Hearing prayer shuts off believers' brain activity

When some religiously devout people hear a charismatic healer speak the word of god , the regions of their brains involved in skeptical thinking and vigilance appear to shut down. Uffe Schjødt of Aarhus University in Denmark and his colleagues scanned the brains of Pentecostalists while they listened to recorded prayers from non-Christians, "ordinary" Christians, and a healer. The brain activity changed only in response to prayers they were told came from the healer. According to Schjødt, the same deactivation may occur in response to the words of physicians, parents, politicians, and other charismatic leaders. The researchers published their results in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. From New Scientist:
Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian.

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.
"Brain shuts off in response to healer's prayer"


  1. A good follow-up study would be to test the brains of scientists listening to a study described by a prominent scientist, a struggling scientist or a layman, to see if there’s similar loss of activity. They could use Stephen Hawking’s voice for all three to blind the study.

    1. @snig Despite the very real tendency to doze off in seminars (the fact that they are often held in warm, dark auditoriums aids this), there is a major flaw with comparing religious people listening to “holy men” with scientists listening to more famous scientists. Namely, scientists tend to be ambitious smartasses who hope to find some flaw in the presentation and bring it up in the questions section. We aren’t adoring the speaker.

      1. Which is why I asked for a study. As someone who’s fought the nods in his share of science seminars, I’m curious how the wiring is different between the two. Would scientists brains be more lit up in general in the regions responsible? Would there be a hero effect for Hawking? And if you were a test subject in the science group, how would you feel if you knew you let down your shields for a famous scientist just because you knew he was a famous scientist?

  2. I am no fan of religion, believe you me, but this is kind of a red herring. I mean, duh, obviously your skeptical side is going to be inactive when listening to something you’re not skeptical about. The post implies some kind of critique on religion or evidence that it’s a bunch of bullshit, which it might be, but certainly not because of this “evidence”. As imaginary as the specific dogma of any religion might be, that doesn’t discount the fact that prayer and the power of human belief are quite real and evident… a bunch of people with a common belief can certainly accomplish a lot, good or bad; none of that could be accomplished if people spent their mental energy second-guessing every step. Besides, this phenomenon ‘aint unique to religion, that’s for sure. I’m sure if we measured the brain patterns of people during 9-11 or the Haitian Earthquake we’d find a similar lack of activity… proving what, exactly?

    Denmark could find more useful things to do with their research money than this.

    1. “The post implies some kind of critique on religion or evidence that it’s a bunch of bullshit…”

      Uh…. Not according to the person who wrote the post.

    2. the post simply implies that deeply religiously inclined people don’t do any critical thinking when they listen to a prominent religious leader. It does not critique religion. The actual study report also says that this does apply in other areas too.

    3. I also am naturally quite anti-organized religion, but find what the study is implying to be drawing a rather long bow. While I find the monitoring of brain activity in persuasion and skepticism very interesting (and therefore the study does have a place) I totally agree that the finding definitely can’t draw the conclusion that this means religion is the summation of powerful persuasion and eliminating skepticism alone. This phenomena of “persuasion” in psychology has been heavily studied and it is widely known that a “perceived expert” will switch off someone’s skepticism – which accounts for these results, AND for how almost all laymen take conventional science to be objective truth. While I find it unlikely, there is of course also the confounding variable that the “healer” may have been switching off some brain activity for the benefit of the participants via some ability that they possessed and the others didn’t. To control for this they should definably do the study again with participants blinded as to who was saying the prayer.

    4. If these people are not skeptical about their beliefs, why do they have to keep reminding themselves about it. And why do they always talk about their faith being challenged?

    1. Actually, judging from what I know about trance, I think (verbal) prayer is exactly the opposite of meditation. You hear the voice going on and on and on, and after a while if you listen while you read this you may allow yourself to relax a bit, feel a bit more dizzy, sleepy…

      While, when in meditation, you focus to be awake.

