By Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman
Center for Spirituality and the Mind
A theologian will tell you that faith is essential to religious belief, but our brain-scan research, which we document in our new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” led us to the conclusion that faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain. Indeed, we believe that faith is more essential than exercise, especially in light of the cumulative research showing how doubt and pessimism can shorten your life by years.
By faith, we mean the ability to consciously and repetitively hold an optimistic vision of a positive future — about yourself, and about the world. When you do this — through meditation, prayer, or intensely focusing on a positive goal — you strengthen a unique circuit in your brain that improves memory and cognition, reduces anxiety and depression, and enhances social awareness and empathy toward others. And it doesn’t matter whether the meditations are religious or secular.
However, when meditation is religious and strengthens your spiritual beliefs, then there is a synergistic effect that can be even better. Our research into how people describe their own spiritual experiences speaks directly to this fact. On one hand, it seems that people use a tremendous diversity of descriptions in recounting deeply meaningful, spiritual experiences. For some it is love, for some awe, for some it is the experience of direct contact with the divine (however they define that). However, in spite of these many different descriptions, each person describes a transformative element that changes their mind, their health, and their life. In fact, our research shows that the more you engage all parts of your being, your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, social interactions and spiritual pursuits, the more it enhances your brain’s function. But most importantly, this requires a focus on the positive — on love, forgiveness, optimism, and inclusiveness.
By contrast, negative thoughts, feelings, and speech — which includes angry rhetoric and fearful proclamations — cause the primitive parts of your brain to release a cascade of stress-evoking neurochemicals that damage your heart and brain, especially those circuits responsible for suppressing destructive emotions and thoughts. This is what we all have to watch out for. Our research reveals that many people have negative views on religion. We can track this when people relate a limited openness to other belief systems.
This corresponds with an authoritarian view of God. We can even see this in our research of people asked to draw a picture of God. When asked to do this, some people draw the classic portrait of the old bearded man in the clouds. However, this old, wrathful God image is generally replaced by a more abstract concept of God. In fact, many people draw pictures of nature or even of intricate geometric patterns. Our research shows that this move away from the negative views of God, and the world in general, can be replaced by more positive and optimistic views.
The simplest forms of relaxation and prayer — many of which only take a few minutes to do — can enhance personal faith and hope, and this releases powerful neurotransmitters that increase your sense of alertness, clarity, consciousness, and peacefulness. This, in turn, accounts for the physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits of contemplative spiritual practices. One of the new studies we report on show how a simple meditation practice can change the brain and improve memory. We are now using our findings to improve communication between doctors and patients, with couples attempting to resolve relationship conflicts, and with students who are attempting to improve their grade-point average on tests. By providing practical applications of this research, everyone has the potential to enhance the way their brain and mind work.
But it all depends on “keeping the faith” and focusing on your deepest values and dreams.
Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Waldman are coauthors of “How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings by a Leading Neuroscientist.” Newberg is a fellow and Waldman an associate fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.