Charismatic prayers shut off skeptical part of believers' brains

No, this isn’t me attempting to call theists stupid – it’s a new study out in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. From New Scientist:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023).

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

It’s not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

It’s always fascinating to me when we find more and more scientific discoveries that explain religious behavior. Of course, I still wonder what the causal relationship here is. Do people become believers because the logical part of their brain shuts off when presented with unsupported religious woo? Or does the logical part of the brain shut off only in believers who have been trained to accept that people like faith healers are telling the truth?

(Via Boing Boing)


  1. says

    I’d be very interested to see a secular repetition of the experiment substituting soldiers for Christians and orders for prayers, or as noted in the quote, testing using other authority figures.My gut feeling is that you’d see the same effect but to a lesser extent. I suspect that one part of this effect is that prayer is used in rituals which can lead to a trancelike state.Again, this isn’t meant as an insult towards the religious; some religions’ rituals lead to or emphasize altered states of consciousness more than others (compare a Unitarian service to a full-blown Pentecostal speaking-in-tongues service.)

  2. says

    There’s somehting about petetivie actiosn that seem to “numb” the brain – chanting, mantras, prayers, reciting pledges – even cheers for sports teams seem to numb the critical faculties. My guess is that all of this is an attempt to become a part of a group – to try to believe that, for a moment anyway, you can be surrounded by others who “think like I do”. This “logical brain off switch” would certainly aid to the phenomenon.

  3. says

    I would imagine that everyone has this problem. I would bet money that if someone made a list of supposed quotes from George W. Bush and a list from Barack Obama and played them for groups of Republicans and Democrats, you would have a very similar effect, even if those people were atheists.I think that people tend to shut off their skepticism filter when they believe that the ideas being fed to them will fit in with their preconceived ideas of reality.

  4. TPRJones says

    I sincerely hope that it’s a learned response. If there’s a causal link in the other direction – that people with these faulty brains become religious – then we’d have to classify religion as a neural handicap. Then we’ve got the Americans with Disabilities Act protecting them from criticism, and it makes stamping out this stuff that more unlikely. *sigh*

  5. says

    Amen.I’d also like to see the same test repeated for statist Democrats listening to Obama talk, etc. etc. I’ll reckon that if you take ANY given segment of the population and play their preferred authority, the same effect will repeat itself, to one degree or another.I’ll put it this way: whenever I talk to a Democrat about my libertarian political views, quoting classical Renaissance-era British and Scottish sources and colonial American sources, their reaction is something like this: “But…but…but…the government has electrolytes!” (Hey, it worked for the Sumerians!)Humans display a pack mentality and surrender their reason to authority. Indeed, we see that in mobs, humans will often do things which they otherwise would refuse to do, were they instead asked as lone individuals rather than preached to as members of a mass.I’m not justifying this fact or attempting to decrease the amount of lament we all ought to have for it. But like it or not, humans display this deplorable tendency, deplorable notwithstanding what are I’m sure its evolutionary benefits.

  6. Alexrkr7 says

    I think the data suggests the latter. It all depends on who you personally see as an authority and that depends on your culture. Except us skeptics, we don’t ever shut off our… ummm… that mush behind the seeing things in your head… yeah, nailed it.