      Of course, there is another form of prayer that is more contemplative, but it’s not the widespread one in the major monotheistic religions. A shame, really, from my point of view.

  3. That’s funny because I’m exactly the opposite. If I know your religious in any way, your word means less to me, because you are obviously easily tricked and gullible. I guess that’s why I’m always on high alert for BS.

    1. It’s spelled “you’re,” not “your.” And if you’re making simple grammatical errors in online posts, I immediately become skeptical of anything you might assert.

      I can’t help but note here that “god” is not capitalized.

      And as a born-again-pagan, I’m betting an omnipotent “god” doesn’t require that you bow your head, close your eyes and put your hands together to “get a connection.”

  4. Faith is all about NOT being skeptical so this makes total sense. And just because a person didn’t have it at the time of this study doesn’t mean they never did.

    Also what #3 said — based on this, I’m sure the same thing would happen for certain atheists when they listen to Richard Dawkins, certain right wingers when they listen to Sarah Palin, certain Democratic voters when they listen to an Obama presser, and hardcore Apple fans when Steve Jobs releases new iStuff

    “LOL Stupid Churchies” is only effective when it applies to actual good science.

  5. Maybe switching off the hyper-rational, statistics-oriented, pessimistic side of your brain is just the ticket when you’re suffering from a disease that science has told you your chances of surviving are slim. Go faith healing go!

    1. I hope that you do not have children. “Faith Healing” kills countless children whose parents frontal lobe has given logic over to fantasy land. Go scientific based medicine. Idiot.

  6. @ Snig, the phenomenon you seem to be postulating has been observed and scientists have already given it a name, thank you very much.

    It is called Seminarcolepsy.

    But I don’t think it is quite the same thing. You don’t fall into a trance state because you are trusting the speaker, but rather because the lights are low and the seats are comfy and you were up late the night before working on a paper and you are really tired. And it isn’t just the critical thinking part of your brain that shuts down, you just nod off.

    If you keep your hands busy, that helps. Knit. Might be hard to do in church.

    1. Seminarcolepsy


      Knit. Might be hard to do in church.

      You could probably make cross stitching work.

  7. Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

    Or as Terry Pratchett observed years ago:

    It was as if even the most intelligent person had this little blank spot in their heads where someone had written: “Kings. What a good idea.” Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.

  8. …and this kind of science just makes me want to shout “bullshit” at the top of my lungs. It sets off all sorts of alarms in my skeptical thinking centres. Tish and pish, I say!

    1. Huh! It was supposed to bypass those alarms. We made need to get you on some meds. Nurse, get me 20 cc’s of skepticilin, stat! ;-)

      1. Ugh. “May” rather than “made.” At least I spelled “skepticilin” correctly.

  9. I could see some kind of pseudo-evolutionary-psychology explanation for this. If you’ve already decided that a speaker is in a position of authority, is trustable, and speaks from knowledge, then it is cognitively cheaper just to suspend disbelief and assume the speaker is correct, rather than doubt and question every statement. Kind of like a biological “argument from authority.”

    I would love to see a similar study on, say, grad students listening to a respected scientist. However, my gut instinct is that, while there may be a similar effect, it is likely going to be much smaller.

    Unlike religion, scientists exist in a community when trusted, respected authorities are getting proved wrong all the time. There is established dogma, but there is also a long-established tradition of breaking that dogma with new evidence. It is a great achievement to be able to show that something once believed true is not, in fact true. So while the grad students probably question the lauded scientist much less than they might question their peers, there is still that skeptical part of the brain that is active.

    Contrast to religion: do religious authorities ever get proved “wrong” about anything? Are people listening to healers actively wondering whether evidence might exist that would overturn the existing dogma? I really don’t think so.

    Faith and skepticism seem to be by definition at opposite ends of the spectrum.

  10. Agree the implications are more general than religion – ‘preaching to the choir’ comes in many forms. Perhaps all charismatic authority figures can cause this sort of ‘lights out’ credulity to one extent or another. I would suggest that certain modes of intonation, certain gestures and rhetorical formulas may help arouse this mood, which apparently can be measured scientifically – shades of Burroughs.

