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Is The Human Brain Hardwired for God?

Andrew Newberg: The question as to whether or not we are hardwired for religion and spirituality, I think, is a very important one.  When we look at how the brain works, it looks like the brain is able to very easily engage in religious and spiritual practices, ideas and experiences.  All the brain scan studies that we've done show that there are multiple parts of the brain that seem to get involved.  So it really does look like the brain is so easily capable of having these experiences.  Now exactly how that ability got into the brain is, of course, a much more complex and both philosophical and scientific question.  The scientists would say, well, maybe it was through millions of years of evolution, that because being religious or spiritual was an adaptive process it got incorporated into the biological mechanisms of the brain.  And there are certainly a lot of reasons to support that.

And, of course, if you're a religious individual it also makes sense that if there is a God up there and we're down here that we would have a brain that's capable of communicating to God, praying to God, doing the things that God needs us to do.  Otherwise there would be this kind of fundamentally silly disconnect.  We wouldn't be able to have any kind of interaction with God.  So it does look like the brain, no matter how it got there, does have this profound ability to engage in religious and spiritual experiences, and that's part of why we've seen religion and spirituality be a part of human history since the very dawn of civilization.  

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.  

Now 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, I think, is if you were wanting to become a better tennis player, for example, well, you could do one of two things.  One is you've got to play tennis.  You got to keep practicing the tennis itself.  The other is that you could go to weight room and lift weights or you could 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, you know, 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, I think, with how we can more generally improve the function of the brain that these kinds of practices actually can help with. 

So, well, if you're at your desk and you do feel like you really need, you know, the world is just flying around you and you need to take a moment, you can literally just sit there at your desk, put everything down.  You can close your eyes and for—you know, hopefully you can close your door or block out your ears or something like that—and simply sit there for about a minute or so and just concentrate on your breath.  Just feel your breathing in.  Take a deep breath in.  Hold it for a moment.  Let the breath go out.  And as you do that, just concentrate on that breath coming in and the breath coming out.  If you want to, you can actually focus a little bit on some of the areas of your body, especially if you have some discomfort or stress you're feeling, maybe a headache or something like that, you can concentrate on that a little bit.  Let yourself feel it, and then each time you feel it then just go back to the breath, breathing in and breathing out, and if you do that for 60 seconds, maybe 2 minutes, then you can open your eyes back up and return back to your work.  But you will feel that little bit of rejuvenation.  You'll feel a little bit better focused, and you'll be able to go back to concentrating a little bit better on whatever the next task is at hand.  

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

The question as to whether or not we are hardwired for religion and spirituality is an important one, says pioneering neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. "When we look at how the brain works, we see it's able to very easily engage in religious and spiritual practices, ideas and experiences."

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

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Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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