The Brain Power of Prayer

I have a thing for brain science. I told one of my coworkers about this fascination, and she replied, "That's not very exciting." I didn't miss a beat, "Do you know what happens when you get excited?" She frowned and said, "No."

"BRAIN SCIENCE!” See, brain science is the very definition of fun.

We've entered a new era in neuroscience because we now have ways to image the insides of brains while they work. The precision of these scans is admittedly low–there are thousands of brain cells in each pixel of our scans. Even this limited insight is illuminating.

As a person who is loves science and spirituality, neuroscience is even more fascinating. The ways people encounter God happens in the brain, and the effects spiritual practices have on us can be studied. Contrary to some popular notions, faith seems to be very good for us.

Most of us get stressed out about our daily lives. We worry, and dwell on our anxieties. We over think things, and get caught in mental ruts. Sometimes, we even feel guilty about how we live our lives, but can't summon the will power to do anything different. All these thoughts stir up the most ancient part of our brains, called the limbic system.

Our limbic systems are great survivalists, and work faster than other parts of the brain. Unfortunately, the limbic system powers fear, anger, and aggression. Rational thinking and creativity come from other parts of our brains. How can we get those parts of the brain to be more active in our daily living?

Prayer and meditation.

No seriously, that's what brain scientists say. Prayer and meditation cause increased activity in the parts of your brain responsible for focus, concentration, empathy, and compassion. Prayer is a remarkable way to escape the kind of negative thoughts that consume us and drag us down. Studies show that people who pray or meditate often change their brains in positive ways.

So, how should you pray? Neurologically speaking, the Lord's prayer is quite good:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done in earth, 
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.

This prayer speaks of God's greatness, his love, and his forgiveness. It speaks of  our thankfulness and forgiveness toward others. Finally, this prayer focuses on a goal of better living. All these things are recommended by neurologists who specialize in spirituality as ways to change our behaviors and feelings.

Jesus and neuroscience both tell us the same recipe for prayer.

  • Focus on God's love and goodness.
  • Be thankful.
  • Forgive others easily.
  • Focus on goals for better living.

Do this everyday, and your brain will change for the better. So will your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Pray without ceasing, indeed.

Digital Junkies

I just read an interesting article in Newsweek on the effects always connected Internet devices have on humans.  It's certainly worth a read, but medical evidence is piling up that our constant connectivity is making us more anxious, depressed, and is destroying our ability to concentrate.  Because of the potential for reward contained in every cell phone notice, our brains reward us with a tine does of dopamine every time we respond.  This pavlovian conditioning ultimate results in a brain that show the physical patterns of addiction.

I want YOU to turn off your cell phone

We engage in these behaviors because we believe it makes us more productive, more social and ultimately more successful.  Instead, the opposite happens.  We spend more time working while our total output drops.  What work we do produce is of an inferior caliber.  We neglect social opportunities happening in person for potential virtual social interactions as well.

It's time to stop.  There are a set of "connection disciplines" I practice to counteract the effects of never ending digital continuity.  When I am consistent at these I feel relaxed, creative and connected to my friends and family.  Yet when some project grabs me like an obsession and my cravings for connectivity defeat my will to be disciplined I inevitably lose my calm state and regress into a state of neurotic dependence on media.

I encourage you to give these disciplines a try and see how you respond.

  1. Delay connectivity when you wake up.  One of the worst things you can do is start your day with email and texting.   It's much better to wake up, eat breakfast and get dressed before diving into the digital demands of the day.  This is critically important for making a plan of attack for your day instead of turning into an email-firefighter.  If you like to read the news on something digital before or during breakfast, feel free.  Just stay off social networks, email and SMS.
  2. Plan working blocks with limited connectivity.  When I am working on large projects, I typically silence my cell phone.  If I am working on my iPad, I'll often use Airplane mode to stop all distractions.  When I am working on my Mac, I will keep email closed and only check it one per hour.
  3. Put the phone away at meals & meetings.  If you are eating alone, avoid the temptation to socialize virtually.  If you are eating with friends or coworkers, pretend you don't have a phone at all.  This will actually benefit your employer!  When you don't allow your mind to disengage a problem during lunch, you often prevent yourself from gaining enough distance and perspective to solve it.
  4. Make 30 minutes before bed a "no media" zone.  If you want good sleep, you have to change your media habits.  Social media and email speed up your thoughts, and prevent restful sleep.  Television is not a good idea either.  The best pre-bed activities are conversation and reading.  Keep in mind that reading from a glowing screen is counter productive as you convince your brain it is midday based on lighting.

We are becoming digital media junkies, but it is a problem of our own design.  The power to break the addiction cycle is in our own hands.  I'd love to hear about your strategies for creating peace in the world of ever-chirping smartphones.