According to an article in Science News online;
Stimulating a religious state of mind in devout Catholics triggers brain processes associated with substantial relief from physical pain, report neuroscientist Katja Wiech of the University of Oxford, England...
I had to grin at the "devout Catholics" thing. Remember, in any mainstream media source, Catholics are always "devout".
Practicing Catholics perceived electrical pulses delivered to one hand while viewing an image of the Virgin Mary as less painful than pulses delivered while looking at a non-religious picture....
...In alternating trials, volunteers first spent 30 seconds observing an image either of a painting of the Virgin Mary or Lady with an Ermine, a painting of a similar-looking woman by Leonardo da Vinci.
Why does this bring flashbacks of A Clockwork Orange?
This kind of study seems... well, in the words of Hermione Granger, "a very woolly discipline...". The two images used are different enough in mood to explain certain differences in reaction. One face is alert, attentive and brightly lit, the other muted, downcast and listless to the point of being soporific (oddly, when I viewed the story this morning, it was accompanied by a different picture of the Virgin Mary). The whole thing just doesn't seem to me very scientific, except for the use of some scientific equipment (MRI machines).
I keep wondering what kind of real conclusions anyone expects to be able to draw from such an experiment. At least it seems nearly impossible to get anything from this set of observations that one doesn't bring to it. According to the study, there is (at certain times) activity in certain regions of the brains of religious people that isn't there in non-religious people. Okay. Duly noted - but that's no data to which any reputable scientist could even begin to attach any explanatory meaning.
That won't stop some from trying to nudge interpretation one way or another, but even in that effort they run into difficulties, as when Tor Wager of Columbia University states “Anyone can create new, positive meanings for aversive events, but they have to find thoughts or interpretations that they truly believe in”.
Anyone spot the Chicken or Egg problem here, or is it just me? I have no doubt, though, that rash, pseudo-scientific atheists will be happy to (somehow?) use this study as further evidence that the Religion Centers of the brain evolved because it proved beneficial (in some ways) to primitive man, lessening the psychic impact of his prehistoric boo-boos.