How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist

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God is great–for your mental, physical, and spiritual health. That’s the finding of this startling, authoritative, and controversial book by the bestselling authors of Born to Believe.

Based on new evidence culled from their brain-scan studies on memory patients and meditators, their Web-based survey of people’s religious and spiritual experiences, and their analyses of adult drawings of God, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, therapist Mark Robert Waldman, and their research team have concluded that active and positive spiritual belief changes the human brain for the better. What’s more, actual faith isn’t always necessary: atheists who meditate on positive imagery can obtain similar neurological benefits. Written in an accessible style–with illustrations highlighting how spiritual experiences affect the mind–How God Changes Your Brain offers the following breakthrough discoveries:

• Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
• Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
• Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
• Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain–altering your values and the way you perceive reality.

How God Changes Your Brain is both a revelatory work of modern science and a practical guide for readers to enhance their physical and emotional health and to avoid mental decline. Newberg and Waldman explain the eight best ways to “exercise” your brain and guide readers through specific routines derived from a wide variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices that improve personal awareness and empathy. They explain why yawning heightens consciousness and relaxation, and they teach “Compassionate Communication,” a new mediation technique that builds intimacy with family and friends in less than fifteen minutes of practice.

Unique in its conclusions and innovative in its methods, How God Changes Your Brain is a first-of-a-kind book about faith that is as credible as it is inspiring.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews:

  • Transformative Research
    "How God Changes Your Brain" offers transformative research on the effects of spiritual practices and does so in clear, thoughtful, and often witty prose. This information helps us transcend the increasingly nasty and polarizing debates between belief and non belief and offers in my own area of teaching and research bountiful new avenues for literary and cultural exploration. Dr. David Rodes, Department of English, UCLA...more info
  • Tavis Smiley Interview on PBS National TV on 4-10-09
    If you want to get a flavor of what this book is about, check out the Tavis Smiley PBS national television interview with co-author Mark Waldman. If you google "tavis smiley pbs waldman" you'll easily find on the Public Broadcasting Station's site the brief interview that aired on April 10, 2009. It captures Waldman's and Newberg's "mission" to use neuroscientific research in practical, pragmatic ways, especially when dealing with conflicts between people who hold different points of view, be they relational, political, or religious. When you engage in any form of gentle contemplative spiritual practice - meditation, prayer, even positive thinking and affirmations - the brain-scan studies clearly show that you can permanently change its neurological structure and function in ways that improve memory, cognition, and compassion, while simultaneously suppressing anxiety, depression, anger, fear, and rage. To paraphrase the authors, "spiritual practice, be it religious or secular, helps to bring a little more peace into one's personal life, and if you take that sense of peacefulness into conversations with others, it may even help to bring a little more peace into the world."
    ...more info
  • Believe and you might get something extra
    According to the book, one does not have to believe in God in order to meditate. Simply contemplating on what God might mean -- love, compassion, kindness, or faith in mankind among other positively-themed meanings -- yields the same health benefits. The book then might better be titled with the more appropriate albeit longer, "How Thinking About God Changes Your Brain".

    The difference between the God-believing and the non-believing meditators, the book surmises, may be in that believing in God not only gives the meditator good mental health but also a chance at achieving what Buddhists call "Nirvana" if indeed such a state of heavenly bliss exists.

    Science needs proof before it believes in anything. While it cannot be denied that our scientific breakthroughs have improved and continue to improve our lives in leaps and bounds, it is nowhere written that things have to come in that specific order, that is, proof before belief. We just happen to stumble upon a process that works but may or may not be the tool to use for ferreting out truth. Besides, as the book said, we will never be sure of let alone know everything there is to know so there will always be room for doubt -- or faith. Whether we choose doubt and pessimism or faith and optimism to be our guide is up to us. Brain scans would show, however, that optimism and not pessimism would be the healthy choice.

