Can I get funding to torture students? Or should I continue doing it for free?


Well, this certainly sounds like a fun experiment.

n a bizarre experiment, academics at The Oxford Centre For Science Of The Mind ‘tortured’ 12 Roman Catholics and 12 atheists with electric shocks as they studied a painting of the Virgin Mary.

They found that the Catholics seemed to be able to block out much of the pain.

Except, of course, for a few problems with the experiment. First, an atheist like me would find being afflicted with Catholic iconography would be a compounding of the torture. They did try to control for that by also having subjects contemplate a Renaissance portrait of a woman with no overt religious connection (although, as we know from stories of Catholics around the world, they will call a grease stain blob a portrait of the Virgin Mary, so this seems ineffectual) — it had the same effects, making the Catholics more resistant while leaving the atheists unchanged.

If we’re talking about some kind of placebo effect, though, it is not surprising that atheists would not find a picture floating before their face to be a palliative — they would not expect an image to have any effect, so the placebo effect would not kick in. Big deal.

A more significant flaw, though, is that the results of the experiment are entirely drawn from subjective self-reporting of pain. The Catholics may be saying they feel less pain while feeling the same amount simply because they are accustomed to lying while surrounded by Christian paraphernalia. The less gullible atheists were trying to accurately report their sensations.

Of course some religious leaders see this as an affirmation.

The findings were welcomed by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, who said: ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.

‘It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions. So it comes as no surprise to me that this experiment has reached such conclusions.’

Another interpretation would be that belonging to a faith means you have already been selected for a weakness to being impressed by the superficial and trivial. And sure, beliefs and imagination and thoughts will change the activity of your brain — because that’s all they are, is products of the brain. Bishops probably shouldn’t welcome this conclusion, because it suggests that the mind is a product of material causes, and the absence of supernatural phenomena should put them out of a job.

In case anyone would like to argue that the suggestibility demonstrated in this experiment is an advantage to Catholics, allowing them to better resist pain, I suggest a variation: hang a picture of Satan in front of them and see if it makes them more susceptible to report enhanced sensitivity to pain.

Comments

  1. Whateverman says

    To be fair, I haven’t read the details of this study; I’m only going on the description and quote shown here.

    With that in mind, I have no trouble with equating “verbal assessment of pain” with “ability to withstand pain”. Let’s be honest: if there’s one thing religion does well, it’s to motivate people and give them the strength to withstand adversity.

    I don’t mean to imply this is necessarily a positive thing; a completely delusional person is capable of withstanding much if properly motivated.

  2. says

    The self-reporting really says it all for me, and I wonder if there doesn’t exist some better way to measure pain?

    Also, perhaps they should look for images that similarly reduce the feeling of pain in atheists. I’m not saying that there are any, but an image of something that an atheist can identify with just might do the trick. How about the LHC or a phylogenetic tree of humans and other apes?

  3. Howard Hershey says

    This result had been long anticipated: Someone has already pointed out that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Or, at least, the Catholics. What is so odd about religion numbing the brain?

  4. Jadehawk says

    unless they used Art History buffs for the test with the renaissance portrait (or alternatively, used non-religious practitioners of meditation), this seems oddly skewed… I thought it was already a given that the mind is able to control how much pain it “feels”, depending on how preoccupied the mind is with other things? I can’t imagine the atheists had much on their mind other than “dwell” on their pain, while the Catholics were possibly creating a lot of mental white noise with prayer or whatnot

    and yes, the self-reporting doesn’t help.

  5. says

    Since pain is subjective, it’s hard to get away from that…but the problem is that reporting can be inaccurate. Put a bunch of macho guys together and have them start punching each other in the shoulder, and they’ll all say, “Nah, that didn’t hurt”, even though they’ll have bruises the next day. Context is everything in the reporting of pain, and the Catholics were put in a context different from that of the atheists…which is why this experiment is pretty much useless, as far as I’m concerned.

  6. GregV says

    What’s that movie quote…

    “You keep using that experiment. I don’t think it proves what you think it proves.”

    Something like that.

