Does a bishop pray when he prays? And does his brain distinguish between different religions?

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Does a religion shape belief-related decisions and influence neural processing? We investigated an eminent bishop of the Catholic Church in Germany by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess neural processing while he was responding to short sentences of the Christian Bible, the Islamic Quran, and the Daodejing ascribed to Laozi in Experiment 1. In Experiment 2, continuous praying was further compared to the resting state activity. In contrast to explicit statements of agreeing or not agreeing to different statements from the Bible and the Quran, we found in Experiment 1 no difference in neural activation when the bishop was reading these statements from the two religions. However, compared to reading statements from the Bible, reading statements from the Daodejing resulted in significantly higher activation in the left inferior and middle frontal cortices and the left middle temporal gyrus, although he equally agreed to both statements explicitly. In Experiment 2, no difference during continuous praying and the resting state activity was observed. Our results confirm the difference between explicit and implicit processing, and they suggest that a highly religious person may pray always—or never. On a more general level this observation suggests that ritualized activities might be subliminally represented in resting state activities.

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