I have a growing interest in neuroscience. I wouldn’t like to poke around in brains with probes, still less dissect a brain. But I’m finding so much that is fascinating and helpful in the latest findings of neuroscience.
One of the interesting researchers is Andrew Newberg, who I’ve briefly written about before, and who researches how the brain responds to religious belief and practices. All quotes in this post are from Newberg.
A provocative beginning
One of Newberg’s most provocative statements, made with co-author Mark Waldman in Why your brain needs God, is:
faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain
Yet Newberg is an agnostic and Waldman believes naturalism is true, so is presumably an atheist. So what’s going on?
Newberg has been writing and researching with a team of scientists and writers for many years. He has taken brain scans when people have taken part in various spiritual practices – praying, meditating, chanting and even occult practices – to understand how the brain responds.
Out of this research has come a number of insights into how religion affects our brains.
The brain changes
It used to be said that we can’t grow new brain cells, that whatever we start with is all we’ve got, and we lose plenty along the way, especially as we age. But this is now known to be completely wrong.
When we are young, our brains are still very plastic – this is known as neuroplasticity. 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. But as we age, our brain’s patterns are harder to change, and we can get into fixed ways of thinking.
A lot of Newberg’s research is trying to find ways to help our brains work better, especially in the second half of our lives.
Improving brain functioning
Newberg writes: “the brain has two primary functions that can be considered from either a biological or evolutionary perspective. These two functions are self-maintenance and self-transcendence. The brain performs both of these functions throughout our lives. It turns out that religion also performs these two same functions. So, from the brain’s perspective, religion is a wonderful tool because religion helps the brain perform its primary functions.”
Self-maintenance is all the necessary things to maintain our lives – food, clothing, shelter, sex, self esteem, security, etc. It is no mystery that we need these things and our brains direct their attention towards them.
We also understand that humans also seek to transcend themselves (self-transcendence), to go beyond the daily routine and find purpose and fulfilment, but I was a little surprised to see that Newberg felt this was as important to our brains as self-maintenance.
I was also a little surprised to see that religion performs the same two functions. Let’s see further how this works.
How religion helps our brain
According to Newberg, spiritual practices “enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health”, they can “improve memory” and “slow down neurological damage caused by growing old”. Everything we do affects how our brains change, either positively or negatively, as we reinforce or diminish different parts of our brains.
“our research shows that the more you engage all parts of your being, your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, social interactions and spiritual pursuits, the more it enhances your brain’s function. But most importantly, this requires a focus on the positive — on love, forgiveness, optimism, and inclusiveness.”
“By contrast, negative thoughts, feelings, and speech — which includes angry rhetoric and fearful proclamations — cause the primitive parts of your brain to release a cascade of stress-evoking neurochemicals that damage your heart and brain, especially those circuits responsible for suppressing destructive emotions and thoughts.”
Religion helps people keep positive, and this has beneficial health effects.
Newberg recognises that research shows that religion generally improves a person’s health and wellbeing.
“hundreds of medical, neurological, psychological and sociological studies on religion [show] …. even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health.”
“People who engage in religious activities tend to cope better with emotional problems, have fewer addictions and better overall health. They might even live longer than those who lead more secular lives. Indeed, many studies document that religious and spiritual individuals find more meaning in life.”
The benefits may also flow out to the rest of society.
“In this sense, one can argue that religious and spiritual activities might not only be beneficial, they also might be necessary for helping people find more compassionate approaches toward themselves and toward others. God only knows that politicians and CEOs aren’t doing much to generate compassion these days. So it is easy to argue, from a sociological perspective, that religion serves an essential role by directing people into their deepest values concerning life. In this way, God may be good, if not great, at helping people to be compassionate, forgiving and loving.”
Far from being a sign of mental weakness, Newberg sees faith as highly beneficial.
“Having faith …. makes life worth living, and it gives meaning to our life. … faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain”.
“By faith, we mean the ability to consciously and repetitively hold an optimistic vision of a positive future — about yourself, and about the world. When you do this — through meditation, prayer, or intensely focusing on a positive goal — you strengthen a unique circuit in your brain that improves memory and cognition, reduces anxiety and depression, and enhances social awareness and empathy toward others.”
This isn’t the only definition of faith – the word often has a more specifically religious content – but these are nevertheless striking claims.
Meditation & prayer
Meditation, sometimes expressed as mindfulness or as prayer, is a major factor for Newberg.
“people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray.”
“people who frequently practice meditation experience lower blood pressure, lower heart rates, decreased anxiety, and decreased depression.”
“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 …..”
Meditation requires discipline and time, which he recognises not everyone has. But even small amounts of meditation can help us.
“The simplest forms of relaxation and prayer — many of which only take a few minutes to do — can enhance personal faith and hope, and this releases powerful neurotransmitters that increase your sense of alertness, clarity, consciousness, and peacefulness. This, in turn, accounts for the physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits of contemplative spiritual practices.”
Contemplation of God
Contemplation is a form of meditation, but he seems to see it as a more intense activity that has surprising personal benefits.
“If you contemplate God long enough, something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. …. for if you contemplate something as complex and mysterious as God, you’re going to have incredible bursts of neural activity firing in different parts of the brain.”
“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”.
But contemplation also benefits those we interact with.
“contemplative practices helped us to become more sensitive and compassionate towards others. …. This ‘mystical’ element of God affects a very important part of the brain, called the anterior cingulate, which we need to nurture as we engage in a pluralistic world filled with different perceptions of the divine.”
Other spiritual practices
Other religious rituals may include attendance at services, meeting or groups, reading the Bible or other religious books, etc.
