Improve the Ability to Control the Brain’s Activity with Prayer and Meditation

Improve the Ability to Control the Brain’s Activity with Prayer and Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym. Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly.” – Ritchie Davidson

 

The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. For example, the brain area that controls the right index finger has been found to be larger in blind subjects who use braille than in sighted individuals.  Similarly, cab drivers in London who navigate the twisting streets of the city, have a larger hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation, than predefined route bus drivers. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

Prayer and meditation can be quite similar. It is possible that they can both produce changes to the brain. Since, both involve a degree of self-control, it is possible that they both change the brain to enhance self-control mechanisms. In today’s Research News article “Ability to Gain Control Over One’s Own Brain Activity and its Relation to Spiritual Practice: A Multimodal Imaging Study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442174/ ), Kober and colleagues studied the ability of meditation and prayer to alter the nervous system and improve self-control. They recruited healthy adults who reported either a low or a high frequency of prayer or meditation. They were measured for spirituality and religiousness, mindfulness and locus of control. In addition, the participants had their brains scanned with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

 

The participants had their brain activity measured with an electroencephalogram (EEG). They were shown a display with three bars the height of which was determined by brain activity in the 4-7 hertz (Theta), 12-25 hertz (SMR- Sensory-motor rhythm), and 21-35 hertz (Beta) range respectively. They received rewards (points) whenever their SMR was above a prescribed threshold and both their Theta and Beta were below a certain threshold. In other words, whenever their EEG reflected a specific prescribed pattern. If the participant was able to increase their SMR and decrease their Theta and Beta rhythms over training, it indicated and ability to control their brain activity.

 

They found, not surprisingly, that the high frequency group had higher levels of religiosity and mindfulness than the low frequency group. Importantly, they found a significant difference in the groups in their ability to control their brains. In particular, they found that the high frequency of meditation or prayer group was able to significantly increase their SMR while decreasing their Theta and Beta rhythms over training, while the low frequency group was not. When asked about their mental strategies to control their brain waves, the high frequency group reported significantly more “doing nothing”, similar to meditating or praying, than the low frequency group. Hence, the group who meditated and prayed often showed an ability to control their brains activity by employing a meditative strategy.

 

These are striking results. It has been known that with reward (biofeedback) people could learn to change their brain activity. But, it has never been shown before that people who prayed or meditated often would be significantly better at it than those who didn’t. The high frequency group is “assumed to be experts in focusing attention on inner states and self-referential processes.” This suggests that focused meditative practice improves the individual’s ability to control their brain activity. In other words, spiritual practice made them better at “doing nothing” and preventing thoughts from disrupting control of brain activity.

 

So, improve the ability to control the brain’s activity with prayer and meditation.

 

“The idea that there’s something specific about religious practices that changes your brain is just ridiculous. Everything changes your brain. Your brain is changing now, as is mine, as we’re having this conversation. There’s nothing special or magical about engaging in religious practices and showing certain changes in brain structure or function.” – Richard Sloan

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Kober, S. E., Witte, M., Ninaus, M., Koschutnig, K., Wiesen, D., Zaiser, G., … Wood, G. (2017). Ability to Gain Control Over One’s Own Brain Activity and its Relation to Spiritual Practice: A Multimodal Imaging Study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 271. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00271

 

Abstract

Spiritual practice, such as prayer or meditation, is associated with focusing attention on internal states and self-awareness processes. As these cognitive control mechanisms presumably are also important for neurofeedback (NF), we investigated whether people who pray frequently (N = 20) show a higher ability of self-control over their own brain activity compared to a control group of individuals who rarely pray (N = 20). All participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and one session of sensorimotor rhythm (SMR, 12–15 Hz) based NF training. Individuals who reported a high frequency of prayer showed improved NF performance compared to individuals who reported a low frequency of prayer. The individual ability to control one’s own brain activity was related to volumetric aspects of the brain. In the low frequency of prayer group, gray matter volumes in the right insula and inferior frontal gyrus were positively associated with NF performance, supporting prior findings that more general self-control networks are involved in successful NF learning. In contrast, participants who prayed regularly showed a negative association between gray matter volume in the left medial orbitofrontal cortex (Brodmann’s area (BA) 10) and NF performance. Due to their regular spiritual practice, they might have been more skillful in gating incoming information provided by the NF system and avoiding task-irrelevant thoughts.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442174/

Relieve Depression by Decentering

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“By practicing with others, people realize that the way their minds generate depressive and ruminative thoughts is really no different from others, like that builder over there, or my neighbor. These are just thoughts — not facts in my life,” – Willem Kuyken

 

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed specifically to treat depression and has been shown to be very effective in treating existing depression and preventing relapse when depression is in remission. MBCT involves mindfulness training, containing sitting and walking meditation and body scan, and cognitive therapy to alter how the patient relates to the thought processes that often underlie and exacerbate depression. MBCT attempts to decenter depressive thought processes; that is to learn to observe these thoughts and feelings as objective events in the mind rather than personally identifying with the thoughts or feelings.

