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How God Changes Your Brain for the Better 

7 November is National Stress Awareness Day. Here we have an interview with neuroscientist Dr Andrew Newberg, by Shaun Lambert

Christians have always believed that God can change our minds: what is fascinating is what changes are then mirrored in our brains. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist in the USA who has conducted brain-scan research in the field of neurophysiology. He has written amongst other books, How God Changes Your Brain and Principles of Neurotheology. His principal line of research has been to investigate the neural mechanisms of spirituality and the impact of spiritual and contemplative practices on our minds and brains.

For example his research finds that 'contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others.'

I first came across his work in a research paper which mentioned the results of brain-scanning Franciscan nuns immersed in the presence of God. Intrigued and fascinated I began to read some of his books. I was able to put some questions to him about his work.

How God changes your brain forWhy did you chose the title 'How God Changes Your Brain?
Much of the focus of the recent research was on specific ways in which we think about God, religion, and spirituality.

We discussed issues about what God looks like, what God feels like, etc. to people. Hence we used the term God.

And we always tried to relate the discussion back to various sensory, emotional, and cognitive processes that arise in the brain. For that reason, we thought that talking about the ways in which the concept of God (along with religion and spirituality) affects the brain. Of course, it is a reciprocal relationship so the brain affects our beliefs about God as well. But we needed to keep the title relatively short.'

You have brain-scanned Franciscan nuns and Buddhist meditators and found similar neurological changes in their brains, what do you make of that?
Yes there were similar changes, in large part because from a brain perspective, they were doing similar things. They both were focusing their mind on an object (either visual with the Buddhists or prayer with the nuns).

The practices both involved intense focus and concentration and both resulted in a decrease in the sense of self and a feeling of absorption/oneness.

However, it is also important to keep in mind that when we see an area of the brain "light up", we don't know if it is 10 neurons or a million neurons. So just because similar areas appeared active on the scans does not necessarily mean that they were doing the same exact thing.

How and why did you see the importance of bringing science and theology together? 
As a child, I was always perplexed by how people can all look at the same reality and come away with completely different interpretations.

Whether it is politics, morality, or religion, I felt that there must be some better way of trying to understand our world and figuring out what is the real reality. At first, it was just a question. Later it became a more scientific pursuit - how can we use science to understand the world.

But as good as science is, I began to realize that it could not answer certain questions about the world. My line of thought became more philosophical.

And then as I continued to focus on answering this question about reality, it became more contemplative, and perhaps even spiritual.

But I also realized that without being able to connect the philosophical and spiritual approach to the physical world, we would never get to the answer of that ultimate question about reality. At that point I realized that somehow, science and theology (along with religion, philosophy, sociology, psychology, etc.) would have to work together to help us figure out what reality is all about. That is where I currently am on my path.'

How did you link neuroscience and contemplative practices?
When I was in medical school, and still contemplating the question about reality, I ended up taking an extra year to explore scientific research in more detail.

In looking around at the people involved in research, I came across two people who would become my mentors throughout my career.

One of them was Dr. Abass Alavi who helped me to launch my imaging career. I have worked with him for the past 20 years on all types of brain imaging studies (including neurological and psychiatric conditions).

I also met Dr. Eugene d'Aquili who had been thinking about the relationship between the brain and contemplative practices on a theoretical level since the mid-1970s. As I worked with both of them, I began to realize that we could use the brain imaging to study the contemplative practices. This would give us an entirely new perspective on the nature of these practices.'

Your work and interest is very wide-ranging, holistic in terms of how many religions/non-religious people you engage with: why is that?
From my perspective, each of our brains is doing the best it can to interpret the reality around us. I am always amazed at the diversity of conclusions that people come to, religious or otherwise. And I realized that until we truly know what reality is, we need to be open to all of the possibilities.

For that reason, I feel it is essential to understand all of the different perspectives that people arrive at regarding the nature of reality, religion or God.

For myself, I really don't know what perspective, or combination of perspectives is the right one to follow. That is the basis of my own personal pursuit of this topic.

Can you talk about some of the evidence for how God changes your brain for the better?
Most of the current scientific literature shows that people who are more religious - often measured by church attendance or self-report - have lower levels of stress and anxiety, lower levels of depression, and better overall health.

Our more specific research has pointed to specific changes in the brain that are associated with being religious/spiritual, or doing certain practices. For example, we showed that doing the Rosary reduces anxiety in people.

And a meditation practice, called Kirtan Kriya, increases the function of your frontal lobes, which in turn helps to improve memory and reduce anxiety. Of course, there are examples in which religion and spirituality can be bad for people, but that is also my hope to help identify the potential problems so that they can be avoided and turned into something more positive.'

Can you comment on the anti-religious scholarship you mention in your book?
If by anti-religious you mean those opposed to religion, I think that at this point, we really don't have enough data either way, and therefore we should all be open to different perspectives and possibilities.

Being negative about religion is not much different from a brain perspective than someone who is religious and negative about those who believe something else.

If by anti-religious you mean the potential downsides of religion, there are several ways in which that happens. Certainly those people willing to kill others or themselves in the name of God is a very negative side of religion.

But from a brain perspective, I would like to know the difference between some who is religious and very open and compassionate about others compared to someone who becomes violent and hateful.

Is the difference in the doctrine, the rituals, the brain or all of them. We also need to understand the allure of cults and other belief systems that appear to have many negative consequences.'

What are the real enemies of humanity?
I personally feel that the real enemy is a lack of openness and compassion. I realize that it is easy to say that we should all be more understanding of others, but all of my research suggests that each of us has a brain that is doing the best that it can in interpreting the reality around it.

All of our brains are imperfect, all of us make mistakes, so perhaps we can use this perspective to realize that we should be more understanding of people who come to different conclusions from ourselves.

I also always like to use the analogy of the flies (representing us) buzzing around an elephant (representing reality or God). If you could ask each fly what the elephant is, one might say a tail, another would say a tusk, and another would say a trunk.

Each are right, but each are limited. Maybe we need to work together to figure out what the elephant, and reality, truly is.

What work is still to be done?
We have only scratched the surface in terms of what we know about the brain and religion. There are so many small and big questions that we have yet to explore.

This includes a better understanding of how religion may help our mental and physical health, the nature of the mind and consciousness, and the nature of reality.

My hope is that Dr Newberg continues his brain-scan research to include those who practice Lectio Divina and the Jesus Prayer.

His research is part of a wider paradigm shift in our culture that is becoming aware of the importance of contemplation, mindfulness, spiritual and other meditative practices. It is here in his work that science, religion and the nature of reality come together.


The Revd Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister based in Stanmore, North West London. He is part of the New Wine leader's network, and Premier Mind and Soul network.

For the last ten years he has studied integrative and relational counselling at Roehampton University and has written regularly for
The Baptist Times.
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