Research Suggests the Brain Benefits Socially and Cognitively from Prayer December 30, 2013

Research Suggests the Brain Benefits Socially and Cognitively from Prayer

Hey this is fun.

According to new research, the act of prayer can strengthen one’s will and refuel an exhausted brain. This comes to us from a post at Scientific American by Piercarlo Valdesolo, where we learn that Prof. Malt Friese and Michaela Wanke put participants through some emotionally and cognitively draining tasks — suppressing emotion and laughter while watching a funny video followed by identifying the colors of words that spell different colors as they flash by rapidly. Then the participants were told to pray for 5 minutes, and what happened?

Participants who were asked to pray about a topic of their choosing for five minutes showed significantly better performance on the [color identifying task] after emotion suppression, compared to participants who were simply asked to think about a topic of their choosing. And this effect held regardless of whether participants identified as religious (70 percent) or not.

Certainly it’s more difficult to perform intellectual tasks following an emotional drain, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that folks would perform better on the intellectual exercise after a short period of mindfulness or meditation. The study happens to label the activity as “prayer,” but it sounds to me that they just got 5 minutes to relax and reset their brains in a concentrated and intentional manner, as opposed to the less formal “think about something else for 5 minutes” control group.

But the conclusions drawn point to something else:

The authors tested several possible explanations, but found statistical support for only one: people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation. Past research has found that even brief social interactions with others can promote cognitive functioning, and the same seems to hold true for brief social interactions with deities.

So the researchers say their data points to the positive effects of prayer being social rather than meditative. (And I have to surmise that the “temptation” resisted is to blow off the color-identification task, but it’s frankly not clear to me from the piece.) If you think you’re talking to a supernatural being — or even just act like you are for the nonreligious folks in the study — you’re getting a social benefit as far as your brain is concerned, which supposedly refuels your cognitive gas tank. Your imaginary friend God can play the role of IRL friend!

Now, as an extreme introvert, I have to imagine I’d be one of the outliers in a study like this. My fake prayer would probably be something like, “Please stop watching me take this test, you’re making me self-conscious.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Prayer refuels an exhausted brain? Exhausted from what? the effort of not thinking?

  • Len

    So prayer helps people to suppress their emotions. It means they feel less empathy and less guilty about doing nothing to help people in need (also known as praying). Is this news?

    Prayer helps the prayer, not the prayee.

  • $84687101

    Well that’s interesting. Your comments demonstrate that the researchers missed a very important control in this study. Just telling one group to pray and another to “think about something” is not an adequate control. What would happen if one group were taught some basic meditation exercises beforehand and told to use those for five minutes? Or what if one group spent the five minutes talking to someone real, perhaps another ostensible participant so they didn’t have the stress of talking to a researcher?

    Without those kinds of controls, this notion of the social nature of prayer is pure speculation. It’s interesting speculation, and might be part of the reason for the positive effects that prayer seems to have in studies like this, but the researchers could easily have used a control to better separate out prayer from simple meditation as well as to compare it to an actual social interaction and failed to do so. Then they went and published a completely unsupported conclusion.

  • Frank Mitchell

    Assuming the study and its interpretation has any merit, then, I could gain the same benefits by having a mental conversation with Gandalf. Good to know.

  • LesterBallard

    Shouldn’t it read something like the brain benefits socially and cognitively from talking to yourself?

  • I’d like to see similar studies with comparisons to meditation or other rituals.

  • Bernadette

    That was my first thought too. Where is the group that meditated?

  • bananafaced

    Who are these people? And what kind of research is this? Where can one find the notes on this experiment?

  • Obviously, what is needed is a three (or more!) way test. So, for instance, some people might be asked to “talk to another person about a topic of your own choice” and see if the aspect of social interaction is key. Or practiced meditators might be asked to meditate “in whatever way you usually do”. The idea would be to tease out the way particular brain states affect performance of a given task.

    But they did not do that, and I think there is a hidden motivation for that. Basically, despite being scientists, they may not really take seriously the question of what sort of brain state arises when a practiced pray-er is engaged in prayer. Prayer is somehow imagined as “more than” a state of mind.

  • The whole study is ridiculous and meaningless. It was designed to find what the researchers were looking for (perhaps that’s the “temptation” they spoke of). But seriously, so what? If they had found that going out and kicking cats refueled the test subjects’ cognitive batteries more than relaxing and thinking about something else, would that be an indication we should all start doing the same?