    Maybe then a whole other order needs to be considered. In the scientific realm, proof before belief may be the only way to advance. But spiritual progress may only be gained through belief before proof. As recent brains scans would seem to suggest, the ancient mystics may have had it right all along -- the proof we seek may only be revealed to those who believe.
    ...more info
  • Amazing work for humanity
    The authors' ability to take a controversial and complex subject and reduce it to such stunning simplicity is nothing short of brilliant. This book is engaging and resonates in the mind and heart. While educational and informative it is also potentially personally transformational. I am thrilled thinking about the possibilities for humanity if its readers embody what is shared in this book and mindfully put into practice what is presented therein. BRAVO! An excellent read!...more info
  • A good read regardless of orientation...
    Having grown up in a very conservative Christian family and community, this book surprised me by the authors' incredible openness, not just toward contemporary spiritual practices, but also toward some of the strictest fundamentalist groups I have known. There is a lot of love there, which the authors point out, but I agree with them when they say that angry tirades by conservative ministers can do a lot of damage to one's soul. When you preach hell and damnation toward those who have different religious beliefs, this becomes toxic to the congregation, and to the world. What a surprise and delight to hear two nonreligious scientists talk positively about the gospel of compassion! This was truly music to my ears, and it even helped me to feel more tolerant toward my own religious roots, which nearly turned me off to religion as a whole. If science can be used to show the strength behind religious beliefs and practices, then I say, "More power to science" and its ability to spread the truth about the difference between love and hate. As my pastor used to say, truth is in the heart, and if we live our truth by respecting other people's truth, as this book suggests, then truly we may generate more peace in the world. I think every fundamentalist and atheist can find value in this remarkable book. Thank you, Newberg and Waldman, for helping to quell my own personal struggle with God. In essence, this was one of the most inspiring books I have ever read....more info
  • The Value(s) of Believing
    As a practicing psychotherapist for many years, I have seen for myself how clients who integrate a positive spirituality into their lives have benefitted. I have also witnessed how clients who were raised with religious views that used guilt as a means of attempting to control or restrict normal human behaviors have suffered greatly as a result. This book offers a scientific explanation of how and why this happens, and suggests ways that all of us can improve our quality of life by adding positive spiritual experience into our daily lives.

    Ken Waldman...more info
  • Good... only for the Oprah show
    The authors have an obvious lack of philosophical background to discuss the correlation between the mind - human consciousness - and the brain.

    Compare these statements from the author in the first couple of pages:

    "...if God has meaning for you, then God becomes neurologically real."

    "If a belief in God provides you with a sense of comfort and security, then God will enhance your life."

    "Our reseach has led us to the following conclusions: 1. Each part of the brain constructs a different perception of God..."

    You are not your brain, and God's existence is independent of whether or not God has meaning for you or whether your brain believes in God or not. If God is only neurologically real, the God each person crafts in their own brain is inexistent and therefore powerless to enhance your life. The authors are on a path to show you that all you are is your brain. The brain is what makes you who you are kind of garbage. To see that the mind and the brain are different things, we just need to show that there are things that are true of consciousness that are not true of the brain. We evaluate the existence of God with our mind, not the electrolized piece of meat we call the brain.

    A thought can be true or false but no state of your brain can be true or false. A region of the brain is not true. When you're thinking or praying, a region of your brain is activated and it might be closer to your left ear or right ear, and it might be 2cms long, but the thought that you'd like to hug your son or are asking God to forgive you, is not closer to your left or right ear and is not 2cms long. Thoughts don't have geometrical size or shape, but the states of your brain do. Hence thoughts cannot be the same thing as brain states. There are things that are true of the brain but are not true of your conscious life.

    There is also the fact that thoughts, sensations are of, or about things. You have a thought about God. Physical states don't have intentionality (ofness or aboutness). States of consciousness do. Therefore they are not states of the brain. They are mental states. Establishing correlations (prayer causes neurons firing, fire causes smoke, or poke causes pain) does not mean they are the same thing. The person in a car is not the same as the car. Our mind drives our body. If the car breaks down - limited function (damaged brain) - does not mean we're the same as the car.

