Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
“The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain.”
Andrew Newberg, neuroscientist
All Things Considered, May 20, 2009 · Scientists are making the first attempts to understand spiritual experience — and what happens in the brains and bodies of people who believe they connect with the divine.
The field is called "neurotheology," and although it is new, it's drawing prominent researchers in the U.S. and Canada. Scientists have found that the brains of people who spend untold hours in prayer and meditation are different.
I met Scott McDermott five years ago, while covering a Pentecostal revival meeting in Toronto. It was pandemonium. People were speaking in tongues and barking like dogs. I thought, "What is a United Methodist minister, with a Ph.D. in New Testament theology, doing here?"
Then McDermott told me about a vision he had had years earlier.
"I saw fire dancing on my eyelids," he recalled, staring into the middle distance. "I felt God say to me, 'You be the oil, and I'll be the flame.' Then [I] began to feel waves of the Spirit flow through my body."
I never forgot McDermott. When I heard that scientists were studying the brains of people who spent countless hours in prayer and meditation, I thought, "I've got to see what's going on in Scott McDermott's head."
Focusing Affects Reality
A few years later, Andrew Newberg made that possible. Newberg is a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books, including How God Changes Your Brain. He has been scanning the brains of religious people like McDermott for more than a decade.
On a spring day in Newberg's laboratory, the neuroscientist settles McDermott in a darkened examination room and asks the pastor to pray for someone else — that is, intercessory prayer. A few minutes later, at the moment Newberg believes McDermott has reached the peak of his prayer, the researcher injects the minister with a dye that shows the blood flow in his brain.
Twenty minutes later, McDermott emerges beaming. He has enjoyed intense spiritual moments like this ever since he was in his 20s.
"The first thing that got me was I could hear God's voice," the pastor said. "And it so enamored me — I mean, it changed me dramatically. I couldn't wait to pray!"
McDermott has prayed at least two hours a day for the past 25 years.
I ask Newberg what kind of impact that would that have on the pastor's brain.
"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain," Newberg says.
'I Think We're Wired For The Supernatural'
Now it's time for Newberg to take a peek at McDermott's neural connections, sliding him into a SPECT scanner, which will create an image of which parts of McDermott's brain lit up and which went dark while he prayed.
A few minutes later, Newberg has preliminary results on his computer screen. He notes some areas of increased activity in the frontal lobes, which handle focused attention — precisely what Newberg would expect from a person praying intently. But he adds that this needs further analysis — and he'll need to find more volunteers to do this kind of interpersonal prayer before he can come to any conclusions.
Afterward, I ask McDermott if any of this challenges his beliefs. Not at all, he says.
"I think we're wired for the supernatural," he says. "I think we're meant to sense a world beyond our five senses. Come on! Taste and see that God really is good."
Newberg says he can't prove that McDermott or anyone else is communing with God, but he can look for circumstantial evidence.
"What we need to do is study those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain, and understanding what's happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective," he says.
Then he'll compare the mystical feelings with the brain physiology.
A Sense Of Oneness With The Universe
Newberg did that with Michael Baime. Baime is a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.
"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity," he explains, "that there has never been anything but this eternal now."
When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.
"This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world," he explains. "When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area."
Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience.
"There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one," Newberg says.
A little theological dynamite there — but, remember, the research is just beginning.
'You Can Sculpt Your Brain'
So far, scientists have focused on people who pray or meditate for one, two or more hours a day. They think that studying spiritual virtuosos will offer clues to the brain workings of more typical believers. But now Newberg and others are turning their attention to people who want to enrich their spiritual lives, but don't have that kind of time.
And there's hope for people with jobs and kids.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says you can change your brain with experience and training.
"You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym," he says. "Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly."
It's called neuroplasticity. For years Davidson, who is at the University of Wisconsin, has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks who have logged years of meditation. When it comes to things like attention and compassion, their brains are as finely tuned as a late-model Porsche. Davidson wondered: Could ordinary people achieve the same kind of connection with the spiritual that the monks do — without so much effort?
