It’s all in your head

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. “Even accounting for medications,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.”

“A large body of science shows a positive impact of religion on health,” says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind. Dr. Newberg has looked more closely at how our spiritual data-processing center works, conducting various types of brain scans on more than 100 people, all of them in different kinds of worshipful or contemplative states. Over time, Dr. Newberg and his team have come to recognize just which parts of the brain light up during just which experiences.

Pray and meditate enough and some changes in the brain become permanent. Long-term meditators, those with 15 years of practice or more, appear to have thicker frontal lobes than non-meditators. People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit an asymmetry in the thalamus; a feature that other people can develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills. “It may be that some people have fundamental asymmetry [in the thalamus] to begin with,” Newberg says, “and that leads them down this path, which changes the brain further.”

No matter what explains the shape of the brain, it can pay dividends. Better-functioning frontal lobes help boost memory. In one study, Dr. Newberg scanned the brains of people who complained of poor recall before they underwent meditation training, then scanned them again after. As the lobes bulked up, memory improved.

Reference: Jeffrey Kluger, The Biology of Belief 2009

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