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Ideologies May Be Susceptible To Shift Via Magnetic Stimulation Of Brain

Last updated Oct. 21, 2015

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH

"...group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, and point to a shared cognitive mechanism underlying concrete and abstract decision processes.”

A combined study from York University in the United Kingdom and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA, states that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) in study participants made them less inclined to believe in God and less critical of immigrants.

The pMFC is believed to play a critical role in discerning the differences between an existing and desired condition, and make decisions accordingly to ‘resolve’ such conflicts. Apart from ‘concrete’ decision-making, situations like reminders of death or uncertainty are reported to increase abstract moral and cultural values and behaviors in individuals, mediated by pMFC. For example, when faced with thoughts of death, the pMFC is believed to mediate behavior adjustment to increase belief in God. Similarly, when an individual belonging to an outside group (e.g. immigrants) is critical of one’s group or beliefs, the pMFC response is likely to be an aversion to that particular group in general.

Based on the known concrete and abstract outcomes of pMFC mediation, the researchers investigated the effect of down-regulating the region’s activity by magnetic stimulation. Simply put, people often fall back on their ideologies when facing problems; the researchers wanted to find out if the ideologies themselves could be changed by shutting down the part of the brain involved in these decisions.

For the purpose of this study, 38 undergraduates were recruited following phone interviews, to ensure a politically moderate group of individuals. All participants reported strong religious beliefs at the outset. The participants were divided into two groups to receive sham and TMS treatments, respectively. The research team gave the participants the task of rating their belief in God, demons, heaven, etc. following their reading of two write-ups:

  1. A reminder of death
  2. A critique of their “in-group” written by a member of an “out-group”

The participants were then requested to write a passage about their feelings on their won death and then answer questions pertaining to the study so as to ascertain changes brought about by down-regulation of pMFC by TMS. The results show that, in contrast to those who received sham treatment, those who were subjected to TMS:

  • Expressed an overall reduction in both positive and negative religious beliefs.
  • Had a significantly reduced (32.8%) conviction in positive religious ideas (God, heaven, angels), despite being reminded of death.
  • Did not have a significant reduction in negative religious beliefs (demons).
  • Expressed an increased positive attitude (28.5%) towards immigrants, even after reading a critical letter written by an “outsider” (reduced group prejudice).
  • Did not have significant changes in their emotional status as a result of magnetic stimulation.

In the authors’ opinion, the study demonstrates for the first time that, “…group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, and point to a shared cognitive mechanism underlying concrete and abstract decision processes.” They conclude, “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.”

More detailed research will be necessary to find out the exact cause of the results observed in this study. Nevertheless, it is clear that the ‘take-home’ message is that it is possible to change and influence an individual’s ideology by way of magnetic stimulation.

Written by Mangala Sarkar, Ph.D.

Primary Reference

Holbrook, C., Izuma, K., Deblieck, C., Fessler, D., & Iacoboni, M. (2015). Neuromodulation of Group Prejudice and Religious Belief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv107

MailOnline, V. (2015, October 14). Could your views on God and immigration be changed by using MAGNETS? Brain stimulation can alter beliefs, study claims. Retrieved October 20, 2015, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3272289/Could-views-God-immigration-changed-using-MAGNETS-Brain-stimulation-alter-beliefs-study-claims.html

Additional References

Bush, G., Vogt, B., Holmes, J., Dale, A., Greve, D., Jenike, M., & Rosen, B. (2002). Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex: A role in reward-based decision making. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99, 523-528.

Tritt, S., Inzlicht, M., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2012). Toward a Biological Understanding of Mortality Salience (And Other Threat Compensation Processes). Social Cognition, 6, 715-733.

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Oct. 21, 2015
Last updated: Oct. 21, 2015