How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
TRANSFORMING YOUR INNER REALITY
A UNIVERSAL SERENITY PRAYER
May I find the serenity of mind
to accept the things about myself
that can't be changed,
the strength to change the things
that can be changed,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
8. EXERCISING YOUR BRAIN
Eight Ways to Enhance Your Physical,
Mental, and Spiritual Health
Throughout this book we have emphasized that many forms of spiritual practice affect your brain in fundamentally healthy ways. It doesn't matter how you believe in God, and there is considerable evidence that such practices work even if you don't believe. Part of the reason for this is that spirituality is often defined in terms of personal values and the search for meaning and truth, and thus, spiritual practices can take on many forms.
If you take the most conservative assessment of the hundreds of medical, neurological, psychological, and sociological studies on religion, two conclusions are evident.
First, involvement with religious and spiritual activities generally does no harm, unless, as we described in the last chapter, you focus on an authoritarian God who fills you with anger and fear. And as we reported earlier in the book, even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health.
The second conclusion is this: Activities involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning. The neural circuits activated by meditation buffer you from the deleterious effects of aging and stress and give you better control over your emotions. At the very least, such practices help you remain calm, serene, peaceful, and alert. And for nearly everyone, it gives you a positive and optimistic outlook on life.
However, when we looked closely at the neurological principles underlying most spiritual practices, we discovered that the health benefits associated with prayer and meditation can be achieved through activities that are unrelated to religion. Meditation is certainly one of the best ways enhance the neural functioning of your brain, but there are seven other “techniques” that you should consider incorporating into your life.
You won't find drugs or supplements on this list because, as a medical researcher, I am not convinced that they are any better at enhancing neural functioning than the methods I'm about to describe. Furthermore, most drugs can have potentially significant side effects.∗1 Diet is also not included, not because it doesn't affect brain function—it does, in very important ways—but because it is nearly impossible to isolate how the component nutrients influence neural metabolism and health. It would require a separate book, and it would be far more controversial than the suggestions that follow. Suffice it to say that a generally healthful diet is always good for your brain.
Sleep also did not make it to our list, but not because it is unimportant to cognitive functioning. It is. In fact, sleep is so important to the brain that we cannot survive without it. Like other body parts, it needs time to rejuvenate and strengthen the connections between nerve cells. This process, called “consolidation,” enables nerve cells to strengthen their connections. If the brain does not rest, those circuits will be damaged. And if you chronically sleep less than five hours a night, cognition significantly declines.1 The problem is, a “good” night's sleep is dependent upon many variables, especially the amount of stress you've experienced while awake. In fact, even a single exposure to a stressful situation can disturb your normal pattern of sleep.2 Any form of stress exhausts our neural capacity to function optimally, and nearly everything we do is stressful, to one degree or another. Take driving, for example. With every hour we spend on the road, our alertness decreases, and the resulting fatigue impairs cognitive functioning.3 So the problem is stress-induced fatigue, and the cure is adequate rest.
Sleep deprivation will disrupt normal neural functioning,4 but it's hard to assess to what degree, and in what ways, given all the variables involved in an individual's constitution and lifestyle. For example, nearly every form of cognitive and physical disturbance will disrupt your sleep.5 Sleeping pills won't help either because many of them disrupt REM sleep and dreaming, which are essential components for maintaining a healthy brain. Deprive a rat, which normally lives two or three years, of REM sleep, and the poor thing will survive for about five weeks.6 Sleep disturbance is the problem, but an increased quantityis not necessarily a cure.
Neuroscientific evidence has governed our choice in selecting the eight best ways to maintain a healthy brain, but it wouldn't surprise me if we left out a few strategies that are equally effective in terms of promoting neurological health. Still, I think several items on our list will surprise you. None are based on any religious orientation, but you can easily integrate them into any spiritual tradition you favor. In fact, we believe that in addition to helping your brain, they can all be used to strengthen your ethical behavior. They will also transform your inner reality, and when that happens, your perception of the world will change. Your spirituality will change, and so will your notions of God.
