How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

August 17, 2009

how-god-changes-your-brainSome book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “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.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

meditation-scan-2That brings up another interesting aspect. While he is clearly favourable to faith and spirituality, Newberg remains a scientist eager to study the religious feelings he calls “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.” He studiously avoids promoting any one faith or closing the door to atheists who might be reading the text. The tone is upbeat, the approach inclusive and the conclusion optimistic. There’s a touch of Eastern mysticism, too, with sections on how widely practiced meditation could foster compassion and understanding among people and peoples. Thanks to this open-minded approach towards both religion and science, Newberg teaches radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and speaks frequently to church groups or in religious media.

Newberg gave me a few SPECT brain scan images that illustrate the changes he finds in his subjects’ brains. The image above left shows the brain of a Buddhist monk before and during meditation. The increased yellow in the lower right of the right-hand image shows reduced activity in the parietal lobe, the brain area responsible for orientation in space and time. Below right, the image shows a nun before and during prayer, with increased activity in the frontal lobe, the area for concentration and analytical thinking, and in areas linked to language.

prayer-scan-3Newberg, a cheerful and optimistic man who was brought up in a Reform Jewish family and says he is still exploring his own beliefs, told me his next book will be an academic work on neurotheology. He stresses that the field is in its infancy and its brain scanning methods are still “incredibly crude. We really don’t know which neurons are firing in that little three-millimeter space” captured in fMRI scans. “If we can ultimately say something epistemologically interesting, then that’s great,” he told me. “But it’s going to take me a long time before I get to saying something like that.”

UPDATE: After some failed attempts at editing this, here is a video clip of Newberg explaining his views during our interview:

What do you think about “neurotheology”? Do you think brain scans and neuroscience can tell us anything significant about religion?

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Every Sunday we join Hearts and Minds in a Global Meditation to promote Individual and Planetary Consciousness.

Posted by Mitch | Report as abusive

[…] posted this article on How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain. The article discusses Andrew Newburg’s newest book, “How God Changes Your […]

Posted by Meditation and Your Brain | May All Be Happy | Report as abusive

Doing regular meditation increases awareness, reduces stress and helps the entire body mind system to attain the state of homeostasis.

Mindfulness is the meditation technique that I find most practical, it brings the person 100% into the present moment. There are however many forms of meditation that work for different persons depending upon their personality, upbringing, social and environmental factors.

website has articles, free guided meditation and other resources for everyone.

You may read about mindfulness meditation and try the meditation on this site: ss_meditation.html

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

Mr Heneghan’s professional occupation quite naturally inclines him to be swept off his feet by so imposing a title as Dr Newberg’s book and his academic background and position. It ought to be clear, however, that neither any god nor the subject matter of meditation influence the brain in the way these two gentlemen rather naïvely believe. If they extended their research, they would have to conclude that any intense concentration will show very similar results to their current findings. Errare humanum est…

Posted by (Dr) Conrad (Borovski, ret Prof) | Report as abusive

Since becoming a Christian, all of my electrical appliances in the house that hadn’t work for more than 3 years started working again.
Does prayer performs miracle/healing or non meditated brain causes the reverse – damage / failure? Apply that to our planet, are we destroying the planet because humans are much less meditative/less godly, as compared to 50 years ago?
Apply that to Africa with no core religion/ meditative culture and that of past great civilistion , high in spiritual values ? Africa has no known advancment in civilisation throughout history as compared to many better parts of the world. Make sense?
I think so.

Posted by Steve Kuok | Report as abusive

I can’t believe that anyone actually believes this stuff. Planetary consciousness? Give me a break. Maybe a quick science course in physics would help you guys out. The mind has nothing to do with any of this. It’s just a wannabe wishful thinking process. Crazy? You bet.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

Anything that encourages the notion that silence (or, in this case, meditation) is not evil is okay with me!

Posted by Heath | Report as abusive

[…] Brain Candy Believe it or not, meditate. If if you are an Atheist, meditation is a good idea. What to meditate about if you are an Atheist? How about just bring your mind to rest and be at peace. Ahhhh, isn’t that better? (reuters . . .) […]

Posted by Tech News Thursday August 24, 2009 | The Contemplation | Report as abusive

How about just putting “meditation increses brain size” and not make a sensational and untruthful claim about any particular religion’s deity?

I think Mark Twain had it best with what faith is: “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true.” and not “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.””

Why use a word, “faith” that already has a meaning to suddenly become the meaning of other perfectly good words like “hope”, “optimism”, “positive thinking” and “trust”? We can have lots of evidence for those things, just like we have evidence that meditation and not “God” has influence on the brain.

Posted by vel | Report as abusive

Great post Tom. Thanks for sharing your valuable information and views on meditation and its positive influence on the human brain. Meditation not only enhances the brain but it also helps to attain peace and happiness in our mind.

Posted by brain meditation | Report as abusive

It is very obvious that yoga first make impact on your mind in positively, so if you make your mind in right manned so all diseases automatically leave you, because mind it server of your whole body..

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

[…] meditator claims that during meditation, he experiences a lack of self or sense of oneness, and a measurement of brain activity shows that in particular, his parietal lobe, responsible for orientation in space […]

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