The other day we looked at the way the media handled a study that showed that Protestants who don't identify a "born-again" experience had less hippocampal atrophy than Catholics, non-believers and those who do claim a "born-again" experience. I noted that all the headlines I could find highlighted that "born-again" Christians had "smaller brains." In the previous post, I looked only at how odd it was that Catholics and non-believers were spared this indignity, even though, the story claimed, all scored lower than Protestants.
Left Hippocampus atrophy .06 Other Protestants -.01 Life-Changing Religious Experience (new) -.05 Born-again (new) -.15 Born-again (baseline) -.22 Catholic -.28 None -.45 Life-Changing Religious Experience (baseline)
Right Hippocampus atrophy -.05 Other -.12 Catholic -.15 Life-Changing Religious Experience (new) -.15 Born-again (baseline) -.20 None -.21 Born-again (new) -.32 Life-Changing Religious Experience (baseline)
(The commenter had "no religion" and "baseline LCRE experience" in the lowest spots for both hippocampi but I found different results.) Again, we see that the main thing is that "other" Protestants had the least atrophy in both their left and right hippocampi. But what's also noteworthy is that those who are not Christian -- reporting a non-Christian religious experience at the time they entered the study or reporting no religious belief, have the greatest atrophy. Born-again Protestants, whether newly converted or in their past, generally have less atrophy.
Out of curiosity, I read up a bit on the hippocampi and was surprised at just what a small part (if terribly important) part of the brain they were. But I note that this study didn't measure the size of the hippocampi so much as the relative size at the beginning and end of the study. So when the headlines tell us that one group has a "smaller brain" than another group, they are wrong. At least, there's no way they could know it from this study. This study measured how much this tiny portion of the overall brain atrophied over time.
So much of the coverage was flawed that I'm troubled by the whole episode.
Now, since I've spent so much time harshing on the media coverage of this study, I thought I'd also point out a story on the same study that did not follow the herd. It was headlined "A little bit of belief can be a godsend for your brain."