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The history of VR: How virtual reality sprang forth from science fiction
For many years the concept of virtual worlds and far flung digital realities was the stuff of speculative fiction and philosophy. But it may soon take over the world.
For many years the concept of virtual worlds and far flung digital realities was the stuff of speculative fiction and philosophy. The latter half of the past century put some of these ideas into practice, albeit in brief technical functions that never quite lived up to the commercial hype. Even so – throughout this tumultuous history of virtual reality, many fundamental ideas and technical capabilities began to take root. Advancements in computing power, screen graphics and overall better tech has given us our current crop of VR technologies and put it on the map.
Actual work on virtual reality tech didn’t start until the mid 20th century and a few decades into the new age of computing. One of the first contemporaneous conceptions of what we’d consider a modern take on virtual reality (headsets for visual experience, haptics etc.) was laid out in an early science fiction story called Pygmalion's Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbaum. It’s a surprisingly accurate take on what a fully immersive virtual world would entail. The following quote sums his premature vision up succinctly:
“But listen—a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?"
That was written in 1935. It might seem like Weinbaum was a bit ahead of his time, but one can’t forget the philosophical greats and their alternative reality musings that preceded him.
Historical ruminations of virtual reality
Arguably one of the most famous and ancient examples of questioning your own reality, and subsequently paving the way to think about creating new virtual realities, comes from Plato.
Many people will remember his Allegory of the Cave, which was one of his dialectics about the nature of someone’s reality. In summary, chained cave dwellers watch shadows projected on a wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. These shadows are their reality and they know nothing more than that.
Then there was Rene Descartes, father of modern philosophy and rationalism. He is mostly remembered for the catch-all phrase Cogito Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes questioned his senses and came up with the seminal brain in a vat thought experiment. The idea that some demon or mad scientist of sorts could be simulating his entire existence. You could gather that if Descartes was alive today he’d have rephrased the question: “how do we know we’re not living in virtual reality?” Which some scientists still question to this day, proposing that this could all be a simulation.
A Special Place in Fiction
We’ve seen many interesting stories of virtual realities in the past hundred years. We’re all familiar with The Matrix as a futuristic tech combo story – it has both tyrant robotic overlords and a forced virtual reality!
But there’s also been another unknown but highly influential story in the mix that preceded The Matrix by a few decades. One of those stories is The Eden Cycle written in 1972, which is more of a hedonistic paradise matrix. Something that looks compelling, but might not be all that satisfying…
In the book there is something called “A Sensory Experience Simulator” given to the humans by a race of benevolent aliens, making them immortal in a virtual world. Human bodies are tended to below ground in vast caverns in nodes. Sound familiar? Within these nodes, the mind can conjure out any type of virtual scenario and interact with billions of other humans and other alien species integrated into this technology.
These stories are both frightening and compelling, but as is often the case – our fictional ideals outpace what are technology is actually capable of doing.
Early Technical Advancements
Many isolated disciplines were springing about and coming up with novel solutions for rudimentary VR tech. One such early technology was the Sensorama, which was a mechanical cabinet that allowed the viewer to sit inside of it and view stereoscopic 3D movies. Cinematographer Morton Heilig was responsible for this creation in the 1950s. He was only able to make five short films with this technology because he was unable to secure funding, although he eventually went on to patent a head-mounted display.
The breakthrough of modern virtual reality came through the advent of flight simulators backed by deep government pockets. Thomas A Furness III, considered the grandfather of virtual reality was commissioned by the US Air Force to build the first flight simulator in 1966.
Fast forward a decade or two and you have the first mention of the term virtual reality. Coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987, Lanier later went on to found the visual programming lab VPL. Lanier and his team have since gone on to create some of the first commercial VR products, and these developments in turn influenced the early prototypes of popular systems like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Many companies still tried their luck during that time and tried to commercialize this growing tech in the 90s. Infamously, SEGA developed a VR headset for the Sega Genesis console in 1993. It was supposed to have head tracking, stereo sound as well as LCD screens inside the headset. After many release delays and technical difficulties, the device never left the prototype stage and was a terrible flop for the company.
Around 1995, the usually reliable Nintendo came out with the abysmal Nintendo Virtual Boy (or VR-32) which was supposed to be a portable 3D gaming console. There was a lack of software support, difficulty using the system, and all of the graphics were colored in red and black. After a year on the market it was discontinued. In the early 21st century the trend continued and it seemed that a viable VR system was as far away as talking servant robots a la The Jetsons. But luckily, a majority of the early problems that plagued these systems at the time have since been remedied.