  7. Zifnab says

    Wait, so you’re saying that if you confront a devotee of the faith with proper iconography, he’ll completely ignore the reality of the world around him and retreat into some sort of mental fantasyland where everything is fine and nothing can affect him?

    This is GOOD NEW FOR CHRISTIANS! Your faith makes you numb to the world. Happy Birthday. Now tell us again how this means Christianity wins.

  8. says

    They spent half an hour inside an MRI scanner, receiving a series of 20 electric shocks in four separate sessions while looking at either the religious or non-religious picture.
    Each time, the volunteer had to rate how much it hurt on a scale of 0 to 100.

    The Catholics said that looking at the painting of the Virgin Mary made them feel ‘safe’, ‘taken care of’ and ‘calmed down and peaceful’.

    A more significant flaw, though, is that the results of the experiment are entirely drawn from subjective self-reporting of pain. The Catholics may be saying they feel less pain

    Not really, they at least think that MRI data back up the self-reporting:

    More significantly, they reported feeling 12 per cent less pain after viewing the religious image than after looking at the Leonardo.
    The front right-hand side of their brains lit up on the scanner, indicating that the neural mechanisms of pain modulation had been engaged.
    There was no such brain activity among the atheists, whose pain and anxiety levels stayed roughly the same throughout the experiment.

    There may be questions about how well MRI-discovered activity really corresponds to pain reduction, but at least they didn’t rely entirely upon self-reports.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  9. natural cynic says

    It’s all about the difference between pleasant distraction and annoying.

    Perhaps the proper experiment would be having wingnuts tested while looking at a picture of Palin and a picture of Obama. Betcha there would be comparable results.

    Many dentists seem to know this. The experience is better with headphones and music you like.

  10. eric says

    Stupid experimental design. Yet another flaw: they should’ve compared a picture of Mary for the xians with a picture of equal (or at least some) symbolic power for the atheists. Maybe a picture of the subjects spouse and kids? It is simply foolish to think a random picture that has no emotional associations for the viewer is going to have the same physiological impact as one with great emotional associations.

  11. says

    Oops, the quotes were messed up in my comment (#14). Should have been:

    A more significant flaw, though, is that the results of the experiment are entirely drawn from subjective self-reporting of pain. The Catholics may be saying they feel less pain

    Not really, they at least think that MRI data back up the self-reporting:

    They spent half an hour inside an MRI scanner, receiving a series of 20 electric shocks in four separate sessions while looking at either the religious or non-religious picture.
    Each time, the volunteer had to rate how much it hurt on a scale of 0 to 100.

    The Catholics said that looking at the painting of the Virgin Mary made them feel ‘safe’, ‘taken care of’ and ‘calmed down and peaceful’.

    More significantly, they reported feeling 12 per cent less pain after viewing the religious image than after looking at the Leonardo. The front right-hand side of their brains lit up on the scanner, indicating that the neural mechanisms of pain modulation had been engaged. There was no such brain activity among the atheists, whose pain and anxiety levels stayed roughly the same throughout the experiment.

    There may be questions about how well MRI-discovered activity really corresponds to pain reduction, but at least they didn’t rely entirely upon self-reports.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  12. Jonathan Cahill says

    I’d bet that any religious (non-Christian) person, viewing iconography of their own religion, of which they’ve been familiar and have found some degree of “inspiration” their entire life, would have performed in a similar manner as the Catholics! A Hindu might not relate to The Holy Trinity of Christianity, but he might certainly relate to his religion’s Trimurti, as would a Buddhist to his Eight Auspicious Symbols and such!

    I would also bet that the atheists in this test study would find similar solace and some degree of mitigation from the pain of the electric shocks if they were given something to view that was “inspirational” to them. You know, something from the REAL WORLD like a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon or such!

  13. B. Evan Carlson says

    The instant characterization of the Christian subjects as mindlessly responding to iconography and atheists intelligently analyzing the situation is not necessarily supported by the data. There’s no symmetry in the experiment to support that. One would need to conduct a third treatment using something akin to an atheistic “icon” or, given the difficulty of finding such a thing, something that the atheistic demographic would view more favorably than the religious group (such as Kobra’s suggestion). Your conclusions, Dr. Myers, are rather hasty.

