Even though mindfulness is all the rage right now, an eminent neuroscientist says that when it comes to enhancing performance, prayer that comes from a deeply rooted belief can be much more effective than mindfulness.
Brandon Sneed, writing for OutsideOnline.com, is reporting on the work of Andrew Newberg, director of research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Marcus Institute of Integrative Health who has spent most of his career as a neuroscientist studying the effects of religious faith on the brain. Even though all forms of prayer change the brain, the impact of faith-filled prayer definitely has an edge over “mind management” techniques such as mindfulness.
“The mindfulness movement is really more of a secular approach,” said Newberg, who is a former professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of How God Changes Your Brain. “We sort of cleaned it up and secularized it so that it’s more available to everyone, which is good. But in many ways it isn’t as good or as powerful as prayer.”
Newberg’s research found that prayer allowed his subjects to more quickly achieve what is known as “flow” – aka being in “the zone” – which occurs when neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine flood the brain. These chemicals increase pleasure, reduce stress and activate the fight-or-flight response.
As Sneed reports, scientists know that brain waves change depending on what a person is doing or how they’re feeling. For the most part, the brain produces beta frequencies ranging from 13 to 30 hertz, which helps us with complex thinking and critical analysis. When an athlete is performing, especially when he or she is in a state of flow, the brain is calmer and dominated by alpha waves of eight to 12 hertz. We’re more relaxed and instinct driven. In this state, the brain is quieter, especially in the frontal lobe and cerebrum where our ideas about the future and our sense of self is concentrated.
And it’s prayer, perhaps even more so than mindfulness training, that turns out to be the best way to achieve this state.
Previous research has revealed to Newberg that the cerebral blood flow of believers – begins with activity in the frontal lobe. But after anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes, that area goes silent and the frontal lobe is flooded with alpha waves. This is the same result brought on by mindfulness and meditation, but when belief is added in, the believer’s sense of purpose goes far beyond being merely a means to an end.
“The more you buy into whatever you’re doing, the better the effect is going to be,” he says. “If you’re a religious person then being able to engage in prayer can be extremely valuable.”