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.”
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