Spirituality and the Brain: Emerging Neuro Theological Research
Keywords: spirituality, neurotheology, neurology, meditation, prayer, religion, brain, interconnected
Integrative medicine is rooted in the knowledge that our health must be approached from every perspective. Understanding the relationship between our spiritual health and the health of our physical bodies allows us to be fully nourished. With the inclusion of a spiritual fitness we can create a more wholesome wellness plan rooted in faith and shared common humanity. The emerging field of neuro-theology is filling out the story of the relationship between our emotional health, spiritual fitness and physical well-being.
Most of us already know that mindfulness and breathing practices can offer us a bounty of health benefits including reducing blood pressure, enhancing immune system health, benefiting cardiovascular health and decreasing our sympathetic arousal states. Recent research further highlights the brain-body-spirit connection. The Brigham and Women’s Hospital study and other studies are finding specific neural circuits & brain regions linked to spirituality.
Religion and Brain Processes
Neural circuits are groupings of neurons in the brain that together carry out specific functions and convey patterns of information.
A recently identified neural circuit linked to religion and spirituality is located in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a brain region that deals with responding to stressors and other elements of behavioral control. This means that our spirituality and religious brain processes are likely physically interconnected with nearly countless other vital processes, like heart function and REM sleep.
The PAG is a region of the brain that is affected in Alzheimer’s disease. Because of the interreliance of brain activity on overall health, a new emphasis on spiritual fitness — habits like prayer, forest bathing, and meditative contemplation — have emerged as important Alzheimer’s preventative steps. Learn more about developing your spiritual fitness practice on my website at ilenenaomirusk.com/.
It’s important to understand this research as a step in our comprehension of the breadth of the integration of our mind, body, and spirit in any processes and practices. Many of us have experienced some of this interrelationship when we have engaged with meditation or prayer, and many of us have felt the changes in our physical health that come about when we devote time each day to our emotional and spiritual health. Now, we are learning more about where these relationships are strengthened in the brain.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, the leading neuro theology researcher, has explained how the neuro theological field of study implicates an interdisciplinary approach to future study — taking psychology, medicine, and more into account. In this way, the research approach reflects the intuition that the spiritual character of the body and brain is not limited to a single brain process, but can be understood as a set of connections that, together, inform our health and experiences.
Developing a spiritual practice is especially important in healing trauma, because spirituality can be a soothing resource, and help us to not feel alone in our times of greatest distress.
Has this brain-based perspective on spirituality encouraged you to consider the role of prayer and meditation in your personal health plan? I would love to know your thoughts, so please leave a note in the comment section! I’ll try to personally get in touch with each person who leaves one!