As women of faith, prayer is core to our lives. Connecting with our higher power brings us peace and clarity. It enables us to do far more than we thought possible. We know prayer greatly impacts our faith because of the assurance that someone hears us. Now, there is evidence that prayer physically changes our brain, bringing us more positive and meaningful life experiences.
The study of the effect of prayer and meditation on the brain is called “neurotheology.” Andrew Newberg, a lead scientist in this field, studied monks and nuns by hooking them up to a brain scanner. When the monks reached a place of what they described as “oneness with the universe” they would pull on a string. When they pulled it, they were injected with a dye showing where blood was flowing in their brains. When the nuns would reach the peak of their prayer they were also injected. Even though the nuns were praying to God instead of meditating, their brains showed similar activity to the monks’. Newberg found that their frontal lobes lit up. This is the part of the brain that we use for concentration and focus. He also found that the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that uses our sensory experiences to assist us with spatial orientation, went dark. Newberg says the following about the parietal lobe. “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 in activity in that area.”
Many of the studies are being done on people who meditate and/or pray for several hours a day. Their life is dedicated to religious practice. What about people like us who want to feel close to God, but don’t have that kind of time to dedicate to prayer or meditation? Another scientist, Richard Davidson, is doing studies on how we can accomplish this. He has found that 30 minutes of meditation or focused prayer daily can physically change your brain. It can create pathways for more compassion, empathy, happiness and overall awareness. Davidson reports, “Just two months’ practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions.”
So what does this mean for us? It means there is physical research showing prayer and/or meditation is essential to create more compassion, empathy and awareness in our lives. It shows that it is critical that we do all we can to increase our focus as we pray in order to truly feel connected with ourselves, our God, and others. Activating the focus center of our brain is how we will get the most out of our devotion.
Dr. Davidson said, “You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym.” Consistently getting to the gym is very beneficial, even if you don’t have tons of time to spend working out. Being focused and working out optimally for 10 minutes can do more good for you than someone who spends 30 minutes absentmindedly pedaling a bike while talking on their phone. In other words, you don’t have to be a monk to experience ”oneness.” Be consistent, be focused, and science says you will see a dramatic difference in how you experience life – A truth people who practice religion have known for centuries.