 

Decentering changes the nature of experience by having the individual step outside of experiences and observe them from a distanced perspective. This allows the individual to see their thoughts as a constructed reality produced by their self and not as absolute truth. This, in turn, results in an ability to see depressive thoughts as not true, but simply a construct of the minds operation. This, then, allows the individual to begin to change how they interpret experience. Hence the depressive thought that how another treated them demonstrates that “I am worthless” can be reinterpreted to “this person acts this way out of their personal needs.”

 

It is not known whether the decentering produced by MBCT is actually necessary for the treatment of depression. This issue was explored in today’s Research News article “Exploring the relationship of decentering to health related concepts and cognitive and metacognitive processes in a student sample.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1419777434712845/?type=3&theater

or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4784351/

Kessel and colleagues recruited university students and measured them for depressive symptoms, decentering, self-focused attention, attentional filtering, and metacognition (ability to judge one’s own performance). They found that the higher the student’s level of decentering, including the decentering components of accepting self-perceptions and distancing, the lower the levels of depression. The relationships discovered were relatively strong. Conversely, the higher the levels of dysfunctional self-focused attention the lower the levels of decentering and the higher the levels of depression.

 

The results are clear and interesting. They suggest that decentering is clearly and relatively strongly inversely related to depression. They also suggest that this relationship may be mediated by decentering, with the lowering of dysfunctional self-focused attention, resulting in lower depression levels. It should be kept in mind that this study was correlational. So, no conclusions can be drawn regarding causation. But, the results suggest that MBCT’s effectiveness against depression is at least in part due to its promotion of decentering. They also suggest that decentering training by itself might be an effective treatment for depression.

 

So, relieve depression by decentering.

 

“Mindfulness practices of MBCT allowed people to be more intentionally aware of the present moment, which gave them space to pause before reacting automatically to others. Instead of becoming distressed about rejection or criticism, they stepped back to understand their own automatic reactions—and to become more attuned to others’ needs and emotions. Awareness gave them more choice in how to respond, instead of becoming swept up in escalating negative emotion.” – Emily Nauman

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Kessel, R., Gecht, J., Forkmann, T., Drueke, B., Gauggel, S., & Mainz, V. (2016). Exploring the relationship of decentering to health related concepts and cognitive and metacognitive processes in a student sample. BMC Psychology, 4, 11. http://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-016-0115-6

 

Abstract

Background: Decentering, a central change strategy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, is a process of stepping outside of one’s own mental events leading to an objective and non-judging stance towards the self. The study aimed at investigating associated mechanisms of decentering.

Method: The present study investigated the relation of decentering, operationalized by means of the German Version of the Experiences Questionnaire, to severity of depressive symptoms, assessed by the adaptive Rasch-based depression screening, and self-focussed attention, assessed by the Questionnaire of Dysfunctional and Functional Self-Consciousness. Furthermore, the relationship between decentering and a) the ability to shift and allocate attention by means of the Stroop test, and b) metacognitive monitoring, i.e. the absolute difference between judged and real task performance, was investigated. These relationships were examined in 55 healthy students using Pearson’s correlations.

Results: In line with our assumptions, higher decentering scores were significantly associated with lower scores on severity of depressive symptoms, with higher functional- and lower dysfunctional self-focussed attention. Contrary to our expectations, results neither indicated a relationship between decentering and attention ability, nor between decentering and metacognitive monitoring.

Conclusions: The present results suggest that decentering is associated with concepts of mental health (i.e. less severity of depressive symptoms and higher functional self-focussed attention). Overall, the concept decentering seems to be mainly composed of self-focussed aspects when investigated in a healthy sample without intervention. Further investigations of associated concepts of decentering should consider aspects of self-relevance and emotional valence.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4784351/

Meditate to Pray. Pray to Meditate

Meditate to Pray. Pray to Meditate

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.” ― Thomas Keating

 

Prayer takes a number of different forms most of which are not meditative. Prayers of adoration are prayers focused on the worship of God, without any reference to circumstances, needs, or desires. They are often recited by rote. Prayers of thanksgiving are expressions of gratitude towards God, made in reference to specific positive life experiences. Prayers of supplication “taps requests for God’s intervention in specific life events for oneself or others”. Prayers of confession involve the admission of negative behaviors, and a request for forgiveness. Obligatory prayers are required prayers consist primarily of fixed prayers repeated at each worship time. All of these types of prayer generally don’t parallel meditation and might be characterized as self-serving.

