Faith and the Brain


Originally broadcast July 17, 2009

KIM LAWTON, guest anchor: It’s the time of year when many of us try to schedule a vacation to get away from it all. Scientists have long found an association between relaxation and health. Now there is growing evidence that spiritual practices have a beneficial and measurable effect on the brain. In his book “How God Changes Your Brain,” Andrew Newberg reports that meditation improves memory and reduces stress, and how you view God can affect the structure of your brain. Lucky Severson has the story.

VINCENT FEDOR (meditating and reciting mantra): Sa, ta, na, ma…

LUCKY SEVERSON: As unlikely as it may seem, Vincent Fedor is practicing meditation.

VINCENT FEDOR: …and you go into the whisper sa, ta, na, ma…

SEVERSON: Vincent and his wife, Judy, started meditation after they answered a questionnaire about improving their memory. That was one objective of Dr. Andrew Newberg. The other was that he wanted to scan their brains while they did it. Here are Vincent’s scans before he learned to meditate and after he had been doing it for eight weeks.

DR. ANDREW NEWBERG (University of Pennsylvania, with brain scans): Okay, so it is asymmetric, more active here than here, and after meditation it’s more active here than here. So simply doing the practice of the meditation he’s altered the activity in this very, very important part of the brain, and this is really important, because this means he has changed the way his brain is working.

SEVERSON: Since meditating Vincent feels he’s become a better high school track coach.

VINCENT FEDOR: I think I’ve become a calmer, more tolerant person. If the situation comes up I don’t go to the angry side. I go take the calmer road. And you know, I think the kids see this. I think I’ve become a better coach because of it.

NEWBERG: It makes sense that if by doing this practice he has increased the activity in that frontal lobe, he’s actually able to improve the way in which he monitors his emotional responses to people and perhaps can treat them with more compassion.

SEVERSON: Dr. Newberg has studied nuns who do repetitive prayer, and he has seen the same kind of results. He’s been studying the effects of meditation and prayer on the brain for several years and is considered one of the leading experts in a new field called neurotheology.

DR. NEWBERG: We’ve learned that being religious or spiritual has a very profound effect on who we are, has a very profound effect on our biology and on our brain, and what we’ve found more recently is that not only does it have a profound influence on who we are, but it actually can change our brain and to change ourselves over time.

SEVERSON: Here at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Spirituality and the Mind, images of the brain are taken during or after a person prays or meditates.

Dr. NEWBERG: The more you use a part of the brain the more blood flow it gets and the brighter or more red it looks on the scans.

SEVERSON: Over the years Dr. Newberg has adapted a 12-step meditation exercise that includes sound, movement, and breathing.

JUDY FEDOR: Sa, ta, na, ma. The first two minutes the mantra is sung. The second two minutes the mantra is whispered. The third sequence is silence, back into the whisper and finishing with the song. After that it’s deep breathing, holding in, that’s done three times, body relaxes, and the mantra is completed.

The minute I can start doing it and moving my fingers my body gets calmer. It’s very soothing. To me it gets almost in a passive mode, and then you have energy afterwards because you became so calm.

Dr. NEWBERG: Religion and spirituality do help to lower a person’s feelings of depression, anxiety, gives them some meaning in life, helps them to cope with things, and that’s going to have a potentially very beneficial effect.

SEVERSON: But Newberg has made another discovery, a controversial one, that our belief system, how we view God, can make a huge difference in how it affects our well being. If we believe in a loving God it can have a positive effect, even prolong our lives. But believing in a judgmental, authoritarian God can produce fear, anger, and stress, and that’s not healthy.

Dr. NEWBERG: When it ultimately turns towards hatred, and whether it’s people who believe in abortion versus those who don’t, whether it’s just one religion versus another, when you hear rhetoric which is hateful, filled with anger, that turns on the different parts of the brain that are involved in our stress response and our anger response.

post01-faithandbrain-handzoSEVERSON: George Handzo is a chaplain with the Healthcare Chaplaincy of New York City. He says Newberg’s conclusions, that a person’s belief in a certain kind of God can be unhealthy, is bound to be controversial among people of faith.