No longer do we have to worry about unwieldy death traps that are uncomfortable and barely workable. The past forebears of VR in the technical field have paved the way for the following:
- Rendering 4k x 4k per eye.
- Hand motion devices integrated with greater functional ergonomics
- Creating a ubiquitous computer mouse-like device for VR device
- Greater fidelity workspaces and communities.
- Creating higher resolution realites
- Expanding consumer adoption.
- Merging into augmented VR
We may not be in the era of a fully immersive reality. But we should realize that we’ve come a long way in such a short amount of time in the history of VR.
Scientists discover what our human ancestors were making inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa 1.8 million years ago.
- Researchers find evidence of early tool-making and fire use inside the Wonderwerk Cave in Africa.
- The scientists date the human activity in the cave to 1.8 million years ago.
- The evidence is the earliest found yet and advances our understanding of human evolution.
One of the oldest activities carried out by humans has been identified in a cave in South Africa. A team of geologists and archaeologists found evidence that our ancestors were making fire and tools in the Wonderwerk Cave in the country's Kalahari Desert some 1.8 million years ago.
A new study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews from researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Toronto proposes that Wonderwerk — which means "miracle" in Afrikaans — contains the oldest evidence of human activity discovered.
"We can now say with confidence that our human ancestors were making simple Oldowan stone tools inside the Wonderwerk Cave 1.8 million years ago," shared the study's lead author Professor Ron Shaar from Hebrew University.
Oldowan stone tools are the earliest type of tools that date as far back as 2.6 million years ago. An Oldowan tool, which was useful for chopping, was made by chipping flakes off of one stone by hitting it with another stone.
An Oldowan stone toolCredit: Wikimedia / Public domain
Professor Shaar explained that Wonderwerk is different from other ancient sites where tool shards have been found because it is a cave and not in the open air, where sample origins are harder to pinpoint and contamination is possible.
Studying the cave, the researchers were able to pinpoint the time over one million years ago when a shift from Oldowan tools to the earliest handaxes could be observed. Investigating deeper in the cave, the scientists also established that a purposeful use of fire could be dated to one million years back.
This is significant because examples of early fire use usually come from sites in the open air, where there is the possibility that they resulted from wildfires. The remnants of ancient fires in a cave — including burned bones, ash, and tools — contain clear clues as to their purpose.
To precisely date their discovery, the researchers relied on paleomagnetism and burial dating to measure magnetic signals from the remains hidden within a sedimentary rock layer that was 2.5 meters thick. Prehistoric clay particles that settled on the cave floor exhibit magnetization and can show the direction of the ancient earth's magnetic field. Knowing the dates of magnetic field reversals allowed the scientists to narrow down the date range of the cave layers.
The Kalahari desert Wonderwerk CaveCredit: Michael Chazan / Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Professor Ari Matmon of Hebrew University used another dating method to solidify their conclusions, focusing on isotopes within quartz particles in the sand that "have a built-in geological clock that starts ticking when they enter a cave." He elaborated that in their lab, the scientists were "able to measure the concentrations of specific isotopes in those particles and deduce how much time had passed since those grains of sand entered the cave."
Finding the exact dates of human activity in the Wonderwerk Cave could lead to a better understanding of human evolution in Africa as well as the way of life of our early ancestors.
A small percentage of people who consume psychedelics experience strange lingering effects, sometimes years after they took the drug.
- LSD flashbacks have been studied for decades, though scientists still aren't quite sure why some people experience them.
- A subset of people who take psychedelics and then experience flashbacks develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare condition in which people experience regular or near-constant psychedelic symptoms.
- There's currently no cure for the disorder, though some studies suggest medications may alleviate symptoms.
In February 2021, Josh was in his room and looking at his phone when he was struck by a strange feeling.
"The room looked normal, nothing was moving, but I felt as though I was under the influence of a psychedelic," he told Big Think. As a teenager, Josh had experimented with LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics a couple dozen times. Now 25, he had been sober for about a year. He brushed off the incident.
But soon, Josh, which is not his real name, was struck again by the same strange feeling.
"I had no idea what was going on in my brain at that time and the anxiety and paranoia grew so intense that I became fearful I had developed everything from brain cancer to schizophrenia," he said. The physical and psychological symptoms he began suffering were "devastating."
