Science

praying, prayers, god, religion

Praying May Increase Brain Power

November 10, 2009 11:30 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
A recent study found that intense prayer and meditation have a positive effect on mental ability, leading one researcher to suggest that it’s possible to reconcile science and religion.

Mental Benefits of Prayer and Meditation

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According to Andrew Newberg, a neuroscience author and head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, prayer and meditation may boost brainpower and mental ability, Tom Heneghan writes for Reuters.

As Newberg’s new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” explains, religious individuals and “even atheists can enjoy the mental benefits that believers derive from faith.” Exercises of faith such as meditation and prayer have beneficial effects on our brains, improving concentration and calmness. According to Reuters, brain scanners showed that “intense meditation alters our gray matter, strengthening regions that focus the mind and foster compassion while calming those linked to fear and anger.”

This positive effect is not dependent on whether the individual believes in a supernatural connection through prayer or is merely “an atheist repeating a mantra,” Newberg explains. “In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life—be they religious, scientific or psychological—your brain is going to grow,” he tells Reuters.

Background: Neurotheology

As Newberg explains, neurotheology studies “the brain's role in religious belief,” closely examining the changes in a believer’s mind when considering the complex notion of God. The concept of neurotheology presents an interesting take on the conventional belief that science and religion are opposites, housed in entirely different segments of the human mind and soul. Newberg’s studies show that there’s no specific area of the brain that responds to spiritual stimulation. Rather, “religious experiences fire neurons in several different parts of the brain, just like other events do.”

The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics explores neurotheology and examines how spirituality is reflected in the activity of the human brain. As psychologist David Wulff of Wheaton College in Massachusetts explains, neurotheology aims to understand the human brain’s reaction when “encounter[ing] a reality different from—and, in some crucial sense, higher than—the reality of everyday experience.”

Related Topic: Does religion reduce anxiety?

Two recent studies on brain activity suggest that religious people are less anxious than nonbelievers when they make mistakes. Psychology professors at the University of Toronto measured participants’ reactions to their own mistakes during a Stroop task, a standard cognitive test. Believers showed less activity in a portion of the brain that’s typically triggered during anxiety.
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