Strengthen Your Brain Through The Power of Prayer

 

Strengthen Your Brain Through The Power of Prayer

The Mind Health Report interviews Dr. Andrew Newberg

Dr. Newberg is one of the founders of the field of neurotheology, the study of the relationship between the brain and religious and spiritual phenomena. His research has included studying the brain scans of more than 150 people to observe the various changes that take place during different types of religious practice and meditation.

The research goes on to describe how such experiences relate to our feelings, thoughts, and behavior toward others.

In his studies, Dr. Newberg seeks only to understand what happens in the brain when we engage in religious activities, and how it impacts our health, quality of life, and relationships.

He does not attempt to evaluate or question religious beliefs or the underlying concept of faith. In fact, Dr. Newberg has identified faith in one’s religious and other personal beliefs as the most powerful way to maintain a healthy brain.

Religious beliefs and activities can have a profound impact on our mental and physical well-being by reducing stress, improving resistance to diseases, enhancing memory and mental function, and helping us to lead longer lives.

“There is not just one part of the brain or body that is the religious center of who we are,” he says. “Instead, the whole ‘self’ seems to be very deeply affected by religious ideas and practices.”

Dr. Newberg’s studies show that various parts of the brain are affected in different ways by prayer and other religious rituals and ceremonies.

Here is the article as published in Mind Health Report:

Since its founding, the United States has always been a deeply religious nation. Prayer, especially, is an integral part of American culture; even today, statistics show that three out of four Americans pray on a daily or weekly basis.

Prayer helps us deal with the many trials and tribulations we face, providing a source of comfort and a foundation for hope, as well as improving our outlook and our emotional well-being.

In recent years, studies have shown that there is also a connection between religious practice and less depression, lower blood pressure, an improved ability to deal with financial strain and physical pain, better overall health, and a longer life.

Less is understood, however, about just how prayer confers such health benefits. For instance, how do prayer and other forms of religious activity affect the brain?

To answer this question, The Mind Health Report spoke to Andrew Newberg, M.D., who has studied the impact of religious practice and meditation on the human brain for more than 17 years.

Dr. Newberg is the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in Philadelphia. He is the co-author of, among other books, How God Changes Your Brain, as well as dozens of scientific articles on prayer and brain health.

The Whole ‘Self’ Is Affected By Religious Practice

Dr. Newberg is one of the founders of the field of neurotheology, the study of the relationship between the brain and religious and spiritual phenomena. His research has included studying the brain scans of more than 150 people to observe the various changes that take place during different types of religious practice and meditation.

The research goes on to describe how such experiences relate to our feelings, thoughts, and behavior toward others.

In his studies, Dr. Newberg seeks only to understand what happens in the brain when we engage in religious activities, and how it impacts our health, quality of life, and relationships.

He does not attempt to evaluate or question religious beliefs or the underlying concept of faith. In fact, Dr. Newberg has identified faith in one’s religious and other personal beliefs as the most powerful way to maintain a healthy brain.

Religious beliefs and activities can have a profound impact on our mental and physical well-being by reducing stress, improving resistance to diseases, enhancing memory and mental function, and helping us to lead longer lives.

“There is not just one part of the brain or body that is the religious center of who we are,” he says. “Instead, the whole ‘self’ seems to be very deeply affected by religious ideas and practices.”

Dr. Newberg’s studies show that various parts of the brain are affected in different ways by prayer and other religious rituals and ceremonies.

How Prayer Affects the Brain

Although the brain has many components, Dr. Newberg’s studies show that certain areas are distinctly affected by prayer and other religious experiences. The overall result is an improvement in brain function and well-being, and an increase in the person’s capacity for compassion.

 

 

1. The Frontal Lobe is activated by prayer and focused attention. Activities that engage this area protect it against age-related deterioration that is associated with dementia.

2. The Anterior Cingulate is activated when we feel compassion, have an awareness of other people’s feelings, and empathize with them.

