How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
RELIGION AND THE HUMAN BRAIN
3. WHAT DOES GOD DO TO YOUR BRAIN?
The Neural Varieties of Spiritual Practice
The moment we encounter God, or the idea of God, our brain begins to change. For most American children this occurs in the first year of life when they come face-to-face with holiday religious symbolism. Brightly colored Christmas trees and Easter baskets rivet a child's attention, and this imprints a permanent image into memory. Later, when they are introduced to parental concepts of God, these ideas become neurologically connected to earlier memories and thoughts. Images build upon images, and concepts build upon concepts, until a complex neurological circuit emerges that represents a primitive system of religious belief.
Storytelling may deepen a child's fantasy about God, but rituals give personal meaning to theological ideas. That is why religious parents ask their children to pray, and why they expose them to religious ceremonies and events. We take them to our temples, churches, and mosques on the high holidays, where their senses are saturated with the sights, sounds, and smells of our spiritual heritage and beliefs. They gaze through stained-glass windows, sing hymns in foreign tongues, light candles, bow down in prayer, and sample sacramental foods. They literally enter another world. God becomes even more grand and mysterious—and sometimes frightening—and new parts of the brain light up like a fireworks display.
Rituals add substance to our beliefs, and the more intense the ritual, the more likely we are to have a religious or spiritual epiphany. Thus, spiritual practice is the key to making God personally meaningful and real. But for a researcher like myself, even the simplest ritual is hard to study because there are so many variables to consider. Take, for example, the act of going to church. We know that religious involvement is correlated with health and longevity,1 but it is difficult to figure out why. Does it have to do with the length of time you spend in church, or how often you go? Does it matter which denomination you attend? Going to church might involve confession, communion, singing, chanting, praying, tithing, talking with other members, reading sacred scriptures, or volunteering in charitable work. Which activity has an impact on the brain? Some of them, all of them, or a specific combination of pursuits? Few studies have been able to isolate which aspects contribute to one's health, but we are beginning to discover that each one can change the way you think and feel about God.
Different religious activities have different effects on specific parts of the brain, but this does not make the results any easier to interpret. For example, praying silently affects one part of the brain, while praying out loud affects another part. And if you repeat the same prayer over and over, one part of the brain may be activated in the first few minutes, another part might quiet down ten minutes later, while other brain functions will change after forty or fifty minutes of intense prayer.
To make matters even more complicated, a single structure in the brain can be simultaneously involved in dozens of different functions, some of which specifically relate to the religious ritual and others of which do not. For example, the anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a crucial role in spiritual practices, is involved with learning, memory, focused attention, emotional regulation, motor coordination, heart rate, error detection, reward anticipation, conflict monitoring, moral evaluation, strategy planning, and empathy.2 To understand how this single structure influences religious experience, you have to distill the information gathered in hundreds of seemingly unrelated studies. But when you connect the dots, a picture emerges that allows us to catch a glimpse of the neural reality of God.
This chapter, and the four chapters that follow, outline a general model that explains how different concepts of God affect your brain, and how your brain constructs specific impressions of God. The chart on the accompanying pages summarizes how specific parts of the brain generate different experiences of God.
THE “GOD” CIRCUITS IN YOUR BRAIN
From early childhood on, God exists in every persons brain as a combination of ideas, images, feelings, sensations, and self/other relationships. Here is a thumbnail sketch of key neural structures and circuits that shape our perception of God:
Identifies God as an object that exists in the world. Young children see God as a face because their brains cannot process abstract spiritual concepts.
Establishes a relationship between the two objects known as “you” and “God.” It places God in space and allows you to experience God's presence. If you decrease activity in your parietal lobe through meditation or intense prayer, the boundaries between you and God dissolve. You feel a sense of unity with the object of contemplation and your spiritual beliefs.
Creates and integrates all of your ideas about God—positive or negative—including the logic you use to evaluate your religious and spiritual beliefs. It predicts your future in relationship to God and attempts to intellectually answer all the “why, what, and where” questions raised by spiritual issues.
Gives emotional meaning to your concepts of God. The thalamus gives you a holistic sense of the world and appears to be the key organ that makes God feel objectively real.
When overly stimulated, the amygdala creates the emotional impression of a frightening, authoritative, and punitive God, and it suppresses the frontal lobe's ability to logically think about God.
