Do you remember the anti-drug commercial that showed an egg being fried in sizzling hot oil accompanied by the ominous tagline “This is your brain on drugs.”? (If you have never seen it, check it out on YouTube-it’s worth it!) I couldn’t help but think about that commercial as I read the newly released book How God Changes Your Brain. The good news is that your brain doesn’t get fried when you think about God, but significant changes do occur.
Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, authors of How God Changes Your Brain, use data from CAT scans to show how thinking about God changes the neurological structure of your brain. They explain that because of neuroplasticity (when functions and responses of nerve cells adapt after new experiences), the brain is able to change depending on what we think about. “The moment we encounter God, or the idea of God, our brain begins to change,” the authors state. They also claim that contemplating other ‘grand themes’ like the Big Bang Theory or playing a musical instrument change your brain too. However, thinking about religious and spiritual concepts changes your brain in “profoundly different ways” than thinking about anything else—compassion for others and empathy increase while destructive feelings and emotions decrease. Bottom line: Thinking about God makes us nicer people.
“Thinking about religious and spiritual concepts changes your brain in ‘profoundly different ways’ than thinking about anything else.”
Newberg and Waldman’s work revealed that every feeling and thought we have changes the blood flow and the electrochemical activity in different areas of the brain. That means there are certain parts of the brain that become activated when we think about something scary and there are other parts that become activated when we think about something pleasant. When one part of the brain is more activated than the other, our behavior changes significantly to correspond to what is going on in our brain. That is why the authors strongly advocate for brain exercises that increase activity in the parts of our brain that cause us to be more focused, logical, and calm.
GOD IN THE BRAIN
Newberg and Waldman do a great job of explaining the complicated brain structures in a way that makes it fairly readable and enjoyable for the non-neuroscientist. Along with explaining in depth about some of the areas of the brain that are directly impacted by spiritual contemplation, they also give a thumbnail sketch of how each area in the brain works to shape our perception of God. It’s fascinating to learn that every part of our brain has a specific function related to God. The authors go into detail about each part of the brain early on in the book, and it’s definitely worth reading.
DON’T BANG YOUR HEAD: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE FRONTAL LOBE
The frontal lobe is particularly important in understanding spiritual issues from a more intellectual viewpoint. It uses logic to evaluate religious and spiritual beliefs. Clearly any damage to the frontal lobe area of your brain will compromise its ability to logically sort out the questions raised when you think about God and other spiritual issues.
THANK GOD FOR THE ANTERIOR CINGULATE
Our anterior cingulate appears to be one of the most important areas in our brain when it comes to being compassionate, serene and emotionally balanced. It’s between the back part of the brain (the emotional center) and the front part of the brain (which controls logic, reason, and language). The anterior cingulate balances your feelings and thoughts. Newberg and Waldman explained that if you get too emotional, the limbic system becomes active and the frontal lobe becomes inactive; that means that when you’re angry or anxious, you become less logical or reasonable. Furthermore, empathy and intuition lessen, and basically you’re a walking bundle of emotions. That’s why the anterior cingulate is needed to activate the front part of your brain: “logic and reason subdue anger and fear. It’s that simple” write the authors. Meditation and spiritual practices strengthen the anterior cingulate, and consequently feelings of serenity and empathy are created. Meditation, according to Newberg and Waldman actually counteracts our biological tendency to react to dangerous situations with animosity or fear. This might explain why if one is in an anxiety-producing situation, long prayer times and spiritual contemplation helps to calm the nerves and strengthen our sense of faith that it will all turn out alright.
What’s Real and What Isn’t
YOUR BRAIN ON DOPAMINE
Dopamine is an extremely important chemical in your brain–it causes feelings of pleasure, stimulates positive thoughts, and heightens your sense of well-being and safety. A deficiency of dopamine in the brain has been found to contribute to depression. Newberg and Waldman assert that the ability to believe in the spiritual realm may be related to the amount of dopamine that is released in the front part of the brain: too little dopamine might result in skepticism or disbelief; too much dopamine might result in one fostering paranormal beliefs.