  14. anne says

    So does this mean that religion works like a kind of pain killer? Like… opium, perhaps? (tries to look innocent)

  15. Corey says

    Their design is flawed, but the abstract in Pain suggests the authors believe religious belief may facilitate the usage of already known pain reduction processes. In other words, it’s nothing special; just another way to reduce pain.

  16. CSBSH says

    “The findings were welcomed by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, who said: ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.”

    I’m not at all impressed by a slightly hightened pain threshold when viewing paintings of religious people. I [i]would[i], however, be impressed if faith made people more tolerant and loving, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  17. JHS says

    One should consider what the outcome might be if this was not an experiment and had some actual bearing on the person’s health and/or life. Pain tells the body that something is wrong, so it could follow that, while the atheist might use his rational mind to try and extricate himself from the pain, the Catholic would leave it up to Jesus or Mary or whoever while their brain sizzled away. Perhaps a bit far fetched (I’m sure plenty of Catholics would flinch), but from the findings, it doesn’t seem like too great a leap to imagine them staring doe-eyed at the icon while their hair caught fire.

  18. Coriolis says

    “They did try to control for that by also having subjects contemplate a Renaissance portrait of a woman with no overt religious connection (although, as we know from stories of Catholics around the world, they will call a grease stain blob a portrait of the Virgin Mary, so this seems ineffectual) — it had the same effects, making the Catholics more resistant while leaving the atheists unchanged.”

    Wait, doesn’t that mean that catholics just don’t feel as much pain as atheists when looking at *any* pictures?

    Then how does this have anything to do with the “power” of religious symbols, which is what I guess the catholics want to prove?

  19. noncarborundum says

    They did try to control for that by also having subjects contemplate a Renaissance portrait of a woman with no overt religious connection . . . — it had the same effects, making the Catholics more resistant while leaving the atheists unchanged.

    I don’t get that from the linked story at all. It says “[Catholics] reported feeling 12 per cent less pain after viewing the religious image than after looking at the Leonardo.” The article says nothing about (a) Catholic brain activity while viewing the Leonardo or (b) how Catholic reactions to the Leonardo (either in brain activity or in subjective reports) compared to atheist reactions to the same image.

  20. Zifnab says

    “– It is simply foolish to think a random picture that has no emotional associations for the viewer is going to have the same physiological impact as one with great emotional associations. –”

    I think that was the point. The atheists were the “control” in the experiment. They had no overt bias while the Catholics had a clear overt bias.

    The question was whether simple visual stimulus could block pain. The answer – apparently – was yes. Now we get to experiment to determine the cause of this phenomenon. Imagine if you could create a simple light display that relaxes the brain to the point of painlessness? You wouldn’t need expensive and dangerous anesthetics to do otherwise painful operations. You could minimize the quality-of-life damage to cancer patients or other terminally ill individuals.

    There is a great deal of value in this kind of research. Let the fundies embrace this as some sort of vindication of their faith. Ten years from now, when they’re all getting root canals while hooked up to the “Pleasant Picture Pain Protector 9000”, we’ll know who the vindicated ones are.

  21. Sastra says

    “The findings were welcomed by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, who said: ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.”

    When dealing with atheism vs. theism, I’ve noticed a common tendency among both the apologists and the media to shift the subject of the debate from God’s existence to whether or not being religious “is good for you.” Being an atheist is apparently going to be turned into a bad idea because if you don’t believe in God then you miss all the positive, character-building benefits of faith.

    So instead of hinging on a factual claim for God’s existence, religion is trying to promote itself as the BEST kind of personal therapy. Shop around for what’s right for you: Buddhists are excellent at managing stress, but Catholics have techniques as well. Thinking of yourself as being in God’s control can be very relaxing. The Hare Krishnas will help you lose weight. Mormons have wonderful support networks.

    Shop around, and find the religion that’s best for you!

