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Try It!: An Experiment about Happiness
Here's a little philosophy/psychology experiment you can try for yourself. It just takes a few minutes, and the rest of this post will make much more sense if you do it before reading further. Go!
How'd it go? Did you think the wholesome mom was happier than the party girl?
To those of you unwilling or unable to go through the interactive video, here's the idea. Two scenarios are described, one with a busy mom, and one with a busy party girl, each similarly stretched a bit thin, but lovin' it. Both women are described as experiencing more or less the same upbeat, satisfied psychological states. But one's changing diapers and one's doing lines of blow. In each case, you're asked whether you'd consider the woman "happy". Then we go through the whole thing again, except that both women are described as having more or less the same anxious, dissatisfied psychological states. And in each case you're asked whether you'd consider the woman "unhappy".
Jonathan Phillips, Luke Misenheimer, and Joshua Knobe found that most subjects were inclined to say the mom was "happy", but not that the party girl was "happy", even though they're described as enjoying the same positive psychological states. Yet when it came to "unhappy" scenarios, folks leaned toward agreement that the mom and party girl were unhappy.
Here's a picture of their results:
Good life = Mom; Bad Life = party girl
Phillips, Misenheimer, and Knobe ran a similar experiment about "love" and "lust" and got similar results. The authors' sumary:
In each case, we found the same basic pattern – with evaluative judgments showing an impact on the use of one concept but not showing an impact on the use of another, apparently similar concept. In particular, people’s evaluative judgments appear to be playing a role in attributions of happiness, love and valuing, but not in attributions of unhappiness, lust and thinking good.
We are not at all sure why these different concepts differ in this way, but it does seem that there is some broader principle or generalization to be found here does. Perhaps the matter can be addressed in future research.
Interesting stuff. Let's talk about the happiness result, and me.
When I went through the interactive video, I didn't conform to pattern they found in attributions of happiness and unhappiness. I was inclined to take the party girl's word for it, so I mostly agreed she was happy, just as I did with them mom. Still, I felt the pull of penalizing the party girl. She's shallow, she's shitty to her friends, she's doing lots of drugs. I don't think this combination generally does lead to happiness, so I did swiftly entertain and reject the idea she only thinks she feels great when she considers her life as a whole, but really she's hollow inside. Notably, the thought that the busy mom might be deluded or suffering from some sort of false consciousness didn't cross my mind.
Interestingly, in the second round, I agreed less that the mom was unhappy. Why? I dunno. I swiftly entertained but did not reject the idea that there's more to happiness than feelings and self-evaluation, and that probably she gets an abiding sense meaning from motherhood and that's got to count for something. I suspect I was just inclined to go easier on mom, probably because she fits a certain normative cultural ideal for womanhood and I'm an unwitting instrument of the patriarchy. It goes by very quickly. I'm not proud.
What explains the pattern? My guess is that there's a few probably intermingled things going on when people won't agree that the party girl is happy.
The first thing is that we've got implicit theories of happiness, both descriptive and normative. My impulse, which I resisted, was to refuse to agree that party rocker is happy on the grounds of my descriptive theory of happiness. I'm sure lots of folks don't resist this impulse. They think it's just really empirically unlikely that somebody who leads this sort of life really feels great about everything. But they don't think the same is true of the mom. Her life, as depicted, seems a not-at-all unlikely path to happiness.
I think Phillips, Misenheimer, and Knobe are a little too quick to ascribe unwillingness to agree that the party girl is happy to "evaluative judgments,' rather than implicit descriptive theories of happiness. Probably that's because they set up the whole experiment to try to elicit the judgment that one life was "bad" and one was "good". But you don't have to evaluate these lives as either "good" or "bad" in order to think that one might be more likely to lead to happiness.
That said, I think our normative theories of happiness -- our implicit beliefs about the sort of behavior that ought to be rewarded with happiness -- probably drive our descriptive theories more than the other way around. I suspect a lot of us (conservatives, mostly) like to think that we live in a universe in which people tend to get their just desserts. In which case, we'll be inclined to think that people who ought not to be rewarded with happiness aren't, as a matter of fact.
Most people haven't pickled themselves in "happiness research" for the past half-decade as I have, so my responses to these scenarios might be pretty idiosyncratic. But perhaps not as idionsyncratic as I'd like. My own descriptive theory of happiness, were I to lay it out, incorporates research which says that parental duties are fairly miserable and that kids are a drag on life satisfaction, especially for single parents. Yet, in the heat of the moment, this part of my descriptive theory wasn't activated by the description of the mom. I guess this partly has to do with the fact that she is depicted as a woman of fairly high socio-economic status, and it just didn't come to mind that she might not have a partner or might have trouble making ends meet. Perhaps more importantly, patriarchy. Seriously. My hunch is that the descriptive theory I brought to the experiment was far from my full, reflective, descriptive theory, but was instead a culturally-common folk theory, according to which there's little reason to suspect that mothers who say they feel great really aren't. It's what women are supposed to do. So naturally they'd be happy doing it. (Here's that quick step from the normative to the positive.) So what I actually knew stayed buried.
Last, I think the pattern Phillips, Misenheimer, and Knobe found in ascriptions of happiness/unhappiness and love/lust reflects the fact that we're more likely to deceive ourselves and others about culturally-idealized psychological states we aspire to achieve -- e.g., happiness, love -- than about states we hope to escape or rise above -- e.g, unhappiness, lust.
Some people are hopelessly romantic about happiness and love. Many of us fantasize about happiness and love. But not about unhappiness and lust. We're too well acquainted. Some people are even ideological about happiness and love. In our culture, to judge someone happy is to more or less validate the way the've lived life. If I need to feel validated in this way, I may try to convince myself and others that I'm happy, even if I'm not. We all recognize that happiness and love are idealized states of grace, greatly to be desired, and that we're all subject to certain illusions about them. We know that people sometimes try to fake it 'til they make it, and that we sometimes try to impress one another with claims of happiness and love. I'm reminded of Utah, which ranks tops among the states both in self-reported happiness and anti-depressant use. In contrast, we mostly keep signs of our unhappiness and lust to ourselves, if we can help it. They're not impressive, usually.
The more we're convinced that to judge someone happy is to validate the way they've lived life, the more we'll resist judging happy those who live the sort of lives we don't think very highly of. I think this is the sort of thing the authors have in mind when they talk about the effect of our "evaluative judgments" on our ascriptions of psychological states. I don't doubt that this is a good part of what's going on. But I also don't think these experiments succeed in getting us very far toward isolating the role of these evaluative judgments from descriptive judgments grounded in folk theories of happiness, or judgments about the trustworthiness of self-reports about psychological states correlated with culturally idealized emotions.
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.