Research Suggests the Brain Benefits Socially and Cognitively from Prayer

Hey this is fun.

According to new research, the act of prayer can strengthen one’s will and refuel an exhausted brain. This comes to us from a post at Scientific American by Piercarlo Valdesolo, where we learn that Prof. Malt Friese and Michaela Wanke put participants through some emotionally and cognitively draining tasks — suppressing emotion and laughter while watching a funny video followed by identifying the colors of words that spell different colors as they flash by rapidly. Then the participants were told to pray for 5 minutes, and what happened?

Participants who were asked to pray about a topic of their choosing for five minutes showed significantly better performance on the [color identifying task] after emotion suppression, compared to participants who were simply asked to think about a topic of their choosing. And this effect held regardless of whether participants identified as religious (70 percent) or not.

Certainly it’s more difficult to perform intellectual tasks following an emotional drain, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that folks would perform better on the intellectual exercise after a short period of mindfulness or meditation. The study happens to label the activity as “prayer,” but it sounds to me that they just got 5 minutes to relax and reset their brains in a concentrated and intentional manner, as opposed to the less formal “think about something else for 5 minutes” control group.

But the conclusions drawn point to something else:

The authors tested several possible explanations, but found statistical support for only one: people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation. Past research has found that even brief social interactions with others can promote cognitive functioning, and the same seems to hold true for brief social interactions with deities.

So the researchers say their data points to the positive effects of prayer being social rather than meditative. (And I have to surmise that the “temptation” resisted is to blow off the color-identification task, but it’s frankly not clear to me from the piece.) If you think you’re talking to a supernatural being — or even just act like you are for the nonreligious folks in the study — you’re getting a social benefit as far as your brain is concerned, which supposedly refuels your cognitive gas tank. Your imaginary friend God can play the role of IRL friend!

Now, as an extreme introvert, I have to imagine I’d be one of the outliers in a study like this. My fake prayer would probably be something like, “Please stop watching me take this test, you’re making me self-conscious.”

Image via Shutterstock.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.