    There are too many problems with the authors' philosophical foundation, I would suggest reading Body & Soul by JP Moreland and Scott B. Rae or the Consciousness and the Existence of God by JP Moreland instead of wasting your time on this Oprah material....more info
  • How God Changes Your Brain
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The research, the insights, the practical exercises, and the life-long passion of the authors for their subject made this is wonderful experience. I've practiced meditation for many years and it was helpful to have a neuroscience explanation to complement the spiritual journey....more info
  • Review of Kindle edition
    The title of "God" in the book does not bias this book in any way. The book doesn't advocate for any religion or for God, but instead rationally and objectively discusses how thinking about "God" -- whatever one's vision of god is, that's not the point -- affects your brain. It isn't a book on how GOD affects your brain, but rather, a book on how YOUR THINKING of God affects your brain. It contains numerous graphics and illustrations which came out very well on the K2. It is an interesting book to read, and thankfully has very little to do with theology. It's about studying the brain. Atheists, agnostics, fundamentalists, spiritualists, westerners, easterners, etc ... -- everyone will find this book interesting, and non-offensive. Recommended....more info
  • Enlightening page-turner!
    Those who have read the authors' other books will enjoy this new take on neurology and spirituality. Their findings about the links between health, spirituality and meditation practices are inspiring. I appreciated their practical suggestions of things I can incorporate into my daily life....more info
  • A message everyone should hear
    The thesis, as I took it, may not come as much of a surprise: dogmatism is bad. But this book goes further, using the latest neurological findings to suggest that believers and non-believers alike need to find an open-minded, compassionate place to stand. In a world where too many people use every disagreement as an occasion to choose sides for a fight, I applaud the authors for finding evidence of why we're all better off if we learn to relate to one another rather than radicalize. ...more info
    I'm a professor of business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and I have to say that I was blown away by this book, for the simple reason that I have a deep love for science, and a deep appreciation of meditation and spiritual practices. Like the previous reviews, I was surprised to see a neuroscience book be simultaneously recommended by Time Magazine and Oprah. I have followed Newberg and Waldman's research for years, and have actually used some of the focusing exercises they describe in their book to help my students do better in class. I think this is their best book yet, because anyone can use their simple exercises to help stay focused on their commitments, goals, and personal values. I plan to try out their new exercises, like Compassionate Communication, to see if I can improve social empathy with my fiance' as well as my students. I believe that they have solid documented research to show that the exercises in the book actually improve the sales potential of business people (this is based on a Stanford University study that taught a forgiveness meditation to executives at American Express). I recently found out that Waldman is conducting research at Moorpark College showing that sitting quietly or yawning for a few minutes before taking a class can improve student test scores by an entire grade point. This book goes beyond the normal self-help books because it is solidly grounded in Newberg's brain scan research showing how the simple exercises they offer in the book change the structure and function of the brain. Here are some of the points that particularly interested me:

    1. Different parts of the brain construct different perceptions and experiences of the world, including one's concept of God.

    2. Every human brain constructs a unique image and conception of reality and God.

    3. Spiritual practices can be stripped of their religious beliefs and still benefit the brain. And they can also be adapted to traditions with different theological beliefs.

    4. Meditation is good for everyone, whether you believe or disbelieve in God.

    5. The longer you meditate, the more you change your brain in very positive ways.

    I particularly like the research that showed how optimism, hope, faith, and positive thinking is the most important thing we can do to maintain a healthy brain.

    ...more info
  • Insightful and Intrepid
    The findings, exercises and lessons in this volume should be some of the first subjects taught starting in pre-school and advancing right through to the last year in high school. The ideas and techniques herein (especially compassionate listening) could have wide ranging impact on diverse areas of human endeavor such as: Ministering, mental & physical health, teaching, hospice care, government and police & fire personnel training. I would venture to say that this material could be of great value in military training as well. I'm all for formal study and instruction of the three "R's", but what does it all mean when such a large part of our brain and financial trust are relegated to building bigger, better and smarter ways to kill each other?!

    This book was exceptionally well written with substantial end notes and bibliography; clear, concise and very personable - this is a work that can truly make a positive, healthy and much needed difference in human affairs and communication. A 5 star read!
    ...more info
  • Provocative and Useful
    I got turned on to this book because of the write ups in Time, Oprah, and Newsweek (who covered these authors in other special editions). This book may be their best, because it is filled with information that I have used to feel better about myself, and to understand why other people believe the way they do. Here are the main principles the authors use throughout this book:

    1. The brain as a whole can have different experiences of God and different perceptions and realities.

    2. Everyone has a different thought of God, whether we have a positive or a negative outlook on God, our brain interprets God in our own way.

    3. Spiritual practices can benefit everyone,regardless of religious affiliation. Everyone can receive the benefits of meditation!

    4. Meditation and positivity is so healthy for the brain, so live life in a positive light.

    5. Your brain thrives on meditation, so meditate!

    The book is well researched, thought provoking, and it made me question some of my deepest beliefs about religion and human morality. There's lot's of lots of practical exercises that anyone can do to improve their health. I particularly like the research they gave on optimism and how it powerfully affects every part of the brain. ...more info
  • Understand the Biological and Biochemical Changes That Prayer, Meditation, and Focus Bring to Your Brain
    Not that many years ago, scientists were fond of telling you that you didn't ever add any more brain cells and your brain structure was pretty fixed at a young age. That so-called information was wrong. Today, we know that new brain cells and connections are being made all the time. By changing the way we live and think, we can make major changes in our brains . . . which, in turn, make other changes in our lives. What makes this book unique is that it addresses the effects of various mental, spiritual, and religious practices on the brain, body, and biochemistry. Spirituality isn't just for the spiritual world any more!

