God in the Lab Review Part 4: Belief and Pain

Images used in study; Secular to the left, Religious to the right

Images used in study; Secular to the left, Religious to the right


The final talk at the God in the Lab event was by Dr. Miguel Farias discussing his research into how religious beliefs can effect individuals state of mind and, in particular, how they influence responses to pain. A Times article amusingly described his research as “People are to be tortured in laboratories at Oxford University in a United States-funded experiment to determine whether belief in God is effective in relieving pain.” Sounds promising, eh?

Dr. Farias’ presentation, and his research in general, present something of a paradox; on the one hand, they involve investigating religious belief from a very novel perspective and present interesting findings. But on the other hand, his findings aren’t that convincing and they are significantly hampered by glaring problems besetting the methodology used in his study.

Before getting to his own study, he first referred to other research which has found that there is a positive correlation betwen religious belief and healthy living, happiness and, in rather extreme cases (such as that of advanced yogis) the ability to withstand pain. Some examples he pointed to were:

  • This study from 2005 carried out amongst college students showing that those who regarded their bodies as sacred tended to be healthier.
  • This study from 2000 showing a positive correlation between reported happiness and religious experiences.
  • An old study by Anand, Chhina and Singh from 1961 showing that yogis were able to withstand pain to a much greater extent than everyday controls. 

Personally, I find the evidence from such studies to be interesting but not exactly incredibly compelling. This is because a lot of it relies on self reporting and I suspect it’s rather obvious to all involved what the researchers are looking into-  portraying their religion as having a positive effect would thus seem to be the natural response. Also, in regards the yogis, that they would be able to withstand pain better than everyday people, seems a no brainer to me. Yogis tend to frequently engage in ascetic practices, so their ability to withstand discomfort and pain is obviously going to be higher than everyday folk. I suspect however that others more familiar with discomfort and pain say like body modification artists would likely give yogis a run for their money.

Anyway, onto the ‘torture research’ itself, Dr. Farias was exploring how religious and non-religious imagery effect reactions to pain amongst religious and non-religious individuals. He described how initially he and his team had wanted to compare religious contemplatives with  non-believers but after some failed attempts at recruiting monks they decided instead to compare a more readily available group of religious people- practicing Catholics- with non-believers.

The actual experimental procedure involved placing subjects in an fMRI scanner, displaying either the image of the ‘Virigin Mary’ (a religious image) or a portrait of a woman in a similar pose drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci (a similar secular image) and then giving the subjectes a series of painful shocks (the images used are displayed  at the top of this article). The fMRI produced images of the activity in the subjects brains during this process and the subjects were also asked to comment on how the images made them feel.

The study examined 12 practicing Catholics who identified themselves as strong believers and 12 non-religious individuals who identified themselves as disbelievers and non-spiritual. So quite a small sample but nevertheless there were clear paterns recovered from the data collected.

When originally shown the two images, rather predictably, the religious group had a positive reaction to the Virgin Mary image and a neutral response to the secular image whereas the non-religious group recorded a more positive response to the secular image and actually a slightly negative reaction to the Virgin Mary image. Both groups also displayed similar levels of ability to withstand pain and discomfort.

However, the interesting result that the study discovered was that the religious groups preference for the religious image actually translated into an increased relief from pain whereas the non-religious group got no such boost from either the religious image or their preferred non-religious image. The religious group also described how upon being shown the image they felt ‘calmed down and peaceful’, ‘taken care of’, ‘…felt compassion and support and so on’. This was further reflected in the fMRI scans which revealed that the religious believers demonstrated ‘high activation of the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex’ when subjected to pain and viewing the religious image which was absent from all of the scans of the non-religious believers.

Dr. Farias and his colleagues concluded that their research demonstrated that religious experiences could alter pain sensitivity and that it could not be ascribed purely to personal prefence for an image since the non-religious group demonstrated no pain relief when shown their preferred image.

However, he also admitted that there were some significant issues with the study and two in particular are worth describing in some detail:

  1. There was only one ex-Catholic tested and this person, though now a non-believer, recorded the same pain relieving effect after viewing the image. I couldn’t gather from the talk whether this individuals results were published in the study as it seemed that the individual involved was a researcher rather than a subject. However, whether it’s in the published study or not, this is a significant result, as it suggests that it is not religious belief that is creating the pain relieving effect. Rather, it would seem to suggest that all that is required is that someone have a familiar and positive mental association with the image shown to them to experience pain relief.
  2. The secular image had no positive mental association with the non-believer group. This is important as it means there was no real control for the effect of just viewing a positive image. Dr. Farias recognised this was a real drawback and also indicated that he had received numerous suggestions for alternative images they could test to explore this effect i.e. showing die hard Marxists pictures of Marx or stressed city workers pictures of a rural scene while they received the shocks.

As a result of the two points above, I think the conclusions that can be drawn from Dr. Farias’ research are limited, at least until a follow up is performed that addresses the issue of whether a non-religious image with a strong positive connotation can produce a similar effect. Unfortunately, speaking to Dr. Farias afterwards I asked him if there was going to be any such follow up and he reported that it was very unlikely as there was no funding remaining. As such, the many suggestions given after the talk for alternative images to be tested seemed like a bit of a waste of time and I actually think Dr. Farias should mention to audiences at future talks that there is no plans to follow up on this study at this time (it would certainly save him a lot of hassle).

Regardless of these problems, Dr. Farias talk was an interesting conclusion to an interesting event and I am very much looking forward to the next Centre for Inquiry event focusing on Science and Religion coming up at the end of April. Anyone in London interested in attending can drop me an e-mail if they wish and I hope the four long-ass reviews haven’t put you off too much!

Oh and here are some links for those interested in how this research was reported:

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