  • If I were a participant in this study, I wouldn’t even know how to “pray” when asked to do so. It isn’t something I’m capable of. I know intellectually what the word means, but I don’t think it’s something I could make myself do, anymore than I could make myself believe in something. I’m sure that if pressed, I’d simply engage in some sort of light meditation or self-reflection. That’s the closest I could come, but it would be nothing like “prayer” as most people understand it.

  • KMR

    Depends on if the test subjects believe they are talking to themselves. That would be interesting though. Is it that you are having a real conversation in your head that is giving you the benefits or is it that you believe you are actually talking to someone who can make a difference in the situation. I wonder what the results would be if they did it on atheists?

  • Bob Jase

    Self hypnosis.

  • Bob Jase

    Or medicated.

  • Bob Jase

    Except before you are taking a test. “You shall not pass!”

  • IAmAGuest

    How the hell do anyone pray for 5 minutes? After “please god, save all the starving children, stop all rapes, world peace, make me a billionare… “, which would take about 10 seconds, then the rest of my prayer would be something like “uhm… eh… talk about something… blaha blaha.. there’s a pony in ma garage… WHAT, wtf is there a pony in my garage… uhm, weird thoughts… oh god, please don’t tell me you’re hearing this.. oh crap i must sound insane… wait a minute, i dont believe in god, oh right, phew… omg, what if that cute girl next to me can hear what im thinking and pretends not to, omg, so embaressing… please dont be a mind reader, please dont be a mind reader… uhm, wait, notice me! Maybe we can go out on a date.. omg that would be awesome, okay, transfering mind controlling thoughts, notice me, notice me, ask me for a coffee, please… omg, im crazy, has 5 minutes passed yet!? Argh! Im sooo alooone in here! Can anyone hear me!? Helllooo!!!”

  • cyb pauli

    It would make more sense if prayer resembled any social interaction humans actually have.

  • onamission5

    More accurately, I think, it should read that the brain benefits from the belief that someone, somewhere, cares about your concerns, and will listen quietly while you unburden yourself.
    It’s unsurprising to me, really, because it’s connected to the hierarchy of needs. I think that most if not all people want to be heard and understood, and some (many) fill that need through belief in invisible beings.

  • KMR

    It’s hard. When I was young the prayer meetings at church were by far the most mind numbingly horrific experiences they offered. 45 minutes of quiet punctuated by the occasional and “God heal…” whatever person or country they felt needed healing. People would just babble about the most idiotic things and looking back on it I’m sure it was because their brain needed something, anything to do to occupy itself. Pure torture those things were and even typing this made me shudder.

  • So they had a small break and were able to function. Well, colour me stunned. I never new, but may now require a study, that rest increases mental performance. We should study whether there is a similar benefit to having a rest prior to sex. Definitely needs a study.

  • paulalovescats

    Our pasta, who art in a colander, draining be your noodles. Thy noodle
    come, Thy sauce be yum, on top some grated Parmesan. Give us this day
    our garlic bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who
    trample on our lawns. And lead us not into vegetarianism, but deliver
    us some pizza, for thine is the meatball, the noodle, and the sauce,
    forever and ever. RAmen.

  • paulalovescats

    Everything requires thinking, such as taking care of kids or getting the groceries or getting through your workday. Don’t get bitchy. Even religious people think. I used to be one.

  • The general effort of reflective cognition, I suspect. Analytic thinking is surprisingly expensive in terms of synaptic fatigue (or synaptic depression? I’m not sure on the terminology) in the responsible lobes of the brain.

    Prayer and meditation both tend to involve deliberate suppression of the analytic functions — ideally, in an environment where analysis is not required for immediate survival, such as sitting quietly in a chair rather than in the driver’s seat of a car that has just had a blowout.

  • skyblue

    Yeah, there seem to be a lot of variables here that they didn’t really account for. Leaving out meditation is a big one, but I would think that within the category of “prayer” there’s quite a spectrum of beliefs. Wouldn’t it be important to narrow down exactly the nature of the deity the person is praying to, and what effect they think their prayer would have? Results could be quite different between people who feel they’re speaking to “a friendly listener”, i.e. a God who hears prayers but is unlikely to do more than “be there for you”, vs. the people that think their prayer is going to trigger significant divine intervention in the natural world.

    Plus more variables – what about people praying to one particular god who believe in many, or prayers by agnostics to whoever might be listening, or people who accompany their prayer with a sacrifice of some sort?

  • From what the study says, prayer doesn’t help to suppress their emotions. Rather, it helps in recovery from suppressing their emotions — that is, allows the reflective systems to recuperate from the effort of suppressing the reflexive responses (or, I suspect, resolving conflicting emotional responses).

