An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief

Wiech, Farias, Kahane, Shackel,
Tiede, & Tracey (2008)
Stories of diminished physical pain or pain tolerance
due to religious belief
Research has shown that high-level cognitive
processes such as placebo-induced analgesia,
emotional detachment, and perceived control over
pain can reduce pain intensity.
Religious individuals → positive framing
fMRI studies and the right ventrolateral prefrontal
cortex (VLPFC)
Research Questions
1. Can religious belief be shown to modulate pain in a
controlled experimental setting?
2. Is such modulation of pain by religious belief mediated
by the right VLPFC?
12 religious (Catholic) and 12 atheist/agnostic healthy individuals
Age 19-34
Questionnaire → All religious participants attended mass at least once/week
and prayed everyday
QUESTION: Should atheists be used in the control group?
2 x 2 factorial design
GROUP (religious vs. non-religious) → between-subject
CONDITION (religious vs. non-religious) → within-subject
“Vergine Annunciate” by Sassoferrato
“Lady with an Ermine” by da Vinci
Visual stimuli:
(1) The religious image had to reliably evoke a religious mind set in
believers and (2) the non-religious picture had to be sufficiently similar
to the religious one in order to minimize the influence of confounding
Image of Jesus may introduce confounding factors
Religious → evoked most powerful religious feelings
Non-religious → rated most similar to religious image
Electrical stimulation to the back of the left hand
fMRI session
Coping and familiarity rating using visual analog
Pain ratings:
Significant effects for CONDITION and GROUP x CONDITION
GROUP was not significant → Religious not less sensitive to pain
Atheist group rated pain same in both conditions
Affectedness ratings:
Significant effects for GROUP and GROUP x CONDITION
Religious sample → more positive ratings for religious image
Atheist sample → more positive ratings for non-religious image
*Both groups indicated differences in preferred image but only religious
group also indicated pain reduction when viewing preferred image
Coping and familiarity ratings:
Both factors and interaction significant for coping
Religious → Virgin Mary more helpful in coping
Atheist → Both pictures equally helpful
Participants rated both pictures as equally familiar.
Neuroimaging data:
No significant differences between groups for pain-related brain activation
Religious group/ religious image → significant activation in right VLPFC and
pons/ventral midbrain
*Support for 2 nd research question
*Religious group/ Religious image
Neuroimaging data:
Activation in right VLPFC not due to preferential liking
→ no activation for atheist group with preferred image
Pons/midbrain activation found in both groups
→ likely due to preferential liking
Pons/midbrain area – most strongly
associated with affectedness (positive)
Right VLPFC – most strongly associated
with pain intensity (negative)
Religious individuals are able to lessen the perceived pain intensity when they are
presented with a religious image.
(1) Distraction effect
(2) Motivational priming
(3) Reappraisal – a process of reinterpreting the meaning of a
stimulus leading to a change in one’s emotional response to it.
→ Supported by data
→ Distraction and motivational priming – preferential liking should
have produced a reduction in pain
Active for religious group/religious condition, leading to a decrease in
perceived pain intensity
Active in previous studies of pain modulation
Pons/ventral midbrain
More strongly related to affectedness → active during preferred condition
Is the pain-reduction effect started by the VLPFC or is the VLPFC
compelled by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex?
QUESTION: Do you think similar pain-reduction effects can occur using
stimuli that are not religious in nature but have similar cultural and
nurturing influences?
Andes Survivors
Catholic → familiar with image of Virgin Mary
Prayed the rosary every night → Hail Mary
Likely helped the survivors cope with the pain
associated with injuries from crash, hunger, and
the cold.

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