Has someone ever spoken, and you felt dumber for having heard it?
An experiment has found that devout Pentecostal Christians who are told they are hearing a prayer from a faith healer have decreased activity in parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, areas associated with skepticism and vigilance.
Two things to note: the person has to believe in faith healing prior to the experiment, and the response is less if the test subject is told the prayer reader is an ordinary Christian. But if you introduce that same ordinary Christian to another subject as a faith healer, their brain is putty.
This study was particularly interesting to me because it wasn’t about what was said, but rather the perception of who was saying it. A very common assertion I have heard among Christians is that it isn’t about the preacher, church, religion or whatever: it’s all about Jesus. The problem is, charismatic leaders still seem to be more popular, and evidence like this indicates that how one feels about the messenger is more important than the message.
I cannot say I am surprised by this. Anyone who has spent any length of time talking with believers about their faith knows one of the most commonly cited reasons for joining a church is because of someone else: often a parent, older relative, mentor, friend, or really anyone that individual respects. Religion often borrows the credibility of those who follow it (when it suits that faith’s purposes; religious people who do bad things are disavowed).
One final thing to keep in mind: the charisma of the speaker originates in the listener. Those who go in skeptical come out skeptical, and those who go in believing come out pliable. The speaker has no innate power that is not willingly given by the audience. You are only as foolish as you allow yourself to be.