Field of Science

Praying for pain relief

Prayer seems to work as a form of pain relief - but is this a physiological response, or is it purely psychological? To investigate this, Else-Marie Elmholdt Jegindø and colleagues from the Danish Pain Research Centre in Aarhus, Denmark strapped electrodes to the legs of 20 religious and 20 non-religious volunteers.

By administering a carefully calibrated shock, electrodes like this can deliver a 5-minutes long burst of sharp pain, but without causing any damage.

Participants were asked either to recite a prayer including the line "Dear God, I pray that you will help to relieve the pain and give me good health" or to recite a similar request to a generic nobody ("Mr Hansen"). Some were not given any instructions, and just sat and endured the pain.

As you can see from the graphic, the only group that reported reduced pain was the religious group who recited a prayer. Across all groups, each individual's expectations about how bad the pain would be were a good predictor of how bad the pain felt.

However, for the religious group reciting a prayer (and that group alone), the amount of pain they reported was also influenced by how strong was their desire for pain relief.

So these results show that religious people (and the religious people in this study were highly religious) feel - or at least report - less pain as a result of prayer, but especially if they really want it to happen.

So much for the psychology, what about the physiology? Well, Jegindø and the team also measured a bunch of physiological markers of pain - things like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate etc.

On the whole, they didn't find much. Although the religious people reported less pain while reciting prayers, their bodies reacted pretty much the same.

However, religious people reading prayers did have a lower breathing rate. That's interesting, because a similar effect has been reported for people meditating. It's a tantalising comparison, although Jegindø warns that these data are very preliminary and should not be over-interpreted.

All-in-all, this new study supports previous studies showing that religion can give pain relief through a kind of placebo effect.

But what's new is that the physiological stress seems to be just as high. It's just that the people who pray and who want it to work say that, well, it really does work!
Jegindø EM, Vase L, Skewes JC, Terkelsen AJ, Hansen J, Geertz AW, Roepstorff A, & Jensen TS (2012). Expectations contribute to reduced pain levels during prayer in highly religious participants. Journal of behavioral medicine PMID: 22772583

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Letting God do the punishment for you

There are lots of stereotypes about the attitudes of religious people to punishment.

There is the one that says religious people are mild and meek, and turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge. Then there is the other one that says that religious people are full of fire and brimstone, demanding flogging and hanging for every misdemeanour.

But which stereotype is most accurate?

Kristin Laurin, at the University of Waterloo in Canada, sought to find out by looking at a behaviour known as costly punishment. This is when an individual punishes a wrongdoer, even though there is no overall benefit to the individual themselves. So the individual incurs a cost (the effort and sometimes risk involved in punishment), in order to do the community as a whole a service.

Costly punishment is interesting to behavioural psychologists as it's hard to make sense of it from an evolutionary perspective. Looking at it in a straightforward way: if you don't benefit, then you would be better off not punishing, and letting the wrongdoer go free.

One typical experiment involves three players. Player A gets $20, and is told to share as much or as little as they want with Player B. Player C is the costly punisher. Player C gets $10 and can spend as much of that as they want punishing Player A. For every $1 they spend, Player A loses $3.

So Player C can spend some of their money just for the satisfaction of punishing Player A, if they feel Player A is not being generous enough.

Now, all of this is done anonymously - nobody knows who was Player A, B or C (in fact, through an experimental sleight of hand, everyone who took part actually played the role of Player C!).

What they found was that players who said they were more religious tended to punish more.

However, belief in a powerful god (one that is as least partly in control and has some kind of plan for the universe) had the opposite effect!

In other words, these two different aspects of religion had opposing effects - religious attitudes increased the motivation to punish, while god beliefs decreased it.

They tested this finding pretty rigorously. First, they found that it only worked if you asked about religious attitudes and beliefs before taking the test. That means that these ideas had to be prominent in their minds to have any effect.

And this in turn means that we can be fairly confident that it is religion causing these attitudes, rather than the other way around.