    This book is a great blessing to me in explaining the major changes I've experienced over the last 14 years since I've been very active in meditation, prayer, and Bible study. I could tell that my mind was working differently . . . as well as my body, but I haven't found a book before this one that could explain all that has been occurring. I was also pleased to learn that I can expect to continue to experience positive changes. What a joy!

    My pastor is fond of pointing out that whenever things seem a bit overwhelming that we should focus on Jesus and ask for His help. I knew from the Bible why that is good spiritual advice. Now I know why it's also good neurological and emotion-calming advice.

    When I speak with people who are of different faiths or don't have much faith, I can tell that they are experiencing the world much differently than I am. In fact, I often describe part of the Christian faith as being experience based . . . feeling Jesus acting in my life, which can make it hard to comprehend when you haven't had the same experiences due to your focus being elsewhere.

    I suspect that this book can be a great benefit to those who are interested in developing their brains and now realize that spiritual practices are very helpful in that regard. As a result, I suspect some will find faith who weren't looking for it. What could be nicer?

    Anyone who is stressed out and has no idea how to calm down will clearly find very helpful ideas from here to apply.

    The book's main weakness is in the authors' desire to describe to optimize the brain in ways that don't necessarily relate to any spiritual practice (such as the stout encouragement to yawn regularly and enthusiastically). I think that subject would have been more appropriate in another book, but I was mildly interested in what they had to say.

    The book also advocates that people of all religions should accept that all other religions are equally valid, and no one should share views that their own religion offers special benefits. I don't think the authors made their case for that point being correct--it's just their personal opinions. I let that go in grading the book because I got so much insight out of the parts of the book that describe how prayer, meditation, and focus affect the mind and body.

    I like to share my faith because it has been the best part of my life, one that just keeps getting better. In the same way that I tell people about a good new book, I also tell them about Jesus Christ. The authors seem to always ascribe less altruistic reasons for telling others about your faith. I pray that they will discover the joys of a richer spiritual life in future....more info
  • A SPECTACULAR BOOK (for believers and disbelievers alike)
    Details about this book appeared in Time magazine a few weeks ago, featuring Newberg's and Waldmans research on spirituality and the brain. They touted it as a "self-help field guide to the health benefits of spirituality" and meditation practice. Then it was featured in Oprah magazine, so as a mental health professional, I had to see what their research was all about.

    What I found was a brainstorm of some of the most amazing research on how spiritual practices change the structure and function of our brain. Like the classic book, Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, the authors, who are neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania, summarize a dozen different ways the human brain processes spiritual experiences.

    For example, one part of the brain can generate images of an angry god; another, feelings of a compassionate god; yet another part of the brain can generate doubtful thoughts, and so on. They also present new data showing how Americans are becoming less religious but more spiritual as they embrace images of a universe that is scientific yet mystical. Their online survey of a thousand participants shows that nearly everyone holds radically different concepts of "God." They even track, using people who draw pictures of God, how this concept begins as a face in a child's brain, and that the more a child thinks about god, new abstract conceptualizations begin to form in different parts of the brain.

    The authors show many brain scans of many different practitioners (religious and secular) which demonstrate that the more intense one contemplates any spiritual issue-or even evolution or the Big Bang-the more it changes the structure and function of other parts of the brain in healthy ways (for example, meditators from Christian, Buddhist, and nonreligious backgrounds permanently alter their thalamus, and thus their perception of reality), which makes their deepest beliefs feel "neurologically real." This explains the book's title, for even atheists, when they try to make sense out of religion, grow new dendrites in important areas of the brain that appear to slow down the diseases we get as we age.

    Fortunately, the authors put the neuroscience in terms anyone can grasp, and they proceed to give explicit instructions that the reader can use to stimulate their precuneus (a key center of consciousness), the frontal lobes (logic, reason, motivation), and the anterior cingulate (compassion, intuition, and social awareness). There's so much practical and provocative material, that the best way to review this book is to briefly describe each chapter:

    Ch 1: "Who Cares About God?" - We all do, argue the authors, who introduce basic concepts of neuroplasticity, the neurologal "war" between beliefs and disbeliefs, and why any religious concept generate both anger and compassion in virtually everyone's brain.

    Ch 2: "Do You Need God When You Pray?" The authors describe a new study showing how a 12 minute chanting meditation practice improved memory in older people with mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to Alzheimer's disease)in less than 8 weeks. They also show you how to create your own "brain enhancement" exercise program.

