Prayer Changes Our Brains
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Prayer Changes Our Brains

But despite people's different beliefs, the research of neuroscientists such as Newberg has shown that our brains deal with these beliefs in similar ways. In an interview with Vice, Newberg told Love that what's most important is that we do something that has meaning to us.

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Prayer Changes Our Brains

"Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends...The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love." - Saint Teresa of Avila

I've written before about how it is a way to build relationships with God rather than to secure outcomes, but for a believer, it is the most direct way of directly communicating with God. According to Uffe Schjodt of The European, praying is a form of communication that "inspires awe, feelings of unconditional love, and, indeed, a sensed presence of God," much like the emotions and feelings we get after talking to a friend.

We often think of talking to God as talking to a supernatural being, and scientists have never observed how the brain could possibly evolve to talk to invisible supernatural beings. The brain, according to Schjodt, evolved to deal with challenges in the natural environment, to prioritize survival as well as interact with other humans.

Prayer doesn't seem to fit into that category, from the perspective of someone viewing the practice through a scientific and neuroscientist lens. But what happens in prayer is actually a common neurobiological mechanism. Schjodt and his group didn't find that thinking about God did not activate regions of the brain associated with abstract concepts, but rather, "a marked pattern of activity in four regions that typically activate when humans relate to other humans."

This means that neurobiologically, we think of God as a personal friend, rather than some wispy, supernatural being. It suggests that the strongest believers and most faithful Christians see God as "a concrete person -- in spite of the theologically complex and highly abstract nature of the Christian God." For Christians that didn't pray regularly, the researchers didn't find that they treated God as a real person and personal friend.

Schjodt's findings seem to support the message that we should have a close and personal view and treatment of God rather than a distant one. "Praying to God is comparable to 'normal' interpersonal interaction, at least in terms of brain function," Scjodt writes. He then presents us with a barrage of soul-searching questions: "One might ask if these findings, then, are evidence that God is just an illusion, an imagined friend that always listens in times of distress? Or may they, in fact, be proof that God affects us even at the level of brain function?"

Dr. Andrew Newberg complicates these questions in his paper, "How God Changes Your Brain: An Introduction to Jewish Neurotheology," that neurotheology is a two-way street where science and religion both affect each other, and the field of neurotheology is how we the two can intersect and not be competing with each other. There are several brain areas that relate especially to spirituality and religion, namely the frontal lobes, which are important in our sense of willfulness and attention. Research from Newberg and his colleagues has shown that people who practice prayer and meditation over many years have thicker and more active frontal lobes than people who don't pray and meditate.

The thalamus is another brain area that is strongly affected by prayer, and researchers have observed that attending religious services and praying for eight weeks leads to increased activity in the area. Changes in areas like the frontal lobe and the thalamus happen more as the brain develops, and these changes associated with a prayer lead to reduced anxiety and depression, as well as enhanced compassion and love. "Most individuals also relate religious beliefs and practices to better coping during stressful life events, and improved relationships," Newberg writes.

In terms of prayer methodology, neuroscience research has shown that slowing down speech makes it easier to remember and incorporating thoughts and beliefs. Focusing on simple breathing techniques can also result in more powerful brain changes and experiences. Newberg used these findings in Jewish prayer, presenting information that led his group to perform the Sh'ma, a Jewish prayer, in a very different way. Each word was said in a single breath, and everyone took a deep breath in and said the next word as they exhaled. "This dramatically slowed the pace of the prayer and allowed people to deeply focus on its meaning," leading many people in the group to comment to Newberg that that particular prayer was highly powerful.

Newberg, at one point, did a brain scan on Scott McDermott, a United Methodist minister who prayed for two hours a day and spoke in tongues. Newberg asked McDermott to pray for someone else and then injected McDermott with a dye at the peak of his prayer to show the blood flow in his brain. People like McDermott, who pray incessantly as he has, focus intensely on God and prayer, and according to Newberg, the more people focus on something "the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain."

McDermott showed increased activity in the frontal lobes, and when McDermott was asked what these neuroscience findings meant, and McDermott responded that "I think we're wired for the supernatural," he says. "I think we're meant to sense a world beyond our five senses. Come on! Taste and see that God really is good."

Studying another patient while praying, Newberg also found that the parietal lobes went dark. The parietal lobes create our sense of self and identity that place in the world, and "when people lose their sense of oneness...we have found decreases in activity in that area," and subsequently feel a sense of oneness with the universe.

My campus minister, Stephen, once said that we don't pray so circumstances can change. We pray so God can change us. Of course, most people who are praying aren't thinking of a lot of these practical results and outcomes, and I know that I personally wouldn't because that misses the point and prioritizes the wrong things.

And people of various faiths and faith traditions pray differently, too. According to Shayla Love of Vice, some people pray to God for relief and for forgiveness, but the Jesuits, for example, only pray to praise God, not for a petition. Prayer means something significantly different to different people, and means something completely different to every different person.

But despite people's different beliefs, the research of neuroscientists such as Newberg has shown that our brains deal with these beliefs in similar ways. In an interview with Vice, Newberg told Love that what's most important is that we do something that has meaning to us.

Prayer gives us a relationship. Prayer gives us friendship. Prayer gives us meaning. And all those things tell us that prayer changes our brains.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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