Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Prayer and meditation sometimes appear to be at odds in the Western world. The two contemplative traditions are fundamentally different in popular understanding, but really so similar in many ways. Prayer is associated with the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, while mindfulness meditation, secularized from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, is growing in popularity adding to a cornucopia of stress-management and self-improvement offerings. Both sets of practices are beneficial for creating relief in the nervous system, and calm in the limbic system. Both sets of practices support people who are chronically ill or acutely ill and they may help relieve limbic system arousal in those patients. A deeper look into the brain and the psychological benefits of these two contemplative practices presents a more complex picture.
Understanding Prayer and Meditation:
Prayer is often understood as a personal communication with a higher power, which may contain a plea, yearning, or request. Prayer may also focus upon thanks and praise for God or another divine power outside of ourselves, or reflected within us. Prayer can be done alone or as a community. Prayer is about connecting and communicating with a force or divine power outside of ourselves.
Neuroscientists find that our brains display similar patterns of blood flow when we are in prayer as when we are in conversation with another person1, in other words, there’s a relational quality to prayer.
Meditation lacks the relational quality of prayer. Instead, meditation, often done in silence, is aimed at (even though inherently there is no “goal” in meditation), expanding and enriching our sense of awareness of the ever-changing, but ever still, present moment. A moment when there is no past and no future; an ever expanding sacred “now”. Meditation is not about speaking to God, but being quiet enough to allow yourself to hear silence and space. Sometimes, having a mantra or focus of words (traditionally in Hindu meditation they were Sanskrit words) allows the meditator to keep returning to the repeated internal utterance or linking the internal sound with the rhythm of the breath. It’s a mental and physical technique to go to the source of stillness between your thoughts. I experience meditation as entering a collective limitless space shared by all of humanity, connecting all of humankind.
Meditation is also about becoming familiar with the thousands of thoughts passing through our minds on a daily basis and learning to moderate those thoughts, even a bit. Meditators might slow down rapid thoughts and create small gaps of calm. Any variation of meditation, and there are many, is an opportunity to grow our mindful awareness of the present moment and develop cognitive skills at the same time. It allows us to expand upon the moment and be fully present with it.
Meditators often use the breath as an always-present anchor to bring thoughts back ‘home.’ Quiet meditation produces none of the temporal lobe or language area activation seen in prayer. As meditators focus on the breath or another contemplation object, or upon nothing at all, they display an increase in frontal lobe activity (signaling attention) and a decrease in parietal lobe activity.1 As our parietal lobe is responsible for sensing our position in relation to our environment; brain scan data seems to support meditators’ reported experiences of expansion and being at one with the universe. A recent fMRI study showed improved executive attention after only four days of meditation intervention for novices, compared to simple relaxation techniques.4 While structural MRI studies show neuronal plasticity changes, fMRI studies suggest decreased activation of the default mode network (DMN) and in brain areas involved in cognitive and emotional control. The same group of researchers concluded that meditation impacts large-scale brain network changes instead of local networks.5
One recent longitudinal study confirmed posterior changes in the DMN, and increases in cortical thickness and low-frequency amplitudes decreased following a 40-day mindfulness intervention.6 Altogether these studies shed light on the grand-scale, long-lasting structural and functional changes of our brain, enhancing its ability to maintain a flow of unbiased focus.
Fascinatingly, practices of prayer and meditation are not divided along religious or secular lines. Historically, practitioners of the theistic religions - whose followers profess belief in God - including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, engaged in both prayer and meditative practices. These traditions continue today among those in monastic life as well as lay people of faith. While nontheists such as a Buddhists do not have a creator god, these religious traditions practice forms of meditation that blur the lines between secular meditation and communicative prayer.
The Benefits of Contemplation
Both prayer and meditation practices have scientifically-proven psychological and physical benefits. The two contemplative practices involve mindful silence and solitude. These practices can help regulate emotional reactivity and enhance our thinking processes. Both prayer and meditation can help you escape the grip of overpowering negative emotions.
Prayer is rooted in the belief in an external higher power. As such, scientific studies on prayer find that atheists fail to realize the same benefits from prayer as believers. While the scientific literature on prayer is less abundant than studies on meditation, prayer’s proven benefits include an increased sense of social connection. More social connection comes with a host of benefits including a stronger immune system. Psychologists have also demonstrated that prayer increases self-control in a laboratory setting.2 Study participants who were emotionally-depleted by a challenging emotional suppression task showed better performance on a psychological test requiring sustained attention and self-control if they prayed briefly. Not surprisingly, only believers reaped these benefits from prayer.
