Thumbing through a recent issue of New Scientist, I came upon an intriguingly titled short article: "Praying to God is like talking to a friend."
(I'll include the article in a continuation to this post, in case the link above becomes inactive.)
A brain scanner was used to see what happens when people improvised personal prayers before making requests to Santa Claus.
...The prefrontal cortex is key to theory of mind. Crucially, this area was inactive during the Santa Claus task, suggesting volunteers viewed Santa Claus as fictitious but God as a real individual.
Of course, this study doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. It just shows that when people pray, they believe they're communicating with an animate being.
Which helps explain why religions are so appealing to people -- particularly those that promise a personal relationship with some divine entity.
Who wouldn't want to have a best friend always available? Especially one who's omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent?
I used to believe that the guru who initiated me into a mystical meditation practice was part and parcel of my consciousness. Disciples were encouraged to think often about the guru during the day, and visualize his presence in their lives.
Doing that, I'd feel a warm glow of conviviality with my imaginary friend. "Imaginary," because I never actually sensed the presence of a separate non-physical being, nor were my mental conversations anything but one-sided.
I'd talk away inside my head to my guru, feeling good that I had someone who'd listen to whatever I had to say, and was totally accepting of whatever thoughts or emotions passed through my mind.
Hook me up to an MRI machine back then, and my scan results probably would have been the same of the praying people in this study.
Now, I suspect my guru talk would register more along the Santa Claus lines, because I've stopped believing in an unseen friend who hears me but doesn't speak to me.
When the phone rings in our house, I pick it up and say "Hello." Usually I hear a voice respond almost immediately. If all I hear is silence, I'll repeat my hello a few more times.
Then I hang up. It'd be crazy to keep on talking when there isn't anyone on the line. But this is just what I did for many years. And what religious believers do whenever they pray.
To keep up a one-sided conversation with someone unseen or unheard, you have to believe (1) that the other person is there, but (2) chooses to be a 100% listener rather than a talker.
For a long time I could embrace this belief. Not totally, but to a sufficient extent that I didn't feel foolish when I chatted away to my guru in thought-words. Eventually, though, I began to feel that I was merely talking to myself.
Now, each morning I begin my meditation with silently spoken words along this line:
If there's anyone out there, or in here, or wherever, who is aware of me, hi! Stop on by my consciousness. Let's get to know each other. Assuming you're nice. If you're a demon or some other nasty being, I'd just as soon that you keep to yourself.
And that's about it. I've stopped jabbering to hypothesized metaphysical beings who never respond to me. If an entity wants to strike up a conversation within my consciousness, I'm all ears.
But I'm not interested any more in being all tongue. Like the people in the study, I've done my share of talking to a divinity who I believed was really listening.
Now it's my turn to listen for a response. Which is a fine traditional way to meditate: doing one's best to empty the mind of thought talk and observing what remains, or happens next.
What I've found when I do this is that I lose a conversation with an imaginary friend. But I gain a sense of being in greater touch with reality. And that's a good trade-off.
Here's the full article:
Praying to God is like talking to a friend
- 12 April 2009 by Andy Coghlan
- Magazine issue 2703. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
- For similar stories, visit the The Human Brain Topic Guide
IS PRAYER just another kind of friendly conversation? Yes, says Uffe Schjødt, who used MRI to scan the brains of 20 devout Christians. "It's like talking to another human. We found no evidence of anything mystical."
Schjødt, of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and colleagues, asked volunteers to carry out two tasks involving both religious and "secular" activities. In the first task, they silently recited the Lord's Prayer, then a nursery rhyme. Identical brain areas, typically associated with rehearsal and repetition, were activated.
In the second, they improvised personal prayers before making requests to Santa Claus. Improvised prayers triggered patterns that match those seen when people communicate with each other, and activated circuitry that is linked with the theory of mind - an awareness that other individuals have their own independent motivations and intentions (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn050).
Two of the activated regions are thought to process desire and consider how another individual - in this case God - might react. Also activated were part of the prefrontal cortex linked to the consideration of another person's intentions, and an area thought to help access memories of previous encounters with that person.
The prefrontal cortex is key to theory of mind. Crucially, this area was inactive during the Santa Claus task, suggesting volunteers viewed Santa as fictitious but God as a real individual.
Previous studies have found that the prefrontal cortex is not activated when people interact with inanimate objects, such as a computer game. "The brain doesn't activate these areas because they don't expect reciprocity, nor find it necessary to think about the computer's intentions," says Schjødt.
He says the results show people believe they are talking to someone when they pray, an outcome that pleased both atheists and Christians: "Atheists said it shows that it's all an illusion," says Schjødt, while Christians said it was evidence that God is real.
Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford points out that the study proves neither: "This has nothing to do with whether God exists or not, only with subjects' beliefs about whether God exists."