"The world [looked] crooked and out of focus, pictures had an eerie quality to them, things would go in and out of focus, at night while falling asleep I would experience vivid and terrifying hypnagogic hallucinations that made rest impossible."
After three weeks, Josh said his visual symptoms amplified with "unbelievable intensity."
"The floors would [breathe], paint on the walls looked wet, visual snow was so intense [that] pure black looked like it was glowing, at night I would see tracers everywhere, halos appeared around text. [...] I did not sleep, my thoughts were anxious and at times deranged, I had unbelievably intense dereliction that made the world seem fake."
What Josh experienced is commonly called an LSD flashback. It's a mysterious phenomenon in which someone who's previously taken a hallucinogenic drug suddenly and temporarily experiences the effects of that drug days, weeks, or even years after consuming it.
Flashbacks can occur after taking a wide range of psychedelic drugs. But compared to other hallucinogens, flashbacks seem to be most common among people who have consumed LSD, according to studies
Antique old clock abstract fractal spiral
Antique old clock abstract fractal spiralNewwup via Adobe Stock
People have reported acid flashbacks for decades. The earliest recorded case may be Havelock Ellis' 1898 report of taking mescaline and then experiencing sustained heightened sensitization to "the more delicate phenomena of light and shade and color."
But it wasn't until the 1950s, little more than a decade after Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD, that scientists started researching LSD and its potential long-term effects. While studies have illuminated some aspects of how psychedelics affect the brain, scientists still have much to learn about the nature of acid flashbacks, what causes them, and how to treat them.
What's certain, however, is that a small percentage of people who consume psychedelics report bizarre and sometimes debilitating effects that emerge long after taking hallucinogens.
Symptoms of acid flashbacks
Among the most common symptoms of LSD flashbacks are visual distortions. In a 1983 study titled "Visual Phenomenology of the LSD Flashback," the psychiatrist and LSD researcher Dr. Henry David Abraham described 16 common visual disturbances reported by people with LSD flashbacks. To name a few:
- Acquired color confusion: The color of objects changed or presented a newly discovered problem of color confusion.
- Difficulty reading: Text may appear jumbled or leave afterimages of the type against the background of the page.
- Geometric phosphenes: Phosphenes, or eigengrau, are non-specific luminous perceptions that occur when the eyes are closed and may originate from entopic (i.e., arising from within the eye itself) stimuli in normal persons. They also may be induced by gentle pressure on the closed eyelid.
- Pareidolias: This is literally an image within an image. These were described when a subject gazed into a finely reticulated design in linoleum, veneer, or a cloud formation. Besides the abstract pattern of the linoleum, subjects often would be able to see a series of concrete images as well, such as "a fish," "a face," and "a little boy."
- Macropsia: Macropsia is the perception of an object larger than it really is. A characteristic description of this phenomenon came from a subject who noticed that his hand was enormous and then of normal size a few seconds later.
- Micropsia: Micropsia is the perception of an object smaller than reality. One subject said, "My feet looked so tiny, like they were a million miles away."
The effects of acid flashbacks aren't limited to visual distortions. In a 1970 study called "Analysis of the LSD Flashback," researchers sorted LSD flashbacks into three broad categories: perceptual, somatic (meaning of the body), and emotional.
The emotional flashback is "far more distressing" than the other two, the researchers wrote, providing a case study of a 21-year-old woman who was suffering from acid flashbacks:
"The patient had these frightening flashbacks during the day, while walking down the street, after smoking marijuana or drinking wine, during the night, and occasionally even while asleep. In one situation she awoke during the middle of the night with a feeling of panic and began running around her house fleeing an imagined threat she could not identify or comprehend. She had taken LSD a number of times, but her last few trips were bad ones with panic and fright followed by loneliness to the point of suicidal despair when she 'came down.' The combination of bad trips and emotional flashbacks made her seek professional help because of her fear that she would harm herself."
To be sure, acid flashbacks aren't always emotionally distressing. A 2010 survey of 600 hallucinogen users found that, of the minority of users who reported experiencing at least one flashback, only 3 percent described it as a negative experience. In fact, some people enjoyed their flashbacks. On the website Erowid, which promotes research of psychedelic drugs, one user wrote:
"After 2 years of my last acid trip, while on vacation in a very nice wilderness place I was sitting on a rock and then I experienced a clear acid high. I was looking at a very steep hill and suddenly it started moving in nice patterns, exactly as one sees patterns while on acid. It wasn't something uncomfortable. In fact it was really pleasant and there was absolutely no trace of the nasty anxiousness after effects common to LSD. It lasted approximately 2 minutes and I enjoyed it very much."
