How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist

up:: Books


Overview / Review / Processing

This book’s authors approaches spiritual practices from a solely scientific, physical standpoint. The book is about the impact that religious activity has on your brain. The book is not about whether God exists or not. It simply seeks to harness the positive effects of religious practice.

As a believer, that sits a bit wrong with me. Our brains are wired for faith. Exploiting that only for our own gain and abandoning to pursue truth seems self-centered. Our brains are set up so well for faith and for most people the feeling that there must be “something more” breaks through at times. (How (Not) to Be Secular – Reading Charles Taylor calls it being “haunted by the immanent”) If there is something more, there must also be truth about it (Mere Christianity argues this well: there is a Moral Law of what “good” and “bad” behaviour is – where does it come from? the reason for god argues the same with the example of Justice).

The author predicts society moving towards individualistic forms of spirituality, detached from structure and truth. While the decreasing numbers in organised religiosity strengthen that point, the book doesn’t take a global perspective of all major religions growing in adherents and Christianity growing massively, especially in the developing world.

Throughout the book the author talked about acceptance and tolerance of different faiths. At one point the unwillingness to marry someone with different religious beliefs was counted as intolerance. To me not marrying someone with a totally different set of values just seems like a wise thing to do!

Ironically, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid in others. Timothy KellerThe Reason for God: Belief in an age of scepticism

All together, the book was very interesting and challenging. It spoke from a very different worldview than mine. I respect the author’s charity towards religion and being able to dive deeper. I understand way more about how The Brain functions now. That religious experiences are so similar throughout all religions give food for thought – how do I make sense of other faiths? However, just looking on the surface of “what can a spiritual practice give me” and not looking for truth seems to shallow for me.

Reading the epilogue, a personal reflection, shed a bit more light on the authors’ beliefs and the context in which the book was written. One of the authors thinks there might be objective truth, but that it is too large to be encompassed in one religion. The other author seems to reject the idea of objective truth in non-measurable things.

Religious convictions are healthy

Religious involvement correlates with living longer and more healthily

While it is unclear which factors and which specific activities spark those benefits, it is clear that being involved in religious activities makes you life longer and more healthy.

Even going to church once a month decreases your risk of death by 30 to 35 percent.

Religion makes you more compassionate

Spiritual or religious contemplation strengthens a neural circuit that improves your social awareness and empathy while lowering destructive feelings and emotions.

Religion lowers anxiety and depression

The more religious conviction you have, the lower rates of anxiety and depression you have. 1

In ‘flow’ we loose our sense of self

With decreased activity in the Parietal lobe, there is a loss of sense of self and unification with the goal you hold in your mind. That can happen during Meditation, Prayer, sports (“in the zone”) or what in psychology is described as Flow (stage).

How the brain is involved in perceiving God

  • Occipital lobe/Parietal lobe: Shapes understanding of God as an object in the world. Children understand God as a face because that’s what they are familiar with, adults understand God in more abstract terms.
  • Parietal lobe/Frontal lobe: Gives meaning to a relationship between “you” and “God”. Allows you to experience God’s presence. During Meditation or intense Prayer, there is less of a boundary between you and God and you feel more at unity with what you contemplate about.
  • Frontal lobe: Makes sense of all of your, positive of negative, thoughts about God. Reasons about God and predicts the future relationship.
  • Thalamus: Allows you to emotionally connect with God. It makes God seem real.
  • Amygdala: When overly stimulated it creates the image of an angry or punitive God and shuts down the Frontal lobe’s ability to reason properly.
  • Striatum: It calms the Amygdala, allowing you to feel safe and at peace in the presence of God.
  • Anterior cingulate: Similarly, it makes you feel loved in God’s presence. It lowers feelings of religious anxiety, fear and guilt produced by the Amygdala.

The benefits from prayer and meditation are unrelated to a specific belief

→ I appended this to What about other faiths This finding in the research I found most challenging. As a Christian, I believe that The more closely a person or culture adheres to a biblical worldview, the closer they are to objective reality. How is that connected to the evidence that the blessings of prayer or meditation are independent of any specific set of belief? They don’t even have to be religious! It could be money, power, peace or whatever!

However, while the internal benefits of contemplation seem to be the same across the board, the way it plays out in society isn’t. Your view of God affects all of your life and so does it affect all of society. I have seen firsthand the fruits of belief systems that fall short of God’s ideal and therefore perpetuate injustice and allow suffering though lethargy: In animistic and secular belief systems and even in Christian nations if we can’t grasp God’s plan fully (Common misconceptions in Christian worldview).

What happens when we have spiritual experiences

Interestingly, when someone has a religious experience both the sympathetic (arousing) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous systems are stimulated. Usually it is only one of those two. That might be a reason why spiritual experiences feel so unique.

Our brains are strongly affected what we take in

I appended the specifics to We are shaped by what we pay attention to and added a cautionary notice to Video games.

Yawning relaxes you and makes you attentive

This was a truly surprising takeaway but, according to the author, yawning is amazing. It resets your Circadian Rhythm and regulates the temperature of your brain. It increases concentration, lowers stress and improves memory (Memory MOC)!

Imagining yourself doing an activity makes you better at it

Just when you imagine that your movements become more flexible, they actually become significantly more flexible. This is also a powerful argument for setting goals and holding them in your imagination. Also I have used this when putting a task on my todo-list. When adding a duration, I imagine myself doing it which increases the likelihood of me ticking it off.

Exercise kills anger

It is virtually impossible to stay angry while exercising. Any form of exercise strongly activates your Frontal lobe circuits and boosts your mood.

Anger never works

Confrontation Throughout dozens of studies the finding is the same: Anger only provokes more anger. It always derails communication by interrupting the Frontal lobe. You act irrational and cannot even tell.

Speak shortly so that you will be listened to

Our brain can only hold a limited amount of “chunks” of information in our Attentional space. It can only hold these for twenty to thirty seconds. If everyone in a conversation speaks only for that amount, no one misses anything.

Usually people speak longer than that. Therefore it might not be surprising that often we miss what someone said and only respond to the last sentences. If you engage in a dialogue for more than 30 seconds, the Frontal lobes might disconnect from the emotional brain centers. Your emotional bond breaks up.

On forgiveness

When vice presidents and advisors at American Express were given a one-day forgiveness workshop, followed by four teleconference follow-ups over the following year, stress levels were reduced by 25 percent. They also generated an increase of 18 percent in gross sales, whereas those who didn’t participate in the forgiveness workshop only improved their sales by 10 percent.56 Forgiveness meditation improves not only the health of your brain and heart, but your pocketbook as well.


  1. Flannelly KJ, Koenig HG, Ellison CG, Galek K, Krause N. Belief in life after death and mental health: findings from a national survey. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006 Jul;(7):524–9.