They also did a similar study, but asking about a real-world case - a business executive who stole from the company to feed his gambling habit. How much of their tax money would they want devoted to catching and punishing him? The result was similar.

They also ruled out a couple of other explanations (although only using a small group of 25 students, it has to be admitted). Still, they found that in this group, there was no evidence that people who believe in a powerful god also think that punishment is wrong in principle (in fact, they found the opposite). And they ruled out the possibility that these people don't believe in free will - and so don't see the point in punishment.

Laurin and colleagues conclude that what is happening here is that people who believe in a powerful god are 'outsourcing' punishment to God. After all, why endure the cost of inflicting punishment, if you can be confident that God will do it for you?

Now, this has all sorts of interesting implications. They propose that the invention of moralistic, punishing gods (which, they argue, are a creation of large societies), may have helped these large societies develop. By reducing the costs of punishment, but maintaining co-operation through the threat of divine punishment, society could have become more efficient.

I'm a bit sceptical of that idea. It doesn't square with what I know of classical and medieval Europe - which often had an obsession with punishment that bordered on the pathological.

Another thing: as they found in this study, religion is complex, and the net effect of religion is often unclear. It seems likely that religion can serve to both increase and decrease costly punishment, depending on precisely how it is formulated in any given society. And that means that means that religion is a cultural tool that can be used to amplify different behaviour. but it is not necessarily linked with any particular one.

And one last factor to consider is that it's still not clear whether costly punishment is in fact beneficial to societies or individuals (e.g. Rankin, 2009). Even if it is, it is probably only helpful under certain limited conditions (like when societies are pitched against each other in conflict - dos Santos, 2011).

All of which makes me wonder whether belief in a powerful god is attractive to individuals because it allows you to 'cheat' on your societal obligations - perhaps ones that are honed by evolution to be hard-wired into our psyche.

And if endless rounds of punishment, retribution and cruelty, driven by our base instincts, are, in fact, damaging to society? Well then perhaps the invention of powerful gods did help to give birth to our modern societies - just not in the way that you might at first expect!
Laurin K, Shariff AF, Henrich J, & Kay AC (2012). Outsourcing punishment to God: beliefs in divine control reduce earthly punishment. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 279 (1741), 3272-81 PMID: 22628465

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Why do thoughts of death make people more religious?

Are there atheists in foxholes? It's another fascinating topic that has seen quite a lot of development over recent years. The study that kicked it all off was one by Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen, at the University of British Columbia.

They found that subliminal reminders of death caused their subjects to report being more religious, which suggests that fear of death actually strengthens belief in God. Over the years, many people have used studies like this to suggest that everyone - atheists included - instinctively turn to god when they feel threatened.

But do they? Well, maybe not and the answer to this question is vital in order to understand he mechanism that links thoughts of death to heightened religiosity.

Kenneth Vail and Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri–Columbi, USA) and Abdolhossein Abdollahi (Islamic Azad University in Iran) set out to explore this effect in a series of studies in Christian, Muslim, and atheist and agnostic students.

 They asked half their subjects to write down their thoughts about their own death, and the other half to write about a neutral topic. Then they asked them how religious they were, and also their attitudes to Buddah, Allah, and the Christian god.

You can see the results for Christians and atheists in the graphic (MS means mortality salience - i.e. primed with thoughts of death). Atheists are pretty non-religious and don't really believe in any gods, whether or not you make them think about death.

When you remind Christians of death, however, they do increase their belief. But, and this is the crucial point, they increase their belief in the Christian god, while decreasing their belief in the other gods. Muslims were similar to Christians - except of course that they increased belief in Allah, and decreased belief in the other gods.

Agnostics, however, were different. They had fairly low levels of belief, but this increased after being reminded of death - but it increased for all three gods!

All in all, this is more support for the idea that the reason that some people turn to religion when faced with death is not that fear increases their belief in supernatural beings in general (and life after death and all that goes with it).

