Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Can praying reshape our brains for good?

In preparing a talk on prayer recently, I discovered the Sustainable Faith website. It's well worth a look. From a surprising breadth of Christian traditions there is a lot of common sense advice, as well as some very moving meditations and poetry. Among the articles on the website is this one, which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense, and deserves a much wider circulation (. . . and don't be frightened off by the title!): 

Neurotheology and the Biology of Spirituality 
by Steven Hamilton 

Did you know that there are professionals across the country who are studying the brain science of spiritual experience? They have taken the name ”neurotheologians” – those who research in the burgeoning field of spiritual experience and the brain - and they claim that prayer can sculpt your brain. Seriously, they claim prayer physically re-shapes your brain, and in-turn how your perceive reality. One such “neurotheologian”, Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania and teaching professor of the course The Biology of Spirituaity, has found that those who meditate and pray more have increased brain activity in the frontal lobe – where concentration and focus are centered according to brain scientists – while at the same time decreased activity in the parietal lobe – which is where we get our sense of orientation in time and space according to brain science. Therefore he posits this either aids or explains our experience of prayer, and those who claim to lose track of time and space during meditative prayer. In fact, Dr. Newberg has written a book: How God Changes Your Brain, in which he talks about the following: 

* Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process. 

* Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain. 

* Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain – altering your values and the way you perceive reality. 

Interesting, eh? But here is the kicker: while these brain scientists/neurotheologians have focused most of their studies on those who pray and/or meditate for several hours every day (like monks and nuns), their research is now turning to more prayer-challenged people (like me!). In fact, Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, claims that most anyone can sculpt their brain with some experience and training and something they call neuroplasticity (brain/cortical organization, especially for the sensory systems, is often described in terms of mapping, thus, with training and experience we can re-map our brain . . . quick question: in faith community circles, is this what we call spiritual formation?). “You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym,” he says. “Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly.” 

In one recent-but-unpublished study many people – who were regular people and not monks and nuns – were very successful in cultivating a spiritual mind-set. According to Dr. Davidson, there were detectable changes in the subjects’ brains within two weeks. Two weeks! Another similar study, where employees at a high-tech firm meditated a few minutes a day over a few weeks, produced more dramatic results. “Just two months’ practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions,” Davidson claims that the subjects developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate. 

So, I have been reflecting on all this and asking myself: 

* what are the implications for spiritual formation in terms of neurotheology, prayer and neuroplasticity? 

* Can spiritual formation and spiritual exercises like centering prayer, meditation and contemplative prayer ‘form’ a well-worn pathway to connect with God? 


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