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.