At the conclusion of a challenging period of finals and final projects, I thought I’d tackle a challenging blog topic: spirituality, faith, and the brain. As an openly Christian scientist, I am often asked (to put it nicely) about my faith. As such, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about and defending my faith to others, while hashing out my testimony along the way. The beautiful thing about such discussions is that I get to learn along the way, whether or not I manage to change the other person’s mind.
Usually, such conversations begin with the idea that there is a difference between spirituality and faith to a god (any god), but the end result is the same, thereby eliminating the need for a god at all. Truthfully, for a long time, I felt spirituality, but not necessarily faith, as a connection with nature. Walking in the woods alone, observing the textured trees, feeling the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, I’d feel most at peace. My “spirituality” was defined by its fleeting appearances, always in the presence of nature and away from other people. Even now, though I’ve shifted to “faith,” I love to watch the sunrise, swift or slow, and I do so nearly every morning. The shift from starry night to pale morning, with a vibrant dawn between, never fails to inspire my awe and admiration. The common factors between my former spirituality and my current faith are feelings of solace and connectedness, while the differences are intentionality and constancy. Faith, to me, requires discipline because it is constant, while spirituality was purely organic, occurring on a whim. In my experience, the latter will always be the lesser because it never sticks around.
The second point is often that such feelings have been proven to be created by chemical signals in the body, and therefore, do not represent a connection with God. I cannot argue with the data. Many studies have been conducted, and found that feelings of solace, peace, or communication “with a greater being” are strongly correlated with time spent in prayer and meditation. According to Andrew Newburg, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “untold hours of prayer and meditation may rewrite neural connections in the brain – and how you see the world.”In the science, Newburg hasn’t proved an actual connection between God and these feelings, but, at the very least, he has shown that the more you focus on something, the more that thing becomes your reality. Another neuroscientist, Dr. Richard Davidson, has done similar corroborating work suggesting the benefit of meditation and meditative prayer to the body (including an increase in antibody production for those who meditate or pray on a daily basis).
Interestingly, these two bodies of work, and many others, suggest that disciplined practice of prayer or meditation induce physiological responses that increase health, both physical and mental. Given the suggestion that chemistry drives feelings associated with faith, this may seem to overturn the idea that we’re connecting with a higher being. However, I think this data asks another very interesting question: What if we are, indeed, wired to develop a relationship with God?
And with that, I’ll leave the subject to pick up at another time. Hope you all are having a great Wednesday, and thanks for reading!