 

The final type, on the other hand, prayers of reception are very similar to meditation. These are prayers in which “one more passively awaits divine wisdom, understanding, or guidance”. They are “characterized by a contemplative attitude of openness, receptivity, and surrender, resulting in experiences ranging from peaceful/quiet to rapture/ecstasy”. The following story exemplifies this form of prayer:

“Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life.

The interviewer asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”

Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”

Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”

Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”

There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.

Finally, Mother Teresa breaks the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.” –  David Matthew Brown

 

This is the kind of prayer described by Mother Theresa is the form of contemplative prayer engaged in by the Christian or Sufi mystics. Receptive prayer might be characterized as the deepest most profound form of prayer. In this prayer the mind is quieted and there is no specific goal as in meditation. The practitioner simply quiets the mind and patiently monitors experience, just like meditation. So, not only can contemplative prayer be viewed as a form of meditation, but meditation can be viewed as a form of prayer. Both involve quieting the mind and simply resting peacefully observing whatever transpires.

 

This idea is further evidenced by what is arguably the most famous definition of prayer from St John Damascene ,‘Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God’. It is also evident in the sermons of the highly regarded Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart. He states that

The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things. But what is a free mind? A free mind is one which is untroubled and unfettered by anything, which has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and which does not seek its own interest in anything but is always immersed in God’s most precious will, having gone out of what is its own. (Talks of Instruction 2 in Davies, 1994).”

 

So, prayers of reception are essentially meditations. They involve quieting the mind and simply observing what transpires. The difference is simply one of intent. In the case of prayer, the practitioner has the intent of becoming one with the Deity, while in the case of meditation the practitioner has the intent of becoming one with the universe. Simply thinking of the universe as the expression of the Devine makes contemplative prayer and meditation identical. It’s all a matter of the label put on it. The meditator calls the ultimate product of meditation as awakening or enlightenment while the contemplative prayer practitioner calls the ultimate product of the prayer Devine revelation. It could be argued that these two are identical except for the labels put on them. In fact, the mystical experiences reported by the Christian and Sufi mystics only differ from those reported by meditators in the labels put on them. In their essence they are identical and lead to effectively the same place.

 

So, meditate to pray and pray to meditate!

 

“Spiritual meditation is the pathway to Divinity. It is a mystic ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, from error to Truth, from pain to peace.” ~James Allen

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

Prayer helps Cancer Patients

 

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.Mahatma Gandhi

Depression affects approximately 15% to 25% of cancer patients. This is not surprising as a diagnosis of cancer can cause a number of patients to become depressed. The problem is, though, that depression can affect the course of the disease, with mortality rates 25% to 39% higher in cancer patients who are also depressed. So it would appear that the two are linked such that cancer diagnosis can induce depression and depression can reduce the prognosis for recovery.

Many cancer patients pray to help cope with the disease, but it is not known if prayer is in any way affective in helping the patients with either depression or with dealing with cancer and its treatment. In today’s Research News article “Types of prayer and depressive symptoms among cancer patients: the mediating role of rumination and social support”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1074914312532494/?type=1&theater

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183194/

John Perez and colleagues investigated the relationship between different kinds of prayer and depression in cancer patients and find that certain types of prayer are associated with lower depression in these patients.

They investigated eight different types of prayer—adoration, confession, reception, supplication, thanksgiving, prayer for one’s physical health, prayer for emotional strength, and prayer for others’ well-being. They found that more adoration prayer, reception prayer, thanksgiving prayer, and prayer for the well-being of others the lower the level of depression.

In looking deeper at the pattern of results they determined that prayers of thanksgiving acted by decreasing ruminative self-focused attention which in turn reduced depression. It would make sense that prayer that helped focus the patient on what they are thankful for in life would result in an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in the time spent ruminating about the cancer, leading to lower depression.

They also found that that prayer for the well-being of others was directly associated with lower depression and indirectly by being positively related to social support which is in turn associated with reduced depression. Praying for others directs attention away from the patient toward the problems of others. This can help provide a perspective on their problems with cancer and thereby reduce the depression. People who are thinking of the well-being of others tend to be better cared about and liked by others. The increase in the social support for them may follow. If someone cares about others, others care about them.

