How God Changes Your Brain

Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist


by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman


Ballantine Books


Reader Appeal: Adults


Genre: Science


Is believing in a God good for you? Not in the way that being kind to others and treating everyone fairly is good for you, but good for you in the way that an apple a day is good for you? Does just believing in God keep your wits sharp, your mind clear, and keep your faculties clicking along like clockwork?


How God Changes Your Brain is an exploration of how believing in God affects your brain and mental function. It’s an attempt to contradict arguments by other writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who argue that religion is an unnatural disease that corrupts mind and society and needs to be done away with. According to the authors of this book, believing in God is a natural thing for the human mind, and it’s very good for it.


All this sounds pretty great, and there’s some very interesting material in this book. But it’s important to keep your head clear about where this book is coming from when going into it. It’s a look at religion (or spirituality) from a scientific (specifically a neurological) perspective. It’s using one particular lens to examine the subject to see its effects in that area. This isn’t a broad scientific explanation of how religion works or a philosophical explanation of why it works or even what it means.


I’m not saying that the authors think this, I’m simply saying that if you keep that in mind it’ll help you to best appreciate this book. Otherwise you may be offended or disturbed or (worst of all) compromised in your faith by the way that the authors pick apart religion in terms of neurological effects, which can be a bit like trying to gain an understanding of municipal law based on its effects upon traffic patterns (or trying to understand literature in terms of ink).


According to the authors, contemplating God is very good for mental development, and prayer and meditation are very good for the brain. Spirituality is an important part of mental and physical health. On a more controversial note, though, the authors also contend that you don’t really need to believe in God to get some of these benefits, and a generic positive spirituality seems to be all that is required.


The danger of a book like this, of course, is that it encourages people to embrace a generic and philosophically meaningless religion (or worldview) by reducing it to little more than a form of healthy mental exercise (Cheerios for the soul; a bowl a day will reduce your mental cholesterol). It allows people who don’t believe in religion to still patronize it in others, rather like an affectation for jogging or brisk dips in cold mountain lakes. And ultimately that’s not what religion is about. It’s not about improving your memory or brushing up your neurons. It’s about answering the deepest and most important questions about the universe and about ourselves. And neuroscience simply isn’t a tool that is built to give us those answers, any more than economics or botany (not that people haven’t tried).


So, setting aside my concerns about this book, it’s still very interesting reading about the way that prayer and meditation alter your brain, the positive effects of religious belief (and yawning, for those of you who attend churches with long sermons), and the negative effects of cynicism. I would take it all with a grain of salt--and something that deserves further, more personal study.






Note: All book or comics-related graphics in this column are standard publicity/promotional shots and are owned by their respective publisher.

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