Researchers trying to determine how religion affects the brain


Researchers are discovering how prayer, meditation, and religion affect brain activity.

Scientists like Jeff Anderson, Julie Korenberg and Andrew Newberg have begun to delve into the effect private religious practices have on the human mind. Anderson and Korenberg, have been studying mental images and hormone levels of Mormons as they go under scanners. Newberg, on the other hand, spent time studying Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists. There are many goals with these studies, from figuring out just how religion changes the mind to determining how it relates to social behaviors.

Anderson and Korenberg: Mormon Study

For 15 years, Korenberg and Anderson, neuroscientists at the University of Utah, studied mental abnormalities. Korenberg invested her time in neurochemical and genetic explanations relating to Williams syndrome, a brain abnormality similar to autism in which people become hypersocial, have extreme emotional reactions to music and are confused by simple objects. Anderson’s main focus was Alzheimer’s, autism, and multiple sclerosis, but when he scanned Zen Buddhists a few years back, he realized his growing interest in religion and the mind.

“It amazes me how one of the most profound influences on human behavior is virtually, completely unstudied. We think about how much this drives people’s behavior, and yet we don’t  know the first thing about where in the brain that’s even registered,” Anderson said.

Though some may believe they are “biologizing the religious response,” Korenberg, who is Jewish, believes that “we’re expecting to find here is that Mormons aren’t really going to be that different from Jews or Muslims.” The two scientists are equally interest in the chemicals that are released by brain activity during religious practices.

Newberg: Healing Power of Prayer

Newberg studied Franciscan nuns, joined together in meditative prayer, and found that “the area of the brain associated with the sense of self began to shut down.” He believes that medicine and prayer should go hand in hand, rather than be at odds and ends with each other.


“When we looked at the brains of Franciscan nuns in prayer, we found increased activity in the frontal lobes (same as Buddhists), but also increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe (the language area). This latter finding makes sense in relation to the nuns doing a verbally based practice (prayer) rather than visualization (meditation).” Source: Andrew Newberg

“As far as we know, it is not a cure for cancer. It is not going to cure somebody of heart disease. We can’t tell people to pray in order to get better – that doesn’t really make sense. The reason that it works is because it is part of the person’s belief system.”

Newberg began his studies with the nuns, as well as Tibetan Buddhists, by scanning their brains during religious moments together. He founded “neurotheology,” which essentially fused science and mysticism.

“There’s still value in doing those studies, even if the study doesn’t answer the big question – does God exist,” said Newberg. He is currently the research director of the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.


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