Religious Rites: Good for the Brain? And What About Atheists?

August 18, 2009 at 11:28 am Leave a comment

Praying & Devotion: Image by TALUDA on Stock.XchngSome of the most revealing research in brain health has come from studies of  religious communities:  Catholic Nuns and Buddhist Monks.  And some of the results have been surprising – their practices of faith (including intensive prayers, contemplation and meditation) appear to affect their brain profoundly, changing blood flow, brainwave states, encouraging neural growth, and protecting the health of their brain against some of the effects of stress and aging.   But is the benefit because of their faith, or because of the rituals associated with their faith?

Can people of other belief systems (or no belief systems) still find benefit through adapting the practices? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, author of “How God Changes Your Brain” thinks the answer is yes.  He believes that even atheists can benefit from the focus on calm concentration, contemplation and compassion found in religious practices.

Done as a discipline, intense prayer and meditation serve as a form of brain training, encouraging patterns of calm focus and single minded attention.  It shifts the state of the brain into a slower wave pattern close to sleep, which appears to be restorative to the brain, protecting against the effects of stress, and reducing anxiety.  When the belief system includes a loving, supportive concept of God, rather than a punitive one, the belief itself reduces stress, and contemplation encourages empathy and connection to community (which is known to be an important element of brain health) .

And deep contemplations of the nature of existence, the purpose of life, and how we fit into the larger scheme of things push the brain into new, creative thought patterns, which in turn causes neural growth, improves blood flow in the brain, and helps create interconnecting pathways between diverse areas of the brain.

Like Newberg, I don’t see why these benefits can’t be gained outside of organized religion, or even outside of a belief in the supernatural of any sort.  Many established Buddhist meditation forms make no reference to religious concepts of deities or spirits, instead focusing purely on disciplined thoughts, compassion and a calm mind.   And while faith in a benevolent God certainly makes it easier, it’s also possible to choose to see the world as a beneficial, supportive environment, vs a hostile one.

What do you think? Can some of the brain-benefits seen in the Catholic Nuns and Buddhist Monks be experienced even by total atheists?   Do the rituals and practices have value even when stripped of their religious connotation? Do they have a place in brain training? Can these stripped down be part of  preventingcognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s?

This is a complex and controversial concept, with a lot of layers – please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section!

Entry filed under: Purpose. Connection & Spirit, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , .

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About This Blog


A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
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