    Frankly, every time they come out with a study showing that religious belief is “good for people’s emotional health” I secretly feel they’re building up their case for belief by putting another nail in the case against the existence of God.

  22. says

    One should probably wonder if religion doesn’t have an ability to somewhat reduce mental pain as well.

    Of course the problem with praising pain reduction is that pain is not a malady, it is an important sensation. Reducing mental pain might do as Nietzsche charged religion, prolonging the illness. Treat the pain, leave the sickness, and the sick will keep coming back.

    If one really has no way of addressing the cause of the pain, it might be just as well to use religion as a palliative. I think of people in prisons and concentration camps, for whom any opiate might be for the best.

    For those who can deal with the causes of pain, religion is likely to simply keep the pain going, albeit at a lower level.

    It is not obvious that pain reduction is a “good in itself” at all. Religion may be therapeutic in some cases of distress and pain, but likely it dulls the senses in too many cases.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  23. c-serpent says

    Imagine if the Catholics had consumed their magic wafers before the experiment, they would’ve been impervious to the pain!

  24. cactusren says

    Great. Yet another way to torture grad students. I hope they got a bonus on their stipends for doing this…

  25. Anthony says

    I think this study should also use more disturbing religious imagery and repeat the test. Would there be an opposite effect if the subjects had to look at pictures of Hell? Would the atheist’s pain levels remain the same while religious people would feel more?

  26. Jams says

    I don’t know, the results of this experiment are pretty much what I’d expect them to be. Context isn’t just an issue with reporting, but also when a potential pain causing incident happens. The context influences how we interpret the sensation at the moment of stimulus.

    Take any random bottom (in the S&M sense): they can find getting caned in one context really pleasurable (with costumes and bad acting and such), but catastrophically painful in another (me dragging them out of their car and beating them with a stick). Even if the actual damage done is exactly the same. Of course, there’s a contingent who would probably like me dragging them out of their car and beating them with a stick, but that’s beside the point.

    It’s also been noted by dentists that people aren’t so sensitive to pain if they’re listening to music that they like.

  27. says

    I would be interested to see a test done where they not only use the picture of Satan as PZ suggests but add another layer. Have half on each side double-blindly hooked up to electrodes that don’t fire in the first place. I think that might really get a feel for the placebo effect and how self deceived they are. I would predict that for both paintings the atheists would report the same amount of pain for the electrodes that fire and would report no pain from the electrodes that didn’t fire. For the Catholics, since this study showed evidence for a conscious perception switch I propose that some would report feeling pain from the electrodes that didn’t fire but would either report it as blocked with the Mary painting or enhanced with the Satan painting.

    Just a thought.

  28. Anthony says

    Re #34:
    >It’s also been noted by dentists that people aren’t so sensitive to pain if they’re listening to music that they like.

    Sure, but do they still like the music afterwards?

  29. tsg says

    Your conclusions, Dr. Myers, are rather hasty.

    They aren’t conclusions. They are possible explanations of the phenomena observed that the protocol didn’t account for.

  30. says

    >It’s also been noted by dentists that people aren’t so sensitive to pain if they’re listening to music that they like.

    Sure, but do they still like the music afterwards?

    The fish in dentists’ offices effect?

    Possibly it’s just an urban legend, but it’s claimed that many people came to dislike fish in aquaria precisely because so many dentists put aquaria into their waiting rooms in order to calm their patients. The dentists calmed their patients, but made them dislike seeing fish swimming in an aquarium.

    Those who sold fish and fish supplies didn’t like it.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  31. Eric the half-bee says

    I don’t understand why everyone is so eager for the claimed result to be invalid. It doesn’t support or require any supernatural explanation. Suppose we all granted that a religious state of mind diminished one’s sensation of pain. Would that in any way support the existence of gods, angels, etc.? Of course not. So why draw the line in the sand there, or anywhere?

    Let’s take it a step further. Suppose they proved that Catholic (and ONLY Catholic) religious extasy actually helped people cope with stress. Suppose further that it made them smarter, sexier, healthier, and reduced fine lines and age-spots. What of it?

