In modern times, “religion” can be as difficult to define as “brain”, with multifarious facets to include prayers to deities. Our technology is currently able to tease out some of the neurobiological similarities and differences between believers and non-believers, as well as divergences between individual believers.
Regardless, prayers have been a part of our human psychology and neurology for possibly longer than religion itself. Both “answered” and “unanswered” prayers feed into our innate confirmation bias and our primate social needs; it’s possible that we evolved as a species to pray just as we evolved grooming, and other behaviors. For many people in the west, prayer may be more of a self-soothing ritual more so than it is about actually talking to anyone else.
Organized religion likely surfaced as a result of the Neolithic revolution and provided economic stability by means to collect taxes, and religion eventually evolved and morphed into the worshipping of moralizing gods and the promotion of cooperation between unrelated people. 1,2 Perhaps prayer was co-opted as a ritual within religions due to its innate biological properties.
Differences demonstrated using fMRI studies have been during solitary prayer of people with various beliefs. The areas of the brain associated with prayer to a god are those that are activated when we’re socially involved with other humans. The brain social activity demonstrated using fMRI during prayer is commensurate with the religion of the person praying; that is, a Buddhist or an atheist praying will have a different fMRI outcome correlating a different activity in the brain than a Christian will, for example. Per the scans, it’s an entirely real social phenomenon if the deity is real to the person praying; regardless, the experience of praying is a neurological phenomenon 3 more than a religious one.
To explain further on specific believers, “In a recent study our team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how the brain responded to praying in Christian believers…considering God’s postulated invisibility, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, we found that conversing with God was not associated with regions that process abstract concepts…We found a marked pattern of activity in four regions that typically activate when humans relate to other humans. Neurologically, this finding suggests that strong believers process God as a concrete person – in spite of the theologically complex and highly abstract nature of the Christian God. Interestingly, we did not find this pattern in believers who did not use praying regularly. Perhaps the religious brain can learn to treat gods as real persons through regular practice and strong beliefs… somewhat contrary to the widespread assumption that communicating with God constitutes a unique experience reserved for believers, our findings suggest that praying to God is comparable to ‘normal’ interpersonal interaction, at least in terms of brain function. Praying, it seems, is subserved by the basic processing of our biologically evolved dispositions like other complex cultural phenomena, in this case the evolved human capacity for social cognition.” 3
Intercessory prayer studies
In 2006 The Templeton Foundation, a Christian organization funded a large controlled study on the power of prayer. Dr. Dawkins provides a description that follows:
“The Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health… The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls… Dr Benson and his team monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals, all of whom received coronary bypass surgery. The patients were divided into three groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn’t know it. Group 2 (the control group) received no prayers and didn’t know it. Group 3 received prayers and did know it.
The comparison between Groups 1 and 2 tests for the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Group 3 tests for possible psychosomatic effects of knowing that one is being prayed for…Prayers were delivered by the congregations of three churches, all distant from the three hospitals…There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not…There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other; but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not.” 4
It’s feasible that those who knew they were being prayed for suffered a type of “prayer or performance anxiety” which may explain why they did worse than the other groups, those who did not know they were being prayed for, and those who were not prayed for.
The Templeton study is a repeat of another from 1997 with forty alcoholics, and with similar results.5
Prayer is one of the simplest forms of the supernaturalism available to study; it is a yes or no answer. However, there are those who pray for a sick relative, or pray to locate their car keys, and so on, who are successful at the level of chance or for which there are explainable reasons for success, thus reinforcing the belief in prayer. Thus far, there is little to no evidence with respect to prayer’s efficacy; any pseudoevidence to the contrary will likely result in confirmation bias.
Our brains evolved to cope with our environment, to develop tools, to understand social situations, and to survive predators. It is complex and difficult to comprehend; however, it’s possible that it also evolved other sets of cognitive functions that facilitate rituals, such as prayer and other self-soothing and social behaviors.
- Dawkins, Richard (2008-01-16). The God Delusion (p. 86). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.