January 12, 2005

Nobody expects the Oxford Inquisition

Oxford University scientists will carry out experiments on hundreds of people in a bid to understand how the brain works during states of consciousness.

One aspect of the two-year study will involve followers of both religious and secular beliefs being burnt to see if they can handle more pain than others.

Some volunteers will be shown religious symbols such as crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary during the torture.

From the BBC.

Posted by David on January 12, 2005 4:21 PM


First thing that popped into mind here was aversion therapy...nah, *couldn't* be...

Posted by: JSAllison on January 13, 2005 11:06 AM

I really like the line: "Volunteers will have a gel containing chilli powder or heat-pad applied to the back of their hand to simulate pain."

Exactly how is "simulated" pain different from real pain?

Posted by: Matt on January 13, 2005 11:27 AM

I'd be interested in knowing what the researchers intend to "prove" about religious faith. Will they also employ martial artists and other types of people who practice mind and body control in a non-religious setting as a control group?

I know, I'm taking this waaay too seriously. I oughtta be cracking wise about being forced to sit in the comfy chair.

Posted by: The Zero Boss on January 13, 2005 11:34 AM

"simulated pain"

I think they meant simulated injury (or simulated burning). Still funny, though

Posted by: Deoxy on January 13, 2005 12:26 PM

It doesn't sound "simulated" at all to me. Aren't they creating a chemical burn? Okay, so at least they're not setting these people on fire... Tomahto/Tomayto


Posted by: Charles on January 13, 2005 12:33 PM

Broke college students.

Posted by: spool32 on January 13, 2005 12:50 PM

I did wonder if the use of volunteers would skew the results. Will the study control for masochistic tendencies?

Posted by: David on January 13, 2005 12:57 PM

I wonder if maybe they don't mean to use the word "stimulate" rather than "simulate." I find that people frequently interchange these 2 words, being confused as to what each one actually means.

As to the experiment itself--it sounds like yet another attempt to show that religious belief is some sort of psychosis. You know, belief in the unreal being both a factor in controlling one's reaction to sensation and a symptom of mental illness.

Posted by: betsy gorisch on January 13, 2005 1:12 PM

Will the study control for sadistic bias among the researchers?

Posted by: Y.H.N. on January 13, 2005 1:13 PM

This isn't what some of the uninformed, but anxious to comment, seem to think it is.

In pain research, the typical stimulus is a small amount of capsaicin applied to the skin, typically on the back of the hand, or the arm. That's it. The subject gives a subjective pain rating.

Posted by: Michael Edelman on January 13, 2005 1:22 PM

Re: Michael Edelman


Posted by: Y.H.N. on January 13, 2005 1:44 PM

"I did wonder if the use of volunteers would skew the results. Will the study control for masochistic tendencies?"

Good, question, but its overly narrow. For example, will the study control for machismo?

After all, isn't a study which asks for volunteers to see who can endure the most pain likely to attract people that don't have alot of pain aversion?

Doesn't hinting to people what they are trying to show bias the results? Can you really have a blind study in which you admit that what is at stake is bragging rights between the secular and religious communities?

Posted by: celebrim on January 13, 2005 1:48 PM

Likely poor student shows up to collect $20 with NO idea of what he or she is going to be asked to do, watch, ingest or inject. A vaugly worded release form will offer little or no clue. Then the games begin :)

Posted by: Y.H.N. on January 13, 2005 1:56 PM

Everyone is different.
No two of these people are not on fire. Awwwww.

Posted by: Vexorg on January 13, 2005 2:35 PM

They aren't trying to disprove Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednigo, are they? ;-)

Posted by: rackshackandbenny on January 13, 2005 2:44 PM


"Broke college students"

Actually, it will be undergraduate students in psych classes who will be given the options of either completing a long tedious essay assignement (with footnotes) or volunteering (gratis) to be research subjects.

Broke students will remain so.

Posted by: Anonymous on January 13, 2005 3:04 PM

May I suggest that the most devoutly religious people in the world are to be found at Guantanemo Naval base in Cuba. Since this is scholarly research, it's OK, right?

Posted by: Billll on January 13, 2005 3:16 PM

Actually, I've volunteered for pain studies before. They're not bad. I had a little stick that generated unpleasant electrical impulses held to my wrists, and that was done while I was answering questions about...something. I can't remember.

I just had to rate the pain on a scale of 1-10. It was more annoying than anything.

Certainly, though, true wimps won't volunteer for this. And the participants won't be told when they arrive what the researchers expect to find (I hope). It's usually done pretty blind, although I suppose if they've read this it won't be.

As for machismo, I figure men and women will be analyzed separately? Other pain research I've seen separates by sex, because pain tolerances differ.

Posted by: Kimberly on January 13, 2005 3:22 PM

"This isn't what some of the uninformed, but anxious to comment, seem to think it is."

Silly me for commenting on the basis of the BBC's article. Next time I'll go visit a medical school library first to make sure I'm adequately "informed."

To the informed and anxious to insult: if you find people don't take you seriously, maybe you should stop taking yourself so seriously.


Posted by: Charles on January 13, 2005 5:05 PM

If the volunteers are told ahead of time what the experiment consists of, doesn't it skew the results?

Posted by: AST on January 13, 2005 5:44 PM

Hmm, wonder if they have provisions for anaphylactic shock. I doubt I'd notice any burning, but I'm allergic to all capsicum, and I doubt I'm the only one in the world...

Posted by: Alia on January 13, 2005 8:40 PM

Let me see if I've about got this right...

They are conducting a brain scanning experiment,

-measuring subjective pain?
-measuring subjective religious belief?
-measuring subjective secular belief?

....am I missing something or does this seem useless, or dare I say unscientific?

And in two years or so the cover of a magazine will say 'Scientists prove ...blahblah people seem more pain resistant."

Posted by: MMM on January 14, 2005 5:50 AM
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