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How Religion may control Visual Attention. Religion influences what People See

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Despite the abundance of evidence that human perception is penetrated by beliefs and expectations, scientific research so far has entirely neglected the possible impact of religious background on attention. In a study published in November in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, researchers at Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam, led by Lorenza Colzato, employed the “global-local paradigm” to measure whether Dutch Calvinists and atheists, brought up in the same country and culture and comparable in terms of race, intelligence, sex, and age, differ systematically with respect to the way they attend to and process the global and local features of complex visual stimuli.The global-local task requires participants to react quickly and accurately by pressing a left or right key in

response to global and local characteristics of hierarchically constructed visual stimuli (e.g., larger letters made of smaller letters). The results show that Calvinists attend less to global aspects of perceived events, which fits with the idea that people’s attentional processing style reflects possible biases rewarded by their religious belief system.The study is the first of its kind to investigate the influence of religion on attentional processing. The researchers provide evidence that religious belief may systematically bias visual attention, even if culture is controlled for.Given that real-life objects and events are commonly complex and hierarchically structured, so that their perceptual organization and semantic interpretation often hinges on the aspect or level an observer attends to, it seems possible that religious beliefs may indeed lead to different and sometimes discrepant and incompatible interpretations of the same incident—an issue of major political and societal implications. Religion influences what people see.Calvinists pay more attention to detail than do atheists. This has been demonstrated by research carried out by psychologist Lorenza Colzato. She is the first to show that subconscious and automatic processes allow religion to influence how people experience the world.Colzato and her colleagues

published their findings in the online journal Plos ONE. Rectangle made up of triangles. A large rectangle made up of smaller triangles: not an image that you would expect religious and non-religious people to look at differently. Nevetheless, religion appears to have a definite effect on the reactions to this type of image. Colzato compared the pattern of reactions of Calvinist and atheist students, who were otherwise similar in terms of gender, age, intelligence and culture. And the result: the Calvinists were faster than the atheists at recognising the triangle. Colzato’s conclusion: ‘Calvinists focus more on the detail, while atheists pay more attention to the bigger picture – in this case the rectangle.’ Individualistic. Where does this difference in attention originate? Colzato relates it to the individualistic approach of Calvinism. ‘Calvinists may be more focused on individual elements, rather than on the overall picture because they were rewarded for this during their upbringing.’ But this is just a suspicion at the moment, Colzato stresses. ‘It is too early for firm statements.’ Culture. Colzato’s interest is not specifically the influence of Calvinism, but of religion in general. Other religions may have different effects, she believes. In follow-up research she intends to study orthodox Jews. ‘These people focus

strongly on the social community and therefore may be more attuned to the whole.’ There is a reason why Colzato is currently only studying Calvinists: it is difficult to find religious groups that are similar in terms of cultural background, whilst this is important in order to be able to make statements about the effects purely of religion, separate from culture.Intifada; Colzato’s  fascination for the influence of religion on human perception dates back some time. She was visiting Israel at the time of the two Intifadas, and experienced at first hand how different eyes can view the world in totally different ways. ‘What one party saw as an attack, the other regarded as self-defence. So I am not surprised that religion colours perception.’ Subconscious.What does surprise Colzato about the findings of her research is that religion exercised its influence very early in the process of perception. She based her conclusions on reaction times of a few hundred milliseconds. This means that differences in perception between religious groups take place before conscious convictions and preferences direct the attention. ‘What is surprising about my research is that religion influences attention via automatic processes,’ says Colzato. ‘People need not necessarily be aware of this influence.’ Sensitive; Colzato realises that she is skating on thin ice with her research. ‘Religion is a sensitive issue. Before you know it, the results of your research are interpreted as a confirmation of the prejudices held about religious

adherents. And that is by no means my intention. As a scientist I am simply interested in how it is possible for religion to influence our perception. It does not mean that one type of perception is better or worse than another.’ Open access; Colzato chooses her words carefully. ‘I do not want my research to offend anyone,’ she stresses. But she is at the same time not afraid to put the issues up for discussion. Quite the contrary: she published her findings in an open access journal, which is freely accessible on the internet and can therefore be read by a broad public. ‘This was a deliberate choice,’ says Colzato. ‘I believe that science is not just for an intellectual elite. My research is relevant for society, so everyone should be able to join in the debate about it. Science can stimulate people to think critically about such important issues as religion.’ Pop psychologist; Colzato is proud to be doing research which she can easily explain to non-experts. ‘I enjoy being involved with issues which affect people. You could say that I am a kind of pop psychologist.’ Is she not afraid of being derided by her colleagues because of this status? Her response: ‘Compare it with pop music. Is that in itself bad music?’   –  Welcome to the Dopamine Lab!  The Leiden Dopamine Lab explores the relations between dopamine, a very important neurotransmitter

of the brain, and cognitive control the way we control our thoughts and goal directed behavior. A special focus of the lab is to explore how exactly dopaminergic supply affects control functions. Several factors like drugs, such as cocaine, sexual hormones, such as estrogen, stress and particular genetic polymorphisms are known to target dopamine. Using theoretically motivated cognitive tasks, including different techniques as reaction time (RT), event-related potential (ERP) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we search for convergent evidence for the role of dopamine in cognitive control. Notably, in Europe the recreational use of cocaine already took the place of ecstasy as second preferred recreational drug after cannabis. Whereas a “chronic” user, as described in the existing literature, consumes cocaine on a very regular base (1 gram daily), so far, only studies from our Dopamine Lab have systematically focused on cognitive impairments among this “upcoming type” of recreational users, who do not meet the criteria for abuse or dependence, but take cocaine (preferred by snorting route), on a monthly frequency (1 to 4 gram). Given that cocaine may affect judgment and decision-making (especially in term of high-risk sexual behaviour), it will be a matter of time that this topic will become a public health issue, as is currently also the case for the recreational

use of ecstasy.The Dopamine lab participates in the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC), which is an interfaculty center for interdisciplinary research on brain and cognition, supported by the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and the Faculties of Social & Behavioral Sciences, Arts, and Mathematics & Natural Sciences, Leiden University (www.libc-leiden.nl).  Specific projects  •  Cocaine and cognitive control: How does the recreational use of cocaine affect how we control our thoughts and actions?  •  Stress and cognitive control: How does stress affect how we control our thoughts and actions?  •  Estrogen and cognitive control: How does estrogen affect how we control our thoughts and actions? •  Gene and cognitive control: How do genes related to dopaminergic activity affect how we control our thoughts and actions? Prof. Lorenza Colzato. Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Instituut Psychologie, Sectie Cognitieve Psychologie. Dr. L. S. Colzato is Universitair Docent. She is interested in neuromodulation of cognition, the process how several classes of neuromodulators, as dopamine, regulate our cognition. News from: Leiden University (the oldest university in the Netherlands)  leiden.edu

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