THE EIGHTH BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Smile. Even if you don't feel like it, the mere act of smiling repetitively helps to interrupt mood disorders and strengthen the brain's neural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life.7 And even if you fake a smile, other people will respond to you with greater generosity and kindness. To my knowledge, the only religion to incorporate smiling into a spiritual practice is Buddhism. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we do “smiling meditation” whenever we have a spare moment during the day. Smile when you're going up in the elevator or when standing in line at the supermarket, and you will notice that the people around you calm down. You'll feel better, you'll exude empathy, and people will respond with kindness. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace.”8Smiles, by the way, are neurologically contagious in every culture, and women are more susceptible than men.9
Smiling stimulates brain circuits that enhance social interaction,10 empathy,11 and mood.12 In fact, smiling has such a powerful effect on the brain that if you just see a picture of a smiling face, you will involuntarily feel happier and more secure.13 Conversely, frowning (or looking at frowning faces) stimulates feelings of anger, disgust, and dislike. In one controversial study, Botox injections into frown lines appeared to alleviate subjective feelings of depression.14
Laughing, however, stimulates different neural paths.15 Laughing and humor did not make it onto our list because part of the mechanisms involved are associated with surprise and the perception of incongruity.16 Laughter and humor can stimulate the amygdala, suggesting that these feelings are sometimes related to discomfort and fear.17 This helps explain why many people laugh when watching videos where others do foolish things and are hurt, for it may be a way of quickly releasing anxiety (an alternative explanation would be that some people experience an inherent sadistic pleasure when others make mistakes).
There is some evidence to suggest that laughter may help lower stress and boost the immune system, even turning on various genes that are related to fighting cancer, diabetes, and AIDS.18 But the changes appear to be temporary, and the studies fail to demonstrate if any appreciable improvements in health are gained.
Nurturing a laughing personality may be beneficial, but until someone takes a group of test subjects and asks them to arbitrarily laugh for fifteen minutes per day, then scans them again in eight weeks, we won't know if the neural circuits stimulated are related to anxiety, pleasure, sadism, or peace.
However, we do recommend that you listen to “happy” music (yes, your brain organizes sound into a range of emotions). It can stimulate a smile response and improve your mood,19 and it is particularly effective in helping your brain when you are dealing with a chronic or serious disease.20
THE SEVENTH BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Stay intellectually active. This should be (if you will pardon the pun) a no-brainer. When it comes to the dendrites and axons that connect one neuron to thousands of others, if you don't use it, you will lose it.21 Intellectual and cognitive stimulation strengthens the neural connections throughout your frontal lobe,22 and this, in turn, improves your ability to communicate, solve problems, and make rational decisions concerning your behavior. Nearly every age-related cognitive disability is related to the functioning of your frontal lobe, so it's particularly important to exercise this specific part of your cortex, which, by the way, has more neural interconnections than any other lobe. A highly functioning frontal lobe also makes it easier to diet, exercise, and avoid tempting activities that have health risks.23
Memory and mnemonic exercises, strategy-based games like chess or mahjong, and other forms of visual/spatial exercises or games can significantly improve cognitive functioning, especially in older adults.24And the more intense and frequent the game playing, the greater the cognitive gain. Furthermore, intellectual stimulation, in nearly any form, lowers your propensity to react with anger or fear. Imagination even improves the motor coordination of your body, and if you rehearse a dance step or a golf swing in your mind, you'll actually perform the task better. The same is true for attaining personal goals. The more often you imagine what you want, the more likely you are to achieve it.
Try to spend as many hours a day engaged in the most intellectually challenging activities you can dream up, and solve as many complex problems as quickly as you can, because speedy intellectual reasoning helps you maintain a healthy brain.25 Read books (fiction or nonfiction, it doesn't matter) or listen to books on tape. Watch the education and science channels on TV, take a class, attend a lecture, go to a museum, play chess, or write in your diary. However, doing math exercises and crossword puzzles apparently doesn't help,26 and performance pressure can even interfere with memory functioning.27 So be sure to make your intellectual pursuits enjoyable. The research also suggests that you must engage in a wide variety of sophisticated, challenging cognitive activities in order to keep your neurons and dendrites well connected.
Engaging in religious and spiritual issues and problems will also stimulate brain function. Reading scriptures, reflecting on meaning, discussing issues with friends, and seriously thinking about the deepest issues facing humanity are outstanding ways of activating complex circuits in your brain.28 In fact, religious and spiritual issues are among the most challenging we face today. Focusing your mind on such problems, grappling with them, exploring different perspectives—all of these help expand and enhance your brain's activity.
