They discovered that people who are very religious have similar atrophy in the hippocampus region of the brain as people who are not religious.
But that people who had undergone a life-changing religious event or were born-again Protestants or Catholics had even more atrophy than people who were religious but not born-again.
The hippocampus is part of the limbic system which controls emotion and the formation of memories. The researchers think that the shrinkage might be as a result of stress. People in religious minorities or those who struggle with their beliefs experience higher levels of stress and stress hormones are known to depress the volume of the hippocampus over time.
This is a surprise as religion has previously been shown to have positive effects on stress, anxiety and depression but this appears not to be the case if you are in a minority religious group or are being persecuted or ostracised for your religious beliefs. Conflict within families because of religious beliefs can also cause stress and anxiety.
Of course it’s possible that people with smaller hippocampuses are more drawn to religious experiences. This new field of study called neurotheology demonstrates that religion can have both positive and negative impact on our health.
Originally posted by EI4U June 2011