Inhibits activity in the amygdala, allowing you to feel safe in the presence of God, or of whatever object or concept you are contemplating.
Allows you to experience God as loving and compassionate. It decreases religious anxiety, guilt, fear, and anger by suppressing activity in the amygdala.
Anatomical location of specific brain structures. The limbic system consists of the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and thalamus, in addition to other regions not shown.
CAN YOU SEPARATE SPIRITUALITY FROM GOD?
In the past, our research focused on individuals who were deeply committed to their religious and spiritual beliefs, and we could not separate them from the specific practices they used. As far as we could tell, each neurologically reinforced the other. The practitioners began with a specific goal associated with their religious beliefs and engaged in a ritual activity that strengthened that belief. If you removed the rituals, you might be left with little more than an intellectual understanding of God.
But we discovered that you could take God out of the ritual and still influence the brain. This is what our memory research demonstrated. Our patients were taught a traditional Eastern meditation, using sounds and movements that had deep religious meaning, but we did not emphasize the spiritual dimensions of the ritual. No one reported having a spiritual experience, and no one mentioned God.
If you improve your cognition by 10 percent, as our memory patients did, your age-related anxieties will decrease and you'll be pleased, but I don't know how excited you'll feel. If you change your perception of God by 10 percent, however, that can be a very big deal, especially to people who have maintained their childhood images and beliefs. As you will see in the following chapter, people who alter their concepts of God often feel as if their entire life has been transformed.
Spiritual practices are designed to stimulate dramatic experiences, but you can also transfer nearly any religious ideology from one spiritual practice to another and still receive the same neurological benefits from the experience. Herbert Benson first demonstrated this at Harvard in the early 1970s, when he extracted several key elements from Buddhist meditation and turned them into the now-famous relaxation response. Through dozens of well-designed studies, he demonstrated that you could consciously reduce stress and tension throughout your body by breathing slowly and repeating a word or phrase that gives you a sense of comfort (God, om, peace, etc.).
Today, Benson's “relaxation response” has been incorporated into many aspects of medicine and psychotherapy because it effectively treats hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, chronic pain, PMS, insomnia, anxiety, depression, hostility, and infertility. It even lessens the side effects caused by cancer treatments and AIDS.3 This simple meditation also improves cognition in healthy aging adults.4
Benson also discovered that the same benefits could be elicited by different forms of meditation and relaxation, including yoga, Zen, hypnosis, and progressive muscle relaxation (see Table 1). All of these techniques utilize breathing and relaxation while the mind stays focused and alert.
EASTERN MEDITATION AND WESTERN PRAYER
In the 1970s, as a result of the societal problems centered around the Vietnam war and civil rights, many young adults became disenchanted with the traditional values of America. Two-thirds of this “baby boom” generation turned away from the religious activities of their parents to seek a more personal spiritual connection.5 Many turned to the philosophies of the East, in part because those traditions provided techniques that gave them direct experiences of peace.
In response to the 50 percent drop in church attendance, many Christian denominations reinvented themselves, introducing contemporary music and a vast array of social incentives. This joyful celebration of religion made evangelical churches the second most popular religious movement in America. Meditation, however, was shunned, primarily because of its association with Hindu, Zen, and Buddhist philosophies.
Although there are approximately twenty references to meditation in the Bible,6 most people are unaware of Christianity's rich history of contemplative practice. In Genesis, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field,” and in Joshua, followers are commanded by law to “meditate day and night.” Such intense meditation may have been the catalyst for many of the spiritual epiphanies described by biblical prophets and saints.
Formal Christian meditation was developed by early monastic orders. In the twelfth century, Guigo II, a Carthusian monk, categorized four levels of practice: lectio (slowly reading biblical passages), meditatio(pondering the deeper meaning of the text), oratio (spontaneous prayer), and contemplatio (wordlessly focusing on God's love).
In the sixteenth century, St. Ignatius developed a series of spiritual exercises, including one that asked the individual to visualize scenes from the life of Jesus. His writings influenced other saints, including Teresa of Avila, who emphasized the importance of maintaining an unwavering concentration on one's spiritual goals.
In the mid-twentieth century, many Christian theologians, like Thomas Merton, were influenced by Eastern philosophies, and their books encouraged others to embrace a contemporary contemplative path. Others directly incorporated Eastern practices into the Christian tradition. For example, Friar John Main emphasized the repetition of a phrase from the Bible until the presence of God filled one's heart.7 The ultimate goal was to be “transformed” by one's meditation, a condition synonymous with the Hindu and Buddhist notions of enlightenment.
