Miguel Farias is a researcher at the Ian Ramsey Centre and assistant director of the MSc in Psychological Research, at Oxford University. For his doctorate, he studied the psychological characteristics of people engaged in New Age spirituality. After that, he joined forces with neuroscientists and philosophers at the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind to unravel what happens in the minds and brains of religious believers when they are subjected to pain.
“Religious lore is full of stories of physical pain withstood and vanquished through the power of religious belief. However, until recently there was very little scientific evidence of religion helping in the alleviation of pain, and what could be the neural and psychological processes involved. In my talk, I will describe an experiment where we showed for the first time how religious belief may have an analgesic effect and help people deal better with pain.”
He starts by noting the variety of theistic notions across the world focusing on differing notions of self in buddhism, adviata vedanta and Abrahamic religions.
Pain also is viewed quite differently through different religious traditions. in Hinduism it is an illusion, in Christianity it is a means to get closer to god.
People go on the rack to prove God relieves pain! Yogis were tested and could take cold water for 40 minutes with no EEG responses whereas normal people could only take it for a few seconds with an EEG response.
Interestingly comparing meditators focusing on god or self, the latter group had higher self-esteem and other happiness measures. Religious people are happier unless one has a negative god concept, then this can work against you...
Religious believers do not think religiously all the time, god is a distal cause unless there are extreme circumstances such as ill health.
How does religious thinking affect different states?
Farias carried out a study where the religious group were practising Catholics, the main challenge was to get them into a religious state of mind and he found that the image of the Virgin Mary was better than Jesus. By contrast he found an equivalent non-sacred picture of a woman as a secular stimulus (to not the evoke a religious state of mind).
He then compared both groups, looking at either the religious or non-religious image and then subjected them to pain stimulation and then examine their FMRI response. He also collected subjective self-ratings of the pain.
So how does the brain react in this situation? For the catholic beleivers they perceived the pain as less intense after looking the Virgin Mary, whereas the non-religious group there was no difference. However in terms of subjective effectiveness ,the non-religious group found the non-sacred image as more helpful for coping with the pain!
So religious coping was strongly associated with religious imagery. Still negative god rates were associated with higher heart rate and anxiousness.
The hypothesis for believers is there is an activation of the antero-lateral prefrontal cortex (alPFC) during a religious state which can manage pain. In the non-religious group there is no significant result. Other activation was in the ventral midbrain which is used to manage basic sensory responses such as favourite smells.
The religious group felt calm, peaceful and feeling of being cared for in this religious state as they were having a variety of religiously associated thoughts, nice memories of being in church and so on.
All this lead to his main them of "Religious-based Analgesia". Both brain regions were involved in top-down modulation of negative affect and pain.
Does it work on atheists who grew up as catholics? It still applies to atheists - lapsed catholics! However this was only one data point.
So is this any indication of a"God Spot" in the brain, such as Michael Persinger's work? No, there is no single area that is related to religious experience. Are there non-religious belief systems which mimic religious belief systems and so provide the same analgesic affect? He failed to answer this (to be dealt with in my review).
Now can this research help explain fanaticism and extremism? Not directly but it might help show how some find it so meaningful that they would kill and die for it...
This research shows that there are neurological basis for much religious belief.
Postscript: republished with minor typos and links updates.