CHAPLAIN GEORGE HANDZO (Healthcare Chaplaincy of NYC): They’re saying that there is one word of God, and God commands us to follow that word, and if we want to save people from God’s anger and condemnation we’re obliged to get other people to believe as we do

Dr. NEWBERG: I’m not arguing that people need to change their beliefs per se. I mean if they feel that their perspective on God is right, I mean then that’s terrific. But I think that what we have to all be careful about is the anger and the hatred, and that’s what has detrimental effects both on the individual as well as on society as a whole.

SEVERSON: Skeptics of Newberg’s work question if science should be delving into religion and spirituality in the first place, and they ask if his research has actually proven much of anything.

HANDZO: Faith is, by definition, reliance on things you cannot see and cannot know. Faith is something we believe God gives to us. It’s not something we invent. As a person of faith, this whole debate about what is going to be knowable is not a particularly interesting question to me.

Dr. NEWBERG: You know, if we get a brain scan of somebody while they’re experiencing being in God’s presence, as I’ve always said that doesn’t prove that God was in the room. It doesn’t prove that God wasn’t in the room. What it proves is that when the person had the experience of interacting with God this is what change was going on in their brain.

DONNA MORGAN: Can I just praise the Lord right now? I feel like if I don’t praise the Lord I am going to bust…Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus…

SEVERSON: Dr. Newberg has found there are some religious practices where the person is intensely focused and others where they just allow themselves to be taken over, for example, speaking in tongues. Dr. Newberg has scanned the brains of people of all belief systems, of people with no faith, and those of deep conviction, like Donna Morgan, who is a Pentecostal.

DONNA MORGAN: When are you in that realm of praise you just give over to the Holy Spirit. Then you let him take control, and when he’s taking control, right, you can speak in tongues, if you’ve been given that gift.

Dr. NEWBERG (with brain scans): Speaking in tongues you’re going to see that the frontal lobes are going to decrease in activity. So that means that the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that normally makes them feel like they are in control of what they are doing, is shutting down.

SEVERSON (to Dr. Newberg): It is shutting down because…

Dr. NEWBERG: It is consistent with the feeling that they are not in charge of the process.

SEVERSON: There are some who argue that certain people are predisposed or hard-wired toward transcendent experiences, and some are not. It’s an argument Chaplain Handzo disagrees with.

HANDZO: I don’t believe in a God that creates people, especially selectively, in a way that makes it difficult for them to access this God. That’s not my God.

Dr. NEWBERG: I think to some degree we all are hard-wired to be able to think about things on these levels. It’s just a matter of how much we engage that and if we find a path that does help us to engage that for ourselves.

SEVERSON: Newberg says people of faith shouldn’t worry that his research will ever diminish their faith.

Dr. NEWBERG: I don’t think that our science is going to be able to definitively prove that God exists or doesn’t exist. It is, ultimately, a leap of faith.

SEVERSON: Newberg believes the number one activity that can exercise your brain and enrich your life is faith.

Dr. NEWBERG: When you have those kind of positive, optimistic beliefs in the world, in God or religion, depending on the person, that that really, over the long haul, seems to be the thing that really provides a benefit for us in terms our mental state and in terms of our physical health and well-being.

SEVERSON: As for his own faith, he describes himself as a searcher who is still searching. For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Philadelphia.

  • Maxwell Holder

    Thank you for explaining prayer and meditation’s effects on my brain.

  • Hugh (Bart) Vincelette

    I’m wondering if this type of study might not turn out to be essential, for reasons of peace & tolerance within societies. but I had to almost chuckle at the idea of a new science: neurotheology. I can already hear the snarky comments from the religious right; about “those demonic neurotheologists”. While I follow no religion today, I grew up Catholic & can relate to the practice of mantras in a sense with recitations of the rosary.
    As a gay man whose been on the planet for almost six decades; I am not surprised that some areas of belief that emphasize the negative ( false beliefs, false prophets, false religions, infidels, heretics), have a deleterious effect of cerebral circulation. Look what it does to societies!
    This is undoubtedly an area of research that could impact the lives of millions around the world, in the future. As a Canadian citizen, I can be fairly content that my country has the wisdom & enlightenment to fully recognize that the rights extended under law; to the citizenry, must apply to all to have any real value or meaning. But around the world we see the lives of so many who are harmed or killed; because of religious beliefs & cultural traditions. I may be reading far too much into the studies herein, but I think it’s imperative to look at the overall picture. Thanks for your time.