    I would also suggest that contrary to what the authors suggest, it’s not so merely social interactions that give cognitive resources, but more precisely social validation that gives it. Being berated about what a complete waste of food, air, space, and time you are as a person seems unlikely to improve your Stroop Task performance.

  • Analytic thinking is surprisingly expensive in terms of synaptic fatigue…

    Not just synaptic fatigue. I live on a small ranch. I might spend my day riding a few miles of fence line, doing repairs, or harrowing a pasture, or building a small structure. Hard physical labor. I might also spend my day designing a website, writing code to solve an orbital dynamics problem, or working on a paper for publication. Hard mental labor.

    At the end of the day, I feel more physically tired from the latter. If anything, a day of hard outdoor exercise leaves me feeling energetic in the evening; a day of hard thinking leaves me physically exhausted.

    I understand completely the value of breaking my “thinking days” up in order to take a mental break.

  • $84687101

    I’m imagining the IRB review of the research that requires a subset of research participants to kill a chicken….

  • skyblue

    Not to mention if the study was investigating the benefits of chickens vs goats vs sheep, etc…

  • quasibaka

    Hey , is this related to the research I read somewhere that submissive sexual role-play can decrease stress levels and improve work efficiency ?

  • lol! you win the thread.

  • this.

    i can never stay focused on “holy thoughts” when i am in a church (for a wedding, funeral, etc., the only time i go) and the ritual calls for prayer. i always find myself thinking stuff like “i hope the bride likes the gift. damn, i forgot to pickup some milk, i better get it on the way home. did i give the babysitter my new cell phone number? i wonder if i’m going to like that new book… oh, yeah. “Amen.””

    i don’t bow my head anymore when others pray. i decided it was disrespectful to the believers to pretend i shared their faith in invisible beings. don’t close my eyes either.

  • Pofarmer

    Since this is a thread about prayer. Has anyone here had any personal experience with religious addictions? I am seriously concerned my wife has a problem, and she certainly doesn’t want to hear it from me. I found a book called “When God becomes a drug” but it isn’t available in digital form. I found a paper on it, with a list of symptoms

    I”nability to think, doubt, or question religious information and/or authority

    Black-and-white, good/bad, either/or simplistic thinking: one way or the other

    Shame-based belief that you aren’t good enough or you aren’t doing it right

    Magical thinking that God will fix you/ do it all, without serious work on your part

    Scrupulosity: rigid obsessive adherence to rules, codes of ethics, or guidelines

    Uncompromising judgmental attitudes: readiness to find fault or evil out there

    Compulsive or obsessive praying, going to church or crusades, quoting scripture

    Unrealistic financial contributions

    Believing that sex is dirty; believing our bodies or physical pleasures are evil

    Compulsive overeating and/or excessive fasting

    Conflict and argumentation with science, medicine, and education

    Progressive detachment from the real work, isolation and breakdown of relationships

    Psychosomatic illness: back pains, sleeplessness, headaches, hypertension

    Manipulating scripture or texts, feeling specially chosen, claiming to receive special messages from God

    Maintaining a religious “high”, trance-like state, keeping a happy face (or the belief that one should…)

    Attitude of righteousness or superiority: “we versus the world,” including the denial of one’s human-ness.

    Confusion, great doubts, mental, physical or emotional breakdown, cries for help”
    And she fits about 2/3’s of that, which I’m sure isn’t a comprehensive or critical list. I am at my wits end here. She is depressed and needs help, but she will only seek priests and ministers. I need to get her to a psychologist but I’m not sure she’ll go.

  • JA

    Serious praying is akin to meditation, I thought. And haven’t we already observed benefits of meditation and similar activity?

  • baal

    Or masticated. I do better after a snack.

  • some priests actually have real academic training in counseling. find one of those in your area. i understand that this is something that catholic priests sometimes do well. ymmv

  • Lori F

    How does meditation fair?

  • Pofarmer

    I dunno. Our local priest, who also runs the school, is the one who instituted Daily Church, 4 day a week religion classes, prayer before every class and monthly last Friday afternoon prayer meeting. Somehow, I don’t see him being of much help. Maybe I should look around.

  • This is why George Carlin prayed to Joe Pesci:

  • Paul Lambert

    Paul Fidalgo noticed the same flaw in the study I did and came to the same conclusion. I think this is actually a meditative benefit, not a “social contact with the supernatural” benefit.

  • Black Leaf

    Or masturbated?