Some theologians “rediscovered” the mystical practices of early Christianity and brought them back to life. For example, in the 1970s, Friar Thomas Keating, along with two other Trappist monks, modified a contemplative tradition first described in the fourteenth century text, The Cloud of Unknowing.8 According to Keating:
It brings us into the presence of God and thus fosters the contemplative attitudes of listening and receptivity. It is not contemplation in the strict sense, which in Catholic tradition has always been regarded as a pure gift of the Spirit, but rather it is a preparation for contemplation by reducing the obstacles caused by the hyperactivity of our minds and of our lives.9
Keating called his simple meditation the Centering Prayer, and it has been introduced to thousands of American Catholics and Christians.10 You choose a word that has a sacred meaning and focus on it for twenty minutes or longer as you sit comfortably with eyes closed. When distracting thoughts or feelings intervene, you gently return to your sacred word, a practice that closely mirrors Benson's relaxation technique. (In Chapter 9 we'll discuss a “generic” version of the Centering Prayer that you can incorporate into your spiritual or secular life.)
COMPARING THE CENTERING PRAYER
TO BUDDHIST MEDITATION
In the summer of 1999, I had the opportunity to study a group of nuns who had been practicing the Centering Prayer for a minimum of fifteen years. This was the first brain-scan study of Christian contemplative practitioners, and we discovered that the neurological changes were significant and very different from how the human brain normally functions.11 Even more surprising, the neurological changes were nearly the same as those we recorded from a group of Buddhist practitioners, who obviously nurtured very different beliefs.12 This evidence confirmed our hypothesis that the benefits gleaned from prayer and meditation may have less to do with a specific theology than with the ritual techniques of breathing, staying relaxed, and focusing one's attention upon a concept that evokes comfort, compassion, or a spiritual sense of peace. Of course, the more you believe in what you are meditating or praying about, the stronger the response will be.
MEDITATION AND PRAYER: ARE THEY REALLY THE SAME?
Most dictionaries define prayer as the act of communicating with a deity, especially in the form of a request or a petition for help. Meditation, however, is commonly defined as a contemplative reflection or mental exercise designed to bring about a heightened level of spiritual awareness, trigger a spiritual or religious experience, or train the mind in a specific way We consider prayer to be a specialized form of meditation, in which the practitioner makes a specific request to a spiritual entity or presence. We also view guided imagery, hypnosis, and the psychoanalytic technique of free association as forms of contemplative activity.
Both prayer and meditation can include the use of religious texts, songs, or movement rituals, but meditation usually refers to a longer, more intensive activity. Neurologically, we have found that the longer one prays or meditates, the more changes occur in the brain. Five minutes of prayer once a week may have little effect, but forty minutes of daily practice, over a period of years, will bring permanent changes to the brain.
However, we have discovered that other forms of religious practice have very different neurological effects. In 2003, I brought in members from a Pentecostal church and scanned them while they engaged in the practice of speaking in tongues. To those unfamiliar with this practice, it may sound like a foreign language or babble, but I have heard renditions that reminded me of medieval Italian liturgies and ancient Assyrian poems. For the Pentecostal practitioner, it is an energizing state, filled with profound spiritual meaning and joy.
“Glossolalia,” as it is academically called, is not a form of contemplative meditation. Rather, it is a type of spontaneous verbal monologue that may or may not be accompanied by body gyrations and shaking, similar to the ecstatic trances found in various spiritual and shamanic traditions. Instead of focusing one's attention on a specific phrase or ideal, which increases activity in the frontal lobe, the practitioner surrenders voluntary control—and thus a significant degree of ordinary consciousness—by deliberately slowing down frontal lobe activity. This, in turn, allows the limbic areas of the brain to become more active, which neurologically increases the emotional intensity of the experience. With the nuns and Buddhists, the opposite experience occurs. Frontal lobe activity increases, limbic activity decreases, and the combination generates a peaceful and serene state of consciousness. Interestingly, both the nuns and Pentecostalists felt that our study demonstrated that God could intervene and directly influence the brain.
