Why Your Brain Needs God

By Andrew Newberg and Mark WaldmanCenter for Spirituality and the Mind A theologian will tell you that faith is essential … Continued

By Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman
Center for Spirituality and the Mind

A theologian will tell you that faith is essential to religious belief, but our brain-scan research, which we document in our new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” led us to the conclusion that faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain. Indeed, we believe that faith is more essential than exercise, especially in light of the cumulative research showing how doubt and pessimism can shorten your life by years.

By faith, we mean the ability to consciously and repetitively hold an optimistic vision of a positive future — about yourself, and about the world. When you do this — through meditation, prayer, or intensely focusing on a positive goal — you strengthen a unique circuit in your brain that improves memory and cognition, reduces anxiety and depression, and enhances social awareness and empathy toward others. And it doesn’t matter whether the meditations are religious or secular.

However, when meditation is religious and strengthens your spiritual beliefs, then there is a synergistic effect that can be even better. Our research into how people describe their own spiritual experiences speaks directly to this fact. On one hand, it seems that people use a tremendous diversity of descriptions in recounting deeply meaningful, spiritual experiences. For some it is love, for some awe, for some it is the experience of direct contact with the divine (however they define that). However, in spite of these many different descriptions, each person describes a transformative element that changes their mind, their health, and their life. In fact, our research shows that the more you engage all parts of your being, your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, social interactions and spiritual pursuits, the more it enhances your brain’s function. But most importantly, this requires a focus on the positive — on love, forgiveness, optimism, and inclusiveness.

By contrast, negative thoughts, feelings, and speech — which includes angry rhetoric and fearful proclamations — cause the primitive parts of your brain to release a cascade of stress-evoking neurochemicals that damage your heart and brain, especially those circuits responsible for suppressing destructive emotions and thoughts. This is what we all have to watch out for. Our research reveals that many people have negative views on religion. We can track this when people relate a limited openness to other belief systems.

This corresponds with an authoritarian view of God. We can even see this in our research of people asked to draw a picture of God. When asked to do this, some people draw the classic portrait of the old bearded man in the clouds. However, this old, wrathful God image is generally replaced by a more abstract concept of God. In fact, many people draw pictures of nature or even of intricate geometric patterns. Our research shows that this move away from the negative views of God, and the world in general, can be replaced by more positive and optimistic views.

The simplest forms of relaxation and prayer — many of which only take a few minutes to do — can enhance personal faith and hope, and this releases powerful neurotransmitters that increase your sense of alertness, clarity, consciousness, and peacefulness. This, in turn, accounts for the physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits of contemplative spiritual practices. One of the new studies we report on show how a simple meditation practice can change the brain and improve memory. We are now using our findings to improve communication between doctors and patients, with couples attempting to resolve relationship conflicts, and with students who are attempting to improve their grade-point average on tests. By providing practical applications of this research, everyone has the potential to enhance the way their brain and mind work.

But it all depends on “keeping the faith” and focusing on your deepest values and dreams.

Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Waldman are coauthors of “How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings by a Leading Neuroscientist.” Newberg is a fellow and Waldman an associate fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • norriehoyt

    There may be something to some elements of what’s written about here, but the text is so non-explicit, abstract, and lacking in concreteness that no one with a functioning cortex can take it seriously.

  • Pamsm

    This is extremely self-serving.Few among us would dispute that a happy, optimistic outlook is healthier than a dour, angry, or pessimistic one. We’ve heard of endorphins and cortisol.But that doesn’t translate to happy Christians and miserable atheists.Most of the atheists I know are quite happy and optimistic. Conversely, I know many very angry Christians – many haunt these boards.You’re making a big leap – but then how can one expect objective scientific inquiry when the name of your organization is “Center for *Spirituality* (emphasis mine) and the Mind?

  • LaurelYves

    If this were a multiple choice test and we had to choose the best title for this, it wouldn’t be “Why Your Brain Needs God”. It would be more along the lines of “Meditation is Good For Your Brain”, or “Optimism is Good For You.” Optimism and meditation are not synonymous with God and don’t even require any faith at all. Other than the title, I liked the rest of it.

  • Counterww

    Right, and only people like Pam and Norrie have functioning cortexes, right?Sometimes I am amazed at the elitism oozing from atheist’s mouths…..It is astounding.Most of the atheists I know on the web, Pam, can’t live their lives without kicking up a fuss about those awful religionists. It was not so bad when is was just the kooky O’Hair, but with radicals like Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens running around blaming religion for all kinds of ills.. that shows how much elitism there can really be in the atheistic mind-think.

  • Maryann261

    Junk science.I am an agnostic, and I am very happy with my life.