I wondered that, too. And when I heard his lab was launching a study lasting two weeks, I said, "Sign me up."
It turned out I was too old for the study. But they let me see what it was about. For 30 minutes every morning, I settled into my chair to the soothing tones of a meditation CD. The voice of a University of Wisconsin graduate student urged me to shower compassion on a loved one, a stranger, myself.
The trouble came when I was asked to visualize someone I had difficulty with in life. I became surly, as I reflected on the minor tragedies in my life and the people who caused them. When I saw Richard Davidson, I didn't mention how ill-tempered I had grown.
"Is there a capacity to change my brain if I continue with this?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he responded enthusiastically. "I would say the likelihood is that you are already changing your brain."
I hope not. Others, however, were far more successful in cultivating a spiritual mind-set. Davidson couldn't tell me about the results of my study, which have yet to be published. But he could say there were detectable changes in the subjects' brains within two weeks. Another similar study, where employees at a high-tech firm meditated a few minutes a day over a few weeks, produced more dramatic results.
"Just two months' practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions," he said.
For example, they developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate.
Part 4 of this series explores whether thoughts or prayers can affect the body.
Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Fourth of a five-part series
All Things Considered, May 21, 2009 · Ninety percent of Americans say they pray — for their health, or their love life or their final exams. But does prayer do any good?
For decades, scientists have tried to test the power of prayer and positive thinking, with mixed results. Now some scientists are fording new — and controversial — territory.
Mind Over Body
When I first meet Sheri Kaplan, she is perched on a plastic chair at a Miami clinic, holding out her arm as a researcher draws several vials of blood.
"I'm quite excited about my blood work this time," she says. "I've got no stress and I'm proud of it."
Kaplan is tanned and freckled, with wavy red hair and a cocky laugh. She is defiantly healthy for a person who has lived with HIV for the past 15 years.
"God didn't want me to die or even get sick," she asserts. "I've never had any opportunistic infections, because I had no time to be down."
Kaplan's faith is unorthodox, but it's central to her life. She was raised Jewish, and although she claims no formal religion now, she prays and meditates every day. She believes God is keeping the virus at bay and that her faith is the reason she's alive today.
"Everything starts from a thought, and then the thought creates a reaction," she says. "And I have the power to control my mind, before it gets to a physical level or an emotional level."
For the past decade, Kaplan has been coming every few months to see Gail Ironson, a professor at the University of Miami. Ironson, an AIDS researcher, runs down a battery of questions.
"During this time have you had any HIV- or AIDS-related symptoms?" Ironson asks.
"Nope," Kaplan says. "Nothing."
"What percent of your well-being do you think is due to your own attitudes and behaviors versus medical care?" Ironson continues.
Kaplan laughs: "110 percent."
Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS (and she is not part of the population that has a mutation in the CCR5 gene that prevents progression of HIV to AIDS). In the mid-1990s, when having HIV was akin to a death sentence, Ironson noticed that a number of patients like Kaplan never got sick. Ironson wanted to know why. And she found something surprising.
"If you ask people what's kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality," she says. "It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that's why I decided to look at it."
Spirituality And Health
Ironson began to zero in on a patient's relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress.
She focused on two key indicators. She measured viral load, which tells how much of the virus is present in a person's body, and immune cells called CD-4 cells, which help fight off the AIDS virus.
Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.
"In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality," Ironson says. "That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date."
"Just so I understand it," I confirm, "if someone weren't taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?"
"Yes," she says. "Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people don't take their meds," she adds quickly, laughing. "This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above."
Can My Prayers Affect Your Body?
Ironson calls the finding extraordinary. She was one of the first researchers to connect a patient's approach to God to specific chemical changes in the body.
Of course, mind-body medicine — the idea that my thoughts and emotions can affect my own health — has been standard teaching at many medical schools for years. But does that mean my thoughts can affect another person's body?
"The answer is pretty unequivocally no," says Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
Sloan notes that studies in the 1980s and '90s seemed to show that praying for a patient in a hospital sped up his recovery. But he says those studies were flawed. More recent, more rigorous studies, he argues, showed prayer either had no effect, or the patients actually grew worse.