Reception and adoration prayer are both forms of contemplative prayer which is a form of meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve the negative psychological issues that can go along with a cancer diagnosis http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/tackle-cancer-with-mindfulness/. So engaging in these forms of prayer may work through the same mechanism as meditation in improving the mood of cancer patients.

Hence it appears that the common response of cancer patients to pray is more than just an expression of religious faith. It has a positive impact on the patient’s psychological well-being which is known to improve the prognosis for recovery.

So, pray when cancer is diagnosed, reduce depression, and increase survival chances.

CMCS

 

Spirituality, Mindfulness and the Brain

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” ― Carl Sagan

Mindfulness training has been shown to alter the brain in profound ways. It activates certain areas of the nervous system and if practiced for a period of time it will alter the brain structurally, increasing the size and connectivity of some areas. These significant changes will be reviewed in an upcomiong post.

 There has also been research into how spirituality and spiritual experiences affect the nervous system. There has been, however, very little study of brain activity during spiritual practice. As a result it is unclear the extent that spiritual and mindfulness practices affect similar or different brain areas.

In today’s Research News article “How similar are the changes in neural activity resulting from mindfulness practice in contrast to spiritual practice?”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1054499387907320/?type=1&theater

Barnby and colleagues summarize the research on brain activation produced by the practices of mindfulness, spirituality, or both. In this research spiritual practice was defined as focusing on an internal and external sense of connection to a higher entity, or embodiment.

They find that mindfulness practice that is either secular or spiritual or both increase the activity, size, and connectivity of the prefrontal cortex. This area has been associated with executive function including planning, complex thinking, and decision making, all of which improve with mindfulness practice. It is also associated with the regulation of emotions and responses to emotions. These are again traits associated with mindfulness practice. So, regardless of whether the practice is secular or spiritual these same benefits accrue in parallel with similar patterns of brain activation.

In contrast mindfulness practice that is secular produces varying changes in the parietal lobe while spiritual practice tends to reduce parietal lobe activity. The parietal lobe has been implicated in producing a sense of self as distinct from the environment and others. Hence, spiritual practice, by focusing on powers outside of the self, tends to reduce self-referential thinking. Spiritual practitioners think more about a deity than of themselves. This is reflected both in self-reports and behavior and also in their brains.

So, engage in spiritual and mindfulness practices and reap their benefits.

CMCS

Effectiveness of Meditation, Yoga and Prayer

People engage in contemplative practices for a variety of reasons, including increased mindfulness or spiritual development. But, regardless of the goal, it is not known what contemplative practice works the best to achieve the goal. In addition, it is not known what pattern of practice works the best with each type of practice.

These questions are investigated in today’s Research News article “Meditation has stronger relationships with mindfulness, kundalini, and mystical experiences than yoga or prayer.”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1022155664475026/?type=1&theater

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277020080_Meditation_has_stronger_relationships_with_mindfulness_kundalini_and_mystical_experiences_than_yoga_or_prayer

Regardless of whether meditation, yoga, or prayer is practiced, higher levels of mindfulness occur. But, the highest levels of mindfulness are produced by meditation. This was also true for kundalini and mystical experiences.

Kundalini experiences are changes in the physical energetics of the body, including extreme levels of energy, physical symptoms, involuntary movements etc. Kundalini effects will be the subject of an upcoming CMCS essay (stay tuned). These experiences were first documented in the ancient yogic traditions. So, it is surprising that meditation has a larger impact than yoga practice.

Mystical experiences have always been associated with meditation but also strongly with prayer. The effectiveness of prayer in producing mystical experiences is well exemplified by the Christian or Sufi mystics. So, it is surprising that prayer is not particularly effective.

One explanation for the relative ineffectiveness of yoga and prayer is the reasons and the way they are practiced in modern cultures. Yoga is often treated as a fitness practice rather than a contemplative practice and prayer is often used mechanically or for petition to a deity rather than for contemplation. So, it should not be surprising that overall these practices are not as potent in producing mindfulness, kundalini, and mystical experiences as meditation.

It was clear, however, that no matter what practice is used the amount of practice is the most important factor in its effectiveness. It’s the amount of time spent each week practicing and it’s the number of years of practice that best predict heightened states. How frequently one practices, how long each session lasts, or whether practice occurs in groups or alone doesn’t seem to matter. It’s simply the total amount of practice that is associated with effectiveness.

So, engage in contemplative practices, but do so in a contemplative manner, do so regularly, and invest time and patience in the practice and you will begin to reap the rewards.

CMCS