July 15, 2014

How God Changes the Brain

bigstock-hand-symbol-22029548God is an interesting word. Perhaps more than any other word in any language, it stands out as potentially involving a greater number of meanings and emotional responses than all others. For some the word invokes hope, love and peace and for others it is a reference to non-sense, superstition, mental weakness and for some others, the word elicits fear, anger and even hatred. The ways we understand God inherently give rise to the meaning of God!

For spiritual and religious people, it is this personal understanding of God that forms the basis for the meaning and purpose in their lives. Indeed, the purpose driven life is derived directly from our opinion of an afterlife–either you only go around once or there is much more to life than meets the eye.

Now an interesting enquiry of late that has been carried out by several different neuro scientists in a variety of experimental settings involves the use of sophisticated technology for evaluating changes in the brain due to religious and spiritual practices. On my radio show, Provocative Enlightenment, we have discussed the predisposition that humans have hard-wired in the brain that gives rise to our need to believe. We have evaluated this from both the theistic perspective with guests such as Dr. Ray Moody and from the agnostic view, as was the case with the world’s most famous skeptic, Michael Shermer.

Last week I came upon a really interesting study carried out by Dr. Andrew Newberg and his team. What they did was borrow a popular meditation technique from the American tradition of Kundalini Yoga, known as Kirtan Kriya. They secularized the technique by informing participants that they were to make these sounds in a repeated fashion in order to assist in self-training a valued meditation practice. Their subjects were older volunteers and the preferred subject was someone who had experienced occasional memory loss–that typically associated with aging. They divided subjects into two groups. One group was told to listen to music for twelve minutes a day for eight weeks. The other group was told to repeat these sounds: sa-ta-na-ma. They were to say them aloud for two minutes, then whisper them for two minutes, then repeat them silently for four minutes, and then whisper them for two minutes and finally to speak them aloud for the final two minutes. Now they were to make finger movements as well while repeating the sounds. So they would begin by touching their forefinger to their thumb when saying “sa” and then their index finger with “ta” and the ring finger with “na” and the little finger with “ma.”

Twelve weeks later their brain scans were compared with their pre-test and with the music group. There was no change for those listening to music but some pretty substantial changes for those who practiced this meditation exercise. Now again, this exercise is considered by at least one master to be the exercise you should learn if you only learn one, but the group being studied did not have this knowledge. The sa-ta-na-ma is a mantra and the finger movement is known as a mudra, but the experimental group did not know that they were actually employing an important religious practice, to them this was a secular exercise with simple sounds to assist in focusing on developing a meditation practice. In actuality, there is a meaning to these four Sanskrit words. In order, they mean birth, life, death, and rebirth.

So what were the findings? The experimental group showed great increases in activity in the frontal lobe and these changes endured over time. The frontal lobe is of course what we use for focused attention. They also found significant differences in the thalamus. The thalamus has two sides and initially the subjects showed activity in one side, but following the experiment, the subjects’ thalamic activity had shifted to the opposite side, suggesting that somehow this exercise had fundamentally rewired the way the brain operated. Now the subjects were also given a number of psychological tests including tests for verbal memory, visual attention and task switching. The subjects in the experimental group once again showed significant improvement in all of these tests. Indeed, cognitively, the meditation group performed on average about 10 percent better after the eight weeks of training. Not only that, but their experience of life changed as well. They became emotionally happier experiencing 15 to 20% less depression, anxiety, fear and so forth. This finding implicates changes in the limbic system.

So now, here’s the question. To some religious people, the Sanskrit words: sa-ta-na-ma have meaning and power. As such, there are those who suggest that this experiment was not truly a secular experiment at all. The words themselves invoked a special spiritual power. Now this is not uncommon where sacred languages are concerned. The sacred letter energies one encounters in Kabbalah, for example, have not only meaning but power. So to utter the sound is to invoke a power or force of some kind. For the Babylonians the word “sesame” invoked a power derived from sesame oil. So what would happen if you truly secularized this practice and used something like, do-ra, da, la or da-la-ra-do?

And one more thing–if you can truly gain this level of change in the brain through this one activity, carried out purportedly as a secular activity, what kind of changes could you get if deep religious practices of this kind were done daily for years? Is this the way the Tibetan Monks gain so much control over their bodies?

The next time you feel that life is going by and everything is same old same old, try meditation and see how your own brain changes.

Thanks for the read,