    You’re falling into the same trap Pascal fell into. The question of whether religious belief is strategically advantageous has absolutely no bearing on whether those beliefs are true.

    Let science sort out whether religious belief is advantageous or not, without worrying about whether it casts doubt on our doubt. It doesn’t, and can’t.

  32. RM says

    FFS, what a mountain out of a molehill. This has bugger-all to do with religion, except for the well accepted fact that religion makes people feel good. (It’s whether it should or not where the disagreements arise.)

    “Go to your happy place” has been a recognized pain-management strategy for decades (c.f. Lamaze). It only makes sense that Christians “go to their happy place” when confronted with an image that they associate with warmth, love and peace. (Insert “deluded”, “have been brainwashed to”, “wrongly” and “for completely baseless reasons”, as you personal militancy requires.)

    From the article’s last two paragraphs:

    “Psychologist Miguel Farias … admitted that a similar effect may be produced by non-believers [by using] ‘a picture of someone they feel very positive towards, such as a mother or father.'”

  33. B. Evan Carlson says

    Your conclusions, Dr. Myers, are rather hasty.

    They aren’t conclusions. They are possible explanations of the phenomena observed that the protocol didn’t account for.

    True. I should be more accurate in my wording. However, it is quite clear that Dr. Myers’ suggested alternatives all further praise the atheist and mock the religious, an attitude that is not clearly supported by the experiment.

  34. says

    I say this only half in jest: shouldn’t we be calling this “enhanced experimentation techniques”? If for no other reason to remind people of how nauseating the Bush administration’s doublespeak is.

  35. Jadehawk says

    Eric in #40, it’s not so much that we’re eager to see it fail, it’s that it looks severely flawed, so it gets criticized for that. On the other hand, christians who use this kind of stuff to say “religion is good” also get criticized.

    there’s just generally not positive to say about this experiment. other than the pleasure in torturing innocent(?) students.

  36. says

    I work with AC every day, and occasionally I get hit. I often shout out the names of religious figures, as in God Damn SHIT!!! or Jesus CHRIST!!!

    More often than not I keep it rational and appeal to the greatest force in evolutionary biology: FUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!

    BTW, after you’ve been hit with 277v or 240v wild leg triple phase, a little 120v ain’t shit.

    After awhile getting 120v volts shocks just make you giggle. Good thing I wasn’t in the experiment, they would have been totally skewed.

  37. tsg says

    However, it is quite clear that Dr. Myers’ suggested alternatives all further praise the atheist and mock the religious, an attitude that is not clearly supported by the experiment.

    He’s not relying on the results of the experiment to support them.

  38. BMcP says

    I am not sure of what practical benefit one could derive from the experiment personally. Make sure there is no religious iconic imagery around when you torture someone with electricity? Make sure Catholic electricians have a pendant of the Virgin Mary so they can better resist the pain if they accidentally receive an electrical discharge? Seriously, I want to know.

  39. Ugly says

    The painting is not of the Virgin Mary. It is of an artist’s model, posing for hours at a time, hence the lifeless expression.

  40. Newfie says

    ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.

    ‘It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions.

    No shit, Sherlock.
    Believing in untestable and unprovable superstition, and creating ideas in your mind to justify those beliefs does alter the person you are. It suppresses critical and rational thought to the point where fact and reason hold no sway. Duh!

  41. quantum cephalopod says

    scooter:

    I work with AC every day, and occasionally I get hit. I often shout out the names of religious figures, as in God Damn SHIT!!! or Jesus CHRIST!!!

    Careful, if a christian hears you yelling that crap prior to one of those shocks killing you, we’ll have yet another deathbed conversion story on our hands.

    More often than not I keep it rational and appeal to the greatest force in evolutionary biology: FUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!

    Out of respect to the majority of biological organisms on this planet, I humbly suggest you change that to, DIVIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIDE!!!

  42. davem says

    This all confirms what I always thought – that religion is for masochists.