    From an evolutionary point of view, it seems obvious that it can be advantageous in many situations for a group to move in harmony in one direction (however random) than to mill about leaderless. It’s scary that this direction is not necessarily a rational one.

    One common sense implication is that rational arguments will not be effective in swaying suggestions built up by such authority figures – I daresay this is borne out widely. Perhaps another insight is that the best ways to disrupt such beliefs are to modify the status of the speaker downwards from trusted expert, to adept, and finally to ‘one of us.’ Removing the triggering presentation style of the message may also work – hence the effectiveness of restating, paraphrasing (and misquoting) in debate.

  11. It’s not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

    …and poorly explained scientific studies.

    It’s tempting to think that it’s only those few impaired religious people over there who show this effect, but let’s face it, *everyone* lets their guard down at some point. It’s that or turn into a paranoid schizophrenic.

    This study doesn’t explain why certain individuals gain influence over others, at best it gives some insight into *how* such influence is achieved.

    I’d like to see a study where subjects were tracked for a full working day, and their critical thinking centers audited during television watching, workplace meetings, and negotiations with their spouses. It would leave the audience a little less smug.

  12. Apparently a bunch of people who decided to comment didn’t read this part : “According to Schjødt, the same deactivation may occur in response to the words of physicians, parents, politicians, and other charismatic leaders.”

    So, um, not specific to religion.

    1. Apparently a bunch of people who decided to comment didn’t read this part : “According to Schjødt, the same deactivation may occur in response to the words of physicians, parents, politicians, and other charismatic leaders.” So, um, not specific to religion.

      Once an internet commenter’s brain reaches a sentence that reinforces his/her beliefs, the brain shuts off to protect itself from new ideas.

  13. It would certainly explain why so many politicians, across the political spectrum, think it’s a great idea to start a political speech or meeting with a prayer.

  14. So your brain shuts off the parts that are responsible for skepticism when you listen to things that you are not skeptical about. Do people actually get paid to come up with these kinds of conclusions?

  15. So… tell me why the skepticism part of the brain would be active when something you believe wholeheartedly is happening.

    I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that it also remains active when somebody tells me that cars run on gasoline, or that Lord Dunsany was a writer.

    Skepticism is rarely going to be engaged by something that fits perfectly into your worldview.

  16. I love it when BoingBoing makes posts like this and gets all the religioners all butt-hurt. Fun times.

    1. Oh, I hate it when our priest constantly reminds us to question her. Okay, I /get/ it already! We’re all on a Quest, to Question!!

  17. This is how demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Steve Jobs do it. They warm you up with patriotic claptrap, and then hit you will logical fallacies. If you have that “authoritarian personality” – that special need to feel belonging to a strong group with a powerful, aggressive, & noisy leader – then the fallacies will flood your brain with dopamine, and you feel good.

    Compare Tolkien’s description of the Voice of Saruman here.

    1. >> This is how demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Steve Jobs do it.

      Do “it?” Do what? This post is about prayer. How does that relate to Steve Jobs? Go ahead and tell me that Apple users are like a cult. Don’t cite specifics. Don’t relate your remarks to prayer. Just say “cult” and walk away.

      Apple haters are really working overtime to insert Steve Jobs into any and every opportunity for an ad hominem drive-by.

      Likewise, climate change skeptics inevitably will generate an opportunity to reference Al Gore. Universal health care opponents will hammer Obama. Michael Moore also gets roped into discussions which do not apply.

      Listen, we know some people don’t prefer Apple products. Fine, we get that. But Steve Jobs in the company of Beck and Limbaugh? Please.

      1. How does that relate to Steve Jobs?

        Right on, Trots. Jobs doesn’t need to repeat a charismatic message. His strategy is to ensure you don’t experience the wrong information in the first place.