There is one mental activity that I suggest you be wary of: videogame playing. The more you do it, the more aggressive you may become and the more your coping skills are reduced.29 Frontal lobe functioning declines, exasperating attention deficit problems,30 dependency issues,31 and addictive behavior in children and adolescents.32 And, as we mentioned in the previous chapter, violent video games clearly stimulate aggressive behavior.33 However, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that nonviolent video gaming causes permanent neurological or behavioral damage.34
But what about computer-based cognitive training programs? Can they improve brain function? Recently, there's been a great deal of publicity about different brain stimulation programs, but there's also been considerable controversy and doubt in the scientific and academic communities. Cognitive-based computer games appear to improve neural functioning, at least for people with cognitive problems, but no one has yet created an effective way to compare one type of exercise to another.35 One learning program, developed a few years ago to aid children in language and reading development, showed initial promise, especially when dealing with serious learning problems, but the improvements have been so small as to have little practical benefit.36 Newer “brain fitness” programs that claim to reduce neurological deterioration have also been heavily publicized, and although the research looks promising,37 we won't know for many years how practical they might actually be, especially for the average aging individual.
THE SIXTH BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Consciously relax. I'm not talking about taking a nap, or assuming the position of a couch potato in front of a television set. I'm talking about deliberately scanning each part of your body to reduce muscle tension and physical fatigue. And if you add pleasant music, your body will relax more quickly.38 Calming music, by the way, has been shown to sharpen your cognitive skills39 and improve your sense of spiritual well-being.40
Simple, repetitive activities that are pleasurable and meaningful can also take you into a deep state of relaxation. In one of my most recent studies, we found that the ritual practice of counting rosaries lowers tension, stress, and anxiety. Many other religious and spiritual practices calm the mind and allow the brain to rejuvenate, and even activities like knitting will have a similar relaxing effect.
In the next chapter we'll explore several techniques that will help you experience a very deep state of relaxation, which turns out to be the first essential step in any meditation practice. But relaxation does much more than relieve bodily tension. It interrupts the brain's release of stress-stimulating neurochemicals, and stress is the number one killer in America. Lowering stress reduces heart disease, high blood pressure, and pain. And one of the keys to reducing stress involves conscious focusing on the breath. However, when it comes to relaxation, a dozen deep breaths is not as effective as you might think. There's a much faster way to simultaneously relax and raise consciousness, and it comes next on our list.
THE FIFTH BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Yawn. Go ahead: Laugh if you want (though you'll benefit your brain more if you smile), but in my professional opinion, yawning is one of the best-kept secrets in neuroscience. Even my colleagues who are researching meditation, relaxation, and stress reduction at other universities have overlooked this powerful neural-enhancing tool. However, yawning has been used for many decades in voice therapy as an effective means for reducing performance anxiety and hypertension in the throat.41
Several recent brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the areas of the brain that are directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy.42One of those areas is the precuneus, a tiny structure hidden within the folds of the parietal lobe. According to researchers at the Institute of Neurology in London, the precuneus appears to play a central role in consciousness, self-reflection, and memory retrieval.43 The precuneus is also stimulated by yogic breathing, which helps explain why different forms of meditation contribute to an increased sense of self-awareness.44 It is also one of the areas hardest hit by age-related diseases and attention deficit problems,45 so it's possible that deliberate yawning may actually strengthen this important part of the brain.
For these reasons we believe that yawning should be integrated into exercise and stress reduction programs, cognitive and memory enhancement training, psychotherapy, and contemplative spiritual practice. And, because the precuneus has recently been associated with the mirror-neuron system in the brain (which allows us to resonate to the feelings and behaviors of others), yawning may even help us to enhance social awareness, compassion, and effective communication with others.46
Yawning is so effective and important to the functioning of your brain that I'm going to ask you to review for yourself the thirty-four yawn-related studies I've cited in the endnotes (you can read the abstracts and several papers by going to pubmed.gov). Why am I so insistent? Because if I were to ask you to put this book down right now and yawn ten times to experience this fabulous technique, you probably won't do it. Even at seminars, after presenting the overwhelmingly positive evidence, when I ask people to yawn, half of the audience will hesitate. I have to coax them so they can feel the immediate relaxing effects. There's an unexplained stigma in our society implying that it's rude to yawn, and most of us were taught this when we were young.
