Holy Water and Religious Belief

July 1, 2021

The idea of “holy water” (or “blessed water”) is common in several religions: a new research provides evidence that placebos in the context of religious beliefs and practices can enhance emotional-somatic well-being.

The idea of “holy water” (or “blessed water”) is common in several religions. A brand new research by the University of Graz (Austria), Department of Clinical Psychology, shows that placebos lead to significant brain responses as well as positive subjective experiences in the context of religious belief and practice. Researchers gathered a sample of female participants who all believed that the water from the Catholic Sanctuary in Lourdes (France) has supernatural healing properties, and is able to cure several diseases and ailments.

New study – titled, “Placebo Effects in the Context of Religious Beliefs and Practices: A Resting-State Functional Connectivity Study”, and published in “Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience – provides “the first evidence that placebos in the context of religious beliefs and practices can change the experience of emotional salience and cognitive control which is accompanied by connectivity changes in the associated brain networks.”

Authors write: “The present investigation focused on a specific placebo in the context of religious beliefs and practices. The participants received an inert substance (tap water), which was administered with the verbal suggestion that it is water from the sanctuary in Lourdes (a major Catholic pilgrimage site in France). Many Roman Catholics believe that Lourdes water has supernatural healing powers and the “Medical Bureau of Lourdes” has been recorded more than 7,000 reports of cured diseases(December, 9th, 2020).”

“Placebos (inert substances or procedures)”, they explain, “can positively influence a person’s psychological and physical well-being, which is accompanied by specific changes in brain activity. There are many different types of placebos with different effects on health-related variables. … The participants received an inert substance (tap water) along with the verbal suggestion that the water would come from the sanctuary in Lourdes … We investigated changes in resting-state Functional Connectivity (rsFC) in three brain networks (default-mode, salience, cognitive control) associated with the drinking of the placebo water.”

“A total of 37 females with the belief that water from the sanctuary in Lourdes has positive effects on their spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being participated in this placebo study with two sessions. The participants drank tap water that was labeled “Lourdes water” (placebo) before a 15-min resting-state scan in one session. In the other (control) session, they received tap water labeled as tap water. The participants rated their affective state (valence, arousal) during the session and were interviewed concerning specific thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations directly after each of the two sessions.”

“The placebo reduced rsFC in the frontoparietal cognitive control network and increased rsFC in the salience network (insular-cerebellar connectivity). During the session, the participants rated their affective state as very pleasant and calm. The ratings did not differ between the two conditions. Immediately after the session, the participants reported increased intensity of pleasant bodily sensations (e.g., feelings of warmth, tingling) and feelings (e.g., gratefulness) for the “Lourdes water” condition.”

“The present study differs from previous placebo research regarding the use of verbal suggestions. Typical instructions in placebo studies involve a clear statement of the expected effect (e.g., “this pill will reduce your pain”). In contrast, in the present investigation, each participant had to create her own “instruction” based on her concept about Lourdes water effects.”

In summary,” authors conclude, “the findings of the present study allow us to draw preliminary conclusions about the placebo effect in the context of religious beliefs and practices. We found that this type of placebo can enhance emotional-somatic well-being, and can lead to changes in rsFC in cognitive control/emotional salience networks of the brain. Future research is warranted to replicate the results. Moreover, future research should investigate whether the observed effects generalize across different religious affiliations. The idea of “holy water” (or blessed water) is common in several religions.”

Full Study “Placebo Effects in the Context of Religious Beliefs and Practices: A Resting-State Functional Connectivity Study”