        1. How well do the Home and End keys work on your Apple ‘puter?

          How often to civilians even need to go to the top or bottom of a document?

          How often do they go to the beginning or end of a line?

          So much for never experiencing “wrong information”. I must not be going to the tops or bottoms of my documents enough!

          1. I may be missing your point or misinterpreting your tone here, because I have a hard time dealing with internet sarcasm, but the “home” and “end” keys work just fine on my MacBook. They’re mapped to the arrow keys, along with the top and bottom of the document buttons. Oh, keyboard shortcuts.

            Anyway, even if we think this is normal behaviour for people to turn off their skeptical minds when they hear something they already agree with, do we think it’s a good thing? I sure don’t.

        2. …I actually laughed out loud when I read your post, Yamara. The mere fact that you assert that Steve Jobs doesn’t need a charismatic message, such as, say, the “magical and revolutionary” one he came up with recently, helps prove Dr. Schjødt’s conclusions.

  18. Did anyone else notice that the subjects of the study were Pentecostals, whose religious practice involves dramatic “gifts of faith”, probably achieved through trance states? I’m not an expert on this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Pentecostals were conditioned to start entering a trance upon hearing some distinctive feature of their prayers or sermons.

    I’d be very cautious about extrapolating these findings to non-charismatic faiths.

    1. Avram,

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. There are other religions that also do this so it would be interesting to cross-compare people from a variety of different religions. But generalizing this to all religions with thus this data seems premature.

  19. How many of you believed this post ? People believe what they want to believe. Science is catching up… maybe.

  20. This really has nothing to do with religion. It is all about how expectation shapes perceptual filters. In essence, charismatic people are hypnotic no matter what the topic.

  21. Ah. I believe this strange, skepticism-reducing phenomenon is referred to by the layperson as “trust.”

  22. Knitting in church is not unusual. We have four or five knitters in my congregation, including my spouse. Sleeping sitting up with your eyes open is fairly common too.

  23. found the quote by Tolkien: “and desire awoke within them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves” and repeat everything Saruman said.

  24. It doesn’t help that the headline asserts a cause/effect relationship that’s not in the article.

  25. I’ll bet one day they’ll find a gene for the ‘healers’ of the world and find that it is shared with used car deals, people who succeed in Amway, and politicians.

  26. Interesting article. I’m not easily wooed by the Cult of Personality (religious, political or otherwise). Usually, my BS meter pegs 11 early on. I wonder; what would the results be if they had used aspies?

  27. Belief and scepticism contradict mutually: now proven with neuroscientifical methods. Come on, now, what did you expect?

    That does not mean that belief is some kind of desease. The difficult part is the choice when to believe and when to be sceptical. Hint: if it doesn’t seem to make a big difference, go for scepticism.

    Greetings, LX

  28. Apparently the same scientists have determined that the Pope is a catholic !!!

    Now they are turning their attention to the toilet habits of bears.

  29. Ah, once again fMRI research finds that human experience correlates with brain activity. Who’d have thunk it?

  30. nahh, not just about trust.
    Even if I trust you and generally believe you doesn’t mean I take your word on faith. Most of us don’t go into a “question nothing” mode except for special occasions.

    It just seems like organized religion is one such special occasion for those who practice it. So is probably anything that plays to your emotion rather than reason. It’s a known (and popular) trick of oration to start of with an “affective” statement BEFORE going into anything that matters, and trying to keep fact out of the speech as much as possible while trying to appeal to emotions instead. This is done so the listeners don’t start questioning your logic or motives, but rather stay in an emotional frame of mind.
    I’ve read a study going on about this, but can’t for the life of me think of which one. If I feel up to it tomorrow morning I may post a link..

    No one is immune, but not all of us seek it out. Religion is only one way to do this, but might be particularly effective because of the powerful long term indoctrination which it supports. During science seminars I could well imagine some people falling under this sort of spell, but most viewers will be highly critical and looking for any sort of flaw in the speakers argument. That’s what school trains us to do! Even our best friends don’t get a free pass, even if we think they’re really clever.

