How Do Thoughts and Prayers Differ From Each Other?

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Religion and spirituality have been a component of daily life since ancient hominins tried to understand the meaning of the death of loved ones. Ritual decoration of the skulls of loved ones during the paleolithic period 500,000 years ago, through the founding of ritualistic temples, such as Gobekli Tepe about 12,000 years ago, is a testament to their attempts to make sense of events in life that were then beyond their comprehension. Recent archeological and neurobiological evidence suggests that as the human brain evolved, specific cognitive abilities appeared that paralleled the invention of gods and their role in human life. As soon as ancient hominins could speak, they also likely assumed that their gods spoke their language and knew what they were thinking. Praying became a way to communicate with their honored dead and their gods.

The Brains of Believers
Imaging studies have discovered that the brains of religious believers, who are more likely to pray, function differently than the brains of non-believers. For example, non-believers are more likely to process sensory information, such as something they see, in a more deliberative manner that involves higher cortical areas, called top-down processing, involved in reasoning. In contrast, religious believers are more likely to interpret visual information in a more emotional or intuitive manner, called bottom-up processing, which involves more ancient brain systems. Religious believers share this bottom-up processing bias with people who believe in supernatural or paranormal activity, such as telekinesis or clairvoyance. Like our ancient hominin ancestors, religious believers are more comfortable accepting nonsensical explanations.

Prayer is certainly the most common alternative intervention used by people of all religions around the world. Individuals who pray are convinced that their efforts will be successful. Unfortunately, no empirical, scientifically rigorous evidence has ever been brought forth proving the power of prayer. Why pray? True believers, unlike non-believers, when queried, do not show any interest in confirming that their prayers are effective. Recent studies by psychologists have shown that religious people have less stringent standards of evidence when evaluating nonscientific claims. Despite a total lack of evidence, they remain convinced that prayers work.

A recent publication considered whether the act of praying by believers utilizes a distinct pattern of activation of specific brain regions, as compared to quiet meditation by non-believers. The authors drew the general conclusion that the act of praying, which is associated with a set of emotional and cognitive changes, is correlated with the activation of specific brain regions that are different from those that are active when not praying.

The 25 published studies examined in their analysis involved both structural and functional MRI investigations, as well as electroencephalographic recordings, of religious subjects engaged in prayer, a mystical experience, religious recitation, or simply viewing religious images, and subjects engaged in nonreligious tasks.

Hub of the Default Mode Network
Their analysis concluded that a few specific regions are activated while praying, as compared to non-religious thoughts. One of the most consistent changes was seen in the precuneus area. The precuneus is part of the parietal lobe. It is a core hub of the default mode network, which is active during states of consciousness related to self-reflection, divergent thinking, and daydreaming. Many of the studies also reported increased activity in the orbital frontal and medial prefrontal cortex, particularly during a mystical experience or prolonged prayer. The medial prefrontal was also active in participants engaging in religious recitation. In contrast, simply observing a religious image or symbols did not activate these brain regions. Structural imaging studies have reported changes in the anatomical structure of these frontal cortical regions in religious individuals. The brains of religious believers have unique anatomical changes that are not present in the brains of non-believers.

The authors acknowledged the potential limitations of their analysis, however, despite these limitations, the studies suggest that the typical religious or prayerful experience has specific neurobiological correlates that are different, particularly in believers, from the neurobiological correlates for quiet contemplation in non-believers. In conclusion, thoughts and prayers do involve different brain regions, in addition, the brains of believers and non-believers may function in quite different ways.

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