Listening to Mark Robert Waldman speak is mesmerizing. There is something about his voice that is alluring and calming. You’re instantly transported back to childhood hearing your favorite bed-time story with wide-eyed wonder, except he’s not telling you a fairy tale, he’s speaking scientific facts. God changes your brain.
Waldman and Andrew Newberg, M.D., named the world’s foremost neuroscientists on spirituality, have confirmed what believers have felt for centuries. Faith in God brings better health and well-being.
In their new book How God Changes Your Brain, the authors present an easy-to-read, revelatory work of modern science and a practical guide for readers to enhance their physical and emotional health.
Newberg and Waldman’s fascinating evidence on how intense prayer and meditation permanently changes numerous structures and functions in the brain, is collected from their brain-scan studies on memory patients and meditators, their Web-based survey of people’s religious and spiritual experiences, and their analyses of adult drawings of God.
The partners who are also co-authors of Born to Believe,” are making believers out of spiritual skeptics with their latest evidence and highly credible backgrounds. Waldman, a therapist, is an associate fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of ten books. He lectures throughout the country on neuroscience, religion and spirituality in addition to conducting research. Newberg is the director and co-founder of the Center of Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, and associate professor in the department of radiology. The doctor is one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field called neurotheology.
To understand the mental changes individuals experience when they are contemplating God, or any positive affirmations and thoughts, Waldman says it’s important to look at the thalamus, an organ in our brain which he calls the grand central station.
“What you see, smell, touch, hear, and taste, the thalamus collects that information and sends it to the rest of your brain giving you a perception of the outside world,” says Waldman. “The information gathered does not have to be an accurate form of reality, it just has to be a reality that is functionally useful by your brain. Whatever thoughts you have, the neurons send connections directly into the thalamus. What we have found in our research, is when a person is focusing intently on any thought, whether it’s God, peace or money the thalamus begins to light up and glow. It’s responding to the thoughts the same way it responds to other sensory information from the world.”
Waldman and Newberg’s ground-breaking research proves the more one holds a thought, the more intense stimulation takes place in the thalamus. Many people know what they think can become a reality, but not what actually happens in their bodies.
“We have found, what you say to yourself repeatedly 12 minutes a day shapes the structural and functional changes in the thalamus within eight weeks or less. The thalamus changes its shape in response to the type of thoughts you are holding and this becomes your inner reality. If you are focusing on God, God becomes more and more real, because it’s like a sense coming in from the outside world. If you are focusing on peace, peace becomes and feels real.”
If tranquility can be achieved through spiritual practices, so can the opposite with negative perceptions of God. Scientific evidence suggests that people who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. Any negative thoughts are a detriment.
“If you are focusing on anxiety, or depression, or some fearful, awful event happening in the world, that too becomes your inner reality,” says Waldman. “So if you start ruminating and thinking and meditating on the horrors in the world, your thalamus is going to send a message to the rest of brain that there is this horrible thing happening, even if it’s not happening. You have to be careful what you choose to contemplate and meditate upon because it will become your inner reality. And as far as the rest of your brain is concerned, there is no difference between inner and outer reality. The reality you create in your brain, is the only reality that it knows.”
Other fascinating research the partners have found, is the surprisingly different ways people describe God, and how the brain scans conducted at Pennsylvania University, shows negative speech, whether it comes from politics, an angry parent, or the church, damages the brain.
“We have substantial scientific research on if you even see the word “no” for one second, and you are in a brain scan machine, your brain reacts with anxiety and fear,” says Waldman. “So all negative rhetoric is neurologically damaging to your brain, and neurologically damaging to the person who is listening to you. And, the moment you hear the word “no” in any form or capacity like; they’re wrong, they’re bad, they are terrorists, they’re ruining us, or they’re killing us, creates a release of cortisol and other stress neural chemicals. The negatives actually damage neurons in the brain that control our sense of emotional well-being.”
How God Changes our Brain, not only features revolutionary research, but offers a way to cultivate compassion and deep inner peace, evident in Waldman’s soothing voice and his calming energy. It comes from a skill that Waldman says anyone can easily and quickly learn through Compassionate Communication, the partner’s new meditation technique that builds intimacy with family and friends in less than fifteen minutes of practice.
“Nobody teaches you to speak from a place of softness and gentleness,” says Waldman. “We discovered If you simply slow down your speech, have a compassionate thought as you maintain intense eye contact with a person, the other person’s brain will begin to neurally resonate to your own. We documented that eye contact and slow, soft speech begins to create improved comprehension in the other person. It also causes the other person’s body to relax.”
Waldman says churches are open to trying their new techniques to develop compassion, especially since he can show them brain scans that prayers and spirituality are having a profound beneficial effect on the brain.
When asked what happens when a violent person confronts a non-violent person, Waldman identifies this as a neural war. “When you have one person who is being warm, kind and compassionate facing someone who is angry, both brains are trying to resonate to the other,” says Waldman. “The question is, Which brain will win? If you drop your compassion, you are going to become angry like the other person. If you drop your anger, you are going to become compassionate like the other person.”
Among their research is a fascinating study on how simply yawning can affect the brain, and help students in school.
“Yawning is one of the fastest ways to bring you into a state of relaxation. It can raise a student’s grade point average. By deliberately yarning for ten times, even if you don’t feel like it, the more you get into it, the more your brain begins to calm down,” says Waldman. “When we ask students to yawn for four minutes before taking a test, it improved their test grade by an entire point.”
Whether you are yawning, meditating, or praying, Waldman’s and Newberg’s research shows they all make you more alert, present, and simultaneously relaxes your body, which improves your physical and emotional health.
The partners provocative studies on how meditating and praying actually changes the structure of your brain, and even slows down the aging process, is inspiring, and boldly erasing boundaries between spirituality and science.
Janet Alston Jackson (www.SportingtheRightAttitude.com)