As a young medical student, I was once “caught” yawning and actually scolded by my professor. He said that it was inappropriate to appear tired in front of patients, even though I was actually standing in a hallway outside of the patient's room. Indeed, yawning does increase when you're tired, and it may be the brain's way of gently telling you that a little rejuvenating sleep is needed.47 On the other hand, exposure to light will also make you yawn, suggesting that it is part of the process of waking up.48
But yawning doesn't just relax you—it quickly brings you into a heightened state of cognitive awareness.49 Students yawn in class, not because the teacher is boring (although that will make you yawn as well, as you try to stay focused on the monotonous speech), but because it rids the brain of sleepiness, thus helping you stay focused on important concepts and ideas. It regulates consciousness and our sense of self, and helps us become more introspective and self-aware.50 Of course, if you happen to find yourself trapped in a room with a dull, boring, monotonous teacher, yawning will help keep you awake.
Yawning will relax you and bring you into a state of alertness faster than any other meditation technique I know of, and because it is neurologically contagious,51 it's particularly easy to teach in a group setting. One of my former students used yawning to bring her argumentative board of directors back to order in less than sixty seconds. Why? Because it helps people synchronize their behavior with others.52
Yawning, as a mechanism for alertness, begins within the first twenty weeks after conception.53 It helps regulate the circadian rhythms of newborns,54 and this adds to the evidence that yawning is involved in the regulation of wakefulness and sleep.55 Since circadian rhythms become asynchronous when a person's normal sleep cycle is disturbed, yawning should help the late-night partygoer reset the brain's internal clock. Yawning may also ward off the effects of jet lag and ease the discomfort caused by high altitudes.
So what is the underlying mechanism that makes yawning such an essential tool? Besides activating the precuneus, it regulates the temperature and metabolism of your brain.56 It takes a lot of neural energy to stay consciously alert, and as you work your way up the evolutionary ladder, brains become less energy efficient. Yawning probably evolved as a way to cool down the overly active mammalian brain, especially in the areas of the frontal lobe. Some have even argued that it is a primitive form of empathy.57 Most vertebrates yawn, but it is only contagious among humans, great apes, macaque monkeys,58 and chimpanzees.59 In fact, it's so contagious for humans that even reading about it will cause a person to yawn.60
Dogs yawn before attacking, Olympic athletes yawn before performing, and fish yawn before they change activities.61 Evidence even exists that yawning helps individuals on military assignment perform their tasks with greater accuracy and ease.62 Indeed, yawning may be one of the most important mechanisms for regulating the survival-related behaviors in mammals.63 So if you want to maintain an optimally healthy brain, it is essential that you yawn. However, excessive yawning can be a sign that an underlying neurological disorder (such as migraine, multiple sclerosis, stroke, or drug reaction) is occurring.64 However, we and other researchers suspect that yawning may be the brain's attempt to eliminate symptoms by readjusting neural functioning.
12 ESSENTIAL REASONS
1. Stimulates alertness and concentration
2. Optimizes brain activity and metabolism
3. Improves cognitive function
4. Increases memory recall
5. Enhances consciousness and introspection
6. Lowers stress
7. Relaxes every part of your body
8. Improves voluntary muscle control
9. Enhances athletic skills
10. Fine-tunes your sense of time
11. Increases empathy and social awareness
12. Enhances pleasure and sensuality
Numerous neurochemicals are involved in the yawning experience, including dopamine,65 which activates oxytocin production in your hypothalamus and hippocampus,66 areas essential for memory recall, voluntary control, and temperature regulation. These neurotransmitters regulate pleasure, sensuality, and relationship bonding between individuals, so if you want to enhance your intimacy and stay together, then yawn together. Other neurochemicals and molecules involved with yawning include acetylcholine, nitric oxide, glutamate, GABA, serotonin, ACTH, MSH, sexual hormones, and opium derivate peptides.67 In fact, it's hard to find another activity that positively influences so many functions of the brain.
Our advice is simple. Yawn as many times a day as possible: when you wake up, when you're confronting a difficult problem at work, when you prepare to go to sleep, and whenever you feel anger, anxiety, or stress. Yawn before giving an important talk, yawn before you take a test, and yawn while you meditate or pray because it will intensify your spiritual experience.
Conscious yawning takes a little practice and discipline to get over the unconscious social inhibitions, but people often come up with three other excuses not to yawn: “I don't feel like it,” “I'm not tired,” and my favorite, “I can't.” Of course you can. All you have to do to trigger a deep yawn is to fake it six or seven times. Try it right now, and you should discover by the fifth false yawn, a real one will begin to emerge. But don't stop there, because by the tenth or twelfth yawn, you'll feel the power of this seductive little trick. Your eyes may start watering and your nose may begin to run, but you'll also feel utterly present, incredibly relaxed, and highly alert. Not bad for something that takes less than a minute to do. And if you find that you can't stop yawning—I've seen some people yawn for thirty minutes—you'll know that you've been depriving yourself of an important neurological treat.
