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Soc Neurosci. 2012;7(5):445-57. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2011.641228. Epub 2011 Dec 6.

The sacred and the absurd--an electrophysiological study of counterintuitive ideas (at sentence level).

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Center for Human Evolution and Behavior, UCM-ISCIII, Madrid, Spain.


Religious beliefs are both catchy and durable: they exhibit a high degree of adherence to our cognitive system, given their success of transmission and spreading throughout history. A prominent explanation for religion's cultural success comes from the "MCI hypothesis," according to which religious beliefs are both easy to recall and desirable to transmit because they are minimally counterintuitive (MCI). This hypothesis has been empirically tested at concept and narrative levels by recall measures. However, the neural correlates of MCI concepts remain poorly understood. We used the N400 component of the event-related brain potential as a measure of counterintuitiveness of violations comparing religious and non-religious sentences, both counterintuitive, when presented in isolation. Around 80% in either condition were core-knowledge violations. We found smaller N400 amplitudes for religious as compared to non-religious counterintuitive ideas, suggesting that religious ideas are less semantically anomalous. Moreover, behavioral measures revealed that religious ideas are not readily detected as unacceptable. Finally, systematic analyses of our materials, according to conceptual features proposed in cognitive models of religion, did not reveal any outstanding variable significantly contributing to these differences. Refinements of cognitive models of religion should elucidate which combination of factors renders an anomaly less counterintuitive and thus more suitable for recall and transmission.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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