Plays a role in restraining the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is also the seat of our executive decision making. It helps predict how we integrate our understanding of God. It creates the logic used to develop our conceptions of God. It works at answering the most challenging questions about the nature of God. What is God? Why does God do or do not do something?
- Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC): is associated with reasoning, planning and executive function. It has a prolonged maturation into adulthood.
- Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC): is associated with inhibiting inappropriate social behaviors. It works in conjunction with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) especially regarding coordination of emotional reaction.
- Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (VMPFC): is involved in moral and ethical decision making as well as making meaning of life. It has been shown to have decreased activity with depression and increased activity with mania. The VMPFC is activated when we see people to be like ourselves and we think about them. It is part of your self-referencing center that helps you ask questions such as, what’s in it for me?
- Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex (DMPFC): helps serve as a more deliberative self referencing center. Our Christian faith calls us to surrender to God and conceptually see ourselves from God’s desire and perspective of us. Rather than simply asking what’s in it for me, the DMPFC helps us mentally ask what is God calling me to do? To strengthen this higher ground brain circuitry, we can make it a habit to be mindful and observe our thoughts. Our faith calls us to feed the hungry or visit the sick, but the mental process of stepping back and questioning why people are sick or hungry in the first place might help us deliberatively change root problems keeping people sick or hungry. Habitually observing and questioning our thoughts will strengthen the DMPFC so that we can be more proactive rather than reactive.
The Role of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Prejudice:
The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is involved in helping establish ingroup and outgroup. Dr. Eagleman detailed in his PBS series on the brain that the medial prefrontal cortex is less active for many people when seeing photographs of the homeless because there is less connection to them.[i] The brain is shut off to their pain as if they have less existence or worth. This is the tragedy of indifference. The humanity of the other is lost just as our own humanity is lost. Love is lost.
Not extending love to others who are different from us is central to prejudice. There are several parts of the brain associated with prejudice. The amygdala involves our association with threats. As the mind creates and maintains understanding of threats, our ideas can become reinforced. The anterior insula involves the process of negative affect. The mPFC helps put things in perspective and bring them into a mental picture. While the mPFC helps us categorize the world, the downside is that our categorizations can be completely false though they seem real to us. The truth is that a person without a home has as much worth and is worthy of our love as any other person.
All these structures taken together help categorize ingroup and outgroup.[ii] Positive attitudes toward an ingroup are supported by the striatum. Within cultural contexts, when we are told to believe stereotypes and prejudice, the neural circuitry to perpetuate hate gets strengthened and then passed on to the next generation. Sadly, prejudice can be either conscious or unconscious. Many people who are full of hate might not realize there is another way because of how they were raised or taught. Our theology helps ground us in the reality that we are all interconnected. We are to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves. When we break down the walls of in-group and out-group perceived in the world, we help restructure our brains. This includes the medial prefrontal cortex.
[i] “The Brain with David Eagleman, Episode 5, ‘Why Do I Need You?’,” PBS, accessed October 1, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/video/brain-david-eagleman-why-do-i-need-you-episode-5/.
[ii] “The Neuroscience of Prejudice and Stereotyping,” ResearchGate, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265345113_The_Neuroscience_of_Prejudice_and_Stereotyping.