My post on Your brain, faith and disbelief generated some critical comment. The problem wasn’t so much with the main point of the post (that neuroplasticity appears to explain some of why believers and unbelievers are so polarised about God) but a side comment that there are demonstrated mental and physical health advantages in belief and prayer – and that unbelievers, generally, miss out on these benefits.
I thought it would be good to clarify and detail these findings.
Sculpting our brain
We sculpt our brains, knowingly or not, according to what we focus on and how we think about things. As we grow older, we can develop habitual ways of thinking that we can find hard to change, and limit our ability to accept new ideas and embrace new experiences.
Conversely, we can train our brains so that we improve memory and intelligence, learn new skills, recover lost abilities, slow the onset of aging, repair damaged areas and improve our response to illness and disabilities.
Neuroplasticity and aging
When we are young, our brains are still very plastic. As we have new experiences, new pathways are formed that facilitate our responses and make it easier to learn new skills. That is why giving our children stimulating experiences is so important to their development.
Our brains remain plastic as we age, but much less so, and if we are not careful, we become very set in our ways and our thinking. So psychologists and neuroscientists have developed techniques to help us slow the aging process and keep our brains plastic and alert. Doing crosswords and other puzzles, reading, meeting new people, etc, are all useful, but apparently the best results come from more challenging activities like learning a language, learning to dance, or following one of the specially developed computer-based programs. And of course, regular exercise.
Neuroplasticity and God
Neuroplasticity is relevant to belief in God, and disbelief, in two ways.
Keeping a flexible mind
Believers and unbelievers are both liable to become fixed in their thinking if they are not careful, as outlined in Your brain, faith and disbelief. Both can focus so much on what they believe, or disbelieve, that their neural pathways become so reinforced that they are unable to see an opposing viewpoint. This may be a greater problem for unbelievers, who generally value rational thinking above all else, than for believers, for whom rational thinking is just a part of how they know things.
The remedies appear to be to not allow our focus and thinking to be too narrow and to keep challenging ourselves. Keeping an open mind suggests some ways we can assess whether we have open or closed minds.
Faith and wellbeing
Studies have shown that focusing on God, and participating in religious or spiritual activities like attending church, praying or meditating, have generally positive effects on our brains and on our health. I have summarised some of these at Faith and wellbeing.
In their book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, Newberg and Waldman describe many of the positives of religious belief and practice:
- “hundreds of medical, neurological, psychological and sociological studies on religion [show] …. even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health.” (p 149)
- “Activities involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning. The neural circuits activated by meditation buffer you from the deleterious effects of ageing and stress …..” (p 149)
- “If you contemplate God long enough, something surprising happens in the brain. …. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience.” (p 3)
- “Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods ….” (p 7)
- “the health benefits associated with meditation and religious ritual cannot be denied.” (p 7)
Detrimental effects of religious belief
There are some detrimental aspects of religious belief, but not as many as commonly supposed. The same authors say:
- “a spate of antireligious books …. argue that religious beliefs are personally and societally dangerous. But the research ….. strongly suggests otherwise.” (p 6)
- “involvement with religious and spiritual activities generally does no harm, unless …. you focus on an authoritarian God who fills you with anger and fear” (p 149)
What’s an unbeliever to do?
Thus the evidence doesn’t show that unbelief lowers a person’s wellbeing, but it does indicate that unbelievers often miss out on the beneficial effects of religious belief and practice. This is not a message that many unbelievers want to hear, but it is futile to deny the evidence.
But all isn’t lost. Even if an unbeliever is unwilling or unable to come to belief in God, they can adopt at least some of the practices. As Newberg and Waldman say (p 149): “the health benefits associated with prayer and meditation can be achieved through activities that are unrelated to religion”
I’m not sure how an unbelievers can contemplate God in any positive way, or pray, except perhaps to themselves (which may actually work to improve mental health), but they can clearly meditate and forgive.
Discipline is the trick
Believers have one advantage – some beneficial practices (attend church, think about God) require little personal discipline. But many believers find it notoriously hard to find the time and discipline to pray or meditate regularly. In this, and in practices to delay the effects of aging, believers and unbelievers are in the same boat – little will be achieved without self discipline.