  • allein

    I tend to look around the room when everyone is praying. At my aunt’s funeral a couple years ago I was admiring the pretty ceiling in the church and noticing that my brother, at least, did not bow his head either. I don’t really know about the rest of the family since I was in the second row and I didn’t want to turn around.

  • allein

    Try contacting some psychologists and see if they have any recommendations. They might know some clergy who are good counselors, or good professionals who can work with her from her religious perspective.

  • allein

    Hey, you can start with the “League of Angels” ad I’m getting on the next post featuring half-naked animated women. (I’m just glad I’m not at work today.)

  • $84687101

    I call that “prayer”.

  • Bob Becker

    So, the rationale for prayer turns out to be a ’60s counterculture bromide? “If it feels good, do it?”

  • Fair enough. I knew it was a bitchy (and unfair) comment when I made it, but after beating my head against a wall so frequently in online discussions with theists, I succumb to frustration now and then. I’m no saint (though I’ve begun to feel like a whirling dervish after “turning the other cheek” as many times as I have).

  • sara

    I’m generally thinking “Is it done yet? How long will this part take? Would it be rude to yawn?”

  • Nada Surf

    If the study was performed like the article describes it just proves people get better at tasks the second time around….

  • Fred

    It’s like talking silently to santa claus. You just state a few things that you like. Then ask for a few things for yourself. Then ask for a few things for someone else. Then remind santa how much a prick some other person is and they don’t deserve any presents. Then say amen.

  • LesterBallard

    I haven’t prayed in a very long time, so long I can’t remember. I do talk to myself, though.

  • paulalovescats

    Yes, that’s very relaxing.

  • ZenDruid

    Marinara! Pesto be with you!

  • John H

    Bad control conditions. They need comparisons to non-religious imagined talking to an imaginary person and non-religious mindfulness/meditation exercises to determine if it’s the activity of the perceived social interaction, the rest, the focus on non-analytic thought, or the actual ‘prayer’ i.e. petitioning a deity. I’m also uncertain how, exactly, one can possibly instruct an atheist to “pray”. We don’t believe there’s a god, so we can’t possibly actually think we’re talking to one, which establishes an uncontrollable variance right there. You can’t test the effect of talking to what someone believes to be an omniscient, omnipotent force when the person in question doesn’t believe in one; an atheist prayer is an inescapable oxymoron. It might also be interesting to separate those who have ever been religious from those who never have been in the analysis, as those who were once religious might have certain conditioned neural structures that the never-religious would lack.

  • John H

    They could, for example, establish a ‘listener’ variable – give everyone a microphone, and tell one group someone is listening on the other end, while telling the other that no one is listening, and have them talk into the microphone. This would establish whether there is any difference in having an imagined conversation on the basis of an actual belief someone is listening.

  • John H

    Exactly; without actually believing that someone is listening, the process of talking to an imagined entity could be very different. There’s a problem in the experimental design right there.

  • Rebecca Horne

    I would want to test this with four groups: a group of religious people praying, a group of non-religious people “praying,” a group meditating, and group fantasizing about a pleasant interaction with somebody they enjoy.

  • Guest

    What makes you comfortable, or feel good, has no bearing on the truth.
    Maybe having an imaginary friend you can talk to gives you certain health benefits, but the point is, it’s still an imaginary friend you’re talking to when all’s said and done.
    I like to imagine what I’d spend my lottery winnings on, occasionally. Makes me ‘feel good’ and then I wake up and I’m back to being broke again. Harsh but real 🙂

  • anthrosciguy

    What they tested is doing something difficult and exhausting before a test versus doing nothing, aka praying. More evidence that praying is equivalent to doing nothing.

  • What they would not conveniently mention is the fact that prayer has the same effect as secular meditation, without the imaginary friend. But I never recall getting much of a social benefit from the time I wasted in prayer, talking to a friend who never spoke back to me! There is nothing healthy about a delusion!

  • evodevo

    Right. Who funded this study, anyway? The Templeton foundation?

  • WalterWhite007

    ‘getting some benefit from prayer’ is a far cry from prayers getting the results prayed for. As others have said the controls were lame in this ‘study’ and since prayer and talking to yourself or talking to an imaginary friend are pretty much the same thing it would seem just the act of being able to unburden oneself causes some kind of chemical reaction that makes some people feel better. How about expanding the ‘study’ to see how disappointed people are when the actual request made in prayers is never answered? I feel good with a new lottery ticket in my hand before the draw. I don’t feel so good after I lose.

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