The following has been excerpted from Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science, in which author Mike McHargue attempts to reconcile the inconsistencies between faith and science by presenting the former from the perspective of the latter.
The significance of the parietal lobe
Neurologically speaking, prayer is a type of meditation, because it produces remarkably similar brain activity and long-term effects. We can see this specifically in a series of experiments that directed people from different faith traditions to pray while scientists scanned their brains. Among all subjects—Christians, Buddhists, and non-religious people who meditate—researchers noted increased activity in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for attention and focus. Buddhist monks show increased activity in the occipital (visual) lobe of the cerebral cortex, thanks to the focused visualizations that characterize their practice. Christian nuns, on the other hand, showed increased activity in the language centers of the brain, owing to Christian traditions’ emphasis on spoken prayer.
But among these expected results, there was a more surprising piece of data: both the monks and nuns experienced reduced activity in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex.
The parietal lobe is the part of our brain that keeps track of our immediate surroundings and sense of physical presence. It gives us our sense of taste and touch, and it creates an ongoing map that’s vital to the lower brain when you’re trying to escape a source of danger in your environment. But researchers found that religious people with a consistent prayer practice basically shut down their parietal lobe during prayer. This reduced activity can create the sensation that one is leaving this reality and connecting with something greater and less physical. I’ve experienced this many times, and I was fascinated to learn I’m not the only one.
The mind-body benefits of prayer and meditation
But the study’s main finding was that prayer and meditation are so similar in the brain that we can describe prayer as a type of meditation. And this should be encouraging, because research shows that meditation is one of the best things you can do for your brain—right up there with reading and physical exercise. Neuroscientists have found that people who pray regularly have thicker grey matter in their prefrontal cortex (that’s your brain’s CEO, responsible for focus and willpower) and their anterior cingulate cortex (the part of your brain responsible for compassion and empathy). The heightened activity in these key parts of the brain also reduces the responsiveness of the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear and anger). You could almost say that consistent meditation makes you a better person—more focused, more compassionate, and less likely to be angry or frightened.
Meditation lowers your blood pressure and helps you feel less stressed. It fosters emotional healing, and it has even been found to help the body cope with disease. These effects are so pronounced, some studies have found meditation to have a therapeutic effect on people suffering from dementia.
In the case of people who meditate on a loving God, the idea of God becomes part of how they process reality—and this has profound effects on their behavior. When you believe God loves you and loves others, it’s easier to take risks and to forgive people. It’s not enough to simply believe in God, because only prayer and meditation will turn that belief into a neural network that changes your outlook and behavior. Even when the news cycle is depressing or a situation in your life seems hopeless, you can hold on to the knowledge that God is with you and that the overall arc of life will work out for good.
Most remarkable to me is the fact that regular prayer can work for anyone, regardless of their religious background. Even people who self-identify as atheists are likely to report feeling close to God if they pray or meditate consistently for six weeks.
A helpful axiom
I crafted an axiom to make me comfortable spending time in prayer, even on days when I’m not sure God is real:
Prayer is at least a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. Even if that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.
To read more about prayer and meditation and their role in the world, check out DIRECTED VS NON-DIRECTED PRAYER: Working with natural laws and life’s creative process»