THE FOURTH BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Meditate. I wish I could say that meditation and intensive prayer were number one, because that's where our research has been focused, but being number four is nothing to sneeze at (no, sneezing doesn't help the brain and may even be a symptom of a rare cerebellar disorder68). And when it comes to enhancing spiritual experiences, it certainly takes first place. If you stay in a contemplative state for twenty minutes to an hour, your experiences will tend to feel more real, affecting your nervous system in ways that enhance physical and emotional health. Antistress hormones and neurochemicals are released throughout the body, as well as pleasure-enhancing and depression-decreasing neuro-transmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Even ten to fifteen minutes of meditation appears to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation, and psychological health, and it has been shown to reduce smoking and binge-drinking behavior.69
There's even solid evidence that meditating before taking a test will significantly improve your score. When researchers at the University of Kentucky taught students a forty-minute relaxation and concentration technique, they did better than those who exercised or took a nap.70 Caffeine helped, but not as much. And of course, don't forget to yawn.
Visualization, guided imagery, and self-hypnosis are specific variations of meditation and are equally effective in maintaining a healthy brain. In the next chapter, we'll guide you through the basic steps for establishing a meditation practice that you can integrate into your personal or spiritual life.
THE THIRD BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Aerobic exercise. Vigorous exercise strengthens every part of the brain, as well as what it is connected to—the body. If you're between the ages of eighteen and ninety, exercise is going to lengthen your life.71How much should you experience? In general, the more intense the better. For example, running is better than walking, and walking is better than stretching,72 but it is important to find the “right” amount of exercise that feels the best for you. Certain health conditions will also affect the type and length of exercise you can do, so creating a personalized program is a complex but important issue to address.
Exercise can even be viewed as a form of meditation because it involves sustained concentration and a deliberate regulation of body movements and breathing. Studies have even shown that it enhances relaxation73 and spiritual well-being.74
Vigorous stretching, such as yoga, also does wonders for both your body and your brain. Yoga has similar cognitive benefits to other forms of contemplative meditation, and in a recent meta-analysis of 813 meditation studies, the researchers stated that yoga was as beneficial as exercise.75 It can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease,76 help control the symptoms of diabetes,77 lessen the severity of menopausal symptoms,78 reduce chronic back pain,79 and prevent the onslaught of migraine headaches.80
In a study conducted in 2007, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine found that levels of the neurotransmitter GABA increase after a single sixty-minute yoga session.81 Since people who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders have low levels of GABA, yoga exercise is a valid modality for improving psychological mood. It's even been found to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia.82Research has also shown that a few weeks of yoga training enhances a wide range of cognitive skills in children and adults.83
All forms of exercise enhance neural performance84 and rebuild damaged circuits caused by brain lesions and strokes.85 Exercise improves cognition and academic performance.86 It repairs and protects you from the neurological damage caused by stress.87 It enhances brain plasticity.88 It boosts immune function.89 It reduces anxiety.90 It can be used to treat clinical depression,91 and it is just as effective as antidepressants.92 In fact, for older patients, exercise is equivalent to twelve sessions of psychodynamic psychotherapy.93 It slows down the loss of brain tissue as you age,94 protects you from Alzheimer's disease,95 and reduces your vulnerability to chronic illness.96 Need I say anything more to convince you of the importance of exercise?
A forty-minute cardiovascular workout every other day is enough to keep your brain healthy, but why limit yourself to just one modality? When you look at all the techniques that have proven effective in treating physical and emotional problems, you'll find that most treatments use a combination of approaches. For example, when Dean Ornish created his famous program to reverse heart disease, he combined exercise with meditation, breath awareness, relaxation, and a low-fat vegetarian diet.97
Combined strategies are always more effective, so why not assemble all of the above techniques into a cardiovascular meditation? Warm up with a dozen yoga stretches and yawns, then put on your running shoes and smile. And, since there's no reason why you can't contemplate God or focus on developing inner peace as you strengthen your muscles, bones, heart, and brain, why not pick a spiritual or personal goal that you want to accomplish in your life? You can literally sprint to success. Get together with a small group of spiritually minded friends and sponsor an interfaith marathon with your church. Become a cardiovascular Christian. Do isotonics for Islam. Jog for Judaism. Bike for Buddhism. Eat plenty of vegetables and be as healthy as a Hindu. And don't forget to yawn. You'll open your heart and your mind, in both a spiritual and literal way.
