15 May 2009

How God Changes Your Brain

Posted in Regeneration, The Brain at 23:03 by Dr. Shue

What if…How you see God and how you practice your faith actually influences your brain pathways and who you become —

Would this be…Regeneration in action before our very eyes?

Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman have authored a book called How God Changes Your Brain, which seems full of juicy bits about the impact of our religious choices and practice on our brain’s structure and function.

“Juicy? Like what?”, I hear you asking.

Let’s start with one that may not be too new anymore, but is still kind of cool.

Did you know that… spiritual practices, like prayer or meditation, actually change the wiring of your brain?

And, in an increasing number of studies out there, the kinds of brain changes created are directly connected to the kinds of practices.

So…

  • practicing compassion enhances the brain’s activity in “connecting things” ;
  • focused contemplation exercises enhance the brain’s areas involved in narrowing focus and zooming in on particulars and staying there;
  • Both of these are different from mindfulness meditation, which seems to increase our acceptance, tolerance, and open-mindedness by calming down the emotional “survival” areas (fear, anger, lust)

As we practice these different techniques, we actually are strengthening the connections in our brains that participate in the spiritual exercise — we create new “brain habits”.

Which also means that as we strengthen them, they become easier and easier to practice and more and more a “typical” way for us to operate all  the time, not just “in prayer”.

Of course, as a brain-focused person, I suspect this is the very purpose of these spiritual exercises– to help us create and maintain a certain way of being. (Read: spiritual regeneration)

But it doesn’t stop there.

Here’s an interesting quote from The Washington Post’s review of How God Changes Your Brain:

But Newberg’s research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.”

So it’s not just the exercises that are creating change.

Surrounding ourselves with a particular understanding of God also creates brain changes — “brain habits” — that then have an impact on we view and interact with world and people around us.

We actually start to see what and how we believe. (Which takes me back to another recent post on just that topic 😉

When “God creates us in His image”, he wasn’t kidding! By the image we hold, we shape ourselves into different ways of Being. (AND probably influence those around us by how we react to them, but that’s another post coming soon ;-).

The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political.”

For more about How God Changes Your Brain, try “10 Questions for the authors of How God Changes Your Brain

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