    Maybe PZ can get a grant to do similar – and then just torture the Catholics. Wouldn’t learn anything, but might be satisfying.. :0)

  43. Scooty Puff, Jr. says

    PZ, don’t you have grad students? If so, you already get funding to torture students.

  44. frog says

    What’s the surprise? Prayer does work — to shift you into a fantasy land. It’s just another form of meditation — if you trained the atheists to zone out muttering some random syllables, they too would enter lala-land.

    Religion is a way to disconnect from reality; some of us choose not to.

  45. Will says

    “If we’re talking about some kind of placebo effect. . . .”

    You assume atheists are more immune to the placebo effect than catholics? I think that is an odd assumption to make. Even though they believe weird superstitious things, that doesn’t make them necessarily less aware of something as well known as the placebo effect.

    “The Catholics may be saying they feel less pain while feeling the same amount simply because they are accustomed to lying while surrounded by Christian paraphernalia.”

    I hope this is sarcasm. How would seeing a picture of the “Virgin” Mary make someone want to lie about their subjective experience of pain? I really don’t see how lying can be brought in as a valid criticism unless it is brought against the atheists as well.

    Secondly, they did look at brain activity and found that “Catholics were able to activate part of the brain associated with conditioning the experience of pain” (from the source article P.Z. gave). If Catholics were able to condition themselves to the pain better then of course they would report lower pain levels. So self-report it was not (or at least in combination with).

    Also, the painting from the renn. without religious significance was DiVinci’s Lady With An Ermine. If you go look the picture up it is easy to see that it could be mistaken for a virginal woman holding a lamb (not a ferret). I don’t know how long they showed the picture to the participants, but I could imagine it being misread as the above if it was only a short time.

    Finally, the subjective report of pain was only 12% less for the catholics. With 12 participants in either condition I wonder if this is statistically significant.

    All that said, the n is small and I haven’t read the original study so I am sure there are still valid criticisms to be made. I just think, if this is sarcastic, you took it a little far. Why must atheists be equal or better to the religious opiate? There is also a cost to our health to be paid for non-conformity to the status quo of religiosity.

  46. Will says

    Also, we see a similar effect with startle responses in people who are looking at highly arousing unpleasant vs. highly arousing pleasant pictures. When you play a loud noise to them with an unpleasant picture their startle response is much greater than with pleasant pictures. Startle is measured by the startle blink response (Corrugator and Orbicularis)- like when you get a puff of air in your eye. Bruce Cuthbert’s lab at the UMN-TC is studying this right now.

  47. Silverwhistle says

    First, an atheist like me would find being afflicted with Catholic iconography would be a compounding of the torture.

    As an atheist æsthete with same-sex emotional inclinations, for me it would depend on whether the artist’s model posing as the Virgin was sufficiently gorgeous… Religious paintings can appeal for thoroughly irreligious reasons! ;-D

  48. Silverwhistle says

    Will #54:
    Also, the painting from the renn. without religious significance was DiVinci’s Lady With An Ermine. If you go look the picture up it is easy to see that it could be mistaken for a virginal woman holding a lamb (not a ferret).

    Yes, it definitely is a ferret, not an ermine (i.e. a stoat in winter coat). I’ve never understood the misidentification – it’s far too big to be a stoat, and is clearly a pet.

  49. RamblinDude says

    Most Christians I know have been trained their whole lives to associate suffering, and the overcoming of suffering, with images of Jesus and whatnot. So the results perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising; though, many questions remain.

    On the converse side, however, motivated by the right buzzwords, a lot of religious people are more capable of being led docilely into painful circumstances and enduring things that no rational person would stand for.

    Possibly it’s just an urban legend, but it’s claimed that many people came to dislike fish in aquaria precisely because so many dentists put aquaria into their waiting rooms in order to calm their patients. The dentists calmed their patients, but made them dislike seeing fish swimming in an aquarium.

    Those who sold fish and fish supplies didn’t like it.

    I love this. Whether true or not, life is so multi-faceted.

  50. scooter says

    Will @ 58: Also, the painting from the renn. without religious significance was DiVinci’s Lady With An Ermine. If you go look the picture up it is easy to see that it could be mistaken for a virginal woman holding a lamb (not a ferret).