But some LSD flashbacks are neither brief nor pleasant. A subset of people who use psychedelics develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare and poorly understood condition in which people experience omnipresent or recurring flashbacks. While the symptoms of HPPD vary, the condition can cause intense pain, irreversible perceptual distortions, emotional and psychological distress, and even suicidal thoughts.
HPPD: The never-ending trip
HPPD is estimated to affect between one to five percent of LSD users, though the actual figure is impossible to determine without better data. The disorder was first described formally in 1986 by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition, revised (DSM-III-R). The current edition of the manual (DSM-5) says patients need to meet several criteria to be diagnosed with HPPD:
- Patients must reexperience perceptual symptoms they experienced while intoxicated with the hallucinogen.
- These symptoms must cause "significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."
- These symptoms aren't due to a separate medical condition or mental disorder.
So, what's the difference between a flashback and HPPD? Mainly frequency and duration. A 2017 review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry noted that while "a flashback is usually reported to be infrequent and episodic, HPPD is usually persisting and long-lasting."
A 2014 review published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences outlined two types of HPPD. The first, HPPD I, is the "flashback type," which is a generally short-term, non-distressing, benign and reversible state accompanied by a pleasant affect. The severity of HPPD I varies, with some people describing their mild flashbacks as annoying, while others say it's like getting "free trips."
But HPPD II is a different beast. The condition can be permanent, with perceptual distortions and other symptoms manifesting irregularly or almost constantly. "The symptoms usually include palinopsia (afterimages effects), the occurrence of haloes, trails, akinetopsia, visual snows, etc.," according to the aforementioned 2017 review. "Sounds and other perceptions are usually not affected. Visual phenomena have been reported to be uncontrollable and disturbing. Symptomatology may be accompanied by depersonalization, derealization, anxiety, and depression."
What causes flashbacks and HPPD?
When asked what causes flashbacks and HPPD, Dr. Abraham told Popular Science, "I've spent my life studying this problem and I don't know, is the short answer."
But researchers have proposed explanations. One centers on memory. Because psychedelics can cause extremely powerful and emotional experiences, it's theoretically possible that certain environmental stimuli can remind people of those experiences, and then memory "transports" them back into that subjective mindset — similar to how a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder might suffer an episode after hearing a loud, sudden noise.
Another hypothesis involves how LSD interacts with the brain's visual processing center. Dr. Abraham proposed that HPPD may arise due to "disinhibition of visual processing related to a loss of serotonin receptors on inhibitory interneurons," which may be caused by consuming LSD.
The basic idea is that LSD somehow changes the way the brain interprets visual stimuli. That might explain why people with HPPD have difficulty properly "disengaging" from the things they see around them. For example, a red stoplight might appear as a discrete red circle but as a streak of red light painted across their field of vision; or a strobe light might not appear as a flickering light but a light that's constantly on.
LSD on paperYurok Aleksandrovich via Adobe Stock
"Such a locking of visual circuitry into an 'on' position following perception of a visual stimulus would explain such diverse complaints as trailing, color intensification, positive afterimages, phosphenes, and color confusions, each of which may represent a failure of the respective visual function to turn off the brain's response to the stimulus once the stimulus is gone," Dr. Abraham wrote.
It's also possible that people are genetically predisposed to HPPD and that ingesting LSD is the key that unlocks the disorder. This hypothesis would help explain why people have reportedly developed HPPD after taking a single, moderate dose of LSD.
Ultimately, the exact causes of HPPD are unclear. Partially as a result, there's currently no cure for the disorder, though studies show that people with HPPD have reported improvements in symptomatology after taking benzodiazepines. There's also anecdotal evidence that fasting can alleviate the disorder.
Despite uncertainty over the causes of HPPD, researchers do have a good idea of what can trigger "flare-ups" of HPPD. Dr. Abraham's 1983 study listed the most common triggers, some of which include:
- Emergence into a dark environment
- Intention (intentionally inducing visual aberrations by, say, staring at a blank wall)
People with HPPD describe the condition
To get a better understanding of HPPD, Big Think posted a questionnaire to the HPPD community on Reddit. Here are some of the responses:
How did HPPD first manifest for you?