THE NEURAL CONSTRUCTION OF GOD
When we analyzed the research from all of our studies, we found that different parts of the brain produced different experiences that affected the way we perceive or think about God, the universe, our mind, and our lives. For example, our frontal lobes (the newest part of the human brain) provide us with a logical concept of a rational, deliberate, and loving God, while our limbic system (the oldest part of the brain) creates an emotionally meaningful experience of God. If either part of the brain malfunctions, unusual thoughts and perceptions can occur. Some people with neural damage can become obsessed with God, while others can lose all interest in religion. A person with an overly active limbic system might ruminate day after day on original sin, while a person with an overly active frontal lobe might become absorbed in mathematically proving the ontological existence of God, as Kurt Gödel attempted to do.13
An overly active limbic system, which generates our emotional states, is physically and psychologically dangerous, but we now have evidence, gathered from our recent study on yoga, that a twelve-week training program (that includes various postures, movements, stretches, and meditations) lowers activity in the amygdala, the key organ in the limbic system that generates anxiety and fear. Mindfulness-based meditation, which includes the act of consciously labeling one's moment-to-moment feelings, also reduces amygdala activity.14
At the other end of the neurological spectrum, if both the frontal cortex and the emotional centers of the brain remain inactive when a person contemplates God, God will hold little meaning or value. This is what we believe happens in the brains of nonreligious individuals, and our preliminary brain-scan studies with atheists points in this direction.15
In order to have a positive perception or experience of God, you need to have just the “right” balance of frontal and limbic activity. However, the neurological literature makes it clear that every meditative experience is somewhat unique and stimulates different parts of the brain to different degrees. Perhaps this explains why each person's experience of God is unique. Even in the Pentecostal tradition of speaking in tongues, each message is highly original and rarely repeats itself to the practitioner.
Anatomical location of major lobes and brain regions.
Other parts of the brain are associated with different notions and experiences of God. For example, the occipital cortex, which is at the back of the brain, helps us to envision an anthropomorphic God, while the temporal lobes (situated above the ear but below the parietal area) allow some individuals to hear God's voice. If these areas are injured, some patients begin to see or hear all sorts of phenomena that they interpret as religious, mystical, or demonic.16
The parietal lobe, when active, gives us a sense of our self in relation to time, space, and other objects in the world. This allows us to imagine a God that is separate from ourselves, existing beyond the boundaries of our personal being. Our brain-scan studies of contemplative forms of Buddhist and Christian meditation show that when activity in the parietal areas decreases, a sense of timelessness and spacelessness emerges. This allows the meditator to feel at one with the object of contemplation: with God, the universe, peacefulness, or any other object upon which he or she focuses.
Brain scan of a nun at rest and during prayer showing decreased activity in the parieta lobe that may be associated with the loss of the sense of self.
However, when Pentecostals speak in tongues, parietal activity increases. This gives them the sense that a separate entity is communicating with them. Thus, they do not report the experience of feeling at one with God. Since the parietal area also plays a role in language formation and articulation,17 it makes sense that we would see this type of activity during the Pentecostal experience. Yet, when our memory patients sang sa-ta-na-ma during their meditation, parietal activity decreased, just as with the Buddhists and nuns. We don't fully understand this phenomenon, but we suspect that one would need to maintain a strong sense of self in order to maintain an internal dialogue with God. A repetitious chant may interrupt the brain's propensity to create a self/other relationship with the words.
We also found that advanced meditators had a higher level of parietal activity when they were not meditating. This suggests that meditation, over time, strengthens one's sense of self in relationship to the world, as well as to the spiritual dimensions of life. It also suggests that conscious manipulation of parietal activity strengthens this part of the brain in the same way that intellectual activity strengthens the frontal lobe. Indeed, increased parietal activity is associated with increased consciousness, alertness, and the ability to resonate to other people's feelings and thoughts.