If you think this sounds silly, let me tell you about an experiment conducted with nineteen churches in Baltimore, Maryland.98 Five hundred twenty-six Baptist, Holiness, Catholic, and Methodist African-American women spent a year integrating spirituality and exercise. They did aerobics to gospel music, and chanted religious praises during a cardiovascular dance. They also received scripture-based messages encouraging physical activity and healthy eating. Participants had significant improvements in dietary energy and blood pressure, weight and waist reduction, total fat reduction, and lower sodium intake. Church involvement specifically contributed to the program's success, but the addition of spirituality did not significantly improve outcomes. Still, it does point out the potential power that religious groups have in fostering physical and emotional health.
THE SECOND BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Dialogue with others. Language and the human brain coevolved with each other,99 allowing us to excel over many of the physical and mental skills of other mammals and primates. And if we don't exercise our language skills, large portions of the brain will not effectively interconnect with other neural structures. Dialogue requires social interaction, and the more social ties we have, the less our cognitive abilities will decline.100 In fact, any form of social isolation will damage important mechanisms in the brain leading to aggression, depression, and various neuropsychiatric disorders.101 Without dialogue, we would not be able to cooperate with others, and without cooperation, human behavior rapidly deteriorates into conflict. We can either talk our way out of a problem or fight our way out, and dialogue is certainly the more civilized solution for attaining and maintaining global peace.
But don't just talk about the weather or gossip about the neighbors. These forms of dialogue are more like monologues, and they won't engage the brain as much as a deeper conversation. Talk about abstract ideals like harmony and peace. Ask what your neighbor thinks about evolution and the Big Bang. Talk about what the twenty-third century might look like, and by all means talk about God—but with one caveat: Don't get entrapped in an angry dialogue. As we made clear in the previous chapter, irritable conversations will do considerable damage to your brain.
Since religion is central to many of the world's conflicts, we need to create empathic communication strategies to bridge spiritual differences. Unfortunately, communication skills are rarely taught in schools or in religious groups. To address this issue, we have taken the principles of meditation and adapted them to create a unique dialogue experience that you can do with anyone: with your partner, kids, friends, business associates, or even a complete stranger. It will create deep intimacy between any two people in less than fifteen minutes, and it only takes a few minutes to learn. We'll teach you how to practice Compassionate Communication in Chapter 10, but first, it's time to share with you the most essential component for maintaining a healthy brain.
THE NUMBER ONE BEST WAY TO EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN
Faith. No matter what choice we make concerning our physical, emotional, and spiritual health, we'll never know for certain if we are absolutely correct in our beliefs. We can make educated guesses about the world, but some degree of uncertainty will always remain. This is true for medicine and science, and it's certainly true when it comes to our religious beliefs.
Still, we have to trust our beliefs, and this is a matter of faith. But it's always unsettling to realize that we can't be a hundred percent sure about anything. We can't even trust our eyes when it comes to something as obvious as color, because color doesn't exist in the world. Light waves exist, but we can't see them at all. We only know they exist through the instruments we construct and the mathematical formulas that underpin our experiments. Color is a product of our imagination, and so is our perception of the world.
The same can be said about God. We can take surveys, or scan people's brains as they contemplate God, but this will tell us more about the brain and nothing about the true nature of the universe.
To be spiritually inclined, you have to rely on faith. Those who don't believe in such realms will use different criteria to govern their decisions and ideas, but they too must rely upon their intuition and faith to guide them through the unknown aspects of life. None of us can be certain if we've made the “right” decision, especially when it comes to dealing with abstract concepts like justice, fairness, or moral ideals. If we don't have faith that we're making the best decision we can, then we will be swallowed up in doubt. And doubt, at least as far as your brain is concerned, is a precarious state in which to live.
Faith is equivalent with hope, optimism, and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true. The psychiatrist Vicktor Frankl, who was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp until the end of World War II, said that the single most important thing that kept a survivor alive was faith. If a prisoner lost faith in the future, he was doomed, because the will to live seldom returned.102
Similarly, Mark and I are convinced that for many people, if their faith in God was weakened, they could suffer deeply. Clearly this happened to many Jews, who came away from the Holocaust with the nearly unbearable question, “God, how could you let such a tragedy occur?” Many abandoned their faith in God, but they maintained their faith in humanity, and in their cultural heritage as Jews. More important, many chose to fight for the religious and civil rights of others.