"First I noticed highly enhanced creativity and intense visuals when [high on] weed and I really enjoyed that part. The realization that this is not going to go away soured the whole experience tho."
"My enhanced creativity left me after about a week and what I was left with was mild visual snow. I hardly knew anything about HPPD at the time and just didn't really care about my symptoms and still thought they were just going to vanish at some point, which they didn't. I kept taking drugs simply because I was addicted and felt like life is no fun without them. My HPPD got gradually worse over time and more symptoms appeared. First, I noticed mild tracers, which got worse over time (again due to continued drug use) and then tinnitus and brain fog. But primarily my symptoms are visual."
Are your symptoms episodic or constant?
"Both constant and episodic," wrote user LotsOfShungite. "A stressful event can trigger my symptoms off into the deep end."
"Except the brain fog and head pressure that varies, my visual disturbances are constant. The most debilitating ones are the visual snow, especially when I'm inside except if I watch the TV since it filters some of it out. It's also VERY frustrating that I no longer can focus on objects/details (can't stare) and the astigmatism-like symptoms that I got, like blurriness, especially in the distance and ghosting (double vision) plus starbursts from strong light sources. When I'm outside, the pattern glare is really annoying, same with the excessive amount of floaters that came with this. I also see halos from light sources."
"My symptoms are mostly constant and only change through rather obvious outside influences, such as certain drugs (almost all drugs), stress, lack of sleep, etc. Although my HPPD is quite pronounced, I have learned to accept it and almost only notice it when I pay attention to it. I always [know] it's there and it somewhat bugs me but I get along."
What are some common misconceptions about HPPD?
"One of if not the biggest 'misconception' is that many people believe that HPPD does not exist. But I guess there is no way to prove to another person that it does, so this is gonna stay the case until HPPD enters the public consciousness of the psychedelic community."
"They usually don't understand anything about it since most haven't heard about it, which really is crazy considering how debilitating this disorder is for many. And as Dr. Abraham said: in the medical field it's highly under- and misdiagnosed. Often as psychosis."
Futuristic view from inside of a fractalLopyriev via Adobe Stock
Hope for HPPD
Since experiencing his first flashback in February, Josh has found a few helpful strategies to minimize symptoms, including seeing a psychologist, staying sober, getting enough sleep, staying productive, and talking regularly with friends. He seemed optimistic about the future:
"The symptoms will lessen with time and sobriety, and HPPD provides an opportunity to improve yourself. That being said, because thoughts of suicide are apparently common with people that have HPPD, the medical community should take the condition seriously. Especially given how many people use psychedelics today."
While the future of HPPD research remains unclear, general psychedelic research is going through something of a renaissance. In recent years, researchers have published a growing body of studies showing how psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA can help treat conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and existential distress. But, among people with HPPD, opinions on the utility of psychedelics vary. Josh advised caution:
"I would not recommend [hallucinogenic] drugs be taken for recreational purposes. They are tools to help us treat illnesses and should be treated as such. If someone has depression or other mental health issue, maybe psychedelics administered in a clinical setting by a doctor is appropriate, but otherwise, playing with your brain like it's a chemistry playset is asking for trouble down the road."
Studies show that religion and spirituality are positively linked to good mental health. Our research aims to figure out how and why.
- Neurotheology is a field that unites brain science and psychology with religious belief and practices.
- There are several indirect and direct mechanisms that link spirituality with improved mental health.
- Compassion and love are positive emotions that will make your brain healthier.
The field of neurotheology continues to expand from its early origins several decades ago to the present day. In its simplest definition, neurotheology refers to the field of scholarship that seeks to understand the relationship between the brain and our religious and spiritual selves. As I always like to say, it is important to consider both sides of neurotheology very broadly. Thus, the "neuro" side includes brain imaging, psychology, neurology, medicine, and even anthropology. And the "theology" side includes theology itself, but also various aspects related to religious beliefs, attitudes, practices, and experiences.