Even if you’re not wed to a specific religion, faithful beliefs provide stress relief and may offer pragmatic reasoning for the believer. Evidence suggests from clinical studies that believers have lower inheritable prevalence of major depressive disorder.. For believers, disbelievers, and people with uncertain belief systems, fMRI studies show three differential functional connectivity patterns involving distinct brain areas.7 When comparing religious and non-religious believers during a religious- and fact-checking task, research suggests increased signaling in the anterior insula, ventral striatum, anterior cingulate cortex, and the posterior medial cortex for religious thinkers. On the other hand, non-religious thinkers showed greater left hemisphere activation in the hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, temporal pole, and retrosplenial cortex. Together these results suggest a more emotional and self-representational thinking pattern in religious believers and more involvement of the memory retrieval networks in non-religious believers.7
While religious prayer stimulates an external conversation with a divine figure who provides emotional and social support and reasoning to the believer, meditation aims to quiet thoughts by focusing on the homeostatic balance between internal and external worlds. Like prayer, meditation is proven to enhance immune system performance and focus. The research literature on meditation practices points to many other benefits, including improved mood, enhanced cognitive skills, better decision making, and lowered stress.
Should I pray or meditate?
Both prayer and meditation have benefits. However, early evidence suggests that faith may be a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of prayer. An atheist praying is unlikely to experience a sense of communion with God or cultivate a greater sense of self-control.
Although meditation is a part of every spiritual tradition, meditation is not necessarily a religious practice. Unlike prayer, meditators need not have faith in a higher power to reap brain and body-boosting benefits from practice. Religious and non-religious people alike can both benefit from meditation. Different religious traditions blend prayer and meditation (such as the centering prayer used by Benedictine monks), and religious lay people may enjoy these sort of practices as well.
Neuroscientists have found that both prayer and meditation create lasting changes in our brains. But are these changes achievable outside of monastic life? What is the ‘therapeutic dose’ to see the benefits of prayer and meditation? New studies suggest an intensive guided practice involving one-hour long meditation 3 times a day for immediate results just in days.4 Other studies indicate that only 30 minutes of daily self- or guided practice leads to noticeable brain function changes after 2 weeks.3 Other employer-based studies have shown promising results in cognitive performance following just a few minutes of daily meditation.3 It seems that almost everyone can improve their overall wellbeing and improve their brain function through regular meditation or prayer.
As we know, habits can be very difficult and slow to change. We have to feel the yearning to change, and deliberately create new cues and rewards to help us succeed in changing a habit. Having clear goals helps the process. One of the primary necessary ingredients to reaping the benefits of prayer or meditation in consistency. Start small, practice, repeat. Try to start with as little as 2 minutes of prayer or meditation at a set time each day. Such small bursts of concentration allow you to channel your enthusiasm into keeping consistency rather than sustaining a lengthy practice, setting you up for longer-term success.
To reap the benefits of practicing, don’t expect a particular outcome from either prayer or meditation. Stay open and focus upon the experience of prayer or meditation rather than the result. Any novel cognitive activity paves the way for new connections in the brain. But these types of brain changes don’t happen overnight, so don’t expect to see improvements in thinking or mood immediately. Gradual improvements in mood, thinking, or focus can be difficult to notice and many meditators report only noticing the profound differences meditation practice has on their lives after they miss a few meditation sessions.
Neuroscientists often use the maxim offered by Donald Hebb ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ to describe this long-term adaptive brain change. Repeated practice creates repeated patterns of neural activity, which strengthen particular neuro and physiologic pathways. Regular practice paves these new paths in the brain, and soothes the body. Remember that both meditation and prayer are forms of general conditioning, creating a strong brain and body for other daily activities such as emotional control and concentration. To maximize your benefits, consistent practice is key, even if it’s 5 minutes a day to begin with.
Bradley-Hagerty, B. (2009). Prayer May Reshape Your Brain … And Your Reality. NPR.
Valdesolo, Piercarlo. (2013). Scientists Find One Source of Prayer’s Power. Scientific American.
Reynolds, G. (2016). How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body. New York Times.
Kwak, S., Kim, S., Bea, D., Hwang, W., Cho, K. Lim, K., Park, H, Lee, T., Kwon, J. (2020). Enhanced Attentional Network by Short-Term Intensive Meditation. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
Afonso, R. F., Kraft, I., Aratanha, M.A., Kozasa, E. H. (2020). Neural Correlates of Meditation: a Review of Structural and Functional MRI studies. Frontiers in Bioscience (Scholar Edition).
Yang, C., Barros-Loscertales, A., Li, M., Pinazo, D., Borchardt, V., Avila, C., Walter, M. (2020). Alterations in Brain Sturcture and Amplitude of Low-frequency after 8 weeks of Mindfulness Meditation Training in Meditation-Naive Subjects. Scientific Reports, 9.
Gaw, A. (2019) Religious Belief at the Level of the Brain. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 7.