Your Brain on God – How Prayer Affects Memory

Surveys show that more than half of adults in America believe they have had some kind of spiritual experience that was life-changing. Now scientists are taking these claims seriously and trying to understand what changes take place in the brain of those who spend a great deal of their time in prayer and meditation.

The new field of neurology, called “neurotheology,” is drawing in big name researchers from the U.S. and Canada to find out how spiritual thoughts and prayers can impact a person’s ability to think more clearly, and to heal themselves or fight off diseases.

Scientists from Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using the latest in technology to scan and analyzing the brains of people who claim the spirit has touched them.

One such scientist is Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been scanning the brains of religious people for more than a decade. Newberg has interviewed and studied all sorts of spiritual people, from Franciscan nuns to Tibetan Buddhists, and found that those who meditate access deep into the parietal lobe, an area of the brain that relates to sensory information and aid us in forming our sense of self.

“The more you focus on something – whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God – the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain,” Newberg says.

One of Newberg’s test subjects was Michael Baime, a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. Baime told Newberg that during a peak meditative experience, “he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.” “It’s as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity,” he explains, “that there has never been anything but this eternal now.”

While Newberg scanned Baime’s brain, the Buddhist meditated, and his brain mirrored those feelings. As was expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen because meditation is sheer concentration. But what Newberg found most interesting was that Baime’s parietal lobes went dark.

“This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves, and orient that self in the world,” he explains. “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.”

Newberg achieved the same results with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience. “There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it’s just all one,” Newberg says.

As of now, the research has been focused on those who meditate for long periods of time each day. The researchers believe if they focus on those who are “spiritual virtuosos” it will offer clues to the workings of the brains of typical believers. That will open up avenues for busy, active people who don’t have families and jobs, but want to enrich their spiritual lives.

According to neuroscientist Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin, “You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym,” he says. “Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly.” It’s called neuroplasticity.

Davidson has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks for years that have logged years of meditation. When it comes to things like attention and compassion, their brains are as finely tuned as a late-model Porsche. Davidson wondered if ordinary people could achieve the same kind of connection with the spiritual that the monks do – without so much effort?

Davidson took volunteers and seated them in comfortable chairs while their brains were scanned and they listened to CDs of relaxing and meditative music. “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,” he said. “For example, they developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate.”

It has been shown in other studies that relaxation can lead to memory enhancement by reducing stress and clearing the brain of negative thoughts. It would stand to reason that prayer, which is essentially meditation, would do the same thing. In addition, these tests are showing that the more at peace with the spiritual the more your body builds up antibodies naturally that allows you to heal yourself.

Reduced stress, lower blood pressure, memory enhancement and improved mental functions allows for a stronger body and mind, prevention of dementia and other memory loss, and leads to a happier and more fulfilled life.

Now that’s the power of prayer!

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at


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