ENHANCING COMPASSION AND SOCIAL AWARENESS
Many forms of meditation stimulate another important part of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex.18 The anterior cingulate is situated between the frontal lobe and the limbic system, acting as a mediator between our feelings and our thoughts.∗ It is involved in social awareness and intuition, and is larger in women than in men.19 This may explain why women generally are more empathic, socially skilled, and more reactive to fear-inducing stimuli. However, largeness does not mean “better.” For example, men who have difficulties expressing their feelings, or recognizing the feelings of others, have a larger anterior cingulate area in the right half of their brain.20 Thus, they may have a greater capacity to shut down feelings by reducing fear-arousing activity in the amygdala. Such men simply experience less emotion, unless they are strongly provoked. Other studies have shown that insensitive men have less activity in the anterior cingulate, suggesting that they may still feel negative emotions but are unaware of them.21
Contemplative practices stimulate activity in the anterior cingulate, thus helping a person to become more sensitive to the feelings of others. Indeed, meditating on any form of love, including God's love, appears to strengthen the same neurological circuits that allow us to feel compassion toward others.22
In contrast, religious activities that focus on fear may damage the anterior cingulate, and when this happens, a person will often lose interest in other people's concerns or act aggressively against them.23 We suspect that fear-based religions may even create symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress disorder.24 Brain-scan studies have shown that once you anticipate a future negative event, activity in the amygdala is turned up and activity in the anterior cingulate turned down. This generates higher levels of neuroticism and anxiety.25 Highly anxious individuals may be attracted to fundamentalist religions because they offer a highly structured belief system that reduces feelings of uncertainty. In this respect, membership in a strict religious order can reduce feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear. And, once you are accepted as a member, you will be joyously embraced by the entire congregation. This, we believe, will have a positive effect on the anterior cingulate in the development of compassionate feelings toward oneself and other members of the group. However, if the community emphasizes disdain toward members of other groups, this will ultimately inhibit the functioning of the anterior cingulate.
If you want to maintain a healthy anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and limbic system, by all means meditate and pray, but only on those concepts that bring you a sense of love, joy, optimism, and hope. We believe that meditation is particularly important for the brain because it counteracts our biological propensity to react to dangerous situations with animosity or fear. However, it also appears to make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, which may explain why those traditions that emphasize meditation are often involved in community charities and peacekeeping ventures.
WHAT PART OF THE BRAIN MAKES GOD REAL?
One of the most unusual findings in our brain-scan studies involves the thalamus, a walnut-shaped structure that sits on top of the limbic system in the center of your brain (there are actually two of them—a pair—with one half sitting in each hemisphere). The thalamus is the Grand Central Station of sensory processing: Every sensation, mood, and thought passes through it as the information is relayed to other parts of the brain. If the thalamus ceases to function, you would, for all intents and purposes, be considered comatose. Even minimal damage will hinder the performance of other parts of the brain.26
In nearly all of our subjects who had meditated for over ten years, we found asymmetric activity between the left and right half of the thalamus when they were not engaged in any contemplative activity. In other words, one side was more active than the other side. In the general population, both sides are typically equal in activity, especially when you are at rest.
SPECT brain scan of an individual with more than fifteen years of meditation experience showing asymmetry in the activity in the thalamus.
What could this mean? You occasionally find such asymmetry in epileptics and schizophrenics, but our subjects had no such symptoms. The thalamus plays a crucial role in identifying what is and isn't real, and it gives a sense of emotional meaning to the thoughts that emerge in the frontal lobe. In most animals the thalamus primarily sends one-way messages to the frontal cortex, but in humans an enormous neural dialogue takes place.
We would argue that the more you meditate on a specific object—be it God, or peace, or financial success—the more active your thalamus becomes, until it reaches a point of stimulation where it perceives thoughts in the same way that other sensations are perceived. And if you exercise an idea over and over, your brain will begin to respond as though the idea was a real object in the world. This, we believe, is what may cause thalamic asymmetry in advanced meditators. Thus, the more you focus on God, the more God will be sensed as real. But it will not be a “symmetrical” reality. Instead, it will be perceived “asymmetrically,” meaning that the reality will appear different from one's normal perception of the world. For advanced meditators, the asymmetric reality becomes their normal state of awareness. God, tranquility, and unity become an integral part of their lives, no longer a thought but a palpable experience, as real as the book you are holding in your hand.
The thalamus makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality. Your belief becomes neurologically real, and your brain will respond accordingly. But for someone else, who has meditated on a different set of beliefs or goals, a different reality will seem true.
THE CHEMICAL NATURE OF GOD
Spiritual practices also have an effect upon your neurotransmitters, the chemicals that make your brain and body work. For example, a 65 percent increase in dopamine was found when individuals practiced yoga nidra,27 a form of meditation in which a person maintains conscious awareness while remaining in a state of complete relaxation. Dopamine heightens sensory imagery, generates pleasurable experiences, stimulates positive thoughts, increases your sense of well-being, and allows you to feel safe in the world. Even the high that results from cocaine is related directly to the sudden increase of dopamine in the brain. This may explain why some people equate spiritual experiences with drug experiences, since both share common pathways in the brain.
