Brain researchers have begun to explore what might be called faith-based analgesia.
Stimulating a religious state of mind in devout Catholics triggers brain processes associated with substantial relief from physical pain, report neuroscientist Katja Wiech of the University of Oxford, England, and her colleagues in an upcoming issue of Pain.
"Our data suggest that religious belief alters the brain in a way that changes how a person responds to pain," says Oxford neuroscientist and study coauthor Irene Tracey.
Practicing Catholics perceived electrical pulses delivered to one hand while viewing an image of the Virgin Mary as less painful than pulses delivered while looking at a non-religious picture. Functional MRI showed a change in these volunteers' brain activity only while viewing the religious icon.
In contrast, professed atheists and agnostics derived no pain relief from viewing the same religious image while getting uncomfortably zapped on the hand.
"What's exciting is that this new study shows a neural mechanism by which religious belief affects pain perception," remarks psychiatrist Harold Koenig, codirector of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Wiech and her coworkers studied 12 professed Catholics and 12 professed atheists or agnostics, ranging in age from 19 to 34 years.
Religious volunteers attended Mass at least weekly, prayed everyday and regularly performed other religious activities, such as going to confession.
During testing, each participant lay in a functional MRI, a brain-imaging machine that measures the rise and fall in blood flow throughout the brain. Blood-flow changes in particular areas reflect increases and decreases in neural activity.
In alternating trials, volunteers first spent 30 seconds observing an image either of a painting of the Virgin Mary or Lady with an Ermine, a painting of a similar-looking woman by Leonardo da Vinci.
Images remained visible on a computer screen as participants then received 20 brief electrical pulses delivered to the back of the left hand. Pre-testing on each person had determined the pulse intensity needed to produce moderate pain.
Catholics reported feeling peaceful and secure, as well as thinking about compassion and other religious concepts, while viewing the Virgin Mary. They rated that image as especially helpful in coping with pain. Non-religious participants reported no advantage from either image in dealing with pain.
Pain relief for Catholics viewing the Virgin Mary was accompanied by vigorous activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Other researchers have linked this brain area to pain relief associated with emotional detachment and perceived control over pain. This brain response was not observed in the non-religious volunteers.
Any religious or non-religious belief system can provoke pain relief, Tracey proposes. Different religions may foster more or less pain in response to images of religious suffering, but peaceful images of worship probably evoke pain relief across religions, she says. A serene belief-related image causes a religious person to reinterpret the meaning of immediate pain, leading to a brain state that ratchets down pain intensity, Tracey posits.
Religious belief represents one of many ways to reappraise the meaning of pain, says psychologist Tor Wager of Columbia University. Emerging evidence suggests that successful placebo treatments activate the same brain region linked by Wiech's team to pain relief in religious volunteers, he notes. "Anyone can create new, positive meanings for aversive events, but they have to find thoughts or interpretations that they truly believe in," Wager holds.
Further work needs to determine whether religious volunteers derive brain-mediated pain relief because religious images simply engage or distract their attention or because the images spark religious thoughts and feelings, comments neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Car enthusiasts shown car pictures would report less pain under the first explanation, but not under the second," Lieberman says.