There are lots of reports that “faith in God really can relieve pain” and such in the press at the moment. These reports are based on a study published in Pain (yep, medical journals have all the most exotic titles: Gut, Brain, Breast, Lung….) and the abstract is available here.
Unsurprisingly, the research does not prove anything about a faith in God relieving pain. What does it show, then? The researchers compared 12 practising and believing Catholics with 12 nonbelievers. The researchers administered electric shocks to the subjects’ hands while asking them to study either a religious picture of the Virgin Mary or a secular image. When the groups were compared, the Catholics studying the image of the Virgin percieved that they had less pain. This correlated with specific findings on functional MRI scans which the researchers thought could play a role in brain regulation of pain in this group.
This is interesting, but it does not prove that faith in God has reduced pain. It shows that pictures of the Virgin Mary, presented to people likely to be familiar with that image, caused reductions in those people’s perceived pain. It may have been the case that any familiar image – religious or not – would have been as capable of distracting people from pain.
That is worth exploring. While distraction is a well known technique for helping with pain, more work may help sort out what kinds of visual distraction work best for what people.