“It’s like talking to another human. We found no evidence of anything mystical,” New Scientist quoted Uffe Schjødt, of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, as saying.
For the study, Schjødt and colleagues asked volunteers to carry out two tasks involving both religious and ‘secular’ activities.
In the first task, they silently recited the Lord’s Prayer, then a nursery rhyme. Using MRI, the researchers found that identical brain areas, typically associated with rehearsal and repetition, were activated.
In the second, they improvised personal prayers before making requests to Santa Claus.
The researchers found that improvised prayers triggered patterns that match those seen when people communicate with each other, and activated circuitry that is linked with the theory of mind – an awareness that other individuals have their own independent motivations and intentions.
Two of the activated regions are thought to process desire and consider how another individual – in this case God – might react.
Also activated were part of the prefrontal cortex linked to the consideration of another person’s intentions, and an area thought to help access memories of previous encounters with that person.
The prefrontal cortex is key to theory of mind. Crucially, this area was inactive during the Santa Claus task, suggesting volunteers viewed Santa as fictitious but God as a real individual.
Previous studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is not activated when people interact with inanimate objects, such as a computer game.
“The brain doesn’t activate these areas because they don’t expect reciprocity, nor find it necessary to think about the computer’s intentions,” said Schjødt.
He said that the results show people believe they are talking to someone when they pray.
The study appears in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.