Rather, what is probably happening is something called 'worldview defence'. This is a quite well known effect: when people feel threatened they ramp up their support for the culture and values of their own group, and reject foreigners and all their dark ways.

A similar effect was reported by Jonathon Jong earlier this year.

But what explains the increased belief of the agnostics? They may well be an example of how fear of death can increase belief in the supernatural in general - but only in people who are open to the idea of religion yet not committed to any particular one.

Perhaps these agnostics are taking up Pascal's Wager!
Vail KE 3rd, Arndt J, & Abdollahi A (2012). Exploring the Existential Function of Religion and Supernatural Agent Beliefs Among Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and Agnostics. Personality & social psychology bulletin PMID: 22700240

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Does education mean more or less religion? It depends on the country

The relationship between education, intelligence, and religion is endlessly fascinating. Previous studies have shown that nations with higher average IQ tend to be less religious, and this holds for individuals too - in a limited way. The question is, why might this be?

Gerhard Meisenberg, at Ross University Medical School in Dominica, and colleagues have conducted a new analysis of world-wide data using a novel approach.

Using data from the World Values Survey they showed that in all regions of the world except Sub-Saharan Africa, educated people tend to have lower religious beliefs. However, educated people were only less likely to go to religious services in ex-communist nations and in the Middle East, and they are actually more likely to go to religious services in English-speaking countries and in South/South-East Asia (as well as sub-Saharan Africa).

That's pretty much what you would expect from other data. Educated people are less likely to believe, but are more motivated to fit in with social expectations. The effect is quite small, though.

Then Meisenberg moved on to look at IQ. Now, IQ is only available as a crude estimate of average IQ in each nation, and should probably be regarded as a measure of 'cognitive development'. Countries with a better education system, but also with better health and better access to the sort of 'enrichment' activities common in wealthy nations, are going to do better at the abstract problem solving that typifies IQ tests.

When Meisenberg put these average national IQs into a model, he found that they were better able to predict religious belief than either education or GDP - or a variety of other factors, such as the dominant religion and level of corruption.

Digging further, he found that, the negative relationship between education and religious beliefs is strongest in countries with moderately high average IQ (as shown in the graphic).

Meisenberg concludes that, overall, there is a "negligible relationship between intelligence and religiosity in advanced societies".

However, when comparing between countries at different levels of economic development, "religious belief declines sharply with rising education and, especially, intelligence.

What Meisanberg thinks is that, at moderate levels of economic development, there is a 'clash of cultures' between scientific and religious worldviews. Religion in these countries is tha dogmatic, traditional religion that makes empirical claims about how the world works. Intelligent, educated people reject these claims.

In Sweden, the UK, Hong Kong and South Korea, educated people tend to be more religious. Meisenberg thinks that this is because religion in these countries (and other cognitively advanced countries) has evolved. In these countries religion variants have been developed that abandons claims about the real world. Instead religion is "assigned to a realm in which rational analysis is either off limits, or is applied to axioms that are not supported by observation and are, in this sense, irrational".

In other wordS, in the most developed countries, a new form of religion has developed that appeals to educated people.

David Voas, a demographer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, has examined the UK data in detail. He thinks that what has happened is that both the educated and the uneducated have become less religious in recent decades - but the fall off has been faster for the uneducated. The result is that now the educated are more religious  than the uneducated (even though they are less religious than before).

Of course, these two explanations are compatible. Perhaps the reason that the educated have hung on to religion is that they have developed sophisticated, counter-intuitive forms of religion. And the uneducated simply aren't interested in these new-fangled kinds of religion, any more than they are interested in the old sort!
Gerhard Meisenberg, Heiner Rindermann, Hardik Patel, & Michael A. Woodley (2012). Is it smart to believe in God? The relationship of religiosity with education and intelligence Temas em Psicologia, 20 (1), 101-120

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Different parts of the brain linked to religious practice, spirituality, and fundamentalism

One time-honoured way to try to work out the function of different parts of the brain is to study people with brain damage. If damage in a particular area is consistently associated with a particular psychological change, well then there probably is some kind of mechanistic link.

