The Psychology of Faith
By Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Waldman
368 pages; Ballantine Books
How God Changes Your Brain may just change the way you think about God. Authors Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Waldman, researchers at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, have interviewed and scanned the brains of the actively faithful, including Franciscan nuns in contemplative prayer, Buddhists meditating, and Pentecostal church members after inviting the Holy Spirit to enter them. The various practices, the authors found, evoke different feelings as well as corresponding changes in the brain. Contemplative prayer and Eastern meditation generate a sense of "oneness" with God or the universe, practitioners report—and this is actually confirmed by decreased activity in the parietal lobe, a region of the brain that's responsible for our perception of boundaries between ourselves and others, of being distinct from the rest of the world. Pentecostals speaking in tongues, on the other hand, feel that an outside entity is communicating with them—and in their case, activity in the parietal lobe increases. The way one views God also activates different parts of the neural circuitry: Thinking of a loving being causes the compassion centers to light up, whereas belief in an authoritarian spirit stimulates regions that prime the brain for fighting.
Newberg and Waldman devote the last chapters of the book to specific exercises drawn from both spiritual traditions and modern brain science—meditative, physical, and interpersonal techniques that can be used by anyone, atheist or believer, to enhance cognitive function, emotional serenity, and communication with others. To improve well-being in general, they say, the four most important elements to include in your life are cultivating faith (in God or another power, or simply in the belief that a positive future awaits you), engaging in dialogue with others, getting aerobic exercise, and meditating.