Praying for Pain Relief

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Prayer seems to work as a form of pain relief—but is this a physiological response, or is it purely psychological? To investigate this, Else-Marie Elmholdt Jegindø and her colleagues from the Danish Pain Research Centre in Aarhus, Denmark, strapped electrodes to the legs of 20 religious and 20 nonreligious volunteers. By administering a carefully calibrated shock, electrodes like this can deliver a five-minute long burst of sharp pain, but without causing any damage.

Participants were asked either to recite a prayer, including the line “Dear God, I pray that you will help to relieve the pain and give me good health,” or to recite a similar request to a generic nobody (“Mr Hansen”). Some were not given any instructions, and just sat and endured the pain.

As you can see from the graphic below, the only group that reported reduced pain was the religious group who recited a prayer. Across all groups, each individual’s expectations about how bad the pain would be were a good predictor of how bad the pain felt. However, for the religious group reciting a prayer (and that group alone), the amount of pain they reported was also influenced by how strong was their desire for pain relief.
So these results show that religious people (and the religious people in this study were highly religious) feel—or at least report—less pain as a result of prayer, but especially if they really want it to happen.

So much for the psychology, what about the physiology? Well, Jegindø and the team also measured a bunch of physiological markers of pain—things like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate.

On the whole, they didn’t find much. Although the religious people reported less pain while reciting prayers, their bodies reacted pretty much the same. However, religious people reading prayers did have a lower breathing rate. That’s interesting because a similar effect has been reported for people meditating. It’s a tantalizing comparison, although Jegindø warns that these data are very preliminary and should not be over-interpreted.

All in all, this new study supports previous studies showing that religion can give pain relief through a kind of placebo effect. But what’s new is that the physiological stress seems to be just as high. It’s just that the people who pray and who want it to work say that, well, it really does work!

What Playing Games Can Teach Us About Prayer

From Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman of Sinai and Synapses:

While I certainly use my iPhone to check my email and make calls, far and away what really drains my battery are apps like Cut the Rope, Dark Nebula, and Words With Friends. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I simply love playing games.

But why? What is it about games that draw people in?

According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, it’s because the best games place us right into a sweet spot in the interaction between two poles—structure and creativity.

Sometimes, structure stifles creativity. That’s why Tic-Tac-Toe gets so boring so quickly—because there’s no space for imagination.

But for the most dynamic games, the rules can actually enhance our ability to be creative.

One of my favorite examples comes in a podcast from WNYC’s Radiolab, where co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview chess expert Fred Friedel. Friedel wrote a computer program listing every chess move that has ever been played in any tournament. It’s called “Fritz.”

Now, whenever you play a game of chess, your first move has probably been done millions of times. After all, just about everyone starts with one of their pawns moving forward. But as the game progresses, the number of previous times a board position has occurred gets fewer and fewer and fewer. It goes from the millions to the thousands to the hundreds to the tens to the single digits.

Eventually, there comes a moment in the game that has never happened in tournament history. As Friedel describes it, the board is “in a position that has never occurred in the universe.” And when the game gets to that moment, as Abumrad and Krulwich tell us, it feels like “you get a peek at something infinite.”

What’s fascinating is that “a peek at something infinite” is not only something that happens in games. A “peek at something infinite” is truly the goal of prayer. And we get that glimpse when we find improvisation, imagination, and creativity within the limits of a clearly defined set of rules. As Krulwich says, “[A game] has a small field of play, but then you step into it, and … whoosh!”

We want that “whoosh!”, but in order to get there, we need guidelines. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues, when it comes to prayer, spontaneity is the goal, but continuity is the way. And so Jewish prayer at its best has much in common with the best games—they both live in that space where structure helps us engender wonder and imagination.

In Judaism, prayer involves those two components—keva, the fixed words and set times we should pray, and kavannah, the intentionality and inspiration prayer is supposed to create. Often, keva is disparaged or ignored because it feels boring or repetitive or that it’s simply rote recitation.

But when prayer is at its best, keva actually helps us get to kavannah. Rabbi Shawn Zevit says it well in Making Prayer Real:

What is the structure that allows you to express your longing, your thanks, your wow, your reflection? I find that prayer, the structure of it and our own particular Jewish nuances of it, is an optimal part of the living diet for well-being In the Jewish modalities of prayer, those very longings, those very human dimensions are addressed …

We want to be inspired. We want to find strength. We want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. But those moments rarely happen by accident.

By giving us a framework, rules and structures can help us get there. They remind us to practice. They tell us what to look for. And they allow us to regularly experience the ordinary, so that we can be ready to experience the extraordinary.

Indeed, that’s the deep connection between both games and religion. In a review of Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution, Charles Mathewes reminds us that:

Play involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment …

In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.

