The Case of the Bishop’s Brain

By Neuroskeptic | December 17, 2015 6:33 am

In an unusual new paper, a group of German neuroscientists report that they scanned the brain of a Catholic bishop: Does a bishop pray when he prays? And does his brain distinguish between different religions?

The researchers were Sarita Silveira and colleagues of Munich, and they used fMRI to measure brain activity in “a German bishop aged 72 years”. He’s said to be “an eminent representative of the Catholic Church in Germany.”

I assume he removed his mitre before entering the scanner.

the brain of a bishopSilveira et al. had the bishop perform some religious-themed tasks, but the most interesting result was that there was no detectable difference in brain activity when the bishop was praying, compared to when he was told to do nothing in particular (i.e. the resting state).

The authors say that “For the resting-state scan, the bishop was instructed to keep his eyes closed without falling asleep and not to think of anything in particular.” Then he was asked to pray: “The bishop was asked to keep his eyes closed and to continuously pray in his mind the ‘Our Father’ prayer” Each condition lasted 10 minutes.

It turned out that there were functional connectivity did not differ between the resting and the praying periods. This led Silveira et al. to the somewhat cryptic conclusion that “a highly religious person may pray always – or never.”



Perhaps this is not so surprising. The brain’s resting state networks are active whenever we’re not performing a ‘task’. But mentally reciting the well-known Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) is unlikely to be a demanding task for a Bishop, or for any Catholic really.

I mean, even I, an atheist, can still recall that prayer verbatim because I went to a church school twenty years ago. I could mentally recite it for 10 minutes, but I wouldn’t really be ‘praying’, just reciting. Perhaps Silveira et al. should have scanned Richard Dawkins as an atheist control group.

The authors also acknowledge that “Our interpretation of the absence of effects is partly based on accepting the null hypothesis of nonsignificant effects… the absence of evidence does not imply the evidence of absence.”

ResearchBlogging.orgSilveira S, Bao Y, Wang L, Pöppel E, Avram M, Simmank F, Zaytseva Y, & Blautzik J (2015). Does a bishop pray when he prays? And does his brain distinguish between different religions? PsyCh journal, 4 (4), 199-207 PMID: 26663626

  • petrossa

    This paper proves mostly that ‘test’ setup preconditions are determining the outcome more than anything else. As Gazzaniga proved (pre-internet ) during open brain experiments there is an actual ‘religion’ center which controls the level/intensity/awareness of religious belief. Also that there that ‘center’ didn’t care about the content of the religious texts. Any religion would do.
    When he published his results he was lynched and quickly wrote another book ‘nuancing’ his findings

  • Uncle Al

    May the farce be with you. Live long and poseur. 9.36×10^81 liters of universe (Planck satellite), and we’re the ones stuck with gods.

    • John C

      We’re all stuck in the same universe, in all its parts seen and unseen, and never even infinitesimally comprehended by the meager contents within our small craniums. More than a little intellectual humility is called for.

      • Uncle Al

        I am a human being. Nothing is beyond my reach except theological promises to deliver.

        • MD H

          And perhaps humility.

          • Uncle Al

            War cannot decide who is right. War decides who is left. Support evolution – shoot back.

  • non_sig

    Interesting article! I don’t think that the conclusion that he always or never prays can be made. (So I agree with the acknowledgement you posted from them.)

    Imo (or as far as I can think) it is not possible to show an evidence of absence in fMRI (I know they said they didn’t, but why do they make this conclusion then?).

    For simple measurements it is possible to show an evidence of absence of a difference (within a certain degree of confidence/credibility), for example for the height of two groups of people.

    But I think for fMRI that is different because the interesting measure is not the BOLD response but what is inferred from it or underlying networks. So it might be that the BOLD is more or less exactly the same in two conditions. But no one knows what response we might see if the resolution was higher… or if it was recorded directly from the neurons. Maybe different clusters are activated but it looks the same in the fMRI-analyses because the resolution is too low?

    I don’t believe in praying or anything like that, but I would think that just for two different thoughts (like thinking at black or red) different clusters of neurons should be active (or the same active at a different rate)… because how else do we have different thoughts, if there was only one “thought language” program or something like that. But obviously this is not testable with fMRI (or with anything really) because only huge/larger differences would be seen. But because of that I think that it is impossible two say that two condition or two groups are the same.

    I remember a study where they first said pain is like rejection (being alone or something similar) but then a few years later found with new methods any found that it is different.

    (Found the studies, here: and here /ncomms6380/abs/ncomms6380.html )

    Of course is still interesting that the BOLD-activation is quite similar (looks very similar) and not entirely different. Would also be interesting to hear what the Bishop has to say to that (i.e. did he feel a difference, maybe he didn’t, does he usually feel a difference?).

  • Bruce Johnson

    So much for the bishop, but what about the pawn, rook, queen and king?

  • John C

    I would bet that the brain scans of Muslims, Vegans, Global Warming and Abortion Rights Activists would also appear pretty similar when in full throated froth.

  • Diego Serrano

    Maybe they went to the wrong country. They should have found a good contemplative religious.

  • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

    Scan Richard Dawkins while he’s dreaming about pedophilia.

    • Eric H. Behrend

      Not sure what that exercise would accomplish (or even how the situational prerequisite would be verified) but thanks for alerting me to R. Dawkin’s controversial statements re: degrees of pedophilia etc. I wasn’t aware of them and it made interesting food for thought.

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  • Wilson López Romero

    Maybe even when he’s in rest, he’s praying 😀

    • nik

      Praying for more suckers to donate their earnings to him, on the basis of promises that he cannot keep.

  • nik

    Does this show how mindless praying actually is?

    • Moe Better 11

      recitation is mindless – praying should not be.

      • nik

        Whatever it is its still mindless. Anyone with a functioning brain wouldn’t be doing it.

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  • JJaquish

    Praying is not reciting a memorized prayer.

    • Moe Better 11

      for some, it is… though organized religion is for the weak minded.

  • surgeen

    What about the second question in their topic title? How and what answer did they arrive at?



No brain. No gain.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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