There's been a couple of recent studies that have shed some of this particular light onto our religious drives.

First, some background. In 2008 Brick Johnstone, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, found that patients with damage to their right parietal lobe (the bit on the side of your head above your ear) tend to report being more spiritual than patients with damage in other areas. In a new study, he's looked at another series of 20 patients with traumatic brain injury in different parts of their brain.

In their follow-up study Johnstone and colleagues found that, as before, patients with damage to their right parietal lobe (as measured by their ability to judge the orientation of lines and ability to identify the fingers on their left hand) were more spiritual. In particular, they tended to score higher on measures of forgiveness (so they were less 'self-oriented') as well on measures of spiritual transcendence (tending to agree with statements like "I feel the presence of a higher power").

In contrast, patients with damage to their frontal lobe (measured using a kind of 'connect the letters and numbers' puzzle) tended to be less likely to engage in private religious practices and go to church. There was also some evidence that they tended to be less spiritual.

Johnstone et al suspect that the link between the right parietal lobe and spirituality comes about because damage to this part of the brain makes it harder to locate yourself in 3D space. So there is a tendency to feel that you are somehow merged or blurred in with your environment - hence the sensations of spiritual transcendence.

They don't speculate on the link between better frontal lobe function and religious activities per se (focussing instead on the spirituality link) but I find this result intriguing. The frontal lobe is involved in classic 'figuring stuff out' actions, as well as social functioning. So it seems likely that good frontal lobe function could be important to this aspect of religiosity.

The other new study was by Erik Asp and colleagues at the University of Iowa.

They studied ten patients with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), 10 patients with damage to areas outside the vmPFC, and 16 patients without brain damage but who had experienced life-threatening medical events.

The patients with damage to the vmPFC  also were more likely to have authoritarian and religious fundamentalist beliefs than patients without damage to this area.

According to Asp and colleagues, the prefrontal
cortex "is critical in mediating doubt, and thus damage to the
prefrontal cortex should result in a "doubt deficit'". This could be because such patients struggle to tag new religious notions as false, or because their memorised religious doubts were erased by their injury (or perhaps a combination of the two).

Whatever the explanation, they are careful to point out that this doesn't mean that fundamentalists are brain damaged! Rather, this illustrates the kinds of psychology  that could link to fundamentalist beliefs.

From my perspective, I think it's nice to contrast this result with those of the Johnstone study. Together they nicely demonstrate that not only is there no such thing as a 'god spot' in the brain, but that what we call 'religion' is in fact a mix of different psychological traits - and ones that are not necessarily linked.
Brick Johnstone, Angela Bodling, Dan Cohenb, Shawn E. Christ, & Andrew Wegrzyn (2012). Right Parietal Lobe-Related “Selflessness” as the Neuropsychological Basis of Spiritual Transcendence International Journal for the Psychology of Religion : 10.1080/10508619.2012.657524

Erik Asp, Kanchna Ramchandran, & Daniel Tranel (2012). Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Human Prefrontal Cortex Neuropsychology, 26 (4), 414-421 DOI: 10.1037/a0028526

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Wars increasingly involve religion, but it's not a clash of civilisations

Jonathan Fox, a Political Scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, has reviewed data on conflicts worldwide since 1960, and found not only that there are currently more religious conflicts that there were in the 60s, but that religion now plays a role in over half of all conflicts.

By 'religious conflict' he doesn't mean one that is just about religion - such conflicts are few and far between. Rather, he means one in which religion is a significant factor, meeting at least one of these criteria:

  1. It is between groups who belong to different religions;
  2. It is between groups that belong to different denominations of the same religions (e.g. Protestants vs. Catholics or Sunni Muslims vs. Shi’i Muslims)
  3. The issues in the conflict include (but are by no means limited to) significant religious issues, such as state religion policy or the role of religion in the regime. These issues need not be the most important issue in the conflict but they must be among the central issues in the conflict.