Indeed, the ability to believe in spiritual realms may be dependent upon the amount of dopamine that is released in the frontal lobes, and too little dopamine may bias a person toward skepticism and disbelief. On the other hand, high levels of dopamine may bias a person to foster paranormal beliefs.28 Other research has suggested that the balance of activity between the brain's left and right hemispheres could regulate a person's predisposition to spirituality or atheism.29
During intense forms of meditation (mindfulness, vipassana, insight, and Transcendental Meditation), serotonin levels in the blood are altered. In some studies it increases, in others it decreases, and many question whether the effects are beneficial or harmful.30 Some argue that meditation evokes small epileptic-like seizures, but to my knowledge not a single case of epilepsy has ever been directly tied to spiritual practices. There is, however, anecdotal evidence that people with unstable personalities could have their symptoms temporarily increased. But since there has been such widespread use of meditation in psychotherapy—where it has been proven to be especially effective in the treatment of severe depression—the evidence shows that it is a very effective treatment for mood disorders.31 The serotonin released during meditation may also be responsible for the enhanced visual imagery and sensory experiences often reported during intense spiritual practice.
Research has shown that spiritual practices affect other important neurochemicals in the brain. For example, gentle forms of yoga that involve breathing and stretching have been shown to increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels in the brain by as much as 27 percent, which is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.32 Transcendental Meditation (which is a simple combination of relaxation, breathing, and the repetition of a symbolic sound) also lowers the stress molecules, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which explains why contemplative practices leave you pleasurably relaxed.33 By altering the neurochemistry of the brain, spiritual practices bestow a sense of peace, happiness, and security, while decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.
CAN YOU FIND GOD BY SWALLOWING A PILL?
What about drug-induced spiritual experiences? Can they help you find God? For centuries hallucinogenic plants like peyote and ayahuasca have been used as a means to interact with spiritual entities and forces. When LSD became popular in the 1960s, proponents of the drug believed they had found a fast way to reach spiritual and psychological enlightenment. But it was extraordinarily unpredictable, and psychologists soon realized that people with unstable personalities could plummet into a “bad trip”—a nightmare reality that might last for days, weeks, or months.
Experts in nearly every field of psychology and religion believe that drug-induced spiritual experiences do little to create a spiritual foundation from which to live one's life.34 But some researchers disagree. They believe that certain drugs can stimulate profoundly meaningful experiences by disrupting malfunctioning neurological circuits. For example, marijuana alters the human cerebellar clock,35 which may aid in slowing down hyperactivity.36 However, as four new studies conducted in 2008 found, marijuana use tends to impair many cognitive functions,37 and the same is true for MDMA, the popular drug known as Ecstasy.38 Meditation enhances cognition, memory, and the ability to concentrate on specific tasks without creating any health risks to your brain.
Hallucinogenic substances like peyote, mescaline, ayahuasca, and LSD stimulate many centers of the brain, producing visions and perceptual phenomena that occasionally have religious connotations. In a recent cross-cultural study comparing psychedelic drug users to marijuana and alcohol users, psychedelic users scored significantly higher on mystical beliefs, spiritual life values, and the ability to feel empathy toward others. In addition, the researchers found that “users of nonpsychedelic illegal drugs scored significantly lower on a measure of coping ability.”39
Another study found that users of psychedelic drugs were more imaginative and empathic. They tended to fantasize more, but were more likely to act out their feelings and possess more unconscious hostility than nondrug users.40 Whereas meditation mildly increases activity in the frontal lobes while reducing activity in the emotional centers, psychedelics create excessive stimulation throughout the brain, similar to what is found when people experience acute psychotic episodes.41 Thus, it is far more difficult to incorporate drug-induced experiences in a practical or meaningful way.
However, a highly publicized study conducted at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine challenged this perspective.42 Thirty-six subjects who had never taken psychedelics were given two different drugs on separate occasions: psilocybin (the active ingredient found in psychedelic mushrooms), and Ritalin, the stimulant prescription drug used to treat attention-deficit disorders. They were not told what they were given. With psilocybin, subjects reported significant increases in their feelings of unity, sacredness, intuitive knowledge, and ineffability. Two months later the participants continued to associate the experience with increased feelings of altruism, positive emotions, and constructive behavior. In fact, over 70 percent of the respondents stated that it was one of the top ten experiences in their lives. Approximately one-third said it was the single most spiritually significant experience in their life, and another third stated that it was in their top five.
