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I Have Faith, Therefore I Have Less Pain

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Religious emotions and believes have often been linked to a capacity to deal with pain, as those images of Philippine men being willingly crucified during
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 30, 2008
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      Religious emotions and believes have often
      been linked to a capacity to deal with pain,
      as those images of Philippine men being willingly
      crucified during religious festivals so well
      demonstrate. But although changes in pain
      sensitivity during a religious experience are well
      documented, the exact psychological or/and
      neurological reasons of the phenomenon are
      unclear and, as such, have now become the aim of an
      investigation by a group of scientists, philosophers
      and psychologists from the University of Oxford.
      The research, to be published in the next edition
      of the journal Pain1, reveals, for the first
      time, that religion-associated pain resistance is
      linked to the activation of the brain right
      ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), an
      area associated with both cognitive down-regulation
      of pain and reassessment of the emotional
      meaning of an experience – for example by giving
      a neutral or even positive meaning to a noxious
      experience, and so making it much easier to cope
      with. The research contributes for a better
      understanding of pain coping mechanisms, and,
      consequently, can put us closer to new and better
      therapies for pain, but also might help to
      comprehend how cultural influences, such as
      religion, can affect the development and use
      of the different parts of the brain. And it
      does give an extra meaning to the saying "faith
      helps through life's pains"…
      It is known that the brain can control the way
      we feel about pain – the more we fear it, for
      example, the more unbearable it does seem - or
      even our unconscious perception of it as shown
      by the often very high pain threshold of chronic
      patients. To understand how this is achieved
      is of major importance if we consider the
      devastating effects of chronic pain, not only to
      patients' quality of life, but also as an
      economic burden to society. In an attempt to
      find the link between brain and pain control,
      Katja Wiech, Miguel Farias, Irene Tracey and
      colleagues from the departments of Anaesthetics,
      Clinical Neurology, Theology, Ethics and
      Philosophy at the University of Oxford and
      the Psychology and Religion Research Group at
      the University of Cambridge decided to look into a
      widely reported but poorly understood phenomenon -
      alterations of pain perception observed during
      intense religious experiences.
      For that, the researchers used 12 practicing
      Catholics and 12 non-religious voluntaries,
      submitting both groups to an electrical
      shock, during which they were shown either
      a religious or a non-religious image, and
      while registering their brain activity. After
      this the subjects were asked to record the
      intensity of the pain felt during the pulse,
      as well as their like/dislike for each of the images.
      The pictures chosen – a painting of the Virgin
      Mary called ``Vergine annunciate" by Sassoferrato
      and ``Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci
      as the non-religious control – were
      aesthetically very similar.
      Interestingly, it was found that the religious
      group reported much less pain if watching the
      Virgin Mary during the electrical stimulus, despite
      the fact that both groups had, previously, been
      shown to have similar pain sensitivity. When
      commenting on the images, the Catholic subjects,
      as expected, expressed a higher liking for the
      Virgin Mary, while the non-religious group preferred
      the da Vinci's print and even had
      negative feelings towards the Virgin. These
      observations support the idea that the changes
      in pain perception were linked to the religious
      content of the Virgin image, and not the result
      of a preference towards an image, since the
      non-religious group had no pain scores' changes
      while watching its preferred da Vinci's image.
      Further supporting the hypothesis, when the
      voluntaries' brains were analysed during the
      experiment by functional MRI – which registers
      blood oxygen variations in the central nervous
      system, with the areas of high activity showing
      high(er) levels of oxygen –, it revealed high
      activation of the right ventrolateral prefrontal
      cortex in the religious voluntaries, again, in
      the presence of the Virgin. The atheist/agnostic
      group, on the other hand, showed no changes in
      that area at any moment.
      All individuals showed activation of the striatum,
      an area linked to pain perception.
      VLPFC activation is known to be linked to
      reassessment of the emotional evaluation of
      experiences, so in this case, the researchers
      propose that the religious state, induced
      during the experiment with Catholics and
      the Virgin image, leads to a reassessment of
      the pain, giving it new more positive meaning
      and, in this way, diminishing its association with
      suffering. This is supported, not only by the
      fact that none of the non-religious subjects
      registered changes in the pain scoring, but also
      by the religious content comments of the
      Catholic group when describing their feelings
      in front of the image of the Virgin Mary: "… feeling
      calmed down and peaceful", ``…taken care of", "…felt
      compassion and support".
      In conclusion, to Wiech, Farias and colleagues,
      and as consequence of an intense devout state
      induced by observing the religious image, the
      pain of the Catholics seems to be no longer
      associated with suffering but, instead,
      perfectly bearable and, in other more extreme cases
      probably even seen as a blessing, like the
      Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) seems
      to say in a letter to her daughter:
      "Very pleasing to Me, dearest daughter, is
      the willing desire to bear every pain and
      fatigue, even unto death, for the salvation
      of souls, for the more the soul endures, the
      more she shows that she loves Me; loving
      Me she comes to know more of My truth…"
      Wiech, Farias and colleagues' work reveals,
      for the first time, the neurological basis
      behind altered pain sensitivity during intense
      religious experiences. Although their hypothesis
      of pain reassessment meaning during religious
      experiences needs further investigation to be
      confirmed, these results are undoubtedly an
      important first step towards a better understanding
      of the neural mechanisms associated with pain
      control and, as such, in the direction of
      better pain coping treatments. And these can
      include, not only drugs targeting activation of brain
      areas associated with pain resistance, but
      even cognitive therapies based on the induction
      of similar emotional states to those produced by
      Miguel Farias, a Portuguese researcher and
      one of the authors of the research says
      "this is an extremely fascinating area and there is no
      doubt that the brain and our emotions can
      directly affect our physical being. After all,
      we all know how stress can damage our health, or, how,
      when we are depressed, it is so much easier
      to get a cold. But we know much less about
      the brain's positive effects, for example, how can we
      explain studies that suggest that religious
      individuals seem to have longer and healthier lives?
      This is what we want to understand in order
      to be able to use the knowledge to improve, for
      example, the life of pain patients."
      A further issue raised by this discovery is
      how different environmental experiences – in
      this case the experience of faith – can affect the
      use and, during childhood probably even the
      development of the brain. In fact, neuroscience
      has shown that environmental experiences can increase
      neuronal connectivity contributing to different
      developments within a brain. By showing that
      religious feelings are directly linked to a brain
      area Wiech and colleagues' experiments raise
      interesting issues that no doubt need to be
      further investigated.

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