He used a standard and widely-used database of conflicts (the PITF), extracting data on ethnic wars, genocides and politicides and revolutionary wars, and categorised them according to whether they involved a conflict of religious identity conflict (the two groups involved in the conflict belong to different religions or different denominations of the same religion) or a religious war (both sides are the same religion, but religion is an issue in the conflict - usually fundamentalists versus secular states).

Overall, wars of all kinds peaked in the early 1990s and have dropped away since. The same trend is shown by religious wars, although the drop-off has not been so sharp.

The result is that religious wars are making up an increasingly large portion of the total - a trend that can be identified as starting in the late 1970s (think: Iranian Revolution).

These wars increasingly involve Islamic fighters. In recent years, 70% of all conflict and 100% of all religious wars have had an Islamic component.

However, they are not inter-religious wars. Conflicts involving Christians have declined somewhat, and other religions even more.  This conflicts with the 'Clash of Civilisations' idea, in which Samuel Huntingdon proposed that conflicts between the West and Islam would increase following the end of the Cold War.

What Fox thinks is happening is a combination of two factors.

Firstly, he cites David Rapoport’s Wave Theory of terrorist causes. This basically says that terrorist causes rise and fall roughly every 45 years. Each generation, looking for a cause to make its own, rejects the causes of the generation before and seeks out a new cause.

 Islam, then, is simply the current vehicle for revolutionary idealism - following on in the footsteps of anarchism, anti-colonialism, and 'new-left' terrorism. Revolutionaries latch onto Islamism as it offers a stark contrast to the established, secular states.

In this reading, the current wave of Islamic conflict will ebb in turn, probably over the next 10-20 years. Maybe the 'Arab Spring' is the first flickerings of the next wave!
Jonathan Fox (2012). The Religious Wave: Religion and Domestic Conflict from 1960 to 2009 Civil Wars DOI: 10.1080/13698249.2012.679492

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

What sort of religious person believes in meddling spirits?

Human beings are inclined to see spirits and supernatural beings behind random acts of nature. Because spotting people (or animals) who are actively doing things in our environment is critical to survival, we've evolved to be super-sensitive to any evidence of them. It's said that we humans have a Hyperactive Agency Detector (HAD).

Now, for obvious reasons it's frequently assumed that HAD has something to do with why so many people believe in supernatural beings. And yet what's also clear is that we are not all endowed with equally sensitive predispositions to see magical beings at work.

Raluca Petrican, at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, and Christopher Burris at St. Jerome’s University (also in Canada) set out to measure the strength of the HAD in students and other young adults, and to see how it varied with the kind of faith they had.

To test the strength of the HAD, they showed their subject faces gazing either to the left, to the right, or straight ahead. Letters appeared on the same computer screen - either in the location where the face was looking, on the opposite side. They had to press a left or right button according to where the letters appeared.

Normally, if a face is looking at the place where the letter appears, you will tend to press the button more quickly. That's because we pick up on facial cues instinctively.

What Petrican and Burris did was to show some of the faces upside down. Most people don't follow the gaze nearly so strongly in this circumstance. But some people do, and these people were also more likely to attribute human-like emotional states (emotions, intentions, free will) to things like cars and computers.

People who tended to score highly on these measures of HAD also tended to agree with statements like "“Learning to appreciate one’s dark or ‘sinful’ side is essential to spiritual growth”; “For me, being religious means learning to accept life as it is”

These statements are measures of 'immanence', or the tendency to report experiences typified by a sense of connection or oneness between self, God, and/or the physical world.

Individuals who thought of God in more distinct terms - as an agent that acts in the world but is actually distinct from it - had less active agency detection.

All of which suggests that the HAD is indeed linked to religion - but not to religion in general. Rather, people with HAD tend to adopt a particular kind of religion, and that folks without it can be equally religious.
Raluca Petrican, & Christopher T. Burris (2012). Am I the Stone? Overattribution of Agency and Religious Orientation Psychology of Religion and Spirituality DOI: 10.1037/a0027942

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.