Monthly Archives: January 2012

Pray for Me, Doc!

I remember reading over the years about experiments funded by the mysterious Templeton Foundation that studied whether prayer could really heal. They’re odd experiments, in a way, since no scripture I know of claims anyone who prays can heal, much less at a distance, and no religion I know of has ever claimed prayer-healing proves the existence of God.

The New Testament certainly shows Jesus and (in the Book of Acts) his disciples walking around first-century Palestine healing sick people – usually by touching them, not praying for them, — but these signs are used to reveal the divine nature of Jesus and the Twelve, not everybody else. In fact, Simon Magus’ claim to be a healer in Acts is taken as evidence of evil.

So Christian scripture, at least, very much limits the ability to cure the sick to Jesus and his inner circle.

But there’s an understandable modern impulse to test the God hypothesis in a lab setting, and so we have a series of well-publicized prayer-healing experiments, described by Harvard neurohistorian (coolest job title ever) Anne Harrington in her recent article “The Placebo Effect: What’s Interesting for Scholars of Religion?” in Zygon.

In 1988, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital recruited a group of born-again Christians to pray for coronary patients. There was a control group of patients who were ignored. There was no overall prayer benefit detected in terms of mortality; however, the prayed-for group showed statistically significant improvements in 6 of 26 kinds of complications. Evangelicals site this study as a win for God, but the results were underwhelming.

Ten years later, a double-blind study of AIDS patients, also in San Francisco, was more encouraging. One group was prayed for based on a name and picture, while a control was not. Neither were told. In the end, the prayed-for group had slightly better outcomes than the control. God: a weak 2 points.

However, the best study yet, run by Dr. Herbert “Relaxation Response” Benson and published in 2006 in The American Heart, involving 2,000 patients at six sites, had a surprising outcome.

First, patients who were prayed for did not fare any better than those who were not. Second, a group of patients who were prayed for and told actually did worse than a group who’d been prayed for but kept in the dark.

Benson hypothesized that those who were told their doctors were seeking divine intervention for their coronary condition might have been freaked out.

What have we learned today, girls? Once again, God has evaded detection in the lab. And if you are a doctor and decide to assign a prayer group to cure a seriously ill patient — for God’s sake, don’t tell them!

God on the Brain

We were looking at lab experiments demonstrating the healthful benefits of prayer and meditation. Other, less spiritually-minded researchers have approached religious phenomenon as a kind of pathology, much as Freud did.

In the 19th century, a link was noted between some kinds of epilepsy and religious fervor. This link was studied by Norman Geschwind at Boston’s V.A. Hospital in the 1970s, who claimed temporal lobe epilepsy could cause religious obsession.

A decade later, Canadian researcher Michael Persinger built a “God Helmet” that bombarded the temporal lobes of healthy people with an electrical storm and could fake – he claimed – a “spiritual” feeling. Persinger got a lot of attention for his helmet but an attempt in 2005 in Sweden to duplicate his findings failed. Atheist Richard Dawkins put the helmet on and didn’t feel anything but mild nausea.

Another team at the University of California at San Diego claimed to have identified the “God Spot,” a specific region of the frontal cortex that is overstimulated during religious ecstasy.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Richard Strassman gained global attention for his claim that many so-called religious phenomenon were caused by dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogenic compound occurring naturally in trace amounts in the brain.

And Dan Hamer at the National Cancer Institute inspired cover stories in both Time and Newsweek after isolating a specific gene called VMAT2 that he claimed correlated with “spirituality.” It mediated the production of neurotransmitters related to our moods, although only an atheist would think religion always makes people feel good.

Now we had a “God Gene” to go with the “God Spot.”

Then there was backlash as even committed materialists like Persinger and Hamer realized media were overstating the case. In a New Yorker article, Dr. Jerome Groopman concluded: “To believe that science is a way to decipher the divine, that technology can capture ‘God’s photograph,’ is to deify man’s handiwork.”

One methodological problem, of course, is that most religious people aren’t mystics, and it’s a long pilgrim’s progress from a nun in a tube to explaining a global social movement.

Even as the Dalai Lama himself addressed 14,000 neuroscientists at a conference on the topic of the “Neuroscience of Meditation” in 2006, a different Canadian team found not one but six regions activated by prayer, including the caudate nucleus (memory and love) and the insula (sensations), and concluded: “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain.”

And one of the team members even compared such experiments to the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology, which sought to explain behavior using skull shape.

Interestingly, while the researchers may have believed they were explaining God away, some of the nuns involved in the original SPECT scan studies themselves felt the opposite: excited God himself could be seen, at least indirectly.

Who’s right?

This Is Your Brain on God

Happy New Year, Seekers! Welcome to another year of Searching for an Answer to the Ultimate Question.

The Big Banana has proved particularly slippery to locate in a lab, which doesn’t stop people from trying.

So far, lab tests for God have attacked religious phenomena from two flanks – as what William James in his classic Varieties Of Religious Experience called “healthy-minded” and “sick-minded.”

On the former track, studies in the 1960s showed church attendance correlated with better health. That this effect wasn’t due solely to social support was later verified in comparisons of secular vs. religious kibbutzim in Israel.

Also in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard began to study the “relaxation response,” the physiological benefits of mental states such as prayer and meditation. And a generation later, as brain imaging equipment grew smaller and cheaper and the West rediscovered Tibet, meditating brains (including the Dalai Lama’s) were subject to even greater scrutiny. They were found to have higher baseline levels of activity in the left prefrontal lobe, the brain’s center of attention and well-being.

In addition, practiced meditators were calmer, less easily startled because their “amygdalas are less trigger-happy,” in the words of Harvard neurohistorian Anne Harrington.

Starting at the turn of the millennium, researchers shifted from observing states of relaxation to “explaining” religious phenomenon.

In a well-known experiment conducted in 2001 by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, meditators and nuns were strapped into a jet engine-like machine called a SPECT scanner and injected with radioactive dye at peak moments.

The scans also showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. More interestingly, there was decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the region in the top rear of the brain responsible for orienting us in space.

Conclusion: the feelings of “unity” and “oneness” reported by mystics in many religions may be caused by prayer-induced spatial disorientation.

Speculation abounded, with one team of neuroscientists even suggesting that the Christian trinity and the historical evolution of religions mirrored the three parts of the human brain – the brain stem (survival), limbic/hippocampal (emotion), and neocortex. (In the 4th century, Augustine already made a connection between the trinity and a three-part human brain, although he claimed the cause-and-effect flowed the other way: that we mirrored God.)

One of the original SPECT researchers, Andrew Newberg, cautioned in a 2010 interview: “One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that.”

Next Time: Is God just an epileptic brain lesion?!