Will therapists be replaced by Virtual Reality Technology?
Psychiatrist Raj Persaud talks to psychologists Wesley Turner and
Leanne Casey from Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia who have
just published an analysis of how effective the latest Virtual
Reality psychological treatments are.
Their study is entitled 'Outcomes associated with virtual
reality in psychological interventions: where are we now?' and is
published in the academic journal Clinical Psychology Review
(Volume 34, Issue 8, December 2014, Pages 634–644)
After listening to this podcast if you go to the College site
and answer the mcq questions there about the interview, you can
obtain on line CPD points.
A new brain scanning study has found that high personal importance
of religion or spirituality in your life is associated with thicker
cortex in several brain regions.
Some of these same regions were found to be associated with a
higher risk for developing clinical depression, if that part of the
brain cortex was thinner.
The study, entitled, Neuroanatomical
Correlates of Religiosity and Spirituality - A Study in Adults at
High and Low Familial Risk for Depression, concludes that a
higher importance of religion or spirituality was associated with
thicker cortex in certain brain regions, possibly conferring
greater resilience to the development of depressive
The study, published in the prestigious Journal
of the American Medical Association - Psychiatry, focused on
those with a high or low familial risk for developing clinical
depression, because of a previously strong family history of this
The team of academics who conducted this Magnetic Resonance Imaging
(MRI) study, led by Dr Myrna Weissman, from Columbia University,
argue that this brain finding could account for why being religious
or spiritual, in certain circumstances, might contribute to
improved resilience to depressive psychiatric illnesses.
Being religious or spiritual, possibly by expanding a physical
brain reserve, counters to some extent the vulnerability that brain
thinning in those areas poses for developing depression that runs
For those attending church services this Easter weekend it may be
surprising that the study found it was the personal importance of
religion or spirituality in your life, but not the frequency of
attendance of church, that was associated with thicker brain areas.
In a sense the brain scans revealed your true faith more than
church attendance did.
The same team had previously reported a 90% decreased risk,
assessed over a 10-year period, of developing clinical depressive
disorder in those from families where there was a high incidence of
depression, if religion or spirituality was highly important to the
Several others studies have found that intensity of religious
experiences is associated with increased blood flow in similar
brain regions found to be structurally thicker in this
The authors of this new study, Lisa Miller, Ravi Bansal, Priya
Wickramaratne, Xuejun Hao, Craig Tenke, Myrna Weissman and Bradley
Peterson, found that, oddly, a high frequency of attendance of
religious services was not associated with brain thickness, yet
rating religion or spirituality as personally important in your
This appears a paradox - people who go to church a lot were not
reaping the same benefit in their brains, in terms of protecting
from depression, as those who believed that religion or
spirituality was important to them.
The authors point out that although some may go to church in order
to promote their spirituality, others may attend whether or not
religion is genuinely personally important to them. In this study
49 participants reported high church attendance, yet only 21 of
those also reported high importance of religion or spirituality in
their lives. The remaining 28 participants may be attending
services for a host of non-religious reasons, which may include
This research found that the participants who frequently attended
religious services were in fact at increased risk of depression,
suggesting that a subset of participants may attend religious
services for comfort or management of depressive
Although frequent attendance may express, sustain, and cultivate
personal importance of religion or spirituality, these findings
suggest that religious beliefs and experiences, and not overt
behavior (such as attending church a lot), are associated with
That going to church might not be the key to the protective effect
of religion or spirituality on those predisposed to depression,
through a high risk family history, is further bolstered, according
to Myrna Weissman and her colleagues, by other recent research. For
example, those who regularly meditate also have certain thicker
brain regions. Another recent study found that meditation training
for eight weeks increased cerebral gray matter density in specific
The authors of this study, from Columbia University and the New
York State Psychiatric Institute, are not claiming that religion or
spirituality generally protects you from depression. Instead, they
are suggesting that if you consider that religion or spirituality
in your life are important, then that appears to confer a
neuroanatomical resilience. And that is in those who otherwise are
predisposed to developing depressive illness, due to a strong
family history for this kind of psychiatric problem.
Previously, we reported some other new research, from a team of
academics led by Professor Michael King from University College
London, where over 8,000 people were investigated, revealing that
those who held a religious or spiritual understanding of life, had
a higher incidence of depression compared with those with a secular
and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major
depression: an international cohort study, the investigation
had been published in one of the most respected academic
psychiatric journals, Psychological
Perhaps one way of resolving the differing results is that
Medicinestudy was conducted on populations outside the USA -
in the UK, Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Portugal and
Chile. It could be that how important religion is in your country
and culture, as well as the particular population studied, also has
an impact on your brain and psychology.
Generally speaking Europeans are perceived as less religious than
In the Psychological
Medicine study, their findings varied by country; in
particular, people in the UK who had a spiritual understanding of
life were the most vulnerable to the onset of major depression.
Yet, regardless of country, the stronger the spiritual or religious
belief at the start of the investigation, the higher the risk of
onset of depression over the next year.
In the specific situation of where you inherit a brain that might
be predisposed to developing depression, it appears that higher
importance of religion or spirituality in your life, perhaps in the
USA at least, could be protective. It is also notable that the more
recent brain scanning study found it was sustained interest in
religion or spirituality, over a longer period, which was most
strongly associated with thicker brain structures, rather than
reporting a high level of spirituality at only one point in
However, given the not dissimilar findings on the brain effects of
meditation, whether these structural brain changes and protective
effect of religion or spirituality, are something specific to
beliefs in God, is open to question.
Science is revealing that merely attending religious services may
not deliver brain or mental health benefits, instead these appear
linked to what you really believe.
Neuroscientists might now be able to tell, by examining your
nervous system using the latest brain scanning technology, what you
really believe, in the inner depths of your 'soul', but which you
keep hidden from the rest of the congregation.
A private inner space that was supposedly only before accessible to
Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of
Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play
store entitled 'Raj Persaud in conversation', which includes a lot
of free information on the latest research findings in mental
health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.