“A theologian will tell you that faith is essential to religious belief, but our brain-scan research, which we document in our new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” led us to the conclusion that faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain. Indeed, we believe that faith is more essential than exercise, especially in light of the cumulative research showing how doubt and pessimism can shorten your life by years.
By faith, we mean the ability to consciously and repetitively hold an optimistic vision of a positive future — about yourself, and about the world. When you do this — through meditation, prayer, or intensely focusing on a positive goal — you strengthen a unique circuit in your brain that improves memory and cognition, reduces anxiety and depression, and enhances social awareness and empathy toward others. And it doesn’t matter whether the meditations are religious or secular.
However, when meditation is religious and strengthens your spiritual beliefs, then there is a synergistic effect that can be even better. Our research into how people describe their own spiritual experiences speaks directly to this fact. On one hand, it seems that people use a tremendous diversity of descriptions in recounting deeply meaningful, spiritual experiences.
For some it is love, for some awe, for some it is the experience of direct contact with the divine (however they define that). However, in spite of these many different descriptions, each person describes a transformative element that changes their mind, their health, and their life. In fact, our research shows that the more you engage all parts of your being, your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, social interactions and spiritual pursuits, the more it enhances your brain’s function. But most importantly, this requires a focus on the positive — on love, forgiveness, optimism, and inclusiveness.”
- Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman
Brewer-Smyth, K. and H. G. Koenig (2014). "Could spirituality and religion promote stress resilience in survivors of childhood trauma?" Issues Ment Health Nurs 35(4): 251-256.
Trauma is a precursor to many mental health conditions that greatly impact victims, their loved ones, and society. Studies indicate that neurobiological associations with adverse childhood experiences are mediated by interpersonal relationships and play a role in adult behavior, often leading to cycles of intergenerational trauma. There is a critical need to identify cost effective community resources that optimize stress resilience. Faith-based communities may promote forgiveness rather than retaliation, opportunities for cathartic emotional release, and social support, all of which have been related to neurobiology, behavior, and health outcomes. While spirituality and religion can be related to guilt, neurotic, and psychotic disorders, they also can be powerful sources of hope, meaning, peace, comfort, and forgiveness for the self and others.This article provides an overview of religion and spirituality as they relate to the neurobiology of resilience in victims of childhood trauma.
Kimberly Burnham, PhD (Integrative Medicine)
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