    Ch 3: "What Does God Do to Your Brain?" This chapter explores the neural varieties of meditation and prayer, and how different parts of the brain create different perceptions of God. They also discuss how different neurochemicals and drugs alter spiritual beliefs and realities.

    Ch 4: "What Does God Feel Like?" The authors' data shows that, for most people, God is more of a feeling than an idea, that everyone's spiritual experiences are unique, and that mystical experiences often generate long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness, and love.

    Ch 5: "What Does God Look Like?" The authors collected adult drawings of God and compared them with pictures drawn by children. It turns out that the most sophisticated drawings are made by liberal believers, atheists, and agnostic college students. However, many atheists maintain childhood images, which could explain why god doesn't make any rational sense to them. The authors suggest that everyone has "God" neuron or circuit in their brain, and they show you where it is.

    Ch 6: "Does God Have a Heart?" They examine the Baylor University survey depicting four "personalities" of God, but they present their own survey evidence showing that a previously unrecognized and large segment of Americans maintain a mystical and loving vision of nature, God, and people.

    Ch 7: "What Happens When God Gets Mad?" Surprisingly, the authors (one is agnostic, and the other describes himself as being personally guided by evidence-based natural science)both find value in all spiritual practices and traditions. They found little evidence to criticize religious fundamentalism, except when it involves angry rhetoric. They point out the neurological dangers of hostility, fear, authoritarianism, and idealism, and they suggest that we all have a fundamentalistic and an atheistic mentality hardwired in the brain.

    Ch 8: "Exercising Your Brain" Included are eight ways to keep your brain physically and mentally tuned-up. Even yawning appears to be an amazing way to calm down a dysfunctional brain, and they have about 40 references to support this claim. In fact, they include over a 1000 endnotes and references to support what many might think are widely speculative claims. For me, as a professional, this is wonderful, because it shows that they didn't cherry-pick the research; indeed they admirably point out the weaknesses to their own conclusions and work.

    Ch 9: "Finding Serenity" This chapter, and the next, are filled with simple, well-tested meditation techniques to help any reader, of any religious or nonreligious persuasion, to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while enhancing cognition,memory, and greater sensitivity and empathy toward one's self and others. This well-documented research shows that nearly any meditation technique can be removed from its theological background to provide beneficial neurological and psychological changes. The authors also provide convincing evidence that only a few minutes of meditation, throughout the day, improves the functioning of the brain.

    Ch 10: "Compassionate Communication" This is an original meditation exercise that can be used when dialoguing with others. It takes fifteen minutes to learn, and their research shows that it improves compassion social intimacy by 11%, even when done with with strangers. They then include nearly a dozen ways to quickly resolve interpersonal conflicts,all of which make sound psychological sense.

    Finally, in the epilogue, the authors talk briefly about their own journeys into the murky domain where science and religion intersects.

    This is a "must read" book for believers and nonbelievers alike, and it might even help, as the authors suggest, to bring a little more peace and tolerance into this world. God knows we need it!
    ...more info
  • This is great . . . what a nice gift to the world!
    As a nurse practitioner in women's health, and one who has been exploring consciousness and God for my entire life, I find that nearly every religious and spiritual practice can bring peace and happiness into my life. This book reinforces my belief by presenting a wealth of scientific evidence showing how beneficial prayer and meditation can be to your physical health and well-being, and it doesn't matter what your personal religious convictions might be. And with nearly 70 pages of medical and biological references at the end of the book, even skeptics who believe that science has all the answers should come away with the knowledge that secular forms of meditation and self-reflection provide a wealth of neurological and psychological benefits. As the authors of this book explain in clear and simple language, destructive emotions like anger and hate have no place in religion, politics, or in any social situation - be it at work, home, or with one's children or spouse. I tried out the "Compassionate Communication" exercise described in Chapter 10 with my husband, and I found it very easy to do. As we slowed down our talking, and consciously relaxed as we focused on each other's eyes, we discovered that we could quickly to talk about very difficult topics in a way that felt totally nonjudgmental and loving. I felt that we could listen to each other more deeply than we had ever done before, and it happened the very first time we did it. We ended up talking for hours from a very intimate place that really felt safe for both of us. ...more info
  • well written and inspiring
    This book is an interesting, enjoyable read. The material is fact-based and easily understood. It has inspired me to follow its guidelines to a healthier and more focused brain. I will probably read it a second time because it contains such amazing insights into the working of our minds....more info


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