Sloan says science understands how a person's thoughts can influence his own body — for example, through chemical changes in the brain that affect the immune system.
"There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody's thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person," Sloan says. "None. We know of nothing."
A few renegade scientists aren't satisfied with that. For years, they say, no one knew how morphine or aspirin worked. They just knew it worked. These researchers say typical prayer studies, in which a stranger prays for a stranger from a script, miss the critical element: a personal connection. So they're asking a different sort of question. Can a husband's love for his wife affect her body?
Or, as Marilyn Schlitz puts it: "Does our consciousness have the capacity to reach out and connect to someone else in a way that's health-promoting?"
The Love Study
On a bright spring day, Schlitz is leading Teena and J.D. Miller down a path to the laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco. Schlitz is the president of the institute, which conducts research on consciousness and spirituality. The Millers have been married a decade and their affection is palpable — making them perfect for the so-called Love Study.
Schlitz takes Teena into an isolated room, where no sound can come in or go out. Teena settles into a deep armchair as Schlitz attaches electrodes to her right hand.
"This is measuring blood flow in your thumb, and this is your skin conductance activity," the researcher explains. "So basically both of these are measures of your unconscious nervous system."
Schlitz locks Teena into the electromagnetically shielded chamber, then ushers J.D. into another isolated room with a closed-circuit television. She explains that the screen will go on and off. And at random intervals, Teena's image will appear on the screen for 10 seconds.
"And so during the times when you see her," she instructs, "it's your opportunity to think about sending loving, compassionate intention."
As the session begins, Dean Radin, a senior scientist here, watches as a computer shows changes in J.D.'s blood pressure and perspiration. When J.D. sees the image of his wife, the steady lines suddenly jump and become ragged. The question is: Will Teena's nervous system follow suit?
"Notice how here … see, there's a change in the blood volume," says Radin, pointing to a screen charting Teena's measurements. "A sudden change like that is sometimes associated with an orienting response. If you suddenly hear somebody whispering in your ear, and there's nobody around, you have this sense of what? What was that? That's more or less what we're seeing in the physiology."
An hour later, Radin displays Teena's graph, which shows a flat line during the times her husband was not staring at her image, but when her husband began to stare at her, she stopped relaxing and became "aroused" within about two seconds.
After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner's blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.
The 'Quantum Entanglement' Of Love
So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as "quantum entanglement" may offer some clues.
Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.
But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships — couples, siblings, parent and child — also be "entangled"? Not just emotionally, and psychologically — but also physically?
"If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don't understand," he says, "if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch."
This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.
But it infuriates others — like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.
"Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."
Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.
Part 5 of this series will explore whether people have souls that survive a brain's death.
Decoding The Mystery Of Near-Death Experiences
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
All Things Considered, May 22, 2009 · We've all heard the stories about near-death experiences: the tunnel, the white light, the encounter with long-dead relatives now looking very much alive.
Scientists have cast a skeptical eye on these accounts. They say that these feelings and visions are simply the result of a brain shutting down.
But now some researchers are giving a closer neurological look at near-death experiences and asking: Can your mind operate when your brain has stopped?
'I Popped Up Out The Top Of My Head'
I met Pam Reynolds in her tour bus. She's a big deal in the music world — her company, Southern Tracks, has recorded music by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to REM. But you've probably never heard her favorite song. It's the one Reynolds wrote about the time she traveled to death's door and back. The experience has made her something of a rock star in the near-death world. Believers say she is proof positive that the mind can operate when the brain is stilled. Nonbelievers say she's nothing of the sort.
Reynolds' journey began one hot August day in 1991.
"I was in Virginia Beach, Va., with my husband," she recalls. "We were promoting a new record. And I inexplicably forgot how to talk. I've got a big mouth. I never forget how to talk."
An MRI revealed an aneurysm on her brain stem. It was already leaking, a ticking time bomb. Her doctor in Atlanta said her best hope was a young brain surgeon at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona named Robert Spetzler.
