for The Daily Mail (UK) on Oct. 4, 2008
Virgin Mary: The painting stared at by believers in God as they were subjected to electric shocks
For centuries, religious believers have endured suffering with impressive fortitude.
Now scientists claim to have discovered that faith in God really can relieve pain.
New research at Oxford University has found that the Christian martyrs may well have been able to draw on their religion to reduce the agony of, for example, being burnt at the stake.
In a bizarre experiment, academics at The Oxford Centre For Science Of The Mind ‘tortured’ 12 Roman Catholics and 12 atheists with electric shocks as they studied a painting of the Virgin Mary.
They found that the Catholics seemed to be able to block out much of the pain.
And, using the latest brain-scanning techniques, they also discovered that the Catholics were able to activate part of the brain associated with conditioning the experience of pain.
The findings were welcomed by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, who said: ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.
‘It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions. So it comes as no surprise to me that this experiment has reached such conclusions.’
The experiment is one of a series being conducted by the academics, a group of scientists, philosophers and theologians from different departments at the university.
A sparking device was strapped to the back of the participants’ left hands to deliver an electric shock.
The scientists then asked them to contemplate two paintings, Sassoferrato’s 17th Century Virgin Annunciate (Virgin Mary) and Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th Century Lady With An Ermine.
The researchers hoped that the face of the Virgin Mary would induce a religious state of mind in the believers, while da Vinci’s painting was chosen because it did not look dissimilar and would be calming.
The volunteers were not told the true purpose of the experiment, only that it was designed to judge how people felt pain while contemplating pictures of different things.
They spent half an hour inside an MRI scanner, receiving a series of 20 electric shocks in four separate sessions while looking at either the religious or non-religious picture.
Each time, the volunteer had to rate how much it hurt on a scale of 0 to 100.
The Catholics said that looking at the painting of the Virgin Mary made them feel ‘safe’, ‘taken care of’ and ‘calmed down and peaceful’.
More significantly, they reported feeling 12 per cent less pain after viewing the religious image than after looking at the Leonardo.
The front right-hand side of their brains lit up on the scanner, indicating that the neural mechanisms of pain modulation had been engaged.
There was no such brain activity among the atheists, whose pain and anxiety levels stayed roughly the same throughout the experiment.
Writing in the scientific journal Pain, the researchers concluded that at least some religious believers can moderate their pain by thinking about it more positively.
Psychologist Miguel Farias, one of the team, admitted that a similar effect may be produced by non-believers if a sufficiently powerful image was used.
He said: ‘We would need to find a picture of someone they feel very positive towards, such as a mother or father.’