In other words, “playing” and “praying” have much more in common than we may think.

Why Cultural Cognition Is Not a Bias, Pt. 2

From Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project:

This is post number two on the question, “Is cultural cognition a bias?”—to which the answer is, “nope, it’s not even a heuristic; it’s an integral component of human rationality.”

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of people to conform their perceptions of risk and other policy-consequential facts to those that predominate in groups central to their identities. It’s a dynamic that generates intense conflict on issues like climate change, the HPV vaccine, and gun control.

Those conflicts, I agree, aren’t good for our collective well-being. I believe it’s possible and desirable to design science communication strategies that help to counteract the contribution that cultural cognition makes to such disputes.

I’m sure I have, for expositional convenience, characterized cultural cognition as a “bias” in this context. But the truth is more complicated, and it’s important to see that—important, for one thing, because a view that treats cultural cognition as simply a bias is unlikely to appreciate what sorts of communication strategies are likely to offset the conditions that pit cultural cognition against enlightened self-government.

In part 1, I bashed the notion—captured in the Royal Society motto nullius in verba, “take no one’s word for it”—that scientific knowledge is inimical to, or even possible without, assent to authoritative certification of what’s known.

No one is in a position to corroborate through meaningful personal engagement with evidence more than a tiny fraction of the propositions about how the world works that are collectively known to be true. Or even a tiny fraction of the elements of collective knowledge that it’s absolutely essential for one to accept, whether one is a scientist trying to add increments to the repository of scientific insight, or an ordinary person just trying to live.

What’s distinctive of scientific knowledge is not that it dispenses with the need to take it on the word of those who know what they are talking about, but that it identifies as worthy of such deference only those who are relating knowledge acquired by the empirical methods distinctive of science.

But for collective knowledge (scientific and otherwise) to advance under these circumstances, it is necessary that people—of all varieties—be capable of reliably identifying who really does know what he or she is talking about.

People—of all varieties—are remarkably good at doing that. Put 100 people in a room and tell them to perform, say, a calculus problem, and likely one will genuinely be able to solve it and four mistakenly believe they can. Let the people out 15 minutes later, however, and it’s pretty likely that all 100 will know the answer. Not because the one who knew will have taught the other 99 how to do calculus. But because that’s the amount of time it will take the other 99 to figure out that she (and none of the other four) was the one who actually knew what she was talking about.

But obviously, this ability to recognize who knows what they are talking about is imperfect. Like any other faculty, too, it will work better or worse depending on whether it is being exercised in conditions that are congenial or uncongenial to its reliable functioning.
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Why Cultural Cognition Is Not a Bias, Pt. 1

From Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project:

This is actually the first of two posts on the question, “Is cultural cognition a bias?” to which the answer is “well, no, actually it’s not. It’s an essential component of human rationality, without which we’d all be idiots.”

But forget that for now, and consider this:

Nullius in verba means “take no one’s word for it.”

It’s the motto of the Royal Society, a truly remarkable institution, whose members contributed more than anyone ever to the formation of the distinctive, and distinctively penetrating, mode of ascertaining knowledge that is the signature of science.

The society’s motto, “take no one’s word for it!”—i.e., figure out what is true empirically, not on the bias of authority—is charming, even inspiring, but also utterly absurd.

“DON’T tell me about Newton and his Principia Naturalis,” you say, “I’m going to do my own experiments to determine the Law of Gravitation.”

“Shut up already about Einstein! I’ll point my own telescope at the sun during the next lunar eclipse, place my own atomic clocks inside of airplanes, and create my own GPS system to ‘see for myself’ what sense there is in this relativity business!’”

“Fsssssss—I don’t want to hear anything about some Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Let me see if it is possible to determine the precise position and precise momentum of a particle simultaneously.”

After 500 years of this, you’ll be up to this month’s Nature, which will at that point be only 500 years out of date.

But, of course, if you refuse to take anyone’s word for it, it’s not just your knowledge of scientific discovery that will suffer. Indeed, you’ll likely be dead long before you figure out that the Earth goes around the sun rather than vice versa.

If you think you know that antibiotics kill bacteria, say, or that smoking causes lung cancer because you have confirmed these things for yourself, then take my word for it, you don’t really get how science works. Or better still, take Karl Popper’s word for it; many of his most entertaining essays were devoted to punching holes in popular sensory empiricism—the attitude that one has warrant for crediting only what one “sees” with one’s own eyes.

The amount of information it is useful for any individual to accept as true is gazillions of times larger than the amount she can herself establish as true by valid and reliable methods (even if she cheats and takes the Royal Society’s word for it that science’s methods for ascertaining what’s true are the only valid and reliable ones).

This point is true, moreover, not just for ordinary members of the public. It goes for scientists, too.
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