Individuals who pray or meditate regularly report that they feel more relaxed and at peace with the world. They indicate that their stress levels are reduced, and they have more resilience to respond to challenging situations.
Not surprisingly, scientists have started to look at the brain and religious experiences. Research shows that meditation and prayer have a positive impact on the brain and the body. This growing area of research now has a name. It is called neurotheology.
One of the leaders in the development of this field is Dr. Andrew Newberg.
Dr. Newburg stresses that both the neuro side and the theology side of this emerging body of research must be considered broadly. For example: the neuro side goes beyond neuroscience to include psychology, anthropology, and medicine. And the theology side is not limited in the strict sense to an understanding of points of doctrine in a religious tradition. Taking a wider view gives clinicians insight into what helps people engage their spiritual side, how to support it and what benefits flow from it.
Impact of Spirituality on Physical Health
Meditation and prayer can have a positive impact on blood pressure. Research has shown that individuals who were involved in religious activities had significantly lower blood pressure than people who were not religiously active. This held true even for people who had higher body mass index scores.
This same research also found that individuals who were involved in religious activity had lower levels of cortisol in their blood. Cortisol is an indicator of stress, so lower levels of cortisol mean lower stress.
We know that high blood pressure and high stress levels have a negative effect on heart health. But that negative effect also impacts the brain. So spending time praying or meditating will lower stress levels.
Impact of Spirituality on Mental Health
A study by Columbia University found that participating in regular meditation or other spiritual practice actually thickens parts of the brain’s cortex. The frontal cortex is associated with the executive functions of the brain, such as analyzing information and making decisions. A stronger frontal cortex also tends to guard against depression.
It also plays a role in voluntary movement like walking. So, the stronger our frontal cortex is, the healthier our brain will be.
Impact of Religion and Spirituality on Healthy Habits
Research by Carolyn Aldwin, a gerontology professor at Oregon State University, found that religion, including formal religious affiliation and attending Church, is associated with better health habits. And mediation or prayer is helpful in learning to regulate emotions. Regulating emotions can have a positive effect on blood pressure.
There are many pieces to the puzzle of religion and spirituality and its effect on brain health. This is a growing area of research and I am looking forward to delving into it deeper.
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