Fire Together, Wire Together: How Prayer Strengthens the Brain
Dr. Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine. Andrew has been asking questions about reality, truth, and God since he was very young, and he has long been fascinated by the human mind and its complex workings. While a medical student, he met Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, who was studying religious experiences. Combining their interests with Andrew’s background in neuroscience and brain imaging, they were able to break new theoretical and empirical ground on the relationship between the brain and religion.
Andrew’s research now largely focuses on how brain function is associated with various mental states—in particular, religious and mystical experiences. His research has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states, as well as surveys of people's spiritual experiences and attitudes. He has also evaluated the relationship between religious or spiritual phenomena and health, and the effect of meditation on memory. He believes that it is important to keep science rigorous and religion religious. Andrew has also used neuroimaging research projects to study aging and dementia, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Dr. Newberg has published over 100 research articles, essays and book chapters, and is the co-author of the best selling books, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine, 2001) and How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Ballantine, 2009). He has presented his research throughout the world in both scientific and public forums. He appeared on Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC's World News Tonight, National Public Radio, London Talk Radio and over fifteen nationally syndicated radio programs. His work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other newspapers and magazines.
His newest work is How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation.
One of the things that we find to be such an important element of many of the rituals and practices that people do as part of their religious traditions is the repetition of it. The more that you come back to a particular idea, the more you focus on it, the more you say a phrase or a prayer, those are the ideas and beliefs that become written into the neural connections of the brain.
There is a cute saying the neurons that fire together wire together. The idea is that when you are doing a particular practice, whatever it is religious or otherwise, the more you do it the more you are writing that information into the neural connections of the brain. The neurons that support that idea or support that practice fire together. They strengthen their connections and it makes it easier for you to come back to that particular practice and it also strengthens the beliefs that are around that particular practice.
So that is why a practice like prayer is so valuable to people who are religious because you keep coming back to God. And if you keep praying to God in that particular way that becomes your belief system and this repetition strengthens the way the brain works specifically around that particular task or that particular idea.
That's also why we think that a practice like meditation even taking into a more secular kind of context can be a very powerful tool for helping to improve the way a person's brain works. The analogy here is if you were wanting to become a better tennis player, for example, you could do one of two things. One is you go play tennis. You need to keep practicing the tennis itself. The other is that you could go to the weight room and lift weights or run, which is more general strengthening and conditioning. Now if you wanted to become a good basketball player you wouldn't play tennis. You'd shoot baskets. But the weight training and the aerobic training can be good for both.
So meditation may fall into that area where maybe you want to be really good at doing crossword puzzles. You want to do a lot of crossword puzzles, but if you get really good at crossword puzzles it doesn't make you a good chess player. But if you do meditation practices it might make you better either in doing crossword puzzles or being a good chess player or maybe even be a better athlete. So it has something to do with how we can more generally improve the function of the brain and these kinds of practices actually can help.
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