With every thought, word, and action you’re sculpting your brain. Everything we do (for better or for worse) shapes the brain. Like a muscle, the more you exercise the brain in a particular direction, the stronger it becomes.
There’s an overall network in the brain, and any number of spiritual, religious, or meditative practices—praying the rosary, reciting a mantra, talking to God—can activate and enhance different parts, says Andrew Newberg, MD, a neuroscientist who has been studying the effects of prayer and meditation on the brain for 25 years.
Newberg specializes in the field of neurotheology, the study of theology and the brain. He’s director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. He’s written over 10 books, including How God Changes Your Brain and How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, and has image scanned the brains of nuns, Buddhist monks, and atheists.
Newberg believes that spiritual enlightenment is about being the best person you can be. “You can be an enlightened taxi driver, and that means you’re the best taxi driver you can be,” he says. “It’s about lifting ourselves and lifting others too.”
Prayer rituals and meditation can help us reach those higher, more advanced levels of self-awareness and consciousness—and literally change our brain.
Brain scan imaging has shown that prayer and meditation increase activity in the frontal lobes (behind the forehead), which are linked to attention and focus, “The frontal lobe turns on when you’re concentrating,” Newberg explains. This region also helps regulate our emotional system and reduces stress and anxiety.
Long-term prayer practitioners and meditators have “thicker” frontal lobes—associated with concentration and focus—as this part becomes “stronger, better, and more efficient,” adds Newberg.
Also, there’s less activity in the parietal lobe, the region related to our sense of space and time. In essence, people who pray have a larger sense of oneness and transcendence—and the person praying feels connected to and aligned with God, says Newberg. “There’s a blurring of the individual sense of the self … you become one with the universe.”
In addition, prayer stimulates serotonin (a mood stabilizer) and dopamine (the reward and pleasure system), which are chemical messengers that communicate to the nerves and affect how we view the world.
The more you engage in prayer and meditative activities, the longer-lasting and deeper the changes occur in the brain. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is the popularized adage that sums up how our brain pathways are reinforced through repetition. Each time you do something, you’re etching the groove pathway deeper, increasing the likelihood that you’ll repeat it.
[Read: “How to Create Healthy Habits.”]
Contemplative practices can help us modulate our emotional reactions and maintain a different set point in the world, says Newberg. For instance, he points out that if you’re angry then you take that anger into the world and it generates more anger. But if you’re praying with love and compassion, then you go out into the world with love and compassion for others—and maybe you don’t get irritated standing in the line at the store or you don’t get frustrated sitting in traffic.
A person who is regularly praying, meditating, or sending lovingkindness doesn’t necessarily want to judge others and incite conflict.
Religious and spiritual practices are meant to help us become better human beings and in turn help the world be a better place. And by applying the benefits of our spiritual practice to our relationships, encounters, and society at large, we can choose to de-escalate situations and respond in positive, healing ways that promote the highest good. When we choose a peaceful response, we produce a different result.
Newberg stresses that a person has to want to interact mindfully and harmoniously. “It requires a lot of energy for the brain to incorporate new beliefs and experiences,” and so we have to embrace a “willingness” and a “conscious desire” to broaden how we see each other and relate.
But given the brain’s neuroplasticity, we have the ability to change, evolve, and grow throughout our entire life span, which is the key to increased compassion for ourselves and others.
Read: "How Do You Pray?"