Let’s say you really admire someone. You’ve heard all these amazing things about their intelligence, their talent, their power to effect change. And then you go to listen to them speak, and you have this weird experience. Their voice gets into your head; shivers go down your spine; you find yourself nodding in agreement at everything they say. When they finally stop speaking and the applause dies away, you have to shake yourself to get back to down to earth. It felt like their charisma had a powerful effect on you, didn’t it?
Did it really? Danish researcher Uffe Schjoedt at the University of Aarhus recently tried to find out. To do so, he turned to a group of people he thought might be especially susceptible to the notion of charisma in a specific form: as a divine talent.
Testing One, Two, Three
The experiment itself was beautifully simple. Schjoedt recruited 36 participants, half of whom identified as strongly religious Christians (mostly from the Pentacostal movement) and half of whom identified as secular. The religious participants not only professed a belief in God, but possessed extensive and frequent experience with both praying and being prayed for. They believed in the healing power of prayer, as well as in the existence of particular individuals on whom God has bestowed special healing powers. The secular participants did not hold any of these beliefs.
At the beginning of the experiment, the subjects were told that the researchers were studying the effects on the brain of intercessory prayer (a type of prayer in which the speaker appeals to God on behalf of someone else). Next, each listened to eighteen different prayers read by three different male speakers (as a control condition, the participants also listened to recordings of secular speeches, structurally similar to prayers but containing no religious content).
Before each 30-second prayer was played, participants were told that the person they were about to hear was either
1) a non-Christian,
2) an “ordinary” Christian, or
3) a Christian known for his healing powers.
(The truth? All the speakers were “ordinary” Christians who believed in God, but were not known for any divine powers.)
While they listened, fMRI scanners roamed the subjects’ brains, capturing detailed data about what neuroscientists call the BOLD (Blood-oxygen-level dependence) response. In plain English, the scans showed a map of relative activity and inactivity in the brain, based on how much blood and oxygen was being supplied to particular groups of neurons by surrounding glial cells. Here’s what they revealed:
Not so BOLD
Among the non-religious subjects, there was no significant difference in brain activity no matter which recording they were listening to. Secular statements and prayers read by people they believed to be non-Christians, Christians, and Christians with healing powers all produced similar-looking scans.
Among the religious subjects, the contrast between two sets of scans caught Schjoedt’s eye. When he compared fMRI images of religious subjects listening to what they thought were non-Christians vs. Christians known for their healing powers, it was clear that there were marked differences in the BOLD response in certain areas. These included the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporoparietal junction, the inferior temporal cortex and the lateral orbitofrontal region.
What were these differences? They consisted of what scientists call “down-regulations” in the BOLD response. In other words, when the subjects were supposedly listening to the words of Christians with healing powers, there was much lower activity in certain areas of the brain. (Notably, these were the same speakers that the religious subjects later rated as having a high degree of charisma, as well as the ones that they said caused them to feel the presence of God more strongly.)
As an aside, it’s important to note that fMRI studies aren’t always reliable—so a little skepticism is valuable. But it’s also worth noting that in this case, the differences between certain sets of scans were so great that in the paper Schjoedt published earlier this year, he called them “massive.”
Religion as Hypnosis?
The million-dollar question, of course, is what all this actually means. The biggest decreases in activity, Schjoedt noticed, were in the parts of the brain known as the frontal executive network and the social cognitive network. The former is a complex set of neural structures known to be involved in high-level organization, assessment, and analysis of information. The latter is essential for perceiving and understanding others’ affects and intentions. In other words, there is some reason to believe that when religious subjects listened to Christians they perceived as being charismatic—even if the speaker did not make a special effort to use persuasive words or tone of voice—they actually “turned down” the parts of their brains responsible for judging what they heard and, in Schjoedt’s words, effectively “handed them over” to someone else.
Provocative? Certainly. But if you happen to be an atheist, don’t congratulate yourself on your clearheadedness just yet. What Schjoedt’s experiment really shows is how our expectations about others’ charisma (or authority, or just-plain-specialness) can modulate the brain’s ability to process and judge incoming information. And we’re all subject to those expectations, even if we don’t all apply them to faith-healing Christians. Schjoedt has this to say:
If our interpretation of the results is correct, our study may be indicative of a general effect of stereotype interaction. Doctors, judges, teachers, officers, etc., who are recognized as having special competencies, may all benefit (or suffer) from ‘stereotype’ effects, and this neural mechanism may play a central role in the general dynamics of social authority and obedience as observed in the early behavioural studies by Stanley Milgram…
I just got a shiver down my spine, and it wasn’t the good kind.