Could brain zapping be the 'cure' for religious extremism?

Study finds that electromagnetic coil, which alters brain patterns, made participants less religious

Brain image
The scientists used MRI scans to analysis subjects’ brains
(Image credit: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty )

Scientists believe that an electromagnetic coil that alters signals in the brain could be used to temporarily reduce extreme beliefs.

A study by the University of York and the UCLA in the US showed participants had less religious faith and viewed immigrants more sympathetically after being 'zapped' with the device.

The electromagnetic coil is placed on the scalp and used to perform a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This uses a magnetic field to interfere with the pattern of signals in the brain, and has been posited as a potential treatment for a range of mental disorders from depression to autism, reports Newsweek.

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A new study has used TMS to test the connection between the posterior medial frontal cortex – the area of the brain that controls response to perceived threats – and extreme beliefs. "People cleave to ideological convictions with greater intensity in the aftermath of threat," researchers explained in the report, published by Oxford Journals.

The experiment was performed on 38 American undergraduates, who received either TMS or a placebo treatment. Afterwards, they were asked to read and respond to two essays purportedly written by immigrants. Participants subjected to TMS were on average 28.5 per cent more sympathetic to the authors than those who had received a placebo, The Times reports.

When it came to religious belief, the effects of TMS were even stronger. Those who had undergone the procedure reported a 32.6 per cent lower belief in God than the placebo group.

Although the sample size is too small to draw any firm conclusions, the results "provide the first evidence that group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation", say the scientists behind the experiment. The effect of TMS on the study participants suggests the possibility that it could be used to reduce the risk of those with extreme viewpoints committing "zealous acts".

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