Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality Scans show that people who spend untold hours in prayer or meditation go dark in the parietal lobe, the brain area that helps create a sense of self. A researcher says these people may be rewriting the neural connections in their brains — altering how they see the world.
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Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality

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Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality

Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. All this week, we're exploring the first attempts by scientists to understand spiritual experience. They're studying people who spend hours praying or meditating, and it turns out their brains look different.

Today, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty takes us inside those minds.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I met Scott McDermott five years ago while covering a Pentecostal revival meeting in Toronto. It was pandemonium.

(Soundbite of organ)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

HAGERTY: Speaking in tongues and barking like dogs. What, I thought, was a United Methodist minister, a Ph.D. in New Testament theology, doing here? Then he told me about a vision he had had years earlier.

Reverend Doctor SCOTT McDERMOTT (Washington Crossing United Methodist Church): I could see fire just dancing on my eyelids. I felt God say to me, you be the oil and I'll be the flame. And then I began feeling these waves of the Spirit begin to flow through my body.

HAGERTY: I never forgot Scott McDermott. And when I heard that scientists were studying the brains of people who spent countless hours in prayer and meditation, I thought, I have got to see what's going on in Scott McDermott's head. A few years later, Andrew Newberg made that possible.

Reverend Doctor McDERMOTT: Yeah.

Dr. ANDREW NEWBERG (Neuroscientist, University of Pennsylvania): I want you to put the earplugs in. I'm going to ask you to close your eyes. We will...

HAGERTY: Newberg is a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been scanning the brains of religious people for more than a decade. Newberg settles McDermott into a darkened examination room at his lab and asks him to pray. A few minutes later, at the moment Newberg believes that McDermott has reached the peak of his prayer, he injects him with a dye that shows the blood flow in his brain.

McDermott emerges beaming. He has enjoyed intense spiritual moments like this ever since he was in his 20s.

Reverend Doctor McDERMOTT: Well, the first thing that really got me was I could hear God's voice, and it so enamored me. I mean, it changed me dramatically. I couldn't wait to pray.

HAGERTY: McDermott has prayed at least two hours a day for the past 25 years. I ask Newberg what kind of impact would that have on the pastor's brain.

Dr. NEWBERG: The more you focus on something, whether that's mathematics or auto racing or football or God, the more that becomes your reality. And that becomes more and more written into the neural connections of our brain.

HAGERTY: Today, he's taking a peek at McDermott's neural connections.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Dr. NEWBERG: Now, what's going to happen is the camera heads are going to spin around real fast just for a couple of seconds.

HAGERTY: Newberg slides him into the SPECT scanner, which will create an image of which parts of McDermott's brain lit up and which went dark while he prayed. A few minutes later, Newberg is gazing at the computer screen.

Dr. NEWBERG: In looking at some of the areas of the frontal lobes, it does look like there is some areas of increased activity. They're somewhat subtle.

HAGERTY: McDermott's frontal lobes, which handle focused attention, lit up, the same pattern of activity that Newberg found in other long-term meditators. Afterwards, I asked McDermott if seeing a scientist reduced his prayer to synapses, challenges his beliefs. Not at all, he says.

Reverend Doctor McDERMOTT: I think we're wired for the supernatural. I think we're meant to sense a world beyond our five senses. Come on, taste and see that God really is good.

HAGERTY: Newberg says he can't prove that Scott McDermott or anyone else is communing with God, but he can look for circumstantial evidence.

Dr. NEWBERG: What I think we need to do is find ways of studying those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain and understand what is happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective.

HAGERTY: Then he'll compare the mystical feelings with the brain physiology. Newberg did that with Michael Baime. He's a doctor at Penn and a Tibetan Buddhist who's meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe and time slips away.

Dr. MICHAEL BAIME (General Internal Medicine, University of Pennsylvania): It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity, that there has never been anything but this eternal now.

HAGERTY: When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up, meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.

Dr. NEWBERG: This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world. When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases of activity in that area.

HAGERTY: Newberg found that not only with Baime, but with other monks he's scanned, and it was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe.

Dr. NEWBERG: There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one.

HAGERTY: Hmm, a little theological dynamite there. But remember, the research is just beginning.

Now, scientists so far have focused on people who pray or meditate for one, two or more hours a day. They think that studying spiritual virtuosos will offer clues to the brain workings of more typical believers. But now, Newberg and others are turning their attention to people who want to enrich their spiritual lives but don't have that kind of time. And there's help for them. Says neuroscientist Richard Davidson, you can change your brain with experience and training.

Dr. RICHARD DAVIDSON (Director, Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience; University of Wisconsin): You can sculpt your brain the way you can sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym, absolutely. Our brains are continuously being sculpted whether we like it or not.

HAGERTY: It's called neuroplasticity. For years, Davidson, who is at the University of Wisconsin, has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks who've logged years of meditation. When it comes to things like attention and compassion, their brains are as finely tuned as a late model Porsche. Davidson wondered, could ordinary people achieve the same kind of connection with the spiritual that the monks do without so much effort? I wondered that, too. And when I heard that his lab was launching a study lasting two weeks, I said, sign me up.

Unidentified Woman #2: Welcome. We will soon begin the Compassion Meditation session. Please...

HAGERTY: Turns out I was too old for the study, but they let me pretend. For 30 minutes every morning, I settled into my chair to the soothing tones of the meditation CD. The voice of a University of Wisconsin graduate student urged me to shower compassion on a loved one, a stranger, myself.

Unidentified Woman #2: Now, visualize someone you have difficulty with in your life.

HAGERTY: Uh-oh.

Unidentified Woman #2: Do you feel more warmth, openness and tenderness?

HAGERTY: Hmm, not exactly.

Unidentified Woman #2: Are there other sensations, perhaps an aching sensation?

HAGERTY: Yeah. Surely pretty much captured it, and surlier every day, as I reflected on the minor tragedies in my life and the people who caused them. When I saw Richard Davidson, I did not mention how ill-tempered I had grown.

Is there a capacity for me to change my brain if I continue with this?

Dr. DAVIDSON: Absolutely. I would say the likelihood is that you are already changing your brain.

HAGERTY: Well, I hope not. Others, however, were far more successful in cultivating a spiritual mindset. Davidson couldn't tell me about my study since it's yet to be published, but he could say there were detectable changes in the subjects' brains in two weeks. Another similar study where employees at a high-tech firm meditated a few minutes a day over a few weeks produced more dramatic results.

Dr. DAVIDSON: Just two months of practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as in the immune system in more positive directions.

HAGERTY: For example, they developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate. Which leads us to our next question: can thoughts or prayers affect the body? That is tomorrow's story.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

BLOCK: At our Web site, you can see a video of someone getting a brain scan while praying, and you can learn more about Barbara's book, "Fingerprints of God," that's at npr.org.

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