A team of Oxford University researchers reports that a Christian faith can help people deal better with pain.

The researchers gave electric shocks to 12 Catholic and 12 atheist volunteers as they studied a picture of the Virgin Mary.

The Catholics reported significantly less pain than the atheists, and brain-scan imagery revealed “neural patterns of pain modulation” had been activated in only the brains of the Catholics.

The researchers concluded some religious believers appear able to moderate pain by thinking about it more positively in the context of their faith.

Reporting on the findings, the U.K. Telegraph called the experiment “bizarre” but added it could provide an explanation for the extraordinary capacity of Christian martyrs to endure suffering.

“The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are,” Anglican Bishop Tom Wright of Durham told the Telegraph about the experiment’s results.

“It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions,” the bishop said. “So it comes as no surprise to me that this experiment has reached such conclusions.”

— Tom McFeely