Researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough looked at brain activity in people primed to think about God and found decreases in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex -- an area of the brain associated with regulating bodily states of arousal when things were going wrong -- such as making mistakes. However, atheists were more distressed making mistakes after thinking of God-related ideas.
In the study, published in Psychological Science, participants either wrote about religion or did a scrambled word task with God-related words before brain activity was recorded while the participants did tasks with high error-rates.
"Eighty-five percent of the world has some sort of religious beliefs," study co-author Michael Inzlicht says in a statement. "I think it behooves us as psychologists to study why people have these beliefs; exploring what functions, if any, they may serve."
Although not unequivocal, Inzlicht says, there is some evidence that religious people live longer and tend to be happier and healthier.
"We think this can occur with any meaning system that provides structure and helps people understand their world," he says.
Inzlicht suggests atheists may have done better in the study if prompted to think about their own beliefs.