Lourdes water acts as placebo for believers

06/09/2021 at 08:00 CEST

The placebo effect modifies the sensations and brain activity of people inclined to believe in the miracles of Lourdes, according to research from the University of Graz, in Austria, the results of which are published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The study would explain the supposed miracles attributed to the water of Lourdes, which is what has been the object of this investigation.

Lourdes is a city located in the southwest of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which has a rocky promontory and a cave where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in February 1858.

Since then, millions of people have flocked to the grotto to drink the water from the Gave River that flows from its rocks, which is credited with healing properties. Since 1858, 69 scientifically recognized healings have been verified in Lourdes, as reported by the BBC in 2014.

37 women convinced

37 women convincedThe research, led by the professor of clinical psychology at the aforementioned university, Anne Schienle, was carried out with a total of 37 women firmly convinced that Lourdes water has positive effects on health.

All of them were given water to drink in two different sessions. In the first, they received tap water labeled as from Lourdes. In the second, which took place 15 minutes later, they received tap water labeled as such.

During both experiences, their brains were scanned with magnetic resonance images, to observe possible changes in functional connectivity in three neural networks: the default neural network, which is used when the brain is imagining; that of cognitive control, which is activated to make decisions; and the web of prominence, used to discern the importance of an experience.

After the experience, the participants were interviewed about their specific thoughts, feelings and body sensations recorded during each of the two sessions.

Related Topic: Discover Why Placebo Works

First results

First resultsThe first thing the researchers observed was that the fake Lourdes water, drank as a placebo, reduced the functional connectivity of cognitive processing (salience network) and increased the activity of neural networks that process bodily sensations and associated emotions.

Namely, when the participants drank water that they considered miraculous, the brain reacted accordingly: activated neurons linked to physical and emotional well-being and reduced the activity of neurons that regulate cognition.

This means that the belief in the healing potential of Lourdes water intensifies in the brain the positive emotions associated with its consumption, at the same time that it reduces the possibility that the rational alert system will impede the sensory experience.

Believing that the placebo leads to better emotional and physical states, the participants have inadvertently created those states for themselves, Anne Schienle tells the Academic Times magazine.

Opinions count too

Opinions count tooIn the interviews, the participants reported feeling well at all times, that is, both in the session when they drank water, believing it to be from Lourdes, and in the second session, in which they knowingly drank tap water.

However, they reported that they had experienced better well-being, such as pleasant body sensations and a religious feeling, while believing they were drinking Lourdes water.

The researchers’ conclusion is that placebos in the context of religious beliefs and practices can change the experience of emotional prominence and cognitive control, which is accompanied by connectivity changes in associated neural networks.

Research from 2016 had shown that placebos have direct effects on the brain and that they reduce the activity of the area that manages information related to pain.

The new research adds that religious belief is part of the mirage that can be used by the brain to achieve well-being, both physical and mental.

Medical resource?

Medical resource?According to the researchers, that means religious belief can be used by medicine to improve the condition of a patient, since it causes neuronal changes in the brain that contribute to the well-being of believers.

Although placebos do not have any objective effect, until a patient attributes a supposed curative or healing capacity to them, this variable is confirmed once again that it causes enough changes in the brain to obtain a positive result.

According to the researchers, the experience can benefit believers who fall into disease, even if they are informed that they are taking a placebo, as parallel research once again showed that the placebo works even when deception is known to the patient.

Scientists also assume the limits of this work: the sample is not very representative and is limited to women who are also believers, so their results cannot be considered conclusive. But they provide clues for future more exhaustive work.


ReferencePlacebo Effects in the Context of Religious Beliefs and Practices: A Resting-State Functional Connectivity Study. Anne Schienle et al. Front. Behav. Neurosci., 06 May 2021. DOI: https: //

Top photo: pilgrim in Lourdes. Ben Freeman.

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