Religious Chanting fMRI (NSFC)

Religious chanting/praying is widely practiced to cope with negative or stressful emotions, while the neural mechanism is far from clear. Our previous event-related potential (ERP) study showed that religious chanting significantly reduced the late-positive potential induced by negative events. However, the regulatory role of subcortical brain regions, especially the amygdala, in this process remains unclear. This fMRI study aimed to investigate the brain mechanism underlying the effectiveness of religious chanting in emotion regulation.

Methodology: Twenty-one participants were recruited into the fMRI study. The participants were asked to view neutral/fearful pictures while practice religious chanting (The name of Buddha Amitābha), non-religious chanting (the name of Santa Claus), or no-chanting, following a similar 2 x 3 factorial design. A 3.0 T Philips MRI scanner was used to collect the data and SPM12 was used to analyze the imaging data. Region of interest (ROI) analysis was carried to further investigate the activity of the amygdalae.

Results: We observed increased brain activity among participants who chanted Amitābha while viewing fearful pictures, in the following brain regions: the fusiform gyrus; left parietal lobule; prefrontal cortex; and especially subcortical regions including the amygdala, thalamus and midbrain. Importantly, obvious activity was noted in the left amygdala, but not the right, during religious chanting. Such activity was not observed in the two control conditions. ROI analysis on the activity of the left amygdala indicated a strong correlation during pure religious chanting and during religious chanting while viewing fearful pictures.

Conclusion: Religious chanting of Amitābha induced subcortical activation when people viewed negative events but not when the events were neutral. The asymmetric activity of the amygdala may play an important role in emotion regulation during religious chanting. Together with our previous ERP study, converging evidence demonstrates that religious chanting can affect the late stage of affective regulation. This influence probably occurs through cognitive reappraisal strategies. The role of left amygdala in fearful emotion regulation during religious chanting deserves further research.