Ritalin, however, generated little meaning or value, even though a couple of people did report mystical experiences. But before you go off in search of mushroom enlightenment, consider this: A number of subjects had increased feelings of anxiety, and 10 percent said they never wanted to have such an experience again. Furthermore, if you abuse psychedelic drugs, you'll have an increased risk of lifetime panic attacks.43 We still have much to learn about how and why certain drugs influence our spiritual and religious beliefs, but the fact remains that meditation is safer.
All experiences, be they religious or secular, must be viewed as lying along a continuum. For one person a specific experience will be intense, yet for another the same experience may barely elicit a neuropsychological response. For some people, the word “God” evokes a negative neurological response; for others, the word neurologically stimulates a sense of happiness and peace.
Even among atheists, the notion of God evokes a wide range of reactions. When we asked Kevin, a long-term meditator and atheist, to focus on an image of God, one side of his frontal lobe became more active, while the metabolic activity in the other side decreased. In our last book, we described this as a form of cognitive dissonance.44 Thus, when people focus on a belief that they strongly reject, their brain will experience some degree of emotional conflict and intellectual confusion. Others will not. When we scanned the brain of another atheist while she meditated on God, we found no significant changes in neural activity. We suspect that atheism comes in as many flavors as theism and that different nonbelievers reach their conclusions through different neurological paths of logic, experience, emotion, and social influence. Thus, we expect that each atheist will show a different pattern of neural activity when he or she contemplates God.
A “STROKE” OF ENLIGHTENMENT
In her recent book, My Stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes her extraordinary experience when, at the age of thirty-seven, she had a stroke. It caused substantial neurological damage to the left side of her brain, but it also resulted in an incredibly euphoric experience in which she felt intimately and profoundly connected with everything. She argued that the right side of the brain, when freed from the abstract reductionistic thinking of the left hemisphere, allows a person to experience the deeply compassionate and spiritual part of our human nature. Fully recovered, Dr. Taylor says she can now easily shift between the scientific and transcendent sides of her brain. Her experience supports the notion that each of us has an inner capability to access these wonderful parts of who we are—a notion supported by our brain-scan research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Since concepts of God vary from person to person, one would expect to find hundreds of different neurological “fingerprints,” which is what our research has found so far. Children, however, demonstrate a more consistent view of spiritual and religious ideas,45 which suggests that we all form a similar notion of a supernatural reality in the first few years of life, one that usually involves a face or a person who lives in the sky. This notion is rooted in the neural shortcomings of a child's brain, and is deeply influenced by what adults choose to believe in and teach. (In Chapter 5, we'll explore in detail how children and adults envision God.)
To summarize, the neural varieties of religious experience are just that—varieties. There is no “God spot,” nor is there any simple way to categorize religious beliefs. The data points to an endless variety of ways in which spiritual practices can affect the cognitive, emotional, and experiential processes of the brain, and each one of these experiences will lead to a different notion about God.
IS GOING TO CHURCH GOOD FOR YOU?
Even going to church will change your brain and your health, but only if you go frequently, or for many years.46 Studies have also found that regular attendance at religious activities will lower your blood pressure, but it may not be enough to lower one's risk of a heart attack or stroke. For example, in a large national survey, those who attended religious services weekly had blood pressures that were 1.46 millimeters lower than nonattendees, and those who went more than fifty-two times a year registered 3.03 mm. lower.47 For a person with a systolic pressure of 150, it doesn't reduce one's health risk if they lower it to 147. Of course, the optimist will argue that every little bit helps, and we would have to agree. But as skeptic and Claremont Graduate University professor Michael Shermer points out:
In several studies on the relationship between religiosity and mortality (religious people allegedly live longer), a number of religious variables were used, but only those with significant correlations were reported. Meanwhile, other studies using the same religiosity variables found different correlations and, of course, only reported those. The rest were filed away in the drawer of nonsignificant findings. When all variables are factored in together, religiosity and mortality show no relationship.48
Critics of religion will point to the vast amount of research showing that health improvements are only slightly above chance.49 But the fact that it has an effect at all is very important and should not be dismissed, as some researchers try to do. No matter how you want to interpret the findings, the evidence is clear that religious involvement has little down side and very often has a beneficial effect, especially when one feels positive about his or her religious beliefs. And sometimes the benefits are spectacular. For example, a national sampling found that those who go to church at least once a month have a 30 to 35 percent reduced risk of death.50 The numbers are equally consistent for Caucasians, African Americans, and Mexican Americans, and for older individuals religious activity is even more beneficial.51 Those who attend weekly are significantly less likely to have a stroke, but religious involvement didn't have an effect on diabetes or heart attacks.52 I suppose it is fair to say that God is good for your brain, but not necessarily your heart!
