Religious beliefs are increasingly scorned in the hardcore atheist mainstream, creating a remarkable spiritual poverty in the West. And yet, a number of studies have scientifically proven that focusing on spiritual prayer and meditation as a source of strength literally changes your brain and improves mental health. It provides better control over illness, on the average more CD4 cells, which play a major role in protecting the body from infection, fewer stress hormones – and you are less likely to become depressed. Time magazine has addressed the issue, referring to over 6,000 studies that document a variety of health benefits of faith. Read my first WND article on this.
Studies also show that prayer and meditation enlarge part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction, which is connected to the ability to have empathy and compassion. To love one another is arguably the greatest source of peace in the world and apparently achievable the more you sincerely pray. Since God is love, it seems natural that communication with the Divine opens the human mind to this world-changing quality.
Sarah Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, has studied the benefits of prayer in brain scans. She found that it greatly affected the amygdala by making this part of the brain shrink, the part that is connected to anxiety, depression and stress. The participants who meditated or prayed were, in essence, able to better handle depression – the well-known state of mind that has been labeled the illness that engulfs America today. Depression and mental pain are one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
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In Japan, at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences, similar studies have shown that deep prayer reduces pain-related neural activity in a number of areas in the brain. It seems to relieve pain perception in humans, and anatomical changes occur in the brain. Another analysis shows the relationship between positive emotions and mortality. People that often use positively charged words like hope, gratitude and love lived longer than those that were negatively programmed.
Yet, psychiatrist Andrew Newberg points out in "How God Changes Your Brain" that an overwhelming percentage of Westerners feel that physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists are remarkably unskilled in the knowledge of how spirituality may strengthen the patient's immune system. As many as 94 percent of those interviewed in a Newberg study expressed a sincere wish for physicians to show more interest for their religious belonging, which the medical profession seldom does. Seldom do physicians recommend alternative medicine like acupuncture and zone therapy. Why not recommend both alternative methods as well as prayer and the laying on of hands for healing, many asked.
Another study showed that regular church or prayer-house attendance increased lifespans by two to three years. The correlation between participating actively in a religious community and mental health is much more real than many may think. Sociologist Max Weber, of course, long ago pointed out the sociological benefits of being part of such communities.
Studies from Europe show similar tendencies. A Norwegian Journal of Psychology study showed that even though most believe in God, faith is not at all emphasized in the education of, for example, nurses or psychologists. Ninety-three percent of those interviewed said that there was no focus on religious faith at all during their studies, which they found to be a regrettable fact. A third indicated that the discipline employs negative stereotypes and shows a general lack of respect concerning religion. Ninety-two percent agreed that a focus on religion would improve the profession, and 15 percent felt that believers in God were directly ridiculed in lectures.
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It is puzzling: 70 percent believe in God in Norway, according to the comprehensive, international ISSP study from 2008, the country which – by the way – is considered one of the "most atheist" in the world. In Europe, around 85 percent state that they believe Jesus is the Son of God. Worldwide, atheism only comprises somewhere between 2-7 percent, according to leading surveys. The number of believers is startlingly high compared to the extremely negativity toward traditional religion in mainstream media, which clearly does not reflect the sentiments of the general population. It is high time to change the trend, acknowledging how prayer and positive emotions influence the body's biochemistry, enhancing both empathy and strengthening health. It may be just what we need more of today.