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Science and Spirituality

The Scientific Benefits of Meditation and Prayer, Part 1 of 2

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At times of uncertainty and stress, more people have turned to meditation and prayer to restore emotional balance or connect to God. A 2017 survey shows that the percentage of US adults who practiced mindfulness, mantra-based and spiritual meditation tripled between 2012 and 2017, from 4 percent to more than 14 percent.

After she started to learn yoga, Dr. Sara Lazar made meditation the topic of her first neuroscientific research. In 2011, her team at Harvard Medical School found that meditation led to the thickening of regional brain gray matter. Her refined follow-up research shows that changes in the thickened areas of the brain mirror the psychological improvements of participants.

Not only does meditation change the brain. So do prayers. Strong evidence shows that prayer decreases anxiety and stress, enables inner peace, and even increases one’s ability to endure pain. Sincere prayer is a type of mindfulness. Dr. Michael Baime, Director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, said mindfulness changes the neural connections in the brain. “Mindfulness isn’t just about relaxing. By changing the neural connections and activity in the brain, you actually change what happens in the whole body.”

Often, sincere prayer can be experienced as deep meditation, as in the case of Dr. Scott McDermott, Reverend Minster of the United Methodist Church. Barbara Bradley Hagerty was inspired by Dr. McDermott’s experience. She visited the lab of Dr. Andrew Newberg to witness the brain scanning of the Reverend pastor during the peak of his prayer. “Well, we use a variety of different brain scanning techniques. And we can see that the patterns of activities that are different when the person is engaged in the prayer practice compared to when they’re just at rest.”

In 2016, Dr. Michael Ferguson, then a Ph.D. student, asked if different meditation studies end up singling out similar brain sections. The project he participated in scanned brain activities of devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as they “feel the Spirit” at the peak of their prayer. The implications are profound. So many of the world’s spiritual traditions report a profound feeling of oneness with a transcendent source, often accompanied by an increased charitable disposition.
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