These, by the way, are long-term longitudinal studies following individuals for up to thirty years, and those who infrequently attended religious services had higher rates of death from circulatory, digestive, and respiratory disorders.53 In fact, the more you attend, the less you'll smoke,54 and it doesn't matter what religious denomination you are.55
Now, one can argue that the beneficial effects are attributable to any form of social group interaction, be it secular or religious. This is an important point because no one has yet been able to factor out other variables to see if religiousness itself improves health. But religions are, by their very nature, designed to touch upon every aspect of a person's life. Religious traditions encourage certain habits and discourage others. They provide social involvement as well as a sense of purpose and meaning, variables that are essential for everyone's psychological health.
But this does not mean that you should force reluctant individuals to attend religious services more often. In one of the few studies to examine the potential health risks of religion, university researchers Kenneth Pargament and Harold Koenig found that religious struggle—defined as people who feel that they are being punished by God, possessed by demons, or who experience religious and spiritual discontent—significantly shortened one's life span.56 Furthermore, if you find yourself ruminating on guilt and fear, or harboring negative attitudes toward God, clergy, and other church members, you will also be inclined toward poorer health and depression.57 People who have anger at God have more medical problems and poorer recovery rates from illnesses and hospitalization,58 and patients who struggle with religious issues over time are particularly at risk for health.59
These studies support our argument that fear-based religions can be hazardous to one's health. It's too bad that the Surgeon General can't place a warning sign on certain passages from the Bible or Koran, especially those that encourage violence toward people who hold different beliefs.
THE ELEMENT OF TIME
If you analyze the data collected from meditation studies, one of the most influential factors is time. The longer and more frequently you meditate, the more changes you'll notice in the brain. Beginning meditators show little or no change in brain function after one or two practice sessions. However, most studies, like ours, have found small but significant changes in brain activity after only eight weeks of daily practice.
Those who practice daily for thirty minutes or longer, and for many years, show the greatest differences in neural activity,60 not only when they are meditating, but when they are also at rest. Richard Davidson, who is the head of the Waisman Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, has been working with some of the most advanced meditators in the world. He and his team have found that these gifted individuals have extraordinary skills in manipulating specific parts of the brain that control thoughts and emotions,61 including the capacity to generate compassion in situations that virtually no one else can obtain.62
Davidson's findings also demonstrate that the neuroplasticity of the brain is greater than we have imagined.63 Another important study, recently released by the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, also showed that meditation enhanced the brain's thickness and neuroplasticity.64 Normally when we age, our cerebral cortex thins.
Our neurological findings have shown that different types of meditation and prayer affect different parts of the brain in different ways, and each one appears to have a beneficial effect on our neurological functioning and physical and emotional health. Some techniques increase blood flow to the frontal, parietal, temporal, and limbic areas of the brain, while others decrease metabolic activity in these areas. Intensive meditation may also trigger an unusual form of neural activity—deafferentation—in which one part of the brain ignores the information being sent to it by other parts. When this happens, we radically alter our everyday perceptions of the world.
By manipulating our breath, body, awareness, feelings, and thoughts, we can decrease tension and stress. We can evoke or suppress specific emotions and focus our thoughts in ways that biologically influence other parts of the brain. From a neuroscientific perspective, this is astonishing because it upsets the traditional view that we cannot voluntarily influence nonconscious areas in the brain. Only human beings can think themselves into happiness or despair, without any influence from the outside world. Thus, the more we engage in spiritual practices, the more control we gain over our body, mind, and fate.
∗ Some neuroscientists consider the anterior cingulate a part of the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex; others see it as part of the limbic and paralimbic system. We, and others, view it as both part of, yet distinct from, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.