3. The Parietal Lobes are deactivated by religious experiences, such as singing hymns at a religious service, making us feel a connection with God and other people.

4–8. The Limbic System, the primitive or “reptilian” region of the brain, is deactivated by prayer that gives us comfort and reduces stress. This region includes the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, septal area, and cingulate cortex. The limbic system is associated with anger, guilt, anxiety, depression, fear, resentment, and pessimism.

 

The “Regions of the Brain” diagram (above) illustrates the key components of the brain that are influenced by prayer.

The frontal lobe, located just behind the forehead, becomes activated when we focus our attention, plan, reason, read or speak, and move voluntarily.

This area shrinks with age, and its deterioration is associated with loss of memory and overall mental functioning. Greater deterioration of the frontal lobe is associated with dementia.

Prayer, if done for at least 12 minutes daily on a regular basis, may slow the age-related decline of the frontal lobe.

The anterior cingulate, just behind the frontal lobe, is activated when we are aware of others and empathize with them, when we sense how they feel, and when we feel compassion for other people.

Prayer increases activity in this area, which is considered to be the part of the brain that most clearly distinguishes human beings from animals. Dr. Newberg calls it the “neurological heart.”

The parietal lobes, above and slightly behind the ears, are activated when we feel a sense of ourselves as separate from other things in the world.

Activity in this area drops during religious experiences; our sense of self actually diminishes, enabling a feeling of being more “at one” with God, other members of a congregation, or the universe at large.

The limbic system is made up of several components located at the top of the spinal cord; this is sometimes called the “reptilian” or primitive part of the brain because reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals all have this type of brain system.

The limbic system is the oldest and most rugged part of the brain, designed to fight for survival in harsh, primitive environments that existed long before we lived in the type of society we have today. It becomes activated when we feel anger, resentment, and other destructive or pessimistic emotions.

One part of the limbic system, the amygdala, turns on a fight-or-flight response which reduces regard for others and deactivates compassion.

Prayer can prevent negative emotions in the limbic system from becoming activated, and can help turn on positive emotions.

Effects of Different Kinds of Religious Activity

As a general rule, prayer activates the more “human” (anterior cingulate) and rational (frontal lobe) parts of the brain, and deactivates the more primitive region (the limbic system). This brings about a sense of comfort and reduces stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions.

Specific activities have different types of impact. Brain scans show that when individuals speak in tongues, for instance, activity in the frontal lobe decreases. Most likely, says Dr. Newberg, this happens because the frontal lobes act as a type of gateway that keeps information organized and attention focused. But the individual’s attention at the moment of speaking in tongues is not focused.

The temporary suspension of the frontal lobe gateway enables new ideas that are being discussed in the church setting to have a deeper impact on the person.

Singing hymns and saying group prayers at a church service have a different effect on the brain. These are activities in which the members of a congregation become a part of something that is bigger than themselves. At the same time, they temporarily lose some of their sense of isolation and individuality. Emotional music played at a service can intensify this effect.

In addition to making a person feel closer to God, this activity also increases a sense of unity with larger groups, such as one’s countrymen or even all of humanity. Meanwhile, activity in the parietal lobes decreases.

The degree to which prayer enhances the brain depends upon how long and how often people pray. While a few minutes of occasional prayer may not bring about significant improvements, studies show that more frequent practice for longer periods will produce tangible benefits.

Exercise Your Mind

“The brain is like a muscle,” says Dr. Newberg, “The more you use it, the better it works.”

When prayers are spoken, either silently or out loud; or sung, whether from memory or by reading a prayer book, the brain becomes highly engaged. Such prayers can focus on getting closer to God, showing gratitude, seeking strength, or making a petition on behalf of oneself or another person.

In addition to prayer, Dr. Newberg’s research has examined the effects of meditation. To put this research in context, meditation simply means to think about or contemplate spirituality.

The brain activity associated with various types of meditation is much like that of contemplative or meditative prayers, which may include repeating prayers (chanting) or reflecting on the meaning of Biblical passages.

