The Placebo Effect and God May Live in the Same Brain Region

An ancient brainstem region evolved to help us to believe the unbelievable.

12/3/2021 9:31:00 PM

What do the placebo effect and religious belief have in common? Perhaps a region of the brain.

An ancient brainstem region evolved to help us to believe the unbelievable.

The perception of pain, more than any other sensory experience, is powerfully influenced by our expectations.Devout Catholics perceive noxious electrical pulses as being less painful when they gazed on a representation of the Virgin MaryThe periaqueductal gray within the brainstem became active when the subjects reported less pain after using a placebo.

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A person’s feelings of spirituality or religiosity also depend on increased activity within the periaqueductal grey region.The perception of pain, more than any other sensory experience, is powerfully influenced by our expectations. This is the essence of the

placebo effect. Apparently, it is also influenced by our beliefs.Can looking at a picture of the Virgin Mother relieve pain? Yes. However, you need to be a devout practicing Catholic for this to work. In a study published a few years ago in the journal headtopics.com

Pain, devout Catholics reported feeling more peaceful and compassionate when they looked at a picture of the Virgin Mary than when they looked at the painting of “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci. Devout Catholics also perceived noxious electrical pulses to their hand as being less painful when they gazed at a representation of the Virgin Mary than when they looked at the painting by da Vinci. Professed atheists and agnostics did not benefit from viewing an image of the Virgin Mary or the painting by da Vinci. They simply felt the pain. fMRI scans demonstrated that the Catholics’ pain relief was associated with greatly increased brain activity in brain regions involved in controlling our emotional response to pain.

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A pair of recent studies investigated the brainstem pathways involved in the phenomena of placebo analgesia. These studies used functional MRI (fMRI) to resolve the brainstem circuits that become active during the generation of placebo analgesia. In one study, healthy human participants were deceptively conditioned to believe that a cream labeled “lidocaine” would reduce the pain induced by a noxious stimulus. The cream did not contain lidocaine. Pain intensity ratings were collected from each subject. fMRI analysis revealed a well-known pain modulatory system that included the periaqueductal gray pathway within the brainstem that became active when the subjects reported less pain after using the cream labeled with the word lidocaine.

Read more: Psychology Today »

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