To me, it doesn't matter if God is an illusion or fact, because even as a metaphor, God represents all we are capable of becoming, an ideal that offers hope to millions of people throughout the world, especially for those who may have little to fall back on other than their religious ties. Faith in an optimistic future may be a placebo, but it's important to remember that placebos can cure, on average, 30 percent of most physical and emotional diseases. Even an irrational belief in a cure that has been proven not to work can significantly boost the body's immune system when dealing with a deadly disease.103
Recently, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers concluded that “a moderate optimistic illusion” appears to be neurologically essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health.104 They also found that highly optimistic people had greater activation in the same parts of the anterior cingulate that are stimulated by meditation. If you recall from previous chapters, the anterior cingulate plays a crucial role in controlling anxiety, depression, and rage, as well as fostering social awareness and compassion.
Even the medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic stress the importance of optimistic thinking for maintaining optimal health. They found that positive thinking decreases stress, helps you resist catching the common cold, reduces your risk of coronary artery disease, eases breathing if you have certain respiratory diseases, and improves your coping skills during hardships.105 An optimistic attitude specifically reduces the stress-eliciting cortisol levels in your body,106 and many other studies have demonstrated how optimism improves behavioral coping in a variety of physical illnesses.107 In a forty-year follow-up conducted at Duke University, optimists had increased longevity when compared to pessimistic individuals.108 Indeed, the role of optimism is so important in maintaining psychological health that the University of Pennsylvania has an entire institute—the Positive Psychology Center, headed by Martin Seligman—dedicated to this research.109
Faith is essential for maintaining a healthy brain, but if you exclude exercise and companionship, you are going to cripple your health. So my advice is to nurture all three. And if religion is high on your list, then I suggest that you include meditation, since it appears to be the best way to make spiritual values neurologically real. For those who don't value religion, meditating on hope, optimism, and a positive future will have similar neurological benefits.∗2 Best of all, meditation undermines the everyday doubts and anxiety we all harbor when we reach for new goals and ideals. In other words, meditation will strengthen your faith—in yourself, in people, and in God.
THE PRINCIPLES OF AFFIRMATION
Before I close this chapter, I want to briefly address the widespread popularity of the “power of positive thinking,” especially as it relates to the notion that you can use your thoughts to attain anything you want in the materialistic world. Overly simplistic books and CDs like The Secret have been turned into million-dollar best-sellers when they're touted by television talk-show hosts, but do they really work? From a neuroscientific perspective, the answer is yes, but not in the magical ways implied.
In fact, nurturing a fantasy is the first step in the neural process of achieving success in the world. It begins with creative imagination, a process that takes place in your frontal lobe, the area in your brain that has the unrelenting capacity to dream up virtually anything. If you can't imagine a specific goal, you won't make it to second base, which is figuring out how to make your dream come true.
Now, as I have emphasized throughout this book, truth can only be approximated by the brain. Instead, what the brain does best is calculate the odds of success. Here is where faith kicks in, because it is essential to remain optimistic about your chances of reaching your goals.
So what do you do when all of the subtle, and not so subtle, self-doubts kick in? You can do several things: suppress them, evaluate them, or ruminate on them. Neurologically, it's actually easier to suppress them, because the more you keep your mind focused on your optimistic belief of success, the more you will inhibit the functioning of your limbic system, which generates doubt and fear. However, anxious individuals have a more difficult time suppressing negative thoughts,110 and often get caught up in the repetitive process of rumination. This, unfortunately, strengthens the neural circuits that generate anxiety and embed the information into long-term memory banks.111 We recommend that such people engage in a more intensive meditation regime, as we will describe in the next chapter.
But suppression of negative thoughts is not enough to make any dream come true. At some point you may have to evaluate the practicality of your goal. For example, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation used to believe that if they concentrated hard enough, they would eventually be able to levitate. Known as “yogic flying,” some students spent thousands of dollars for training, but so far all anyone has been able to do is hop. It may be an ecstatic, enlightened hop, but it isn't levitation. Well, the same holds true for obtaining wealth. If you concentrate hard enough, I do not doubt that your income will rise, but don't be surprised if doesn't reach the moon.
Concentration is essential to set your goal in motion, and the suppression of self-doubt is critical, but more is necessary to achieve success. You have to become motivated to do something about it. You have to take action, you have to tell others about your dream, and you need something to offer them to make them participate in your success.