  • Victor Fuller

    Handzo does not seem to understand what this research is showing. It is only showing how faith, the exercise of faith practices, and the experience of God impact brain function. Handzo seems to want to make it into something “about” faith or “about” God.

    Very interesting article. It’s more research about faith and faith practices enhancing quality of life.

  • teejay henner

    Just as an electron might change direction when being observed, might not the brain change when it is being observed. I am sure that if had wires on my head while meditating, it would affect my meditating. Also if what Dr. Newberg says is correct, why do dictators and cruel vicious people live long and apparently healthy lives. There are things we can never know. It is the old story of why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. And then of course, how do we know who is good or bad. Most of are a mixture and we don’t know ourselves. Science has its limitations. Can it measure intention? Can machines measure intensity of meditation? Knowing that someone, whether God or a human being, really cares about you will make you feel better, but this cannot be measured and will differ from person to person.
    From a practicing Buddhist

  • Tara

    This is obviously theist propaganda. One doesn’t need to believe in a god or gods to meditate. One also doesn’t need to believe in a god or gods to have faith. I have faith, I meditate, and I believe in objective morality, yet I am an atheist. You don’t need to believe in a god or gods to reap the benefits this doctor is talking about.

  • La Chatte

    That visible brain change is cell death!

  • Hugo R.Vigoroso

    Wow, powerful!! Is the change in brain activity that is noted temporary or does is it sustained over time? I would think that this is a critical variable to consider?
    Thank you

  • Sherry Frachey

    This was wonderful! I am an educator. This will be my 33rd year teaching. I have an M.A. in psychology and counseling and an M.S. in Educational Administration, and I currently attempt what little I know about brain research to help kids in meltdown mode calm down. I would love to do more action research in public schools to measure whether there is a statistical correlation between frontal cortex brain entrainment and decrease in school violence, bullying and increased focus. And I would love to begin a school wide initiative with a long range latitudinal study option.

    Great job!

  • Marie

    Fascinating stuff!

  • Miss Effie

    Get a Bible and read St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11and meditate on it.

  • Lauri Lumby

    Dear PBS,
    Thank you for featuring this important scientific study. As a practitioner and teacher of meditation and other spiritual practices, the scientific evidence is not surprising, but it is a nice validation for those that need the science to backup the experience. Thank you for always being an authentic source of journalism.

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic Freedom Ministries
    Oshkosh, WI

  • George C.

    I believe that HANDZO is mistaken when he said that

    “I don’t believe in a God that creates people, especially selectively, in a way that makes it difficult for them to access this God. That’s not my God”

    So what do we say to the very young who super-excel in math, art, or music? Child prodigies, yes? And how did they acquire this amazing ability? Did God give it to them? Many people would say yes -but why only them?

    Any individual who, early on, has an innate ability to excel far more than most people was not given by God to a chosen few -that indeed would be a cruel God leaving the rest of us hanging. Such individuals were just fortunate to be born with it.

    So to say that there are individuals with an innate capacity to tap into a state of mind that is God-like is not so far fetched. There will come a time, perhaps in my life time, that our respective conception of God as a supernatural deity will not longer have meaning.

    When Handzo said that

    “Faith is something we believe God gives to us. It’s not something we invent” he is sorely mistaken on both accounts. He has not taken into account the ease in which we can be deceived by faith itself.

    As C.S. Lewis said
    “We must not encourage in ourselves or others any tendency to work up a subjective state which, if we succeeded, we should describe as “faith”, with the idea that this will somehow insure the granting of our prayer…. The state of mind which desperate desire working on a strong imagination can manufacture is not faith in the Christian sense. It is a feat of psychological gymnastics.”

    Faith in and of itself needs to be understood for what it is. What you have faith IN matters even more since it lays the foundation for the kind of awakening that has a tangible impact in the immediacy of our lives.
    It seems to me that the way we INTERPRET the Bible needs to be re-examined if we are to gain greater awakening than we are now.

  • Helen

    @Tara–you really might benefit from reading the book.
    Newberg never says that one must believe in god(s) to meditate.

  • WilPerez

    does anyone know how to cite this (APA)?