The Neuroscience of Prayer: It’s a Brain Puzzle

From The European:

Beten_d_rerIn a recent study our team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how the brain responded to praying in Christian believers. Surprisingly, considering God’s postulated invisibility, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, we found that conversing with God was not associated with regions that process abstract concepts. Rather, we found a marked pattern of activity in four regions that typically activate when humans relate to other humans. Neurologically, this finding suggests that strong believers process God as a concrete person – in spite of the theologically complex and highly abstract nature of the Christian God. Interestingly, we did not find this pattern in believers who did not use praying regularly. Perhaps the religious brain can learn to treat gods as real persons through regular practice and strong beliefs.

Importantly and somewhat contrary to the widespread assumption that communicating with God constitutes a unique experience reserved for believers, our findings suggest that praying to God is comparable to ‘normal’ interpersonal interaction, at least in terms of brain function. Praying, it seems, is subserved by the basic processing of our biologically evolved dispositions like other complex cultural phenomena, in this case the evolved human capacity for social cognition. One might ask if these findings, then, are evidence that God is just an illusion, an imagined friend that always listens in times of distress? Or may they in fact be proof that God affects us even at the level of brain function? Atheists and believers alike take considerable interest in this kind of research. Fortunately, as a scientist my interest lies solely in the physical world and speculations about the spiritual dimension lie well beyond scientific scrutiny.

More here.