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MRI Prayer

on April 18, 2009
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New Scientist: “Praying to God Is Like Talking to a Friend” Praying is just like ordinary conversation—but is that really evidence against Christianity?

In what seems to be a common experiment, a team led by University of Aarhus researcher Uffe Schjødt used an MRI machine (technology developed by a creationist, by the way) to scan the brains of 20 “devout Christians” while they prayed. The result, according to Schjødt: “It’s like talking to another human. We found no evidence of anything mystical.”

“It’s like talking to another human. We found no evidence of anything mystical.”

The experimenters required participants to engage in two types of activities, each broken into a religious and a secular phase. The first type of activity was recitation: first the Lord’s prayer, then a nursery rhyme. Unsurprisingly, areas of the brain associated with rehearsal and repetition were active.

Next, the participants engaged in two improvisational activities. First they spoke personal prayers, then they improvised requests to Santa Claus. Both of those activities activated patterns in the brain “seen when people communicate with each other,” including regions that process personal desire, consider how another individual might respond, and recall previous memories of interpersonal encounters.

One notable difference was in the prefrontal cortex, which was active in the improvised prayer but inactive in the requests to Santa Claus. The researchers believe this reflects the fact that the participants did not actually believe Santa Claus was real, whereas they certainly did believe God was listening.

Schjødt admitted that the outcome “pleased” (New Scientist’s word) both atheists and Christians. Atheists see nothing “mystical” (the report doesn’t say what they were expecting), while Christians point out that prayer is supposed to include a conversational element. Along these lines, we imagine skeptics chemically analyzing the water Jesus converted into wine in John 2:1–11. “There’s nothing mystical about the chemical makeup,” they would say, “except that this is a superior vintage.” Of course, that’s missing the point: naturalistic science cannot apprehend the supernatural, nor would we expect a brain scan to show the “mystical.” If it did, there would no longer be anything “super” about the supernatural!

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