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I am a wife, mother, non-surgical musculoskeletal physician, and author of The Eden Diet and Radical Well-being

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Interview With Brain Researcher Dr. Andrew Newberg


(This is a re-run of an interview that was published in one of this year's editions of Dr. Rita's Christian Health and Weight Loss Newsletter)

Guest Bio:
Dr. Andrew Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine. He is considered a pioneer in the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field frequently referred to as - neurotheology. 


Dr. Newberg has published over 150 research articles, essays and book chapters, and is the co-author of multiple books, and has presented his research throughout the world in both scientific and public forums. He appeared on Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC's World News Tonight, National Public Radio, London Talk Radio and over fifteen nationally syndicated radio programs. His work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other newspapers and magazines. 

Dr. Rita:
Dr. Newberg, one of the main messages I got from your book, How God Changes Your Brain was, "No matter what religion you are, be careful what you think about because your thoughts will change your brain." Did I get it right that your thoughts literally change your brain? 

Dr. Newberg:
Yes, it is really a two way street. Your brain changes your thoughts and your thoughts change your brain. The more you focus on a particular belief or belief system, the stronger those connections become. If you focus on God being loving and compassionate, you increase the amount of love and compassion in your brain, and your outward behaviors. If you focus on God being vengeful and hateful, you increase the amount of hate and anger in your brain, and your outward behaviors. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together, and this is true no matter what our beliefs are. The more we focus on something, the more it becomes a part of how our brain functions.

Dr. Rita:
The Bible says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18). Can you tell us about the research on how fearful thoughts vs. loving thoughts affect the brain and the body in general?

Dr. Newberg:
Love generally activates the positive emotional and social areas of the brain (i.e. the precuneus and frontal lobe). The primary area involved in fear is the amygdala. This area lights up in our brain when we are afraid. Other areas of the brain such as the frontal lobe helps to regulate the fear response. So your quote is probably fairly accurate as far as the brain goes. When we focus on love, the activity in the frontal lobe actually can suppress the fear responses in the amygdala. So the more we focus on love and compassion, the less fear we will feel.

Dr. Rita:
In your book, you talk about the potential health benefits of meditation and you aim at all religions. Since my work is geared specifically to Christians, can you please discuss the difference between meditation and prayer and talk about whether your results are relevant to Christian prayer?

Dr. Newberg:
There is certainly a fair amount of overlap between meditation and certain types of prayer. We studied nuns doing Centering prayer which, as you know, is a more contemplative practice. These types of prayer practices certainly should affect the brain in similar ways as other types of meditative/contemplative practices. For example, in centering prayer, we saw increased activity in the frontal lobes and decreased activity in the parietal lobes (this is believed to be associated with the sense of self and decreased activity is associated with losing that sense of self and feeling connected to the universe or God. Other types of Christian practices affect the brain slightly differently. We performed a study on the rosary and showed that it reduced anxiety significantly. The combination of its meaning and the ritualized elements, probably suppress the activity in the amygdala (as above) and reduce anxiety and fear in people. Other practices such as conversational prayer activate social areas of the brain and, when combined with feelings of love and compassion, likely reduce stress and anxiety, as well as spill over to enhancing a person's social interactions.

Dr. Rita:
In your book, you talked about habits that can actually prevent brain atrophy with aging and illness. Many of your suggestions (listening to soothing music, repeating meaningful phrases out loud, moving the body, and meditating on positive, loving thoughts) remind me of elements of church services! Thus, would you say that attending a positive and healthy church might be good for the PHYSICAL body? Does research support that? 

Dr. Newberg:
Absolutely, it can be good. The more you activate the positive emotions, derive meaning and optimism, access social support, and engage the brain in music, movement, and contemplation, the better it is for your whole body and brain. Lower levels of stress and anxiety lower the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Since cortisol suppresses the immune system, lower levels help improve the immune system's function, and reduce blood pressure and heart rate, all of which can be beneficial. But as you alluded to, if the person is hearing about fear, anger, and guilt, they may not experience the same types of healthful benefits.

Dr. Rita:
How do a person's past experiences with God affect his or her current perception of Him? And are those perceptions permanent or changeable? 

Dr. Newberg:
Everything that has ever happened to us affects us and our brain. If we have traditionally felt that 
God was supportive and loving, then those neuronal connections will affect our future thoughts and behaviors. Similarly with the negative side. However, all of our beliefs are changeable, although it is difficult and usually requires a conscious effort, other than those individuals who have specific transformative experiences. But if a person continues to pursue a more positive experience with God, they are more likely to alter their brain function in a way that supports that positive way of thinking.

Dr. Rita:
Please talk about how fast your brain can change and what it takes to keep up those positive changes. 

Dr. Newberg:
On one hand, the brain is constantly changing. On the other hand, it probably takes some time to change the overall way in which the brain works. But it probably is not as long as you think. Our studies of people doing meditation showed that after only eight weeks, a 12 minute a day practice changed the brain pretty significantly. But the more you keep working on that change, probably the more change you will see. It is like a muscle, the more you work out, the bigger it becomes. In fact, brain scan studies have shown that the brains of long term meditators literally are thicker than those who do not practice. We showed similar changes in terms of overall brain activity being higher in spiritual individuals who have done meditation or prayer for many years. But it is also true that you have to use it or lose it. If you stop focusing on a particular idea, the brain will lose that connection over time. That is good if the connection supports a destructive belief, but can be bad if the connection supports a positive belief.

Dr. Rita:
Please tell readers how to find out more about you and your work on how prayer affects the brain in positive ways. Include links! 

Dr. Newberg:
I would recommend my books: How God Changes Your Brain, Why We Believe What We Believe,and Why God Won't Go Away. Your readership might also be interested in my more theologically oriented book: Principles of Neurotheology. Also, I have several audio and video programs now available, including: The Spiritual Brain http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=1682 ),

Spiritual Practices for a Powerful Brainhttp://www.nightingale.com/prod_detail.aspx?product=Spiritual-Practices ), and my website is www.andrewnewberg.com.

Dr. Rita: 
Thank you Dr. Newberg for taking time out from your valuable research time to join us! 

Dr. Newberg: 
My pleasure! 


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