Researchers from the University of York in UK and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in US, carried out an innovative experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a safe way of temporarily shutting down specific regions of the brain.
The researchers targeted the posterior medial frontal cortex, a part of the brain located near the surface and a few inches up from the forehead that is associated with detecting problems and triggering responses that address them.
In the study, half of the participants received a low-level "sham" procedure that did not affect their brains, and half received enough energy to lower activity in the target brain area.
Next, all of the participants were first asked to think about death, and then were asked questions about their religious beliefs and their feelings about immigrants. The findings showed that people in whom the targeted brain region was temporarily shut down reported 32.8 per cent less belief in God, angels, or heaven.
They were also 28.5 per cent more positive in their feelings towards an immigrant who criticised their country.
"People often turn to ideology when they are confronted by problems," said Keise Izuma, from the University of York.
"We wanted to find out whether a brain region that is linked with solving concrete problems, like deciding how to move one's body to overcome an obstacle, is also involved in solving abstract problems addressed by ideology," said Izuma.
"We decided to remind people of death because previous research has shown that people turn to religion for comfort in the face of death," said Izuma.
"As expected, we found that when we experimentally turned down the posterior medial frontal cortex, people were less inclined to reach for comforting religious ideas despite having been reminded of death," Izuma said.
With regard to nationalistic ideology, the participants read two essays ostensibly written by recent immigrants. One essay was extremely complimentary towards the US, and the other essay was extremely critical.
The researchers found that the magnetic stimulation had the greatest effect on reactions to the critical author.
"We think that hearing criticisms of your group's values, perhaps especially from a person you perceive as an outsider, is processed as an ideological sort of threat," said Izuma.
"One way to respond to such threats is to 'double down' on your group values, increasing your investment in them, and reacting more negatively to the critic," he said.
"When we disrupted the brain region that usually helps detect and respond to threats, we saw a less negative, less ideologically motivated reaction to the critical author and his opinions," he said.
The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
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