Catholics feel less pain than atheists and agnostics after contemplating the Virgin Mary, UK scientists have found.
Reporting their findings in the forthcoming edition of Pain magazine, researchers at the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind said feelings of safety produced by the devotional image allowed the faithful to access pain relief centres in the brain.
Catholics in the study felt 11 percent less pain than atheists or agnostics after viewing Sassoferrato's 17th century painting of the Virgin Mary, Vergine Annunciate. This is approximately equal to the soothing relief of a hot flannel on a headache.
A similar looking non-religious picture by Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, had little effect on either believers or non-believers. Researchers suggested this was because, for pain relief to occur, the picture had to trigger deep spiritual feelings.
Volunteers had their heads strapped inside a brain scanner and received electric shocks, delivered via an electrode strapped to the back of their hand, shortly after viewing the religious or non-religious picture. After each series of shocks, participants recorded how bad the pain was, on a scale of zero to 100.
The experiment was designed to measure the pain relief produced by the brain.
Researchers expected to find increased activity in a part of the brain known to attach meaning to painful events, a region in the right temple that can also reduce pain. Brain scans taken during the experiment supported the theory, Catholics' brains lit up in this area, but the brains of atheists and agnostics did not.
Researchers believe the results showed that Catholics contemplating the Virgin Mary felt safe, with the result that they were less afraid of the pain and therefore felt it less.
Virgin Mary 'reduces Catholics' pain' (Total Catholic, 1/10/08)
Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind