An interesting study (available online here) by a group of Danish researchers provides strong evidence that different types of prayer activate different areas of the brain and that some specific types of prayer activate areas of the brain usually associated with social cognition.
This may seem like fairly straightforward conclusions to begin with however the authors of the study point out “in fact most studies of the relation between brain function and religion assume the hypothesis that religious experience is fundamentally a uniform category of human experience” and illustrate this by pointing to examples such as the well publicised work of Dr. Persinger who claims to be able to be able to reproduce religious experiences by stimulating the temporal lobe.
To provide a more nuanced perspective and highlight the variability within the category of ‘prayer’ the authors designed a study to test whether different types of prayer were producing different patterns of neural activity. In order to discover this they took twenty young devout Christians from a Danish Lutheran sect, put them in an fMRI scanner and while they performed different types of prayer they collected images of their brain activity.
In order to make a comparison between different types of prayers they instructed the Lutherans to make two different types of prayers:
1. Reciting ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. This was intended to serve as an example of a “frequently rehearsed and rigidly performed” prayer associated with “a highly formalized institutional mode of religion”.
2. Personal Improvised Praying. In contrast with the pre determined ‘Lord’s Prayer’ this prayer was supposed to be entirely personal and improvised and thus to serve as an example of a “non-institutional” mode of prayer.
The study design also included asking the volunteers to perform two secular control tasks in order to help filter out differences which were more general in nature. The control tasks were:
1. Repeating a well known nursery rhyme. A well rehearsed and memorised mental task.
2. Making wishes to Santa Claus. A creative and improvisational task directed at an imaginary entity.
It is worth noting here that all the volunteers reported that they considered Santa Claus to be a make believe entity and God to be an entirely real being with who they could interact with via prayer. Making Santa Claus a useful control for the religious participants. If the group had also included some strongly non-religious subjects it would have been interesting to see if there was any difference between prayers they addressed to a make believe God or to a make believe Santa-Claus but maybe that’s a topic for another study.
Getting back to this study… the results of the scans revealed a number of things, most strikingly, it revealed that during the personal improvised praying, areas of the brain associated with social cognition and interpersonal interaction were activated. By way of contrast there was no activity associated with social interaction operating during formalised praying and either of the secular tasks. There was also no significant contrasts during the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nursery Rhyme.
All of which lead the authors to suggest personal praying to God is “comparable to negotiating with a human partner in reciprocity games”. More specifically they suggested that since personal praying involved “mentalizing, social reciprocity, autobiographical memory and updating of social narratives” it recruited areas of social cognition “comparable to ‘normal’ interpersonal interaction” which indicates that the participants “think of God as a person rather than as an abstract entity”.
The study was however lacking a rather significant control. In particular, there was no activity wherein the participants imagined asking or making requests of another real person such as a significant other such as a spouse or a close friend. This would have been useful as the Santa control was directed towards what all participants considered a fictitious entity and so it is not a very useful point of comparison for modelling an imagined social interaction. In fairness, the study authors themselves noted that this would have been a useful control to have included and so it may crop up in future studies.
This was an interesting study and it indicates clearly that the type of prayer which religious participants are performing during research could have important implications for the type of brain activity examined. This is an important consideration to bear in mind when reading any popular news report on studies of the effects of prayer on the brain.