  7. Les Wright says

    I have mentioned elsewhere that I am a theist for personal irrational metaphysical reasons (give me some points for acknowledging that!), but funnily enough I am not a big prayer person, unless my arse is on fire and I implore the cosmos “Help me Lord get out of this one!” I am very much more of a mindfulness meditation kind of guy, and you probably know there is a wonderful and growing scientific basis for the effectiveness of such tools.Even as a believer I have to say that pentacostalists, and other charismatic evangelicals such as certain Roman Catholics (yes! charismatic holy roller catholics!) may as well be from Neptune as far as I am concerned. Their capacity to get swept up into an ostensibly trance-like state has always freaked me out a bit. I remember singing in a church choir many years ago, and at the restaurant after the charismatic co-leaders of our otherwise very down to earth group spent a good twenty minutes saying an overlong “grace” for our 80 cent cups of coffee. Creepy.I know that those of us who chose to believe may seem a little too naive and credulous in some regards, and I certainly am willing to own that since I take great comfort and pleasure from maintain some religious faith despite the irrationality of it. But still, I have to caution that believers like the subjects in this study are on a completely different and somewhat spooky plain.I think the researchers seem to take some leaps of faith in their conclusions as they make (hopefully tentative) causal connections between functional imaging and subject religiosity, but that is always the weakness of any behavioural research, even the biological stuff. The SUGGESTED connection is plausible and tantalizing. I will certainly think about it next time I pray or have a spiritual moment, and proceed with caution. I look for in my faith moments of serenity and clarity so I can consider other aspects of my experience with greater openness, not the latter.Thanks for sharing this. I feel I am strong enough to integrate this information into my personal database as I continue the ongoing debate about the pros and cons of maintaining a theistic position. Regrettably, those whose lives revolve around blind obedience and uncritical credulity will just brush this off as the Devil’s work.Continue to adore and admire you. Congratulations on your recent fame and successes. God is definitely smiling on you–kidding!!!!Les from Canada

  8. says

    @Les: I know what you mean by “mindfulness”, it’s a favourite word of mine. But IMHO it doesn’t need to have anything to do with religion, any more than “concentration” or “alertness” is necessarily a theist function. On Jen’s stuff, it is my firm intention, after Gates, Soros and Buffet have died leaving me all their money, to endow an Institute for the Study of Neural Subversion. There are a great number of hacks of the human operating system, and I don’t think it wise that the only people who know about them are the black hats who practice them. An example: it is known that people who have white all around their pupils possess a preternatural charisma and can control or dominate others. Why on earth should that be? What is going on in the brain of the person looking into such eyes and obeying? I have no idea but think it is time scientists attempted to find out. My answer to Jen’s direct question: I’m with Godlessons, it’s neither, it’s about being fed support for what you want to do anyway.

  9. says

    I’m not sure that this study is necessarily something that should have a big deal made about it. All the Christians in the study were Pentecostalists. Pentecostalists place much more emphasis on speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit and the like. They also have one of the highest belief rates in young earth creationism. A lot more work would need to be done before one could even hope to generalize this to a general statement about religion in general.Note also that even if similar results hold true for every religion in general, that won’t be evidence that the religious beliefs are themselves irrational or being protected by a lack of skepticism since this apparent effect occurs only during prayer. (There’s already a large body of evidence for the irrational nature of religious belief that the fact that this isn’t intrinsically further evidence for that thesis isn’t terribly relevant).

  10. Darryl says

    This makes sense, in its way.Let us suppose that Obama, for you, or Harper, for me, is accepted as the more authoritative when speech making. It could be why they can sway people, even with a less logically coherent speech. (no judgment here – they may have had the better speech too)And would explain Hitler. His leadership set up a situation where he became the “healer” of the above study, and the people of Germany, believed in him utterly. Knowing how the mind works gives us the tools to control our reactions, and prevent outside influences from having such great control.The next two questions are: What study can be done to relate this to other aspects (The soldier or politicians of Arclight and Michael (earlier)How do we use this new knowledge to improve our own cognitive and reactive selves?Hmmm.. More to ponder

  11. Greg says

    There’s something I’ve wondered about: Oliver Sacks, in one of his books, describes a patient, blind from early childhood, who regains sight in adulthood after an operation. However, he is unable to interpret what his eyes see since those parts of his brain never developed, and eventually gives up; he basically prefers to cope sightless. So, if one is raised without exposure to rational thought processes, does it it become impossible to learn this later? Of course, everyone gets a substantial amount of basic rational thought – if you put something away in a drawer, it should be there when you open the drawer; if you leave something outside in the rain, it gets wet; but if one is raised in an environment where significant areas of one’s world view are held to be beyond rational thought or discussion, does that make it difficult or impossible to apply rational analysis later in life? Or does it just make it very easy to partition one’s thought, like the Texas oilman who has no trouble being a creationist in church, but then goes to work and deals with geological reality while reading siesmology reports. This is a very interesting result you have brought to our attention.