Brain scans show that contemplative prayer increases activity in the frontal lobe. This area becomes more active when we focus our attention. It could be activated by quiet prayer or prayer at a religious service, where attention is focused on saying, singing, or reading the scripture.

Once again, shrinking of the frontal lobes is associated with aging, loss of memory, and dementia. Studies of people who meditate for many years have shown that their frontal lobes are larger than those of their peers who don’t meditate.

In a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Dr. Newberg examined the effects of a meditation program on people who were experiencing a mild degree of difficulty with memory.

He found that study participants who practiced meditation for 12 minutes daily for 8 weeks experienced significant improvements in their memory.

Strengthening the frontal lobe has other benefits as well. It improves “executive function” of the brain, which describes a wide range of cognitive behaviors and processes that occur as we go about our everyday lives. This can include everything from planning a daily itinerary to coming up with a dinner menu to making more significant decisions such as where to invest savings, or whether or not to buy a new home or where to send your children to school.

Overall, the enhancement of the frontal lobe helps to maintain what we think of as a healthy brain. It keeps the brain in better shape throughout the later years of life.

Religious Activities Enhance Our Emotional Well Being

As well as improving brain function, prayer and other religious activities that bring comfort can lower stress, improve the immune system, lower blood pressure and help to keep the heart in good shape.

“If a person derives strength from their religion — such as a feeling of love or other positive emotions — when coping with difficult issues, those things can lead to positive physical and mental benefits,” says Dr. Newberg.

In contrast, studies show that anger activates the primitive brain (the limbic system), which perpetuates aggressive feelings such as resentment, jealousy, and a pessimistic outlook on life.

In addition, this area of the brain increases stress, impairs immune function, raises blood pressure and risk for heart disease, and fosters anxiety, guilt, and depression.

The limbic system can also damage the benign brain regions, such as the frontal lobe and anterior cingulate, even to the point of impairing their function.

For optimum brain function and overall health, it makes sense to reduce the activity of the limbic system as much as possible.

Prayer that focuses on positive ideas and optimistic visions of the future will activate the more positive parts of the brain and deactivate the limbic region, enhancing the ability to experience and express compassion, toward oneself and others.

“If you derive from religion positive feelings and positive ideas — including support, compassion, and understanding — over time it will lower stress,” says Dr. Newberg, “Ultimately, these activities will have a beneficial effect on your brain.”

The Brain-Health Diet by Dr. Paul Nussbaum

Most Americans are aware of the obesity problem in our nation. Most of us also understand that being overweight is a major risk factor for cardiac health and can increase the risk of stroke and diabetes as well.

What most Americans may not understand is that the brain is also significantly affected by what we eat, and that many of the heart problems that come with a poor diet can also have adverse effects on the brain.

The human brain is actually the fattiest part of the human body, with nearly 60 percent its total mass made up of lipid (fat) substances. This “good” fat insulates nerve tracks, enabling efficient information processing.

Without proper levels of good fat, or if a breakdown of brain cells occurs due to chronic intake of trans fats and saturated fats, the brain can suffer reduced processing, stroke, or even dementia.

How Our Diet Has Changed

When thinking about the foods that comprise a brain-healthy diet, a good place to start is with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their diet was devoid of the bad fats and processed foods that can damage the body and brain over time.

During our early development as a species, intake of such natural, healthy foods contributed to our species’ ability to develop complex social behaviors, creativity and intellect, and the ability to adapt to dangerous surroundings. This diet included leafy plants, berries, fish, lean game, and nuts.

However, as the agricultural revolution emerged, our diets changed to include foods high in bad fats and calories. These fatty foods — such as cheese, red meat, milk, and butter — can do structural damage to cell membranes, thereby reducing the efficiency of the brain cell. This can result in slowed cognition, memory and attention problems, and even changes in mood.

We then underwent a third dietary transition as our civilization moved into the industrial age. Our diets now include highly processed foods such as trans fats, saturated fats, refined grains, high-fructose corn syrup, and monosodium glutamate.