    Ermine a Mustelidae, also known as the Short Tailed WEASEL!!
    Nothing like an armload of twitching weasel to calm you down during electroshock.

  51. MrMarkAZ says

    If that’s truly the case — that devout religious faith can overcome pain and discomfort — how then do they explain their ridiculous level of outrage over Cracker-gate?

  52. mas528 says

    They base their numbers entirely on self-reporting.

    More significantly, they reported feeling 12 per cent less pain after viewing the religious image than after looking at the Leonardo.

    The FMRI reported greater blood flow, which corroborates activity, but not how much.

    And may I add, rated on a scale of 1-100? Do they have that level of discernment of their own pain? I have trouble with a 1 to 10 scale.

    This one is a 50, but this pain is a 49? Now that one is a 51? Please. Leave me alone.

    The very last lines of the article are,

    Psychologist Miguel Farias, one of the team, admitted that a similar effect may be produced by non-believers if a sufficiently powerful image was used.
    He said: ‘We would need to find a picture of someone they feel very positive towards, such as a mother or father.’

    Evidently the entire team is ignorant of this research from 2002 which I would like to call attention to: reduced pain perception whilst attention is distracted away from noxious stimuli.

  53. CrypticLife says

    BMcP@48
    “Make sure there is no religious iconic imagery around when you torture someone with electricity? ”

    From what I understand of torture, that’s a pretty sage warning, as there’s fairly likely to be religious iconic imagery incidentally about.

    More seriously, the reported experience of pain is modified by all sorts of subjective states. This isn’t a surprising result at all, and I don’t know if I’d quite call it “placebo”. For example, timing labor pains makes them more bearable for the woman giving birth — she has an idea of how long they’ll last and when they’ll come, and the progression shows her how close her baby is to being born — we don’t call any of that effect “placebo”.

  54. Luger Otter Robinson says

    My dentist (natural cynic comment #15) has a video screen on the ceiling above the torture, sorry treatment, chair and he shows nature DVDs, like the Blue Planet, without sound, and the experience of having a root canal treatment almost becomes pleasant.

  55. CrypticLife says

    Luger @#65

    my dentist gave valium and laughing gas — almost pleasant, nothing — having a root canal was awesome!

  56. says

    Seems to me that it would work for anything you consider meaningful. As an atheist, a picture of the Virgin Mary is essentially meaningless to me. However, let me listen to some Opeth or other music of my choice and I’ll bet I would block out most of the pain as well.

    The problem here is that atheists have no single item that is universally meaningful to all of us. We’re individuals who happen to agree on one thing. There is no other unifying principle.

  57. says

    Did they control for INT, WIS, or CON?

    Or at least gullibility?

    Staring at a picture probably wouldn’t do much for me unless it was a particularly interesting picture. Now, watching a good science program, or a video of PZ abusing a cracker, that might work.

  58. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oxford, huh? Betcha that evil and strident atheist lurking behind the dreaming spires set this up…

  59. Ken says

    What cracks me up is thinking of all the people getting shocked on a voluntary basis. The atheists were the smart ones. They called it quits early and let the believers prove themselves idiots, albeit tough idiots. I think we should run this experiment on the various factions of Christianity. For example, who can take more pain, Southern Baptists or Yankee Catholics? What about Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists?

  60. John C. Randolph says

    What was that psych experiment in the 1960s where the subjects believed they were torturing people under the authority of the researcher? Can someone jog my memory?

    -jcr

  61. John C. Randolph says

    Kel,

    Yep, that’s the one.

    The thing I always found disturbing about it is that none of the subjects AFAIK ever challenged the authority of the person giving the orders. I would have hoped that at least one person would have kicked his ass.

    -jcr

  62. John C. Randolph says

    What cracks me up is thinking of all the people getting shocked on a voluntary basis.

    I’m curious about how they got the volunteers. If anyone asked me to participate in an experiment that involved being shocked, I’d tell him to get bent. It might be interesting to take a survey of how many people will submit to asinine requests if they’re made by someone in a lab coat or a clerical collar.

