Feeling less pain?

MadonnaWhere's the rest of the story? That's what I wanted to know after reading Ian Sample's article in last week's Guardian.

Sample covers science, not religion, so perhaps his lede, with its rather reverent (ancient and elaborate) approach to its subject, should not be a surprise:

Scientists have uncovered an ancient and elaborate source of pain relief that is based purely on the power of the mind, according to research published today.

The article recounts an experiment by Oxford University researchers who showed 12 agnostics and atheists and 12 "practicing" Roman Catholics students a depiction of the Virgin Mary by the 17-century painter Sassoferrato and "Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci. Then the students were given electric shocks and asked to rank their pain.

What happened?

Brain scans of volunteers who were subjected to electrical shocks revealed that Roman Catholics felt less pain than atheists and agnostics when they were shown a painting of the Virgin Mary.

Images of the volunteers' brains showed that in devout believers, an area of the brain that suppresses reactions to threatening situations lit up when they were shown the picture.

I'm surprised, as a nonscientist, that the author thought anything worth reporting could be determined from an experiment on 24 people. Does the aura of truth associated with the word science carry that much credibility in the world of journalism?

It would have been wonderful, too, if Mr. Sample had consulted someone who bridged the worlds of theology and science to offer an alternative explanation.

As interesting as the results of this experiment are, the results, as explained by Sample, sorely lack any context -- scientific or religious.

And what's with the sexy, but inaccurate headline -- "Religious belief can help relieve pain, say researchers"?

According to reseacher Katja Wiech, quoted at the end of the story, faith doesn't seem to have had a whole lot to do with it.

The Roman Catholics engaged a brain mechanism that is well known from research into the placebo effect, analgesia and emotional disengagement," said Wiech. "It helps people to reinterpret pain, and make it less threatening. These people felt safe by looking at the Virgin Mary, they felt looked after, so the whole context of the test changed for them."

It is highly likely that non-religious people could achieve a similar ability to control pain, perhaps through meditation or other mental strategies. "There's no suggestion that this effect is specific to religion and we've not found the God blob in the brain. This is about the state of mind you can achieve," said Wiech.

Preliminary studies on lapsed Catholics suggest that images of the Virgin Mary lessen their sense of pain too, the researchers said.

How many lapsed Catholics? What does it mean to say that they are "lapsed"? Does that mean they do not believe in God -- or the Virgin Mary, for that matter? And where was this research published, by the way -- in case we wanted to know more?

There's a shadow story here -- or, rather, not here.

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