These processed foods have very little nutritional value. Eating a steady diet of these devitalized substances will starve your brain of the nutrients it needs.

Good Fats and Antioxidants Fortify the Brain

As you can see, over time, what we eat actually affects the function of our brains. Mood, energy, and cognitive processing are all influenced by the foods we consume. This basic understanding has led to a relatively new discipline known as “nutritional neuroscience,” which is the study of how different foods change our brains.

While there isn’t yet a diet that can conclusively prevent brain diseases, it has been discovered that specific foods help the brain, primarily through the intake of omega-3 fatty acids (good fats) and antioxidants, which combat “free radicals” (atoms with surplus electrons) in the body.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel and sardines. The federal government recently recommended a weekly intake of 8 ounces of fish per week. Omega-3s are also found in unsalted nuts such as walnuts and almonds.

Antioxidants can be found in grapes, apples, berries of all kinds, bananas, green leafy vegetables, carrots, beets, peas, and beans.

Finally, it is a good idea to reduce your overall daily caloric intake, regardless of what you eat. Many people forget to pay attention to quantity and instead focus only on the types of food eaten.

If you can make a few small changes in your daily diet that include increased intake of omega-3s and antioxidants, and reduce your overall calories and the amount of processed foods, you are well on your way to a brain-healthy diet.

Use Prayer, Religious Practices to Stimulate the Brain – Dr. Newberg’s Research

Anger, resentment, negative images and thoughts can activate the most primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, while damaging those parts of the brain (the frontal lobe and the anterior cingulate) that are attuned to logic, reason, positive emotions, and compassion. These areas can be activated by prayer and other religious activities.

Based on Dr. Newberg’s research, The Mind Health Report identified some ways that activate and reinforce those parts of the brain that support a healthier brain and more positive life:

             Prayer that focuses on gratitude, celebration, or a positive vision of the future, as well as rejecting anger and resentment, will increase compassion, reduce depression and anxiety, relieve stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and eventually extend life.

             Reflecting on a Biblical passage, envisioning God in a positive way, or saying a prayer that has special meaning for you can enhance your memory. Do it in a quiet, comfortable place for at least 12 minutes a day.

             Being an active member of a congregation that shares your beliefs and outlook on the world enriches social relationships. This, in turn, slows the aging of the brain.

             Participating in religious services that express and reinforce your beliefs, especially if these involve music and singing, strengthens your faith and your brain.

             Experiencing doubts or conflicts about your faith increases stress and can damage health of the brain and body, but resolving these and pursuing religious activities that have meaning for you will have beneficial effects.

 

Ease Conflicts by Exercising the Compassion Centers of the Brain – Dr. Newberg

 Besides reducing stress, how can the benefits of prayer affect our everyday lives and relationships with others?As has been noted, prayer and other religious practices activate the anterior cingulate and frontal lobe areas of the brain, which can put you in a compassionate frame of mind. This can come in handy, especially in situations where we face conflict with another person,

According to Dr. Newberg, anger and irritability can derail activity in the frontal lobe, which governs reasoning, language, and cooperative communication. When this happens, our ability to resolve conflicts all but vanishes.

Although anger is sometimes unavoidable, there are steps you can take to ease the tension in situations that involve conflict Dr. Newberg recommends finding a time that is convenient for you and the other person and suggesting that you discuss the contentious subject with compassion.

Here are some ground rules from Dr. Newberg:

             Make an appointment to discuss the problem. (Don't say, "We have to talk about this right now.") And agree

              that you will both try to discuss the subject with compassion

             At the predetermined- time, start the conversation with a kind remark, compliment, or gesture, such as a small

              gift or hug (if appropriate for that person)

·         If hostile or negative emotions are triggered, agree to take a "time out" for anywhere from a few minutes ta a few days, Set a new time to continue the discussion on calmer terms

             Don't use foul language, criticism, sarcasm, or yell, and speak in a friendly and soft tone

             Keep the discussion balanced, so that each person gets equal time, approximately

             Show respect for the other person's feelings and point of view

             Listen and don't assume you know what the other person thinks

             Be specific in explaining your point of view, without assigning blame

·         Look for constructive solutions, and be creative in coming up with new ways to address the situation If you think you can have a conversation without getting angry, Dr. Newberg recommends turning on a tape recorded before you start. This can act as a deterrent to anger, or, if it doesn’t work, you can review the tape to see what triggered the reaction.

