See also “Six Ways Prayer Can Help“
The holiday spirit infects almost all of us, regardless of our religion (or lack thereof). Is the seasonal bonhomie the happy result of eating, drinking, shopping, giving, receiving, and being with family and friends? Or perhaps it’s the result of all that praying.
Neurotheology is the name of the field that attempts to address such questions, and one of its pioneers is Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of How God Changes Your Brain. By scanning the brain activity of people while they pray, he’s found that, during meditative prayer, the frontal lobes that handle concentration “light up” and the parietal lobes that process outside sensory information “go dark.” The reaction happens in people of all different faiths, including Franciscan nuns, Sikhs and Buddhists.
Newberg’s results are compatible with those of other experts, including Dr. Catherine Kerr of Harvard Medical School and researchers from Japan’s Toho University. Their 2011 study showed that regular meditation alters the somatosensory cortex, changesalpha waves and increases serotonin production in the brain.
None of this surprises Steven Pashko. A psychologist with a doctorate in central nervous system pharmacology, Pashko has been a Zen Buddhist for 20 years. He meditates by himself for one hour every morning at his home in Wayne. And once a week, he participates in a two-hour group meditation at the Philadelphia Meditation Center in Havertown. Four times a year, Pashko goes on weeklong retreats, and every Buddha’s Enlightenment Day in December, he meditates at a rigorous eight-day retreat.
All of this meditating has positively affected Pashko’s brain, and he has proof: In 2008, he had a quantitative electroencephalogram taken to map the changes. “In people who don’t meditate, the brain would be all one color,” he explains. “My brain was shown to be different. Deeper colors in certain areas show neurotransmitters firing more often than usual. In fact, I think all of this activity might be the natural state that the mind was meant to be in. Perhaps the lack of prayer and meditation dims the mind.”
Pashko agrees that regular prayer and meditation has long-lasting effects. “Meditating is called a practice because you have to practice it regularly,” he says. “You become more adept at controlling the focus of your mind. That has enormous benefits in stress reduction and being generally happy.”
When it comes to Islam’s five daily prayer sessions, one positive effect is an awareness of time. “There’s a saying that no one is more punctual than a Muslim,” says Saeed Usmani, president of the Islamic Society of Chester County. “Offering thanks and blessings many times a day also reminds us of just how much we have to be grateful for.”
Also done by observant Jews, praying multiple times a day focuses the mind at regular intervals. “When standing in prayer, one should keep his thoughts only on the prayer and not let his mind wander,” Usmani says. “This requires deep concentration.”
There are also neurological benefits to linguistic aerobics. Learning and praying in something other than English—Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit—are good exercise for the brain’s memory and language centers.
Praying also has different effects when done en masse. For Muslims, Friday prayers must be recited in congregation. Even if he’s in a silent room with others, Pashko feels the energy of those meditating.
And, of course, Christians and Jews gather at churches and synagogues. Simply being in his church has a powerful effect on Rev. Kellen Smith. “When I enter the sanctuary, I feel that I have entered a sacred space,” says the associate pastor at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. “There’s something to how the space has been created that brings me into a prayerful presence. Our church has a long and great history, both in Christianity and also physically in Bryn Mawr. I feel those connections—to the holy mystery and to those who’ve gone before us and sat in the same pews and said the same prayers.”
When those pews are filled, especially during the holidays, any church can emanate a special feeling. Smith experienced it most recently during Christmas Eve prayers in 2011. “I felt something different that night,” he says. “I felt the sense of the Holy Spirit in a real and palpable way, and I also felt the spirit of the people uniting in prayer.”
The deeper the concerns of both him and his congregation, the more Smith says he benefits from prayer. “Times when I have been in despair and facing great challenges, I have gone to prayer and then felt physically unburned,” he says. “In my faith, I believe that I am turning over my troubles to God. That relieves my mind, my heart and my soul.”
Pashko says that’s neurology at work. “When you pray or meditate deeply, you’re clearing your mind of problems so you can intently focus on your deity or a chant or a meditative word,” he says. “The power of that mental focus centers you and connects you to everything else in the world. If you’re talking about joy to the world and goodwill toward men, that’s where it comes from: your mind.”
A dentist by profession, Usmani cautions against leaning too hard on the neurology and diminishing the theology. “Do I believe that there’s a medical explanation for what happens when we pray? Yes,” says Usmani. “But whichever prophet you believe in, they commanded you to pray to create and sustain your connection to God. That’s the point of prayer. If there are neurological benefits to it, that is a blessing. After all, God created us this way.”
• It invokes a sense of the presence of something greater than us.
• It serves as a distraction, momentarily pulling us out of pain and suffering into a place of beauty or transcendence.
• It’s quieting.
• It turns the focus on the blessings in our lives.
• It gives us grounding and clarity.
• It connects us to a deep level of self, in which we’re healed and whole.