Prayer alters cognitive processing

Prayer woman lightFor the believer, prayer provides a connection to God. For the nonbeliever, prayer wastes time that could be spent on learning a skill. Yet for the believer, prayer is a skill that requires practice. While science cannot determine whether persistent, practiced prayer achieves its goal (connecting with God), it can detect how prayer changes the believer’s brain. Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann (Stanford University) and colleagues (from the University of Chicago) found that disciplined prayer increases the use and vividness of one’s mental imagery, increases one’s attention, and increases the chances of having unusual sensory or religious experiences.

The researchers focus on a particular kind of prayer discipline used by many Evangelical Christians. This prayer method emphasizes reliving Biblical texts through the imagination and focusing attention on the senses (especially vision). After employing these methods, many Christians have reported seeing or hearing God or angels. The researchers quickly note that such religious hallucinations need not be associated with psychosis: unlike psychosis, these experiences were short-lived, rare, and not distressing or threatening.

From the perspective of cognitive psychology, the same biological mechanisms run both mental imagery and perception. This means that altering one (say, mental imagery) could in theory alter the other (say, perception). Because of this, the authors hypothesize that prayer, by altering mental imagery, consequently also alters sense perception, resulting in hallucinations. Interestingly enough, the believer may perceive these hallucinations as more real than everyday reality precisely because they stem from a well-developed mental imagery center.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited volunteers through advertisements, and randomly assigned them to two groups: a prayer group and a Bible study group. The Bible study group would act as a control to make sure that, if an increase in religious experiences were to occur, it would not simply be from spending more time thinking about and participating in religion. The prayer group spent a month under the direction of an Evangelical Christian spiritual director, while the Bible study group spent that same period of time learning about the spiritual benefits of studying the Bible and listening to lectures about the Bible. None of the subjects had a history of psychosis or show current signs of it. At the beginning of the study, 67% of them said they prayed for no more than 15 minutes per day.

All participants completed five tasks and an interview both before and after their one month period of religious learning. First, the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) measured the participants’ vividness of mental imagery. A recorded voice would tell the listeners to close their eyes, describe a scene, and then ask them to rate how vividly they were able to imagine the scene (such a scene, for example, included a country scene where people had to picture the landscape, trees, a lake, wind, etc., flush with details about colors and motion). Second, the participants took a letter detection test that displayed a giant letter composed of a series of smaller, different letters. They then had to answer questions about the letters in that series. Third, a recorded voice would describe a geometric shape, rotate it, add lines, and do a variety of other changes to it, and at the end of it the participant had to draw the resulting shape. Fourth, participants read 20 different pairs of words (for example, “yacht” and “umbrella”) one at a time, after which they were given one of the two words and asked if they could remember its partner (previous research has shown that people who can form mental images to represent the pair excel at this task). Fifth and finally, the participants completed a “fade in/fade out” task, in which an image, word, or spoken phrase would start as gibberish and slowly “fade into” focus. The participant hit a key as soon as it became clear to them. Likewise, in the “fade out” task, an image, word, or spoken phrase would start clear and slowly “fade out,” and the participant would hit a key as soon as it became incomprehensible. The researchers also conducted interviews regarding unusual experiences.

As expected, more participants in the prayer group had fuller and sharper mental imagery after the month of prayer training than in the Bible study group (according to the VVIQ). More precisely, only 6 of the 48 people in the Bible study reported an increase in mental imagery, compared to 38 of 53 people in the prayer study. The results of the letter detection test reveal that, among those who started the study with less than 90% accuracy, only those who were part of the prayer group had a statistically significant increase in accuracy. In fact, one person’s accuracy increased so drastically (three standard deviations) that this result had to be omitted from the final calculations! For both the geometric shape and paired word tasks, those in the prayer group outperformed those in the Bible group after the one-month time period. Finally, there was no statistically significant difference between either group for the fade in task, but the prayer group on average took longer before saying they could no longer see the object on the fade out task (compared to the Bible group). As for the interviews, for those who said they had experienced an hallucination on an average of once per year or less, seven members of the prayer group reported at least one hallucination in the one-month period of prayer training, compared to only one member of the Bible study group.

The authors found their hypothesis confirmed: “We have demonstrated that a form of prayer practice which uses mental imagery in many sensory modalities, visual above all, increases imagery vividness and (to some extent) alters perceptual accuracy. Our data have shown that these practices lead to reports of unusual sensory experiences and to reports of unusual sensory experiences associated with the religious ideas which form the content of the practice.” They speculate that spiritual practices occur in so many religious traditions because “They enhance the ability to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows. This is crucial to the experience of God.” In other words, it gives experiential “evidence” to the believer that they are genuinely experiencing God or the Divine—again, an experience that feels more real than everyday experience. Try convincing a believer that God doesn’t exist, when that person perceives God as more real than you are.

For more see “Lord, Teach Us to Pray”: Prayer Practice Affects Cognitive Processing in the Journal of Cognition and Culture.