjects were shown “emotionally-charged” pictures of inanimate objects or scenery (for instance, one of the images was of two red cherries bound together – interpret this as you like). Not surprisingly, supernatural believers tended to see messages and signs in the pictures regarding how their personal situations would turn out more often than did the skeptics.

Here’s where it gets interesting (well, the cherries were already kind of interesting). The fMRI tests revealed that a part of the brain called the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) was activated in most supernatural believers and skeptics. However, skeptics showed much more activation in the right IFG, which has been associated with cognitive inhibition. If you think of cognitive inhibition as a form of restricted thinking, it makes sense that the skeptics saw fewer messages and signs in the pictures. Supernatural believers may be open to more flexible interpretations of the pictures since their right IFG was not as activated (that is, their thoughts were not as inhibited).

What the study doesn’t address is how differences in right IFG activation evolve. Are we born with more or less potential for cognitive inhibition, or is the tendency toward supernatural belief or skepticism shaped by our experiences and environment over time?

Like most human characteristics, I would bet that this kind of trait is a combination of nature and nurture. In other words, we are probably born with a certain propensity toward either supernatural belief or skepticism, and how this propensity expresses itself over time is a result of the things that happen around us and to us. But this is just a theory; more research is needed to gain more clarity on such a question.

Related to the origin of differences in right IFG activation is the question of whether this quality can be changed. Can we train ourselves to become more open to supernatural belief or to become more skeptical? Or is cognitive inhibition a more crystallized part of our personality? On a more philosophical note, when might we want to change this trait in ourselves? Or would it be more likely that others would want to try to alter this part of us for their own reasons?

Perhaps there is such a thing as a “balanced” version of right IFG activation, where there is enough skepticism to keep us in check regarding day-to-day dangers, but enough “believer” to cultivate and nurture the faith and openness to miracles that make it truly wonderful to be alive.


Lindeman, M., Svedholm, A. M., Riekki, T., Raij, T., & Hari, R. (2012). Is it just a brick wall or a sign from the universe? An fMRI study of supernatural believers and skeptics. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, Advance Access, doi: 10.1093/scan/nss096

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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