By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/12/2005 2:24:51 PM ET 2005-01-12T19:24:51

Karl Marx famously pronounced that religion was "the opiate of the people" — but can one's belief in God really ease pain? Or is a placebo just as effective?

Researchers at Oxford University are taking these questions seriously, announcing plans Wednesday for an ambitious, multidisciplinary study to test the "faith factor" in coping with pain.

Volunteers will undergo brain scans while being subjected to painful experiments in laboratory conditions. The human guinea pigs also will be asked about their belief systems and what affect they have on their suffering.

“People frequently report that their beliefs do reduce their pain and we’d like to find what the psychological basis of that is," said Toby Collins, of Oxford's Department of Pharmacology.

The experiment is one of the first projects to be conducted at the Oxford Center for Science of the Mind (OXCSOM).

The pilot project, funded by a grant from the U.S.-based John Templeton Foundation, will examine all types of beliefs, "from those that make children think their stockings are filled by Santa Claus to the faith that drives fundamentalist terrorism," according to the university's Web site.

"The technologies generated by the science of the previous century now have the potential to challenge the very notion of human nature, whilst at the same time providing the opportunity to gain exciting new insights into its physical basis within the human brain," said Oxford neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, who leads OXCSOM.

'Believers go on rack'
British newspapers gleefully pounced on the story Wednesday. One headline read, "Believers go on rack to prove God relieves pain," alongside pictures of medieval torture.

In reality, while the university's experiment has little in common with the Inquisition's infamous torture implement, the test will not be pleasant.

"The painful stimuli is generally administered by heat being applied to the back of the hand," said Collins, who is overseeing the experiment and is also the deputy director of OXCSOM.

"Sixty degrees centigrade is considerable; it’s a strong enough signal for people to respond, but not enough to cause enduring harm," the doctor said, adding that a gel of chili powder could also be used.

The research team — comprised of neurologists, neuroscientists, pharmacologists, psychologists, theologians, and overseen by ethicists — will pool their expertise to question the individual and scan his/or her brain. Researchers may also study whether religious imagery has a numbing effect on the subject.

"We'd like to compare religious with non-religious belief to see if there are patterns of similarity or differences, not just in the success of alleviating pain but in what’s happening in the brain at that time," Collins said.

However, the OXCSOM team will not compare or rank the strengths of different religions, and has no quotas for the numbers of participants of varying beliefs.

Instead, the individual's ability to use a personal belief, or set of beliefs, to control or distract pain will be probed.

Other pain distractions?
While the study aims to examine the power of devotion to religious faiths, it will also explore other forms of belief. For example: patients given placebo pain-relieving pills often find them very effective solely because they believe in them, Collins said.

A person also may distract himself from the pain at hand by thinking of such mundane topics as a favorite movie star or sports team. And such mental activities can also be interspersed with religious thought.

Following the Asia tsunami disaster, an Acehnese survivor rescued after 15 days at sea credited Allah as his savior.

"I never got angry,” Ari Afrizal told reporters. “I was grateful to be alive. The heat comes from God. The cold comes from God. Death and life also come from God.” the 21-year-old said.

While his belief in God may have allayed his fears and helped him survive, he also passed the hours and days thinking of his beloved football teams, Manchester United and Real Madrid, and replaying scenes from his pick of Indian films.

"That’s what’s so interesting; people do tap in at different times to different belief systems ... it’s this momentary state of consciousness being tapped into at any given time," Collins said.

While the Oxford experiment is a far cry from the pain and destruction wrought by the Dec. 26 tsunami, it could open a window into how the brain works under duress.

"For some people pain can completely take over their lives, while other people live with far greater levels of pain on a daily basis and yet remain calm — what are they doing to distract themselves from that pain, to live with it? Is that due to belief systems?" asked Collins.

His team hopes to find that answer.

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