"The aneurysm was very large, which meant the risk of rupture was also very large," Spetzler says. "And it was in a location where the only way to really give her the very best odds of fixing it required what we call 'cardiac standstill.' "
It was a daring operation: Chilling her body, draining the blood out of her head like oil from a car engine, snipping the aneurysm and then bringing her back from the edge of death.
"She is as deeply comatose as you can be and still be alive," Spetzler observes.
When the operation began, the surgeons taped shut Reynolds' eyes and put molded speakers in her ears. The ear speakers, which made clicking sounds as loud as a jet plane taking off, allowed the surgeons to measure her brain stem activity and let them know when they could drain her blood.
"I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business, seriously unconscious, when I started to hear a noise," Reynolds recalls. "It was a natural D, and as the sound continued — I don't know how to explain this, other than to go ahead and say it — I popped up out the top of my head."
A Tunnel And Bright Light
She says she found herself looking down at the operating table. She says she could see 20 people around the table and hear what sounded like a dentist's drill. She looked at the instrument in the surgeon's hand.
"It was an odd-looking thing," she says. "It looked like the handle on my electric toothbrush."
Reynolds observed the Midas Rex bone saw the surgeons used to cut open her head, the drill bits, and the case, which looked like the one where her father kept his socket wrenches. Then she noticed a surgeon at her left groin.
"I heard a female voice say, 'Her arteries are too small.' And Dr. Spetzler — I think it was him — said, 'Use the other side,' " Reynolds says.
Soon after, the surgeons began to lower her body temperature to 60 degrees. It was about that time that Reynolds believes she noticed a tunnel and bright light. She eventually flat-lined completely, and the surgeons drained the blood out of her head.
During her near-death experience, she says she chatted with her dead grandmother and uncle, who escorted her back to the operating room. She says as they looked down on her body, she could hear the Eagles' song "Hotel California" playing in the operating room as the doctors restarted her heart. She says her body looked like a train wreck, and she said she didn't want to return.
"My uncle pushed me," she says, laughing. "And when I hit the body, the line in the song was, 'You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.' And I opened my eyes and I said, 'You know, that is really insensitive!' "
A Vision That Matches The Record
Afterwards, Reynolds assumed she had been hallucinating. But a year later, she mentioned the details to her neurosurgeon. Spetzler says her account matched his memory.
"From a scientific perspective," he says, "I have absolutely no explanation about how it could have happened."
Spetzler did not check out all the details, but Michael Sabom did. Sabom is a cardiologist in Atlanta who was researching near-death experiences.
"With Pam's permission, they sent me her records from the surgery," he says. "And long story short, what she said happened to her is actually what Spetzler did with her out in Arizona."
According to the records, there were 20 doctors in the room. There was a conversation about the veins in her left leg. She was defibrillated. They were playing "Hotel California." How about that bone saw? Sabom got a photo from the manufacturer — and it does look like an electric toothbrush.
How, Sabom wonders, could she know these things?
"She could not have heard [it], because of what they did to her ears," he says. "In addition, both of her eyes were taped shut, so she couldn't open her eyes and see what was going on. So her physical sensory perception was off the table."
An Alternative Explanation?
That's preposterous, says anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee.
"This report provides absolutely no evidence for survival of any sort of consciousness outside the body during near-death experiences or any other such experiences," he says.
Woerlee, an Australian researcher and near-death experience debunker who has investigated Reynolds' case, says what happened to her is easy to explain. He says when they cut into her head, she was jolted into consciousness. At that point, they had not yet drained blood from her brain. He believes she could hear — despite the clicking earplugs.
"There are various explanations," Woerlee says. "One: that the earphones or plugs were not that tightly fitting. Two: It could have been that it was due to sound transmission through the operating table itself."
So Reynolds could have heard conversations. As for seeing the Midas Rex bone saw, he says, she recognized a sound from her childhood.
"She made a picture in her mind of a machine or a device which was very similar to what she was familiar with — a dental drill," Woerlee says.