Clearly, altering the neurochemistry of the brain in any way impacts your belief system: the authors explain that drugs such as cocaine leads to a sudden increase of dopamine in the brain, which might explain why some people have spiritual experiences with drug use. I wouldn’t recommend however, seeking God through the use of cocaine. Newberg and Waldman note that the after-effect of drugs could lead to a lifetime of panic attacks (i.e. intense anxiety).
IS GOD REAL?
God’s presence or absence in your life depends a lot on your thalamus- neurologically speaking. The thalamus is a hunk of matter near the center of the brain. Every sensation, feeling, and thought passes through the thalamus as it goes to other parts of the brain. Newberg and Waldman state that “if the thalamus ceases to function, you would, for all intents and purposes, be considered comatose.” One of the primary jobs of the thalamus is to help one identify what is and isn’t real. Neuroscientists have found that the more you think about a specific idea the more active your thalamus becomes until it starts to respond to the idea as though it was real. “Thus the more you focus on God, the more God will be sensed as real,” says Newberg and Waldman. Any idea, if contemplated long enough will take on a semblance of reality, according to the authors. Hence, God is real for those who think about Him. “But for someone else, who has meditated on a different set of beliefs or goals, a different reality will seem true,” Newberg and Waldman point out.
GOOD GOD OR NOT-SO-GOOD GOD
What you think about God affects your brain too. Newberg and Waldman found that you can actually damage your brain if you focus on something that frightens you or makes you angry. Envisioning a frightening deity activates the limbic area of the brain that generates fear and anger. Subsequently, the brain becomes ready to fight and attack. On the other hand, envisioning a benevolent deity stimulates the front part of the brain, which creates feelings of empathy toward others and suppresses the impulse to get angry or frightened. So the way you see God can either propel you to be kinder and more compassionate toward others or threatened by others and more aggressive. Imagine that. Newberg and Waldman clearly advocate for a strengthening of the anterior cingulate so that we can get along- it doesn’t just happen however; we have to be proactive. They say that, no matter how open-minded you become, and no matter how tolerant or compassionate you think you are, there will always be remnants of the part of the brain that will respond with fear and anger to all that is different and new.
They say that, no matter how open-minded you become, and no matter how tolerant or compassionate you think you are, there will always be remnants of the part of the brain that will respond with fear and anger to all that is different and new.
THE ATHEIST’S BRAIN
Interestingly, Newberg and Waldman explore the brain of atheists and non-religious people. They found that in order to have a positive perception of God you need to have just the right balance of activity in the front part of your brain and the back part. So if the front part of the brain becomes activated, but the emotional center of the brain remains inactive, God will hold little meaning or value; this is what is assumed happens in the brains of atheists/non-believers. This also is assumed to be the process for people who perceive God as distant. “Neurologically,” Newberg and Waldman note, “such a God would feel less real… and would incline an individual toward agnosticism or disbelief.”
How God Changes Your Brain offers an intriguing discussion about the neurological effects of thinking about God and engaging in spiritual practices. The authors also explore what God “looks like” according to the age of the brain, and how tolerance for other religions is related to brain activity. While the book promotes Christianity, there are elements that also support elements of New Ageism, such as studying the effects of Kritan Kriya meditation with bits of a “let’s reinvent Christianity to appeal to a new generation” agenda. Notably, Newberg includes an epilogue that explains that the authors tried to present a united front throughout the book. However, Newberg clearly holds a strong spiritual perspective about God’s impact on the brain. This might explain why there seems to be a mishmash of ideas in some of the chapters. Some of the concepts of the book are loosely connected as well. It seems that just as the authors begin delving into one topic, they stop and switch gears, making it difficult to follow parts of the book. Nonetheless, it is a worthy read especially if you want to explore the connectedness between science and God. Particularly, there is a valuable section in the third part of the book that offers practical exercises to enhance the functioning of your brain and increase serenity in your daily life. So, far from frying your brain, thinking about a loving God can improve your mood, your thought processes, and your behavior toward others. And who wouldn’t want that?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerine Griffith lives in Los Angeles with her husband and cat. She is going to learn to meditate to enhance her daily prayer times.