The mental health benefits of spirituality
Neurotheology also ranges from considering very esoteric concepts including questions around free will, consciousness, and the soul, to very practical concepts such as understanding how the brain functions and the relationship between spirituality and physical and mental health. This latter topic might be called "applied neurotheology." Applied neurotheology, therefore, seeks to understand the health-related aspects pertaining to our brain and our spiritual selves. In particular, we can try to understand how being religious or spiritual, or performing various spiritual practices, might be beneficial to our overall health and well-being. In our latest book, entitled Brain Weaver, we consider this important dimension of human brain health.
Even for those who are not religious, pursuing practices such as meditation and prayer — even when secularized — can be beneficial for reducing stress and anxiety.
A growing number of studies have shown how spirituality and mental health are linked. Importantly, studies have shown that those who are religious and spiritual tend to have lower rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. This is true across the age spectrum with studies of adolescents showing that religious and spiritual pursuits are protective against mental health problems. And many adults cite religious and spiritual beliefs as important for coping with various life stressors.
If there is a relationship between spirituality and positive mental health, we might question what the mechanism of action might be. I have typically divided the mechanisms into indirect and direct ones. The indirect mechanisms have to do with specific aspects of a given tradition that end up having ancillary mental health benefits. For example, going to church or other social events that are part of a religious tradition can be beneficial because social support, in and of itself, is beneficial to our mental health. The more people that we have in our social support network, the better we are at coping with various life stressors including problems with jobs, relationships, or health.
Most religions also teach people to avoid a lot of high-risk behaviors that can be very detrimental to our mental health and well-being. For example, most religions teach us to avoid alcohol and drugs, to not be promiscuous, and to try to be compassionate and charitable to others. By following these teachings, people will naturally avoid mental health problems such as substance abuse and tend toward being more optimistic and less depressed. These effects have nothing to do with being religious per se and everything to do with following a religion's advice.
Another interesting indirect mechanism of action related to religion has to do with diet and nutrition. Diet and nutrition are frequently overlooked when it comes to good mental health, even though research increasingly indicates they are essential. Many traditions ask individuals to follow certain dietary guidelines. For example, Hindus tend to have vegetarian diets, and most research to date shows that eating a more plant-based diet with a lot of low-inflammatory foods is good not only for your body but for your brain as well. In fact, we are currently performing a study with patients who have chronic concussion symptoms to determine the effect of dietary improvements on overall brain function.
The direct mechanisms of action have to do with specific spiritual practices and even a person's personal sense of spirituality. Much of my research over the past 30 years has been to study the brain while people engage in different practices such as meditation or prayer. We have even observed brain changes associated with unique spiritual practices such as speaking in tongues or trance states. The brain effects related to these practices are quite remarkable and diverse. It should come as no surprise since these practices affect people on many different levels, such as the way people think, feel, and experience the world around them. Thus, we should expect to observe physiological differences in the parts of the brain involved with these practices.
Meditation and prayer, for example, activate the frontal lobes as well as the language areas of the brain, and research demonstrates that this occurs not only while the practice is performed but over the long-term as well. Our study of Kirtan Kriya meditation showed improvements of about 10 to 15 percent in cognition as well as reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. These were associated with baseline changes to the brain's frontal lobe functions, which regulate these cognitive processes and modulate emotional responses.
More recent research has been exploring the effects of these practices on larger brain networks, and perhaps more important, specific neurotransmitter systems. One of our recent studies of a spiritual retreat program showed significant changes to the areas of the brain that release dopamine and serotonin. These are areas known to be involved in both cognition and emotional health. And there are a growing number of clinical studies which have documented the value of various spiritual practices or religiously oriented therapies for helping people manage a variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and ADHD as well as neurological conditions like Alzheimer's and seizure disorders.
Finally, a personal sense of spirituality may be protective in and of itself. When people feel connected to all of humanity, a higher power, or the entire universe, that experience gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life and an optimistic perspective on what the future holds. A number of research studies have shown that having such faith can be beneficial to your overall physical and mental health.
Improving brain health with applied neurotheology
Applied neurotheology can teach us the value of exploring our religious and spiritual side as a way of improving our mental health and well-being. Even for those who are not religious, pursuing practices such as meditation and prayer — even when secularized — can be beneficial for reducing stress and anxiety. Connecting with the larger world — by going on a nature walk, socializing with friends and family, or trying to make your neighborhood a better place by helping others — leads to a greater sense of compassion and love, positive emotions that will make your brain healthier.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who studies the relationship between brain function and various mental states. He is a pioneer in the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field known as "neurotheology." His latest book is Brain Weaver.