Woerlee says Reynolds experienced anesthesia awareness, in which a person is conscious but can't move. He figures back in 1991, that happened in 1 out of every 2,000 operations.
That doesn't convince cardiologist Sabom or neurosurgeon Spetzler. They believe the combination of anesthesia and the sluggish brain activity caused by hypothermia meant that Reynolds could not form or retain memories for a significant part of the operation. At the very least, Sabom says, Reynolds' story raises the possibility that consciousness can function even when the brain is offline.
"Is there some type of awareness that occurs from a nonfunctional, physical brain?" Sabom asks. "And if there is, does that mean that there's a soul or spirit?"
Re-Creating Near-Death Experiences
In the end, Reynolds' story is just an anecdote. And in fact, that's the problem with all the studies of near-death experiences. After all, you can't do clinical trials where you kill Mrs. Smith and tag along as she passes through the tunnel to the light, just to verify her story.
Except in Hollywood, of course. In the 1990 movie Flatliners (starring Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland), five medical students try to peer into the next world by stopping their hearts and returning to tell the tale.
The movie inspired Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. What if he could do the next best thing? Since stopping people's hearts is a research no-no, he is asking people who have had near-death experiences to relive them while he looks to see what's happening in their head.
"And it seems that these people have a different sort of brain," Beauregard says in his soft French accent. "It's like there's a shift in their brain, and this shift will allow these people to stay in touch with the spiritual world more easily, on a daily basis."
Beauregard recruited 15 people who had a near-death experience. One of those was Gilles Bedard. In 1973, Bedard's heart stopped, and in the moments before he was resuscitated, he was greeted by what he describes as 12 beings of light.
"And I felt it was like the breath of the universe. Because it was like …" he says as he blows out his breath, slowly, like a low wind, "very, very peaceful."
Since then, Bedard has meditated every day, and he says he often reconnects with the light. The research question is, how will his brain respond when he does?
A Permanent Change In Brain Activity?
For the experiment, Bedard is shut into an isolation chamber at Beauregard's Montreal lab. Bedard's head sprouts 32 electrodes, which will record his brain wave activity. He's told to relax for a few moments. Then he'll be instructed to imagine his near-death experience.
A few minutes later, Beauregard and his research assistant are peering at a computer screen recording Bedard's brain waves. They cluck happily at the slow, large-amplitude Delta waves undulating across the screen — typical of a person in deep meditation or deep sleep.
Afterward, the researcher asks Bedard if he was able to connect with the light.
"Yeah, it was coming from within," he says. "It was loving, intelligent … very powerful."
It would take Beauregard a year to complete his research on near-death experiences. A few weeks ago, I called to ask him what he had found.
"It's like the near-death experience triggered something at a neural level in the brain," he said. "And perhaps this change, in terms of brain activity, is sort of permanent."
Beauregard says it's as if touching death jump-started the spiritual lives of these people. Their brains in the spiritual state look a lot like those of Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks who have spent tens of thousands of hours in prayer and meditation. Both groups showed extremely slow brain wave activity.
The researchers also saw significant changes in brain regions associated with positive emotions, attention and personal boundaries, as subjects who had had near-death experiences lost their sense of their physical bodies and merged with God or the "light."
Brain Chemistry Or A Trip To Heaven?
Skeptic Woerlee says there's nothing remarkable — and certainly nothing spiritual — about these findings.
"The brain function of many of these people who have undergone a near-death experience is altered," Woerlee says. "That's correct. It is altered. Extreme oxygen starvation does change brain function — because it causes brain damage to the larger cells in the brain."
It's brain chemistry, he says, not a trip to heaven.
In other words, Woerlee and Beauregard looked at the same images and came to opposite conclusions.
I found that dichotomy everywhere as I interviewed experts about the emerging science of spirituality. It's kind of like a Rorschach test: Some researchers look at the data and say spiritual experience is only an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, or a brain gasping for oxygen — all fully explainable by science. Others say our brains are reflecting an encounter with the divine.
And almost invariably, where a scientist stands on that issue has little to do with the clinical findings of any study. It has almost everything to do with the scientist's personal beliefs.