In other words, you can't do it alone. And you can't depend on the universe to oblige your every whim, as some of these books suggest. There's no clear evidence that there is a quantum force that emanates from any part of you that influences the cosmos to do your bidding. Quantum properties do appear to be involved in the synaptic activity between neurons,112 and we can use quantum dots to track peptides in cells,113but this does not clearly translate into any observable phenomena inside or beyond your body.114 Even if quantum physics could be shown to influence your life, it would more likely do so on the quantum level, meaning that you'd experience a subatomic increase in personal wealth. Dream about a million bucks, and you'll be a penny richer! Certainly we can all do better than that.
The magic comes when other people feel and see your optimism and excitement about your project, which makes similar circuits in their brain resonate to yours. If they have the time, energy, and mutual interest, they will be neurologically inclined to join forces with you, or at least support you and give you helpful advice.
The longer you focus (i.e., meditate) on your goal, the more real it begins to feel, and if you stay focused long enough, you'll alter the neural circuitry in your brain. The same is true for any principle or belief. Focus on God long enough, and God becomes neurologically real. Focus on peace, and your body will become relaxed and serene. And if you intensely focus on wealth, monetary issues will permeate your mind and influence your behavior in the world.
Goal achievement begins with the belief that you can succeed, but it is equally important to establish what goal you truly desire. This too is easy to do. Chris and Janet Attwood, authors of The Passion Test,describe a useful technique of making a list of your desires and goals to meditate on and review throughout your life.115 They also suggest that you create a “vision board” that contains pictures and images associated with your goal. From a neuroscientific perspective, this makes a lot of sense because, as we explained in Chapter 5, the visualization process makes it easier for the brain to translate ideas into concrete attainable goals.
When you meditate on what you desire, immerse yourself in positive images associated with your goal. For example, try to envision meeting important people who can help you on your quest. Then take action. Call up everyone you know—not with trepidation, but with the knowledge that people are neurologically inclined to help—and ask them for the name of someone they know who might help you to achieve your goal. In very little time you'll connect with the right individuals. Networking is the fastest way to success, especially when it concerns relationships and work. And that's exactly what your neurons are genetically designed to do: network with each other.
ARE THERE ANY DRAWBACKS TO
Skeptics might argue that maintaining an illusory optimism is problematic, but the evidence points in the opposite direction. Researchers at the University of California found that people who have self-enhancing illusions exhibit lower cardiovascular responses to stress, more rapid cardiovascular recovery, and lower baseline cortisol levels.116 In fact, an unrealistically optimistic belief about the future appears to be health protective, even when dealing with a disease as serious as AIDS.117
Simply put, faith and optimism will add months or years to your life,118 and the only drawback—and a potentially serious one—is a decreased perception of risk.119 It will increase your resistance to common colds and flu viruses, though bias you toward underestimating the severity of your symptoms.120 Optimism leads people to underestimate their risk of getting divorced and to overestimate their prospects for success in the marketplace. Thus optimism can be taken to an extreme, especially if you choose to ignore realistic concerns. For example, optimistic smokers underestimate their chances of getting ill,121 and this is indeed a dangerous form of faith. All forms of optimism are associated with a less realistic view of the world.122 But then again, so is pessimism.123 Thus the question we must face is this: Are we using our optimistic beliefs to maintain a destructive behavior or belief? If so, then a healthy dollop of reality testing should be added to your recipe for health.
If the human brain did not have a bias toward optimism, we would be prone to increased anxiety and depression.124 Pessimism, however, has few benefits, and it leaves the person more at risk to depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and impaired social functioning.125 In a thirty-year longitudinal study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, pessimism was significantly associated with a shorter life span and poorer mental functioning.126
Evolution has given us the biological ability to be optimistic and hopeful about the future, even when there is no concrete evidence to support our beliefs. This too is one of the functions of our frontal lobes, but we need to exercise it daily, having faith in humanity, and especially in ourselves.
∗1 An interesting exception is the serotonin-enhancing antidepressants. They appear to improve neural and synaptic plasticity, especially in areas related to memory storage and recall, and may even cause new growth in the hippocampus and amygdala.
∗2 Neither religion nor a belief in God made it to our “Top Eight” list because religious beliefs, in and of themselves, have no specific effect on the brain, especially if they hold little meaning or value for the individual. But because religion is often a combination of social dialogue, intellectual stimulation, and faith, it can be a powerful mechanism for exercising your brain and optimizing the brain's functions. On the other hand, negative religious beliefs can have a harmful effect on neural functioning, especially if they are ruminated on for extended periods of time.