Tag Archive | neurotheology

The Brain Connection: Prayer and Meditation 

"Alot of horrible things have happened to me, some of which actually occurred" - Mark TwainThe Brain Connection: Prayer and Meditation

By Hwaa Irfan

As modern science increasingly explores the unknown within man, to the dismay of some scientists and secularists, the man-made boundaries between faith, spirituality, religion and Western science is disappearing. From quantum physics, to neuroscience, we find revelations that prove aspects of faith.

Allah (SWT) provides for us many signs, which depending on our level of openness and readiness brings us one step further towards the essential “I”. By the very nature of being given at birth the name Yi = One, Yuan = Source, and Tang from Tao = principles in nature and human beings, Dr. Yi – Yuan Tang grew up learning different methods of body-mind training from 20 different teachers. On his path towards becoming professor at the Dalian Medical University, founding director of the Institute of Neuroinformatics and Laboratory of Body and Mind, Center for Social and Organizational Behavior, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the PLA General Hospital in Beijing among others, Tang explored the truths of the body-mind relationship, nature and life, nature and humans working with colleagues from all over the world barriers began to fall between eastern wisdom and western science. On his journey he also sought to improve and enlighten himself.

Tang has found that short-term meditation induces change in white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, ACC. The anterior cingulate is a fibrous bundle in the brain that responsible for relaying impulses/signals of the nerves between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Scientists are still discovering what the function of the ACC is, but so far it has been discovered that the ACC is responsible for regulating blood pressure, heart rate, rational cognition (reward, decision-making, empathy, and the emotions. White matter is brain tissue also found in the spinal cord, which allows for the speedy passing of messages within the nervous system. If this is damaged in childhood, the brain circumvents alternative means bypassing the white matter. White matter changes in volume as a result of leaning new motor (physical) skills.

Tang has also found that there are changes in the central and autonomic nervous system as a result of short-term meditation, as well as improvement in attention and the ability to self regulate. As a result of 21 years of experience research and training, Tang developed the Integrative Body Mind Training, IBMT (a form of mindfulness meditation), which in turn he used to train thousands of children and adults to improving their attention span, ability to self-regulate, and performance. His work in IBMT has spawned further research elsewhere including the understanding of brain connectivity.

In the U.S. the National Neurotechnology Initiative has federal support as a $30mn project in 2009 with the aim of mapping the circuitry of the brain in follow-up to the Human Genome Project, the Human Connectome Project. Now researchers and scientists in neuroscience have found the value of emotions, which registers as brain activity, with negative emotions (anxiety, depression etc), and positive emotions (happiness, enthusiasm etc) increasing in activity in the right prefrontal cortex. During meditation the theta waves, which are responsible for enhanced creativity and deep relaxation increase dramatically in the front and middle parts of the brain. This has been revealed through EEG scans. Gamma waves have also been measured. Gamma waves are linked to optimal functioning of the brain, oscillating at 38 Hz – 70 Hz. Gamma waves increase when focusing on compassion and are linked with decreased negative emotions, higher intelligence, better memories, and an increased desire to open up to the world. Magnetic resonance imaging, MRI has been used to detect a thickening in the grey outer layer of the cortex during meditation, associated with sensory input and attention, especially during creative thinking. In general the cerebral cortex is thicker in older people, and for people aged 40 – 50 years who meditate, the cortex has the same thickness as those aged 20 – 30 years.

Psychologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, Dr. Michael Posner found that only after 5 days of training Chinese participants half an hour each day, changes occurred in moods, reaction to stress, with a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. The training was replicated with U.S. students, who improved on their ability to attend the training. Using an unspecified relaxation technique; the aim was to relax, and keeping the mind of the participant in the present state — without wandering around – a precursor to the meditative state. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson observed employees at a high tech company over a two month period of meditation for 1 hour a day. The results showed that there were indeed changes in the brain, and the immunes system as well. Those that meditated had developed more antibodies against a flu virus than those who did not meditate.

Other Approaches
For those who are interested in increasing their own brain connectivity, and have no access to or cannot afford IBMT, then maybe after dawn one should do what Nelson Mandela does, go for a 4-hour long walk before breakfast – nothing good comes easily! Researchers in the U.S. have found that walking for 40 minutes three times a week increases some degree of brain connectivity which leads to increased cognition. Sixty-five sedentary people aged 59 – 80 joined a walking/stretching/toning group for a year.

With practicing Tibetan Buddhist, Michael Baime, when meditating he feels a oneness with the universe and that time slips away. Dr. Andrew Newberg, father of neuroscience, who views meditation and prayer as the kind focused attention that becomes the reality of those who pray/meditate scanned Baime’s brain. Baime’s frontal lobes lit up on the screen, and his parietal lobe went dark. Newberg commented to NPR:

    “This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world,”

    “When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area.”

    “There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it’s just all one,” said Newberg.

The Effect of Prayer
Harvard scientist, Herbert Benson explains that prayer involves the repetition of sound and words that precipitate some form of healing, and that every single religion has its own way. The sound and words focused upon lead to a deeper state of concentration, increasing activity in the parietal lobe of the brain. The parietal lobe is responsible for one’s orientation in space. A quietude envelops the brain, and the frontal and temporal lobes, responsible for time, and self awareness becomes disengaged, and the mind-body relationship dissolves said Benson. This brings about a sense of oneness with all that is, trust in Him, and trust in one’s self. When we view our selves in a limited context, using only the five senses, we become limited in our perception of ourselves, others, and remove what is possible. Instead of schools discouraging Muslim children from praying, they should be making it possible for all to pray, for with concentrated prayer comes greater connection, and cognition which aids and abets team work, and learning.

Let us pray that the human potential is not reduced to the brain though, as our souls and well being is not all located in the brain!

Davis, J. “Can Prayer Heal”. http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50874
Flatlow, I. “Meditation for a Stronger Brain”. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129324779
Hagerty, B. “Prayer May Reshape Your Brain … And Your Reality” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443
Lynch, Z. “ Human Connectome Project Launched to Reveal Brain Connectivity” http://brainwaves.corante.com/archives/2009/07/24/
Yates, D. Attention, “Couch Potatoes! Walking Boosts Brain Connectivity, Function”. http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2010/08/30/attention-couch-potatoes-walking-boosts-brain-connectivity-function.html
Tang, Y. “Integrative Body-Mid Training”. http://www.yi-yuan.net/english/tyy.asp

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From the Symbolic Ascension to the Ascension of Our Lives
Can You Just Change Your Mind Just Like That!