  31. We already knew that believers stopped being skeptical when they hear such things; this is just the neurological version of that.

    More interesting to me is that there is a way to make a neurological version: that skepticism is associated with specific parts of the brain, and we know them well enough to tell when a person is skeptical.

    1. Yeah, I can’t wait for the search for human understanding fad to be over with too. I’m so bored with it! Hahaha…..

      1. Cowicide, Clayton’s point is (I think) not what you’ve interpreted as. The fact is that there’s a lot of very dodgy fMRI studies out there that use very small sample sizes or have other problems. There’s also a lot of focus on fMRI and arguably overemphasis on the results of the studies even when they may show less than they are trumpted for. This is a reasonable concern.

        1. I think you might be reading a bit much from his statement, but maybe I was too. Nonetheless, I see your point and I agree that flawed studies are bad science and should be subject to our general disdain. But I’m not willing to throw out the baby with the bath water and it doesn’t appear that this prayer study suffers from “voodoo correlation” with a focus on only voxels.

          I may be wrong, but the only way we’d know for sure is if I was hooked up to an fMRI machine.

          1. JoshuaZ was right. I didn’t read this particular study (did you read the actual study?), but generally these studies seem to be grant-cows for departments at degree-factory type programs. Not that this alone disqualifies them, and not that they’re all bad, just that with the many criticisms you’ll find from not just me, but *most* brain scientists about most fMRI studies coupled with the obvious fame and money seeking nature of so many of them makes a little tired, among other things.

            The fact that they always make their rounds on blogs like Boing Boing and have their data abused and misintepreted by pop-sci publications makes it all the worse. I mean, how different would this conversation be if they had done the same study with Buddhists? How many people here are really capable of understanding what’s going on past the words someone with a journalism degree posted elsewhere? I mean, I know we’re all experts here, but still.

          2. I didn’t read this particular study (did you read the actual study?)

            Yep, I did read some of it.

            And, I repeat:

            ” … it doesn’t appear that this prayer study suffers from “voodoo correlation” with a focus on only voxels. … “

  32. Quieting the mind isn’t a bad thing. What’s input into the blanked out mind is where the power over someone really is. Images, symbolism, sound waves, dogma etc. – to get the subjects to do, believe, repeat, kill for, die for…that’s the purpose of charismatic leaders.


  33. Time to yank down all the Universities founded by Christians!

    Hank-on… that’s most of them.

  34. Well, with a sample size of 40, with 20 of each, at least the sample size issue here doesn’t seem like it is necessarily a problem. I haven’t had the time to look at the paper itself (and may do so if I have time).

  35. Folks, be careful in interpreting “deactivation” in fMRI studies. Cortical areas sometimes will appear less “active” when they are involved in solving extremely hard problems. Thus, an alternate interpretation of the evidence is that the areas in question are working harder. Also, any given brain region tends to do a lot of different things – the anterior cingulate cortext, for instance, is also involved in regulating heart rate and blood pressure, empathy, and anticipating upcoming events.

  36. I’m interested to hear how they learned these parts of the brain were tied in to skepticism in the first place.

  37. Of course, there is also the end of the study itself where they note that they have done past research to indicate the prayer is considered a “social interaction” in the brain, and that engaging in these behaviors offers an intrinsic brain-based rewards system.

    Combine all of this together, and you have groups of people who hand over their executive processing to someone they trust, they feel like they have made a friend in God in the process, AND they are rewarded for this mentally deficient behavior.

    I don’t doubt the results are applicable to other situations, but scientists listening to other scientists do not just sit back and nod. That’s how science continues. People find flaws in theories, arguments, everything, and continue to dig deeper. Religion is an area where that does not happen quite as frequently, and those in the “trusted” positions rarely do much to earn them and could say whatever they want out of the pulpit and still achieve this mind-numbed agreement from their congregations.

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