The Biology of Belief

Science and religion argue all the time, but they increasingly agree on one thing: a little spirituality may be very good for your health

  • Illustration by Christian Northeast for TIME

    Most folks probably couldn't locate their parietal lobe with a map and a compass. For the record, it's at the top of your head — aft of the frontal lobe, fore of the occipital lobe, north of the temporal lobe. What makes the parietal lobe special is not where it lives but what it does — particularly concerning matters of faith.

    If you've ever prayed so hard that you've lost all sense of a larger world outside yourself, that's your parietal lobe at work. If you've ever meditated so deeply that you'd swear the very boundaries of your body had dissolved, that's your parietal too. There are other regions responsible for making your brain the spiritual amusement park it can be: your thalamus plays a role, as do your frontal lobes. But it's your parietal lobe — a central mass of tissue that processes sensory input — that may have the most transporting effect. ( Read "Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs" .)

    Needy creatures that we are, we put the brain's spiritual centers to use all the time. We pray for peace; we meditate for serenity; we chant for wealth. We travel to Lourdes in search of a miracle; we go to Mecca to show our devotion; we eat hallucinogenic mushrooms to attain transcendent vision and gather in church basements to achieve its sober opposite. But there is nothing we pray — or chant or meditate — for more than health.

    Health, by definition, is the sine qua non of everything else. If you're dead, serenity is academic. So we convince ourselves that while our medicine is strong and our doctors are wise, our prayers may heal us too.

    Here's what's surprising: a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don't attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it's hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. "Even accounting for medications," says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, "spirituality predicts for better disease control." ( Read "Finding God on YouTube." )

    It's hard not to be impressed by findings like that, but a skeptic will say there's nothing remarkable — much less spiritual — about them. You live longer if you go to church because you're there for the cholesterol-screening drive and the visiting-nurse service. Your viral load goes down when you include spirituality in your fight against HIV because your levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — go down first. "Science doesn't deal in supernatural explanations," says Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine . "Religion and science address different concerns."

    That's undeniably true — up to a point. But it's also true that our brains and bodies contain an awful lot of spiritual wiring. Even if there's a scientific explanation for every strand of it, that doesn't mean we can't put it to powerful use. And if one of those uses can make us well, shouldn't we take advantage of it? "A large body of science shows a positive impact of religion on health," says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Penn's Center for Spirituality and the Mind. "The way the brain works is so compatible with religion and spirituality that we're going to be enmeshed in both for a long time."

    It's All in Your Head
    "enmeshed in the brain" is as good a way as any to describe Newberg's work of the past 15 years. The author of four books, including the soon-to-be-released How God Changes Your Brain , he has looked more closely than most at how our spiritual data-processing center works, conducting various types of brain scans on more than 100 people, all of them in different kinds of worshipful or contemplative states. Over time, Newberg and his team have come to recognize just which parts of the brain light up during just which experiences.

    When people engage in prayer, it's the frontal lobes that take the lead, since they govern focus and concentration. During very deep prayer, the parietal lobe powers down, which is what allows us to experience that sense of having loosed our earthly moorings. The frontal lobes go quieter when worshippers are involved in the singular activity of speaking in tongues — which jibes nicely with the speakers' subjective experience that they are not in control of what they're saying.

    Read "Top 10 Religion Stories" .

    Read "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries" .

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