Thinking About God Makes Your Brain Bigger

Ten Questions for Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman on How God Changes Your Brain, (Ballantine, 2009).

What inspired the two of you to write How God Changes Your Brain? What sparked your interest?

Our newest brain-scan research showed that different forms of meditation and spiritual practice can actually improve memory, and it may even slow down the aging process itself. We had also gathered enough data to draw a more comprehensive picture of how spiritual practices affect and change different parts of the brain, and we wanted to share this new perspective with the general public. We also wanted to present evidence showing how the religious landscape of America is moving from traditional values to a more spiritual and science-based vision of the universe.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?



Spiritual practices, secular or religious, are inherently good for your body, and especially your brain. Meditation and prayer—be it about God, or evolution, or peace, or the Big Bang—will strengthen important circuits in your brain, making you more socially aware and alert while reducing anxiety, depression, and neurological stress. And meditation can be adapted in endless ways. You can use it to become more motivated to succeed in business. You can apply it to communication to reduce relationship conflicts. You can do a sixty-second meditation involving yawning to quickly relax your body and mind. Indeed, you can use the same technique to bring a roomful of children, students, or CEOs to attention with their brains becoming acutely attuned to each other: a fancy way of saying that yawning can actually evoke social empathy with many living species on this planet.

Anything you had to leave out?



We would have liked to address Islamic practices and the Sufi mystical tradition, but we’re still gathering critical data and brain scans. We’ll report on this in a future publication.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?



People use our research to say that we’ve proven that God exists. Other people use the same research to say that we’ve proven that spiritual realms are solely a construction within the mind. In fact, we are saying neither. We argue that the human brain can only grasp a vague notion of what actually exists “out there,” and we document how the brain uses its perceptions to build useful models of the world, other people, morality, and God.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?



We wrote this book for everyone who has an interest in religious, spiritual, and secular beliefs. We talk about the neural activity in the brains of believers and disbelievers, and we show the benefits of contemplation for everyone.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?



We’ve done something very different in this book. We present a lot of exciting and sometimes controversial scientific evidence concerning how religion, spirituality, and meditation influence our health and the brain, but in this book we also offer three chapters of simple exercises that anyone can do in a matter of a few minutes—meditations that have been shown to improve physical, emotional, and cognitive health. Some reviewers have suggested that fundamentalists may feel uncomfortable with what we say, but we’ve been embraced, welcomed, and invited into virtually every Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, secular, agnostic, and atheist community in America. Basically we document that overall, most people, be they religious or secular have good hearts and high morals, showing altruistic compassion for the majority of people in the world. That’s good news for many, and it contradicts many recent books criticizing religion and spirituality in the world.

What alternate title would you give the book?



God is a metaphor for so many things—spirituality, religion, morality, ethics, life itself. Our research shows that everyone has a unique definition of God, and the more you contemplate this impossible-to-grasp concept, the more you’ll grow new dendrites in important areas of your brain.

How do you feel about the cover?



We love the fact that the designers at Ballantine made the word “God” spill off the page, thus capturing the notion that the human brain cannot fully grasp the entirety of any important concept that can powerfully influence our lives.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?



We have two answers for you. First, Andy”s wish: “I’ve always had a quirky enjoyment of philosophy and science books, even when I was young, so I would have loved to have written Descartes’ Meditations, or Spinoza’s Tractatus. To me, these books have changed the world and have shown a great dedication and striving towards understanding our world.” And Mark’s wish: “I would have loved to have written the Harry Potter books. They kept me up all night, because I couldn’t stop reading, just wanting to know what would happen next. Sometimes, just to get a little sleep, I would switch to my barely-worn copy of The Frontal Lobes, 2nd edition, which, for some odd reason, would always put me to sleep in five minutes. What really fascinates me about J. K. Rowling’s books is how they turned a hundred million kids onto reading at a very early age, without any encouragement from adults. That’s a feat no author has accomplished in the history of the written word.”

What’s your next book?

We’re currently gathering research on a variety of fascinating areas. We’re looking at the longterm effects of meditation on cognition and aging, its application to the business community, how a simple exercise called “Compassionate Communication” (featured in our current book) can be used in couples counseling and settling disputes between different religious groups, and we’re looking into the benefits that meditation has on eating disorders and losing weight.

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