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Parts of the brain shut down when religious ‘healers’ perform their tricks

WHEN people  fall under the spell of a charismatic figure, areas of the brain responsible for scepticism and vigilance become less active.

That’s the finding of a study which looked at people’s response to prayers spoken by someone purportedly possessing divine healing powers.

Researcher Uffe Schjødt

According to The New Scientist, to identify the brain processes underlying the influence of charismatic individuals, Uffe Schjødt of Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues turned to Pentecostal Christians, who believe that some people have divinely inspired powers of healing, wisdom and prophecy.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers.

Millionaire televangelist and charlatan Oral Roberts receives healing from millionaire televangelist and charlatan Kenneth Copeland and his wife. Shortly after, Roberts snuffed it last year, aged 91

Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023).

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

It’s not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

Hat tip: Dr Robert Stovold

10 Responses to “Parts of the brain shut down when religious ‘healers’ perform their tricks”

  1. barriejohn says:

    I am amazed by this. Only PARTS of the brain close down!

  2. David B says:

    I find this very interesting, because it makes a lot of sense to me regarding my history of spending some years deeply involved in the cult of Transcendental Meditation.

    I got over it, but have learnt not to under-estimate the powers of suggestibility and positive reinforcement, especially when they are reinforcing each other.

    I agree with the guy about doctors, parents and politicians, but at least doctors and parents, and perhaps even some politicians, have ones best interests at heart.

    I’m more concerned about those who promote bogus medical practices, like chiropractors (I’m so happy that I can say that now without fear of repercussions, homeopaths and their ilk, as well as those who push religions, meditation techniques etc.

    Having said that, those who push religion and quack medicine are often, I think, as much victims as villains themselves.

    Many people, for instance, who devote their lives to the priesthood or to a monastic life do not do so for personal financial gain, any more than the teachers of TM, or members of Sea Org do.

    The positive reinforcement given to people like Maharishi, Rick Warren, Ratzinger, Bin Laden et al I suspect has genuinely led them to believe their own publicity.

    Victims and villains, both, all of them, I think.

    It is adopting a sceptical stance, and learning about the quirks in the human brain that can lead to belief in false things that is the key to avoiding such pitfalls.

    Not for the first time, in my internet history, I find myself strongly recommending reading and inwardly digesting http://www.skepdic.com/hiddenpersuaders.html

    But I don’t think that even Bob Carroll understands the power of suggestion combined with positive reinforcement as well as someone who has fallen under their spell, and escaped.

    David B

  3. NeoWolfe says:

    Bjohn,

    As a former fundie, I can tell you that logic, in the fundie mind, is deliberately disabled. The need to escape the fear of death, to believe that our lives represent some greater purpose beyond propagation of the species. But, inside every one of their heads is a voice screaming, “Oh, you can’t be serious!!!!!”

    Anyway, Bjohn, previously, my words were ill chosen, and at best should have been a conversation in my head, and not posted for all to see. As for “banging the same drum”, I have learned a lesson in life. That when you discover something is bullshit, that does not mean the opposit must be true. And while I say, “I don’t know, and if you are all honest, you don’t know either,” you have every right to say that you “DO KNOW!!! All you have to do is bring your evidence to the debate.

    NeoWolfe

  4. godlesssodamite says:

    that is assuming the parts were working in these x-tians in the first place…

  5. Har Davids says:

    Mmmm, maybe they should put some of our more prominent political and religious leaders to the test and see what their brains are up to.

  6. Stuart W says:

    Charlie Brooker on spiritual mediums and their services to the recently bereaved:

    ‘Here’s how to solve the psychic problem: make it a jailable offence for any ‘medium’ to charge their services without a licence. How do they get a licence? Simply by demonstrating their abilities under lab conditions (something that not one of them has ever been able to do). That’d sort ‘em out.’
    – March 2005.

    What a brilliant idea for faith ‘healers’ as well.

  7. AngieRS says:

    That must explain why my eyes glaze over when football come on the telly.

  8. Angela_K says:

    Oh how the fundies and charlatans must hate us scientists for exposing their frauds. Sadly, very few who fall under the fundie spell will accept contrary evidence, so it will be business as usual for the crooks.

    Nice piece of research by Mr Schjødt.

    AngieRS, I agree, it happens to me too!