Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty

 

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Sam Harris
Sameer A. Sheth, MD, PhD
Mark S. Cohen, PhD


Objective

: The difference between believing and disbelieving a proposition is one of the most potent regulators of human behavior and emotion. When we accept a statement as true, it becomes the basis for further thought and action; rejected as false, it remains a string of words. The purpose of this study was to differentiate belief, disbelief, and uncertainty at the level of the brain.

Methods

: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 14 adults while they judged written statements to be “true” (belief), “false” (disbelief), or “undecidable” (uncertainty). To characterize belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in a content-independent manner, we included statements from a wide range of categories: autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual.

Results

: The states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty differentially activated distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia.

Interpretation

: Belief and disbelief differ from uncertainty in that both provide information that can subsequently inform behavior and emotion. The mechanism underlying this difference appears to involve the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the caudate. While many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true,” or its rejection as “false,” seems to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions might actually disgust us.

Read the article (PDF)

Read the editorial by Oliver Sacks and Joy Hirsch (PDF)

 
 
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