Also from UCLA, “End of Faith” author Sam Harris, who has quietly been pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at my alma mater, reports in the January issue of Annals of Neurology that fMRIs show clear differences in areas of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty.
Noting that uncertainty differs from both belief and disbelief by not allowing us to settle upon “a specific, actionable interpretation of the world,” the authors suggest that the basal ganglia may play a role in mediating the cognitive and behavioral differences between decision and indecision.
Taken together, these data offer insight into the way in which our brains work to form beliefs about the world.
“What I find most interesting about our results is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottleneck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward and primal feelings like pain and disgust,” Harris said. “While evaluating mathematical, ethical or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that two plus two equals four and believing that George Bush is President of the United States have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question.”