  12. says

    In weak defense of the Pentecostals of the article, the willing factor isn’t really taken into account. They have no reason to question anything in that enclosed environment. It’s less like sheep in this scenario, and more like comfort and reassurance.It’s like your parents coming hom during a sibling fight. The parent tells you all to stop it, and says that 1 of you is right, the other is wrong. The one who is being told he/she is “right” is the Pentecostal in this scenario. You just got backup, support, and justified. Brain triggered. Let’s see how the brain reacts when you’re the other sibling, the one who was told he/she was wrong. Try prayer that actually has something blasphemous to the Pentecostal belief in it, because basically what I’m reading is that it won’t matter, the Pentecostal will accept the wrong material as fact, and I think we all know this is not true.It’s an interesting article, but the people jumping on it as a solid experiement are being no less manipulated than the Pentecostals were. Your brain read what Jen wrote, a trusted atheistic source, pleased with evidence of justification, you accept it as pure fact. David

  13. mcbender says

    I have to agree with all of the commenters here – there are a lot of reasons to be sceptical that the results of this study are specific to religion, and I’d love to see the study rerun in a way that would be more likely to pinpoint exactly what’s causing the effect we see here (the hypothesis that it’s simply confirmation of what one already believes that’s causing it seems plausible to me).

  14. cnv says

    your headline isn’t exactly correct. the experiment doesn’t show that those parts of the brain were ‘shut-off’, they simply weren’t being used, consciously or unconsciously. the guinea pigs in this experiment were told by an authority figure (the scientist running the experiment) that the others (healer, ordinary christian, etc) were what they said they are. there’s already a wealth of research to support the fact that people, when confronted with authority, eg. scientists, police officers, etc. typically don’t question it, however illogical their claims. that would explain why that part of the brain was not being engaged (shut-off as you put it). they trusted the scientist that some people were healers, so they didn’t question it. the difference between the devout and the non-devout is simply that being a healer means something to the devout, whereas it doesn’t for the non-devout. i’m sure that if instead of ‘healer’ they used ‘doctor’ and instead of ‘prayer’ they used ‘medical advice’, the devout would experience the same ‘deactivation’. ironic that the scientist didn’t run that particular experiment.further reading:

  15. cnv says

    and by ‘the devout would experience the same deactivation’ , i meant non-devout.

  16. says

    Pack mentality was important to our survival for a very long time in our pre-homo sapiens sapiens state, and certainly for a long time in that state as well. Now, I sometimes *enjoy* the sensation of turning off my brain and listening to a good speech from one of the oration masters of the English language, but I turn it back on afterwards when I re-read it and analyze it.

  17. says

    Paul. Clearly the deity of Boobquake is a goddess.Likely one with Mediterranean features, a nice smile, and a science t-shirt.

  18. theartfulnudger says

    Apropos of nothing, _Harper_ is accepted by you as the more authoritative speaker?Very interesting article, though.

  19. says

    This Ties In Nicely!In the documentary “god in the Brain” where they examine schizophrenia as relates to religious ecstasy, there is a telling moment. they were able to induce religious or mystic states in some persons via magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes. as an extra test they invited Noted skeptic, Mr Dawkins to come and try it out. He was very excited at the prospect of feeling what believers feel.unfortunately when they tried it out on him, Nothing Happened. perhaps there is some physiological variant that allows unbelief ? further fMRI studies are clearly indicated!

  20. ctcss says

    I also agree that this is a helpful post. Based on what I am reading about the experiment, it just sounds as though people are giving respectful consideration to the ideas being voiced by a person who seems to have some sort credibility. How is this a big shock?When I read or hear a religious discourse by someone who I know to be a good religious thinker, I want to understand what it is that they are trying to convey. (In other words, if I have reason to believe that they have some good ideas, I would like to try to understand those ideas, even if I may not “get it” initially. ) Same for reading the words of a hymn I have not encountered before. My approach towards something with a known, positive  pedigree is to give it a friendly hearing, not a hostile, skeptical, or cynical one.Contrast that with hearing or reading something from someone with a known negative pedigree. During the Bush years, I approached just about everything Bush or Cheny said or wrote with great skepticism and mistrust.How is any of this a surprise?

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