The Neuroscience Of Spirituality & Religion

Photo: Caique Silva

Over my 50 years as a doctor, I have noticed a strong relationship between a person’s spiritual health and their mental health, and I truly believe you can believe your way to longevity.

There are 18,000 different religious denominations in the United States and countless more spiritual paths and themes. Science says spiritual people of all sorts are more likely to have happier brains, healthier bodies, and longer lifespans. This is because when you focus your mind on God, or any higher power, you are able to get out of yourself, your rut, and your negative thoughts. When you grow the "spiritual center" of your brain, you lower anxiety and depression, enhance social awareness and empathy, and think more clearly.

A person can actually have "spiritual" pathways in the brain that influence moods, sense of self, and how we treat others and see the world and beyond.

The influence of the brain's "spiritual pathways" on the mind and body.

1. Believers heal better.

Science reveals that believers, regardless of specific religion, heal better physically and mentally. One reason seems to be that we are "wired" for God. Many neuroscientists conclude that there are God centers in the brain where resides a natural impulse to believe in and call upon a supreme spiritual being. When you sincerely believe that God will help you heal, you’re more likely to heal.

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2. Believers grow their empathy centers.

Growing your God center grows your empathy center. Neuroimaging techniques—little windows into the brain—show that meditation stimulates the empathy or social awareness center. Where in your brain is the compassion center? It seems to be in the anterior cingulate, a tiny structure that sits near the junction between the frontal lobe, which processes thoughts and behavior, and the limbic system, which governs feelings and emotions.

While empathy and compassion are similar, compassion goes a step further by dialing up our ability to respond to another person’s emotions and pain. Compassion allows us to be more tolerant and accepting of others’ quirks and our own. Perhaps the larger and more active this compassion center is, the greater empathy you’ll be capable of, which may be the neurological basis of "social skills." This compassion center is the one that is most stimulated by spiritual practices and meditation.

Of course, being compassionate and sensitive is a mixed blessing. Over the years, I have noticed that "sensitive" patients are more prone to anxiety. Sensitive people may need to carry a larger toolbox of stress-busters to keep their sensitivity center set just right.

3. Belief builds a younger brain.

Interesting studies from the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital show that spiritual meditation can build a younger brain. The cerebral cortex usually gets thinner with age, but these studies showed that it actually thickened in older meditators. This means that by enjoying a rich spiritual life, you may be able to delay brain shrinkage.

4. Belief builds a happier sense of self.

Spiritual people may have a better sense of self. Researchers who wired up meditators discovered that even when they were not meditating, they generally had more activity, compared with non-meditators, in the happiness center of the parietal lobe, the area of the brain that gives you your sense of self-worth.

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5. Belief helps you trash toxic thoughts.

Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God." How few of us master those two peaceful words: Be still! "Quiet the mind!" Isn’t that what we all crave?

According to another study, people who routinely practiced a type of meditative yoga were found to have a marked increase in dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which is also very involved in stimulating positive thoughts. In short, dopamine is essential to our "sense of peace." This could also explain why people who have mastered the art of meditative prayer to the point that they feel like they are "in another world" actually have higher dopamine levels. Some of the increasingly common brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s, are neurochemically dopamine deficiencies.

Whatever kind of spirituality you do or do not subscribe to, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to turn your back on the science that says spiritual beliefs can have profound health benefits, mental and physical. It's time to make spiritual fitness a part of your health routine.

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