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Neurotheologist explores the science of the power within

Through conscious direction of your thoughts, you can learn to affect the functioning of your brain regardless of your age, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg says.

The director of research for integrative medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia as well as assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania will be at the Cummings Centre on May 22 to talk about his landmark research exploring the power of the mind and the significance of spirituality on wellbeing.

“Everybody has an ability to change their thought processes and their patterns of behaviour to some degree,” says Newberg, whose books include Why We Believe What We Believe: Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality and Truth and How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist.

“The more we engage and try to focus, to meditate or pray, the more benefit we see. As far as we know, it is better to do this earlier but even people in their 90s will see an improvement. You can still learn new things, but perhaps not so easily. Researchers still write into their 90s.”

Newberg describes the concept of well-being as global. “My perspective is very multifactorial, including psychological, physical, social and spiritual aspects and recognizing that these aspects are all relevant.”

A pioneer in the emerging field of neurotheology, Newberg’s research has focused on how brain-imaging techniques reflect spiritual experiences. He has discovered that intense prayer and meditation can positively alter numerous structures and functions in the brain. “One simple meditation practice done once a day for 12 minutes for eight weeks had a substantial effect.” However, not all religious beliefs are beneficial. Those that emphasize a loving deity or experience can reduce stress, anxiety and depression while hellfire and brimstone fundamentalist beliefs can generate negative emotions that cause permanent damage.

The placebo effect, in particular the power of hope, has an important place in a holistic healing process.

“Hope itself should not be discounted,” Newberg says. “I find it strange that it is talked about in a negative tone. The brain is incredibly powerful and the placebo effect is substantial. In the literature, the overall response is about 30 to 40 per cent, very large or very small in individuals, depending on the study.” While the placebo effect is not clear, it is known that the most optimistic people have a lower rate of mortality and depression.

Putting a scientific lens to something as subjective as belief brings up larger questions. While the scientist wants objective measures, such as blood pressure, the human being is searching for answers that cannot really be quantified by scientific criteria.

“These measurements are not relevant unless we understand the subjective elements behind them,” Newberg says. “But at the very least, we have a new perspective on the larger philosophical and theological question of what is the nature of God, how human beings think and talk about their faith, and we can better understand the question.”

Newberg will speak at the Cummings Centre’s Meditation & Brain Health Symposium May 22. Registration at 11:45 am, $25/$35 non-members. 514-342-1234.

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