Neurotheology: Spiritual Neuroscience


Neurotheology is a scientific field of study where researchers observe how our brain works when we are feeling spiritual, or when we believe in something bigger than ourselves. They examine how these beliefs show up in and affect our brains. 

Neurotheology is sometimes called “spiritual neuroscience.” It’s all about understanding how doing things like praying, meditating, or believing in God changes our brain activity. And how it changes our brain anatomy. Scientists in this field are also studying how these spiritual activities can change our health and well-being.

Scientists use special brain scanning machines to see what happens in our brains when we have these spiritual experiences. They’ve found that certain parts of the brain increase or decrease activity during these times. One particular study conducted by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg examined the brain activity of Franciscan nuns during prayer. In the study, the researchers used imaging techniques like SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) to observe changes in brain activity as the nuns engaged in a type of prayer known as “centering prayer”. This involves focusing on the presence of God and is similar to meditation. 

The findings showed that during prayer, there was an increase in activity in the frontal lobes. And there was a decrease in the parietal lobe. The frontal lobes are associated with focused attention. The parietal lobe is associated with sensory information and orientation in space and time. The decrease in parietal lobe activity suggested a diminished sense of self and spatial awareness. This might explain the feelings of transcendence and unity with God reported by the nuns during prayer. 

Physical Brain Change

Another study by Dr. Newberg looked at the effects of long-term prayer on the human brain. Using MRI scans, the research demonstrated that individuals who engaged in regular prayer showed significant changes in their brain structure. Specifically, the study found increased activity and sometimes increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain associated with focus and attention. This part of the brain is also responsible for things like logic, rationality, planning and self-control.

Additional studies show that people who take part in spiritual practices feel less stressed, anxious, or sad. These practices can help calm the body’s stress response, lower blood pressure, and even make the immune system stronger. Also, belonging to a religious group and participating in religious traditions or sacraments can make people happier and feel better about their lives as well. 

These findings suggest that regular prayer, much like meditation, can lead to neuroplastic changes in the brain. They highlight the profound impact that spiritual practices can have on the human brain, offering insights into how the brain processes and interprets spiritual experiences. These changes could potentially enhance cognitive functions such as attention and focus, and might also contribute to the emotional and psychological benefits associated with regular spiritual practices. Which makes sense when looking at the specific brain region that undergoes the physiological changes (the cortex). 

Neurotheology helps us bring together the science of the brain and the world of spirituality. By studying how our brains respond to our beliefs, we can learn about the powerful effects spirituality can have on our health and happiness. Faith, religion and spirituality can be a powerful way to improve health and well-being and to live a better life. 

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