How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Ballantine Books, New York, 2009, 364 ff.
The health benefits of spirituality By Howard Jones
The health benefits of various forms of spiritual meditation have been known for many years - hence the popularity of yoga and other eastern meditative practices. Meditation generates endorphins and thereby reduces heart rate and blood pressure; it produces relaxed breathing and a general feeling of wellbeing. The associated mind-set promotes an attitude of beneficence towards our fellow man, and that can only be a good thing for all concerned. The well-being produced by spirituality is the subject of this book.
Andrew Newberg is an Associate Professor of Radiology and Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Mark Robert Waldman is an Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the same university. Newberg earlier wrote a book with his mentor, Eugene d'Aquili, called The Mystical Mind, on the same theme and he has a number of books and papers on mind and meditation to his name.
The important point emphasised by Newberg in his books and lectures is that you do not have to believe in the God of western religion in order to be spiritual and to benefit from meditative practices: `Spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs . . . improve physical and emotional health.' It is important therefore to distinguish, as the authors do, between religion and spirituality. Even the term `God' is used here in a generic sense to denote the highest of our spiritual values. This `God' exists in the world, in our subconscious perception and in our conscious images and concepts.
The authors make the interesting observation that `each part of the brain constructs a different perception of God.' The effects on our health are governed by our view of God, as benevolent, forgiving, angry, and so on. The authors also endorse the beneficial effects of Herbert Benson's `relaxation response'. Meditative techniques, whether based on eastern mystical beliefs or western religious practices, if performed regularly produce permanent beneficial structural effects on the brain.
The authors defend religion against the atheists' charge that it is bad for our health, citing lack of evidence. Religious persecutions throughout human history are not sufficient? They accept however that religion is harmful when it is authoritarian, generates fear or fabricates fantasies as truth. Newberg and Waldman criticise atheist writings that treat all religion as if it were intolerant fundamentalism and the authors cite many positive aspects of religion. Focusing on these positive aspects encourages neuroplasticity or positive structural development of the brain. The aim is to generate compassion or empathy with other brains.
The meditation practice on which the authors focus is that of Kirtan Kriya from north India. They have conducted tests that show the benefits of this practice, even in the short term, in producing peace of mind and in improving memory in age-related disorders through selective attention - focusing on constructive objectives in our lives.
This is a fascinating and uplifting book which, though technical, would qualify as a self-help manual. The title is perhaps not strictly accurate, since it is the meditation or contemplation that is effective, and the book makes it clear that neither religion nor God is necessary. The few anatomical details of the brain used in the descriptions are all explained. Its message is encouraging for readers of all ages. The book has a generous 74-page section of Notes and references and an Index at the end.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.