Serotonin and religiosity

Serotonin receptor density in the brain was tied to religious orientation in a 2003 study by a Swedish team (full report and summary ).

But what is “religious orientation”, and what does low serotonin receptor density mean?

The metric used for “religious orientation” was the so-called “self-transcendence” component of the Temperament & Character Inventory, defined as “the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole.” Self-transcendance breaks down further into subcomponents; it was the “spiritual acceptance” subscale which was found to correlate (negatively) with serotonin receptor density in various brain areas. People with high spiritual acceptance numbers “tend to endorse extrasensory perception and ideation,” while “low scorers…tend to favor a reductionistic and empirical worldview.” The scale includes yes-or-no questions like, “I have had supernatural experiences” and, “I believe in a common, unifying force.”

It’s anybody’s guess what this bizarre scale is actually measuing. I’m imagining people who believe in UFOs and astral flight would probably score pretty high. On the other hand, there is no shortage of reductionist Zen masters who would score zero.

Andy Newberg weighs in with a weird comment which seems to say that we might be able to use these results to decide which religion people should be. Do a prenatal brain scan to decide whether to raise Baby as a Scientologist, Methodist, or Wiccan? He opines that the research “may be useful in a number of ways, including guiding people to practices that might better suit their disposition by understanding how people are spiritually different.”

The study’s author puts a politically correct spin on his results:

Farde also indicated that understanding the role of the brain in religion and spirituality may create more respect for plurality and the way we are religious beings. While the research does not explain whether a person has a belief system, Farde said, it might indicate why the person may be more attuned to a charismatic church as opposed to one with more order and tranquility.

But how might the serotonin system affect spirituality? “My favorite interpretation,” Farde told Psychiatric News, “is that the serotonin system regulates our perception and the variety of stimuli reaching our awareness. A person with a weak ‘sensory filter’ is used to various perceptions and may be more likely to accept religious world views.”

Before we even get there, we have to figure out what low serotonin receptor density means. As the study’s authors themselves point out, we don’t really know. It could mean the person has a fewer number of receptors that are more efficient, or a fewer number of receptors to counteract higher levels of serotonin, or lower serotonin levels. They don’t know.

The most generous thing that can be said about this study is that it “points the way to more study”.

6 Responses to “Serotonin and religiosity”

  1. Ettsem Says:

    Quote: It’s anybody’s guess what this bizarre scale is actually measuring.

    I was wondering precisely the same thing at the exact point in your article that you wrote that!

    Perhaps the scale indirectly measures part of a person’s score on the Temperament & Character Inventory. To put it another way, perhaps the test measures something, but it’s far less specific than “spiritual acceptance”. That tendency surely encompasses a wide range of nature and nurture factors. (I have not read the definition of “spiritual acceptance”, so I may be way off base here.)

    Incidentally, if low seretonin-receptor counts produces rationalistic people, does that mean they should be more depressed to fit the data?

  2. DavidD Says:

    This is the first time I got around to actually looking at the data in this story. I like the graphs. Those 15 subjects show a very good trend for this sort of comparison between behavior and biochemistry. As you describe, interpretation is the problem. Do these “spiritually accepting” men have a lot of serotonergic transmission going on, to which the decreased receptors is homeostatic feedback or decreased transmission mediated by the fewer receptors?

    Given the LSD analogy, one would think it’s the former, but it’s hard to say.

    It does stand to reason that there are a number of factors involving perception and cognition that would make someone more open to spiritual experiences. How much does one’s individual perception have one searching for hidden things, visible or not? How much capacity does someone have for perceiving ecstasy? Someone who can’t find joy in a spiritual experience might not bother with them. How much can someone have that cognitive sense of insight and importance when nothing in their perception has changed at all?

    Most of all, which spiritual experiences connect with something real spiritually and which get sidetracked? Is that in our biology, the prejudices of our culture or something in the spiritual world itself? What if the spirits just don’t like me?

    Somehow I doubt that serotonin is at the heart of all that. Even the serotonin and mental illness story is suspicious. Depression, OCD, bulimia, migraine, … This is not a chemical that’s just about mood. People talk about it in terms of behavioral activation, but is it cause or effect in that? Yes, depression gets better in a lot of people who take meds that boost serotonin, so maybe it’s a cause, but it’s not a happy pill. It’s more of a kick in the butt, not exactly like caffeine, but more sustained and controlled. This is a key mediator of spiritual experiences? How?

  3. Mark Waldman Says:

    Dopamine also playes an important role in spiritual experiences. According to Peter Brugger at the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, when viewing scrambled words and phrases on a screen, believers were much more likely than skeptics to see words and faces when there were none, but skeptics often didn’t see words and faces that were there. However, when skeptics were given the drug L-dopa (used to treat Parkinson’s disease) to increase dopamine levels in the brain, they were more likely to interpret scrambled patterns as real words and faces. Thus, the researchers concluded, believers use a looser criteria for interpreting sensory information, which makes them more susceptible to making unfounded inferences, and may explain why certain individuals are more inclined to foster paranormal beliefs. On the positive side, the researchers also suggested that higher levels of dopamine may be “a prerequisite of creative thinking.� However, I want to point out that this study also shows that both skeptics and religious believers make significant mistakes when processing their perceptions of the world.
    Religious beliefs and spiritual experiences are probably influenced by a variety of neurochemical and hormonal interactions. The Zurich study suggests that dopamine may play an important role in generating spiritual experiences, and that religious practitioners may have higher levels of dopamine compared to nonreligious individuals. Here’s the study: Mohr, C., R.E. Graves, L.R. Gianotti, D. Pizzagalli, and P. Brugger. 2001. Loose but normal: a semantic association study. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 30(5):475-83. For further info, See the book, Why We Believe What We Believe, which I coauthored with Newberg. By the way, I think Newberg was misquoted. The closest we’ve come to “prescribing” meditation is a warning that unstable people can freak out (similar to using LSD) with intensive forms of prayer.

  4. W.H. Phillips Says:

    This is a realm visited by the clinical neurologist James Austin in “Zen Brain Reflections.” In fact Dr. Austin discusses in a rather more thorough and orderly way the correlation of neurotransmitters and neuroanatomy with mental-emotional states. The metric “religious orientation” seems unnecessarily vague and dealing only with serotonin seems a needless limitation. Surely dopamine, GABA et al. must also participate in sensations of religiosity.

  5. Time Cube and a couple of spheres Says:

    Yeah I think the low levels of serotonin correspond to low levels of ownership, possession or dominance in the real world. Thus, they feel able to explore fantasy worlds, inner mental worlds. Where serotononin is high, there is a real feeling of dominance, possession and power in the real world, thus the mental backworlds are rejected in favour of the observable empirical reality.

    As an aside, Sc13nt0Logy preaches a “Tone Scale” that is similar to the serotonin. Its lower end shows emotions and feelings corresponding to low serotonin, while its higher levels are indicative of the higher serotonin concentration.

    (I take it that the “receptor density” is the measure of serotonin, and that a greater “receptor density” may correspond to a higher quantity of the chemical serotonin itself.)

  6. Cyrus Brooks Says:

    As a Scientologist I’d probably astounded for someone to come up and say they want to join our church because the doctor said their brain indicated it. Honestly, you can turn your hand upside-down and then right side up, and then research exactly how your brain and nerves and muscles did it. It’d probably take years, especially when you include deciding to do it and how the subject even came up, purely in terms of biology and chemistry. However, being a practical person, I don’t have to know what my brain is doing. I know what I’m doing. I just get on with life and help myself and others and do my bit.

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