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The objective of this research was to find the neural activity associated with prayer practices within SYM and to test whether praying practices within SYM involve social brain regions, similar to Christian practices. The study found that praying involved reduced activation in the thalamus and several regions of the left hemisphere, including the left dlPFC, left vlPFC, and left SMA. These regions were also decreased in activation for formalized speech compared to improvised speech. Additionally, the activation in the medial prefrontal cortex was reduced during prayers and formalized secular speech but increased during improvised secular speech. These results may reflect the specific nature of praying during SYM, where prayers are used to facilitate the later meditation state of mental silence and may be associated with reduced frontal activation.
Reduced Activation in Frontal Lobe during Prayers in SYM
The results of comparing praying tasks relative to their respective secular tasks consistently showed reduced activation in areas of the frontal lobe for both prayer tasks. This deactivation of frontal areas while praying in SYM is interesting considering that most fMRI studies of religious experiences show greater activity in the frontal lobe. This deactivation may be associated with the attitude of surrendering to God manifested by SYM practitioners. Interestingly, this pattern of deactivation is similar to the brain activation patterns observed during intense Islamic Prayers, which are also correlated with decreased activity in frontal areas.
Reduced Activation in mPFC during Prayers and Formalized Speech
The interaction analysis revealed a cluster in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) that was reduced in activation during prayers and formalized secular speech compared to improvised secular speech. The mPFC plays a critical role in cognitive and emotional social processes. The decreased activation in this region by religious and repetitive conditions suggests that it may be associated with the socio-emotional regulation’s role of the mPFC. This effect may be related to the participants’ attitude of surrendering towards God and a decrease in social judgment and mentalizing functions. Additionally, when the analysis was correlated with the years of meditation experience, these regions showed larger deactivation, suggesting that the effect may be more pronounced in experienced practitioners.
Deactivation of Thalamus during Prayers
In the main effect of secular speech, the thalamus was deactivated during both prayers compared to secular conditions. The thalamus plays a role in the conscious perception of the surroundings and controlling the flow of sensory information to the cortex. The deactivation of the thalamus could be linked to the inner concentration established during prayers to reach a meditative state and reinforce the downgrading of external distractors. Previous studies on different meditation techniques have also found reduced thalamic activity, associated with a filtering effect on sensory information and reduction of pain perception.
Distinct Activation Patterns for Improvised and Formalized Speech
The study found that improvised speech involved left perisylvian brain regions, such as the vlPFC, dlPFC, and SMA, which are associated with language processes and the social brain. Formalized speech, on the other hand, involved right lateralized brain regions, including the IPC and dlPFC, which are associated with rehearsal and retrieval. These findings suggest that improvised speech activates left hemispheric regions involved in language processes, while formalized speech activates right hemispheric regions involved in cognitive functions.
The research on neural activity associated with prayer practices in SYM revealed distinct patterns of activation and deactivation in various brain regions. Praying in SYM was associated with reduced activation in the thalamus and frontal lobe, as well as the medial prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that praying in SYM involves unique neural processes compared to Christian practices and may reflect the specific nature of SYM’s prayer practices, including the facilitation of a meditative state and surrendering to God. Further research is needed to explore the lateralization effects of formal prayer in social and language-related brain regions.