    -jcr

  63. Laura says

    I love that religious groups value science when it supports their claims, yet deny its inherent value when it opposes them.

  64. Amber Culbertson-Faegre says

    How funny…

    I stopped to check this blog while procrastinating the writing of a synopsis of several articles on the placebo effect. =P

  65. shonny says

    The findings were welcomed by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, who said: ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.

    Of course the practice of faith does alter the person you are, just like lobotomy does. The difference? Nothing much!
    Millions of evangelicals are living proofs.

  66. shonny says

    Posted by: CrypticLife | October 22, 2008 7:37 PM
    Luger @#65
    my dentist gave valium and laughing gas — almost pleasant, nothing — having a root canal was awesome!

    So the dentist didn’t charge you for the root canal?
    Here in Australia the pain is not from the procedure, but from the dentist’s bill.

  67. bastion says

    At #28 Zifnab wrote:
    The question was whether simple visual stimulus could block pain. The answer – apparently – was yes. Now we get to experiment to determine the cause of this phenomenon.

    No further experimentation or study is needed. We already know “the cause”: It’s a miracle! Another Mary miracle.

  68. scooter says

    John C. Randolph @ 74
    The thing I always found disturbing about it is that none of the subjects AFAIK ever challenged the authority of the person giving the orders.

    That’s not quite accurate. Milgram ran quite a few variations on that experiment but I don’t believe he ever reached 100% compliance in any of them.

    But anything over 50% is certainly disturbing and that was common.

    In one configuration, the confederate (actor pretending to receive shocks), would express concern over a heart condition, then yell and scream awhile as the successive shocks went up in voltage, then stop responding after about 120v, and yet a surprising number of subjects still delivered the full course of shocks, which went outrageously high, 480v or something. Fake voltage, of course.

    But there were plenty of subjects who opted out early, especially where the subject was visible, as opposed to only audible, and they all grew up to be godless fucking liberals, most likely.

    The premise of the experiment, which was a sociological study, was to reproduce an authoritarian atmosphere, and see if Americans would torture under those circumstances, or if it was peculiar to German military age people who participated in WWII atrocities, especially Concentration Camp behavior.

    OOOOOPS, another American freedom-loving compassion bites the dust.

    I’ll betcha that spunky Maverick, Sarah Palin would have aced those tests.

    “Heh, Mr, this one ain’t screamin no more, ya know? Ya got any more?”

    “Can ya hook up a Moose ta this thing? We’ll shove carrots and potatos up his ass, and just cook him up with this shocker doohickey thing, doncha know. Where I can get one a these things in time fer Christmas?”

    “They’d love ta have one a these things up thar in Wasilla, we could use it for all sorts a stuff.”

  69. Radwaste says

    Really. This should be no surprise. Images of “Mary” have been desensitizing people from being buggered by priests for a coupla thousand years.

    And you guys making the leap from this to politics today have an obsessive disorder.

  70. Sili says

    I get funding to torture students. I continue doing it.

    Infamous evilutionist Paul Zachary Migøhs

  71. Nathanael Nerode says

    You know, I *really* like the picture-of-Satan study idea. I think a Bosch painting would be a good choice.

    That would give a lot more information. I feel sorry for the atheist control group though.

  72. Bob Evans says

    PZ wrote: ” First, an atheist like me would find being afflicted with Catholic iconography would be a compounding of the torture. ”

    Mary has fascinated people from almost every culture in the world regardless of their religion, or lack thereof. No other woman in history has inspired more artistic renderings than has she. Little wonder that her image has affected brain and emotional pattern in people who have a degree of knowledge about her, irrespective of their religion or philosophy, and regardless of whether or not they reflected on ‘ miracles ‘ and such.

    Rather than being a bone of contention among the masses, she has been a connecting thread of monumental proportions between Christian and Jewish scripture, Christians and Muslims, women and men and rich and poor.

    The phenomenon of Mary goes well beyond mere iconography.