Prayer in the Brain
Uffe Schjodt and colleagues from the University of Aarhus, Denmark, have used MRI scans to look at the areas of the brain activated by prayer (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn050).
The first task undertaken by 20 devout Christian volunteers was the recital of the Lord's Prayer, then a nursery rhyme. Identical brain areas typically associated with repetition were activated in both instances.
In a second task the volunteers were asked to improvise personal prayers and then compose a list for Santa Claus. As it turns out the improvised players activated areas of the brain triggered when people communicate with each other - specifically areas thought to process desire and consideration of how another individual may react. The prefrontal cortex, key to the theory of mind, was also activated during the personal prayers as well as an area thought to help access memories of previous encounters. The prefrontal cortex was inactive during the requests to Santa Claus.
In my limited view of psychology I don't think it's astounding research. I'm not surprised that devout Christians genuinely believe that they're talking to someone real when they make a personal prayer to god. I just thought it was interesting to see it being mapped in the brain.
Of more interest to me was the activity with the Lord's Prayer - the hallmark of my Catholicism growing up - showing that it really is just a rote activity, no different to the brain than remembering a series of words and with no genuine connection to another perceived being.
Again, I have a copy of the article if anyone's interested.
Forget Jesus, the stars died so that you could be here
- Lawrence Krauss