Prayer and the Brain: A Meta-Analysis of Neurological Activity During Christian Prayer
Christian Prayer: Communicating with a Personal God
Christianity centers on the relationship between humans and God. This relationship, similar to many human relationships, is built on communication, often achieved through prayer. Contrary to popular opinion, prayer can be more than kneeling with eyes closed and hands together while confessing all of your wrongdoings or asking for things you want. According to Baesler (1999), a prominent researcher of Christianity and health, prayer is “a type of spiritual communication between an individual(s) and God,” which can involve – but isn’t limited to – adoration, petition, thanksgiving, meditation, and contemplation.
Recently, neuroscientists have become interested in examining religions and their practices, particularly prayer and meditation, which have been correlated with well-being (Carey, 2004). Presbyterians who prayed more often scored higher on mental health outcomes compared to those who prayed less frequently (Meisenhelder & Chandler, 2000). For college students in the UK, frequency of prayer predicted lower depression, lower anxiety, and greater self-esteem (Maltby, Lewis, & Day, 1999). Furthermore, greater personal devotion, measured through colloquial prayer and self-reported attachment to God, was correlated with greater life satisfaction and lower psychological distress (Hackney & Sanders, 2003).
Neurological studies, however, have yet to examine direct correlations between prayer and health. Instead, neuroscientists have focused on observing the functionality of the brain during prayer. Compiling the results from two prominent social neuroscience studies on Christian prayer, we can tentatively conclude that prayer may be neurally comparable to talking to another human being. Furthermore, we will explore how this neurological conclusion can be complementary to – instead of conflicting with – the Christian theology of a personal and responsive God.
Current Studies on Prayer and the Brain
Theory of mind in prayer
So far, there have been a very limited number of published studies centered on directly investigating brain areas related to social cognition during Christian prayer. One of the few studies used fMRI to examine Danish Christians praying to God, who was not specifically defined in the study (Schjoedt, Stødkilde-Jørgensen, Geertz, & Roepstorff, 2009). As a control, the participants were asked to silently make wishes to Santa Claus with eyes closed because they all believed that God was real, but that Santa was a fictional character (Schjoedt et al., 2009). The results showed increased activation in temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), the temporopolar region, and the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – all areas involved in mentalizing or understanding others – when praying to God compared to when they were making wishes to Santa (Schjoedt et al., 2009).
The TPJ, temporopolar region, and anterior mPFC are the main areas associated with “theory of mind,” which is the inherent and automatic ability in humans to understand and predict the thoughts, motivations, and actions of others (Gallagher & Frith, 2003). The TPJ is involved in social attention, eye-movement observations (Caruana, Brock, & Woolgar, 2015), and assessing intentionality and efforts of others’ actions (Mizuguchi, Nakata, & Kanosue, 2016); specifically for Christians in prayer, the TPJ could be involved in understanding God’s actions or will. The temporopolar region has been associated with autobiographical memory (Dolan, Lane, Chua, & Fletcher, 2000) and processing of social narratives (Olson, Plotzker, & Ezzyat, 2007), which could be involved in the recounting of personal daily experiences to God. The anterior mPFC is activated during the mentalization of the self and others (Gallagher & Frith, 2003), indicating that subjects believed that God has a mental state, unlike a fictitious Santa Claus.
These findings suggest that the participants in the study mainly think of and attempt to communicate to God as a physical being, rather than as an abstract entity or a fictional character (Schjoedt et al., 2009). Also, this conclusion aligns with the Christian concept of an intentional God who we can communicate with. However, the control condition for this study is questionable; the content addressed in making wishes to Santa Claus may be very different compared to praying to God, which could range from very personal requests to words of appreciation to recounting one’s day. In fact, some of the participants later reported that they had ran out of things to wish for because they had to perform each task six times for a span of 30 seconds (Schjoedt et al., 2009) Therefore, this study calls for further comparisons of talking to God and talking to a real person, such as a loved one.
Communicating with loved ones
Specifically addressing this point of further investigation, Neubauer (2014) used fMRI to observe Pentecostal Christians as they silently prayed, imagined and spoke to a loved one, or imagined and named a series of animals (control).
In this study, the prayer condition was once again vaguely defined as praying in the participant’s’ “usual way,” while the loved one condition asked participants to “imagine a loved one was present and silently express their love and gratitude for ways in which that person has helped them” (Neubauer, 2014). The mPFC, TPJ, and posterior cingulate, all regions associated with the theory of mind, were activated during both prayer and speaking to a loved one compared to the control (Neubauer, 2014). Furthermore, the areas involved in imagining and processing fictional figures (i.e. Cinderella), as opposed to real people (i.e. George Bush), such as the left lateral inferior frontal gyrus (Abraham, Von Cramon, & Schubotz, 2008), were not activated when subjects were praying to God (Neubauer, 2014). These results support the claim that personal prayer to God is comparable to speaking to a real human being, as opposed to a fictional character.
The activation patterns between prayer and talking to a loved one, however, were not completely overlapping. Interestingly, the insula was activated more during prayer when compared to speaking to a loved one (Neubauer, 2014). The insula is involved in many functions, including interoceptive awareness, emotional response, and the detection of pain and disgust (Menon & Uddin, 2010). This increased activity in the insula during prayer indicates that subjects may have placed more emotional salience in prayer then in conversing with loved ones. The results indicating a stronger emotional connection to God over close family and friends are especially intriguing because prioritizing God above all else is an idea common accepted in Christian theology. In the New Testament, there are several mentions of following and loving Jesus more than family. For example, Jesus tells the disciples in the gospel of Matthew that “anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10.37, NIV). Again, we see a convergence in neurological and theological evidence characterizing a personal relationship with God for Christians.
It is important to note here that although this review has focused on neurological evidences supporting the interpersonal nature of prayer and the belief in a personal God, subjective religious experiences do not need to be legitimized by science in any way. The neurological perspective is simply another lens through which we can understand the experience of prayer. This review aims to converge the neurological and theological perspectives instead of using one to support or reject the other and vice versa. In fact, this neurological examination has limitations and flaws, just like the theological approach we can use to understand prayer.
One implication of these findings is comfort during hard times. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells people to “come to me all you who are weary andburdened, and I will give you rest” (New International Version, Matthew 11.28). Just as people often turn to loved ones to process or receive support in the midst of struggles, many Christians seek relational support from God. In fact, Christian self-reports of loneliness have shown that individuals with a stronger faith, measured by the practical exercising of their faith and their cognitive knowledge about the Christian faith, are less likely to be lonely than those with a weaker faith (Le Roux, 2002). Le Roux (2002) claims that this trend may be due to the intimate personal relationship with the omnipresent, omniscient, and loving God of the Christian faith, which may alleviate the negative emotions of feeling alone, unrecognized, or unloved.
Although many further studies must be performed to better characterize the relationship between prayer and the brain, we have tentatively concluded that neurologically, communication with God in Christianity is similar to communication with another person. These neurological findings are consistent with the Christian theological portrayal of a personal, communicative God, showing that neuroscience and theology can both be used to understand personal religious experiences.
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