The Study

Prayer and Your Brain

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Today is the National Day of Prayer, a day when, according to a 1998 congressional proclamation, "the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals." (As opposed to the other 364 days of the year, when they can't?) The history of the day goes back to the Truman Administration, and every president has marked the day since. Call the following a hunch, but it seems a pretty safe bet that more people than normal will be praying today, so The Study asks: what does prayer look like inside the brain?

In 2006, scientists at the University of Montreal studied the brains of 15 nuns in three states: resting, recalling a social experience, and recalling a religious experience. Though some previous studies had attributed religious activities and feelings to one particular part of the brain--the temporal lobe, which is crucial to language and long-term memory--the authors found that the religious experience activated a number of different parts of the brain, including parts playing roles in sensory coordination and decision-making, spatial orientation, and even falling in love. "There is no single God spot," one of the authors told Scientific American. "These states are mediated by a neural network that is well distributed throughout the brain." Who knew that religion could be so complicated?

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