 

Mind Health Insights – random clinical studies

Older Really is Wiser

The brains of older people may react a bit more slowly than young brains, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because older brains are more efficient, according to a study at the University of Montreal, published in Cerebral Cortex.

“We now have neurobiological evidence showing that with age comes wisdom, and that as the brain gets older, it learns to better allocate its resources,” said researcher Oury Monchi, Ph.D.

In the study, researchers observed the brain activity of 24 people ages 18 to 35, and 10 people ages 55 to 75, all of whom were still professionally active, during a complex language test. They found a key difference between age groups when participants made a mistake and had to adopt a new strategy to solve a problem: Activity in older brains occurred more slowly but was more selective, amounting to a more efficient or “wiser” response.

The researchers compared the age-related difference to Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. “Being able to run fast does not always win the race — you have to know how to best use your abilities,” said Monchi.

“Aging is not necessarily associated with a significant loss in cognitive function,” he noted.

Excess Salt Damages the Brain

We’ve known for years that too much salt is bad for the heart. Now a Canadian study has found that it’s bad for the brain too.

For three years, researchers in Quebec tracked more than 1,200 men and women between the ages

of 67 and 84, and found that those who ate the least salt — even if they were sedentary — maintained better memory, concentration, and overall brain health. Eating more salt and being inactive led to cognitive decline.

“Low” salt intake was no more than 2,263 mg daily (one teaspoon contains 2,300 mg). What researchers classified as “high” daily salt intake ranged from just over 3,000 mg to as high as 8,000 mg.

If you’re in the habit of eating salty snacks while watching television or using the computer, consider switching to fresh fruit or raw vegetables. And keep in mind that physical activity reduces the negative effect of excess salt on the brain.

Season Foods to Activate

Brain Sensors

Up to 14 million Americans have problems smelling and/or tasting food due to disorders with olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) sensors in the brain. This can lead to overuse of salt and sugar, and impair the ability to enjoy eating.

To compensate, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) offers these tips:

             Choose foods with varying colors and textures, and strong flavors. For example, replace plain consommé soups

               with tortilla soup, which is thicker, spicier, more colorful, and has a crunchy texture

             Garnish with spicy condiments such as hot peppers, horseradish, mustard, or hot salsa

             Marinate fish, poultry, and meat in sweet fruit juices, wine, sweet and sour sauce, or spicy salad dressing; grill or

               roast until very well done, to create a crunchy crust

             When roasting a turkey, stuff the cavity with onions, garlic, and herbs, or apples, oranges, and apricots. Season

               the skin with coarsely ground pepper, sea salt or kosher salt, and garlic powder

When eating, chew food slowly and move it around your mouth to stimulate taste and sensory receptors, and alternate bites of different foods during a meal. This will stimulate the smell and taste sensors in the brain and enhance your eating experience.

AAN offers more tips and recipes in its cookbook, Navigating Smell and Taste Disorders.

Optimism Lowers Stroke Risk

Optimism — the expectation that more good things, rather than bad, will happen — may lower your risk of having a stroke, according to a study of more

than 6,000 Americans over age 50, published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers found that the higher the level of a person’s optimism, the lower his or her risk of stroke. Earlier studies had also found that a generally positive outlook leads to better heart health and a stronger immune system.

In addition to lowering stroke risk, optimism leads people to make healthier choices, such as taking vitamins, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.

This finding is particularly important for older people, who tend to be less optimistic than younger individuals.