In a rather bizarre experiment, experts at The Oxford Centre For Science Of The Mind 'tortured' 12 Roman Catholics and 12 atheists with electric shocks as they studied a painting of the Virgin Mary. From the analysis, the team found that the Catholics seemed to be able to block out much of the pain. And, using the latest brain-scanning techniques, they also discovered that the Catholics were able to activate part of the brain associated with conditioning the experience of pain, reports The Daily Mail.
The Rt Rev Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, welcomed the research, saying: "The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are.
"It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions. So it comes as no surprise to me that this experiment has reached such conclusions."
For the research, a sparking device was strapped to the back of the participants' left hands to deliver an electric shock.
The scientists then asked them to contemplate two paintings, Sassoferrato's 17th Century Virgin Annunciate (Virgin Mary) and Leonardo da Vinci's 15th Century Lady With An Ermine.
The researchers hoped that the face of the Virgin Mary would induce a religious state of mind in the believers, while da Vinci's painting was chosen because it did not look dissimilar and would be calming.
The volunteers were not told the true purpose of the experiment, only that it was designed to judge how people felt pain while contemplating pictures of different things.
They spent half an hour inside an MRI scanner, receiving a series of 20 electric shocks in four separate sessions while looking at either the religious or non-religious picture.
Each time, the volunteer had to rate how much it hurt on a scale of 0 to 100.
The Catholics said that looking at the painting of the Virgin Mary made them feel 'safe', 'taken care of' and 'calmed down and peaceful'.
More significantly, they reported feeling 12 per cent less pain after viewing the religious image than after looking at the Leonardo.
The front right-hand side of their brains lit up on the scanner, indicating that the neural mechanisms of pain modulation had been engaged.
There was no such brain activity among the atheists, whose pain and anxiety levels stayed roughly the same throughout the experiment.
The study has been published in the scientific journal Pain.