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Predictions, Experience and Behavior in Religion: Three Experimental Approaches

Panel Chair: Jesper Soerensen | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

It is a common presupposition that religions not only shape people's experience of the world, but also guide their behavior in the world. So far it has been unclear, how this process takes place. How do priming with religious concepts or artifacts, sensory deprivation and representations of authority modulate religious experience? The seminar investigates this questions based on recent neurocognitive models focusing on the brain's predictive abilities.

Jesper Soerensen

Predictions, experience and behavior in religion: a new framework for studying cultural modulation of cognition in religious behavior

How do religious beliefs and models influence believers' experience of their surroundings? How do religious worldviews acquire their status as 'really real'? And, once established, how can they maintain their plausibility and influence believers' behavior? A recent neurocognitive model that focuses on the brain's predictive abilities is a promising way to approach such questions. Accordingly, humans navigate and act in their physical and social environment by matching incoming perceptual information to predictive models specifying what to expect in any given situation. Mismatch between model and sensory information elicits an error signal that demands attentional resources which eventually leads to a modification of the predictive model. Understanding religious ideas as culturally shared predictive models allows us to investigate the intricate relation between expectations and experience, on the one hand, and its impact on human behavior, on the other. This paper gives a short outline of the theoretical underpinnings of the approach.

Marc Andersen

Mysticism in the laboratory

Despite the extensive number of diverging theories on mysticism, most scholars agree that reports of mystical experience are characterized by unusual perceptual changes that deviate from everyday perceptions and experience. Yet, few attempts have been made to explain mystical experiences in terms of perceptual principles (Wulff 2002), which is unfortunate, since recent neurocognitive research on perception offers robust models for understanding unusual sensory experiences.
We report findings from a new experimental study that builds upon a neurocognitive model of perception. The experimental paradigm probes the potential for eliciting mystical experiences in the laboratory by manipulating the sensory systems of participants. We find that our experimental paradigm is indeed enough to elicit mystical and unusual experiences, and our findings demonstrate that at least some forms of mystical experience can be studied via experimental approaches in a controlled environment. Prospects and limitations for the experimental approach to mysticism are discussed.

Kristoffer L. Nielbo

God, Nation, or Gender? – Effects of religious priming and allocation cost on pro-social behavior in anonymous economic games

Several studies have shown that priming with religious concepts (e.g., ‘sacred’, ‘divine’, ‘God’) facilitates pro-social behavioral responses in economic games. Social and evolutionary psychology offer two proximate explanations of how religious primes facilitate pro-social behavior. The dominant explanation states that religious primes activate implicit representations of being observed by a supernatural watcher, which in turn increases pro-social behavior. The alternative explanation is a behavioral priming or ideomotor account. Religious primes, as other cultural primes, activate implicit cultural norms, which increase the likelihood of behaviors consistent with these norms. We ran a series of experiments to test possible effects of religious priming on economic decisions in a Danish student population. Preliminary results indicate that Danes’ default response is more complex than Canadians’, and that religious priming has little if any effect. Gender, on the other hand, seems to influence economic decisions, as well as decision time, considerably.

Uffe Schjoedt

Expert Power In Religious Interactions

The expertise of religious authorities appears to be an important facilitator of religious experience and interpretation among believers. Going further than self-report measures in psychological surveys and anthropological interviews, we present experimental evidence that expertise can, indeed, influence how believers perceive and behave during religious practices. Briefly introducing neurocognitive insights on charismatic authority in intercessory prayer interactions (fMRI), we present a recent study that shows how the translator’s authority affects the reading experience and theological understanding of the Bible among students of theology. Using eye-tracking data we demonstrate how participants’ eye movements predict such effects. Finally, combining neural recordings with eye-tracking we look for new ways to experimentally approach an important hypothesis, namely, that strong beliefs in religious experts may prevent believers from detecting conflicting information in religious practices in order to facilitate authoritative religious experiences and interpretations.


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