“Some religious rituals do nothing more than relax you, others help to keep you focused and alert, but a few appear to take practitioners into transcendent realms of mystical experiences where their entire lives are changed.”
But religion isn’t always good
Newberg writes quite a lot about negative emotions and negative religion, which he associates with an authoritarian view of God.
“when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one’s physical and mental health. Again, the research is clear: If you ruminate on negative emotions, they activate the areas of the brain that are involved in anger, fear and stress. This can ultimately damage important parts of the brain and the body. What’s worse, negative emotions can spill over into outward behaviors that generate fear, distrust, hatred, animosity and violence toward people who hold different or opposing beliefs.”
“There is another potential dark side to religion. As I have witnessed at the hospital in which I work, when people feel that they contracted a disease because God is punishing them, such individuals may not follow doctor’s orders, keep appointments or take medications as directed. After all, why try to get better when God is trying to punish you? Research confirms that people who hold a punitive image of God can compromise their immune system and psychological health, thus prolonging their suffering and illness.”
And it works for other religions, or no religion at all, too
The interesting thing is that most of these practices can be performed without religious belief: “it doesn’t matter whether the meditations are religious or secular.”
- Meditation and quietness need not have a religious focus – believers in other religions can contemplate their God, and a non-believer can contemplate science or some other complex but secular idea.
- As we have seen, he defines “faith” as a positive attitude, something a non-believer can assent to and seek.
“spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer, also reveal significant improvements in memory, cognition and compassion while simultaneously reducing anxiety, depression, irritability and stress (even when done in a non-theological context).”
“Spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.”
“God can change your brain. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, A Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist. …. In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life – be they religious, scientific , or psychological – your brain is going to grow.”
But it isn’t clear to me if all religious practices have a secular counterpart, and therefore it seems maybe religion still gives better outcomes: “when meditation is religious and strengthens your spiritual beliefs, then there is a synergistic effect that can be even better.”
I’m guessing this may be partly because religion can be inherently positive in a way that is more difficult for atheism, and this makes it less likely that non-believers will participate in the helpful practices.
So whatever the reason, it seems religious belief and practice, if sincere, may still give a neurological and hence health advantage.
Another interesting corollary is that the different focus of religious and non-religious people ends up making a difference to their brains – “religious and atheist brains exhibit differences”.
So what does this tell us about God?
You might think that theists would be happy with these findings, but Newberg reports that some christians are critical of his research because of the possible implication that God is all in the mind. And certainly some atheists interpret the research this way – e.g. this atheist concludes: “God didn’t create us, but we created God.”
But Newberg, who self-identifies as agnostic, is neutral on the question: “neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn’t exist.”
He believes we should be pursuing both science and religion.
“when we look at religion and we look at science, you’re looking at two of the most influential and powerful forces in human history. And to think that either one of them by themselves is going to answer all of the questions that we have about the world, I think ultimately is very limited in terms of our approach.”
Religion is poisonous?
The internet is full of atheists, following writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, claiming the religion is harmful to people and society, leading to woolly thinking, opposition to logic and evidence, and even leaving people “delusional”. Newberg is quite strongly opposed to this conclusion.
“Recently there has been a spate of antireligious books …. that argue that religious beliefs are personally and societally dangerous. But the research …. strongly suggests otherwise. Nor do we believe that these authors represent the views of the vast majority of scientists or atheists. …. the lack of empirical evidence that these writers have cited that even mildly suggests that religion is hazardous to your health. The psychological, sociological and neuroscientific data simply disagree. The problem isn’t religion. The problem is authoritarianism, coupled with the desire to angrily impose one’s idealistic beliefs on others. One should also remember that during the twentieth century, tens of millions of people were killed by nonreligious and antireligious regimes, while far fewer have been killed in the name of an authoritarian God.”
Newberg’s comments about the destructive effect of negative attitudes suggests that perhaps the more militant atheists may actually be doing themselves harm by their anger and negativity, just as some religious believers do.
A personal response
I am still coming to terms with all this information. I can respect Newberg’s carefully neutral view on whether God exists behind all these phenomena. And I find the discoveries exciting, not threatening.
But I can’t help feeling that, at the very least, his research reveals how a christian might expect humans created by God (via evolution) to behave. He writes: “It certainly looks like the way the brain is put together makes it very easy for human beings to have religious and spiritual experiences.” And I find it hard to think that we would expect to find religion is so beneficial if naturalism were true.
This is demonstrated by the opinions expressed by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al. Newberg says their writings are not based on data, so they must have been based on either limited personal experience or an expectation of how things were. The fact religion is so much more positive for human neurological and other health than they expected suggests that their atheism doesn’t explain the facts very well.
So I find Newberg’s research encouraging of a less reductionist view of humanity than naturalism tends to have.
“We realize that we can’t just look at people as biological. That seems to be the prevailing perspective on the medicine side. And more and more people are realizing that we are not just biological beings, but we are psychological, and social, and spiritual.”
I drew on the following pages in preparing this post:
- Andrew Newberg’s website and his book How God changes your brain (you can use “Look inside” to read all of the first, introductory, chapter).
- Other writings by and interviews with Andrew Newberg:
Are we “hard-wired” for God? from his website,
Why Your Brain Needs God, A Newberg & M Waldman, On Faith, 27 March 2009,
Dr. Andrew Newberg on God of the Fundamentalist Atheist, Interview on Skeptico,
Ask the Brains, Scientific American, 1 January, 2012, and
This is your brain on religion, USA Today.
- Andrew Newberg – How God Changes Your Brain, David Andrew Wiebe, The Question, 4 February, 2016.
- What God does to your brain, Julia Llewellyn Smith, The Telegraph (UK), 20 June 2014.