source: TheStar.com - Mind & Mood - Your religious beliefs alter your brain, says author Andrew NewbergYour religious beliefs alter your brain, says author Andrew Newberg
Believing in a higher power alters your grey matter, says a neuroscientist with the scans to prove it
April 21, 2009
Nancy J. White - "Living Section Reporter" - Toronto StarA neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew Newberg has done medical brain image scans on Franciscan nuns, Buddhists, Pentecostals, Sikhs and Sufis as they pray or meditate, all in his quest to map the effects of spirituality on the mind.
The author of How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg spoke to the Star about revving up the frontal lobe, believing in a vengeful God and yawning.
Q: So how does God change your brain?
A: There's not just one God part of the brain. The whole brain is affected. When you fully engage the mind, which we typically see in spiritual practices, it activates different parts in a robust and fundamental way. When you look at God in a positive way, it turns on the part of the brain that makes us feel more compassionate, more loving, more forgiving to ourselves and others. People with these positive feelings about God have lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Q: Atheists lose out?
A: There are many different prayer and meditative practices that anybody can engage in from any belief system and derive benefit.
Q: Are there different changes for different religions?
A: It's not your belief system, it's what you're doing. If you're deeply focused on a sacred object the brain activity is different from someone praying which is different from someone speaking in tongues which is different from Sufi meditation.
Q: To get the benefits, how often and how intensely do you need to be engaged? Sit in a church pew once a week or join a cloister?
A: It doesn't take a lot of time to gain benefits. In our study, we took people who had never done meditative practices, scanned them and then trained them in simple meditative techniques. They meditated for 12 minutes a day. At eight weeks, we evaluated them again and saw significant improvement in memory scores and emotional measures, including anxiety, anger and tension.
Q: What were the physical brain changes on their scans?
A: One of the most important areas affected was the frontal lobe. In general, it helps focus attention. It had been activated by focusing on meditation but was also more active even at rest, when not meditating, after the eight-week program.
The frontal lobe is also involved in our feelings of compassion and regulating emotions. Their frontal lobes continued to be more active. The meditative effects aren't just when you practice but ultimately become part of you.
Q: You also say extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
A: People who think of God as vengeful, exclusive, angry at people who don't believe the way they do, that activates parts of the brain involved in those negative emotions. It turns up the heart rate. You're ready for anger, ready for a fight. It turns on a whole stress cascade that actually damages the brain, makes it work less efficiently.
In health care, we see people who look at God as angry at them. They got cancer because God is punishing them. That's extremely detrimental.
Q: On your list of the best ways to exercise your brain, number one is faith. Faith in what?
A: Ultimately, it's faith in a positive outcome. When people have an optimistic, positive look on the world, it's one of the best ways to maintain a healthy brain and body.
Q: Also on your list: yawning. That's a brain exercise?
A: It's the brain's way of waking itself up. You take in more oxygen. Force a few yawns before a meeting or a test.
Q: So instead of a third cup of coffee, I should yawn?
Q: Why are yawns contagious?
A: There are hypotheses but we don't know for sure.