Most folks probably couldn't locate their parietal
lobe with a map and a compass. For the record, it's at
the top of your head - aft of the frontal
lobe, fore of the occipital
lobe, north of the temporal
lobe. What makes the parietal lobe special is not where
it lives but what it does - particularly concerning matters
If you've ever prayed so hard that you've lost all sense of
a larger world outside yourself, that's your parietal lobe at
work. If you've ever meditated so deeply that you'd swear the
very boundaries of your body had dissolved, that's your parietal
too. There are other regions responsible for making your brain
the spiritual amusement park it can be: your thalamus plays
a role, as do your frontal
lobes. But it's your parietal lobe - a central mass of
tissue that processes sensory input - that may have the most
Needy creatures that we are, we put the brain's spiritual centers
to use all the time. We pray for peace; we meditate for serenity;
we chant for wealth. We travel to Lourdes in search of a miracle;
we go to Mecca to show our devotion; we eat hallucinogenic mushrooms
to attain transcendent vision and gather in church basements
to achieve its sober opposite. But there is nothing we pray
- or chant or meditate - for more than health.
Health, by definition, is the sine qua non of everything else.
If you're dead, serenity is academic. So we convince ourselves
that while our medicine is strong and our doctors are wise,
our prayers may heal us too.
Here's what's surprising: a growing body of scientific evidence
suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend
religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one
year than people who don't attend. People who believe in a loving
God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who
believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS
will back off at least a bit when it's hit with a double-barreled
blast of belief. "Even accounting for medications," says Dr.
Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the
Miami who studies HIV
belief, "spirituality predicts for better disease control."
It's hard not to be impressed by findings like that, but a
skeptic will say there's nothing remarkable - much less spiritual
- about them. You live longer if you go to church because you're
there for the cholesterol-screening drive and the visiting-nurse
service. Your viral
load goes down when you include spirituality in your
fight against HIV because your levels of cortisol - a stress
hormone - go down first. "Science doesn't deal in supernatural
explanations," says Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral
medicine at Columbia
University Medical Center and author of Blind
Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine.
"Religion and science address different concerns."
That's undeniably true - up to a point. But it's also true
that our brains and bodies contain an awful lot of spiritual
wiring. Even if there's a scientific explanation for every strand
of it, that doesn't mean we can't put it to powerful use. And
if one of those uses can make us well, shouldn't we take advantage
of it? "A large body of science shows a positive impact of religion
on health," says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology,
psychology and religious studies at the University
of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Penn's Center for Spirituality
and the Mind. "The way the brain works is so compatible with
religion and spirituality that we're going to be enmeshed in
both for a long time."
All in Your Head
"enmeshed in the brain" is as good a way as any to describe
Newberg's work of the past 15 years. The author of four books,
including the soon-to-be-released How God Changes Your Brain,
he has looked more closely than most at how our spiritual data-processing
center works, conducting various types of brain scans on more
than 100 people, all of them in different kinds of worshipful
or contemplative states. Over time, Newberg and his team have
come to recognize just which parts of the brain light up during
just which experiences.
When people engage in prayer, it's the frontal
lobes that take the lead, since they govern focus and
concentration. During very deep prayer, the parietal
lobe powers down, which is what allows us to experience
that sense of having loosed our earthly moorings. The frontal
lobes go quieter when worshippers are involved in the singular
activity of speaking in tongues - which jibes nicely with the
speakers' subjective experience that they are not in control
of what they're saying.
Pray and meditate enough and some changes in the brain become
permanent. Long-term meditators - those with 15 years of practice
or more - appear to have thicker frontal lobes than nonmeditators.
People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit
an asymmetry in the thalamus - a feature that other people can
develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills.
"It may be that some people have fundamental asymmetry [in
the thalamus] to begin with," Newberg says, "and that leads
them down this path, which changes the brain further."
No matter what explains the shape of the brain, it can pay
dividends. Better-functioning frontal lobes help boost memory.
In one study, Newberg
scanned the brains of people who complained of poor recall before
they underwent meditation training, then scanned them again
after. As the lobes bulked up, memory improved.
Faith and health overlap in other ways too. Take fasting. One
of the staples of both traditional wellness protocols and traditional
religious rituals is the cleansing fast, which is said to purge
toxins in the first case and purge sins or serve other pious
ends in the second. There are secular water fasts, tea fasts
and grapefruit fasts, to say nothing of the lemon, maple-syrup
and cayenne-pepper fast. Jews fast on Yom
Kippur; Muslims observe Ramadan;
Catholics have Lent;
Hindus give up food on 18 major holidays. Done right, these
fasts may lead to a state of clarity and even euphoria. This,
in turn, can give practitioners the blissful sense that whether
the goal of the food restriction is health or spiritual insight,
it's being achieved. Maybe it is, but there's also chemical
legerdemain at work.
The brain is a very energy-intensive organ, one that requires
a lot of calories to keep running. When food intake is cut,
the liver steps into the breach, producing glucose and sending
it throughout the body - always making sure the brain gets a
particularly generous helping. The liver's reserve lasts only
about 24 hours, after which, cells begin breaking down the body's
fats and proteins - essentially living off the land. As this
happens, the composition of the blood - including hormones,
and metabolic by-products - changes. Throw this much loopy chemistry
at a sensitive machine like the brain and it's likely to go
on the blink. "There are very real changes that occur in the
body very rapidly that might explain the clarity during fasting,"
says Dr. Catherine Gordon, an endocrinologist at Children's
Hospital in Boston.
"The brain is in a different state even during a short-term
fast." Biologically, that's not good, but the light-headed sense
of peace, albeit brief, that comes with it reinforces the fast
and rewards you for engaging in it all the same.
How Powerful Is Prayer?
For most believers, the element of religious life that intersects
most naturally with health is prayer. Very serious theologians
believe in the power of so-called intercessory
prayer to heal the sick, and some very serious scientists
have looked at it too, with more than 6,000 published studies
on the topic just since 2000. Some of them have been funded
by groups like the John Templeton Foundation - part of whose
mission is to search for overlaps of religion and science -
but others have come from more dispassionate investigators.
As long ago as 1872, Francis
Galton, the man behind eugenics and fingerprinting, reckoned
that monarchs should live longer than the rest of us, since
millions of people pray for the health of their King or Queen
every day. His research showed just the opposite - no surprise,
perhaps, given the rich diet and extensive leisure that royal
families enjoy. An oft discussed 1988 study by cardiologist
Randolph Byrd of San
Francisco General Hospital found that heart patients
who were prayed for fared better than those who were not. But
a larger study in 2005 by cardiologist Herbert
Benson at Harvard
University challenged that finding, reporting that complications
occurred in 52% of heart-bypass patients who received intercessory
prayer and 51% of those who didn't. Sloan says even attempting
to find a scientific basis for a link between prayer and healing
is a "fool's errand" - and for the most basic methodological
reason. "It's impossible to know how much prayer is received,"
he says, "and since you don't know that, you can't determine
Such exactitude does not dissuade believers - not surprising,
given the centrality of prayer to faith. But there is one thing
on which both camps agree: when you're setting up your study,
it matters a great deal whether subjects know they're being
prayed for. Give them even a hint as to whether they're in the
prayer group or a control group and the famed placebo
effect can blow your data to bits.
First described in the medical literature in the 1780s, the
placebo effect can work all manner of curative magic against
all manner of ills. Give a patient a sugar
pill but call it an analgesic, and pain may actually
go away. Parkinson's
disease patients who underwent a sham surgery that they
were told would boost the low dopamine levels responsible for
their symptoms actually experienced a dopamine bump. Newberg
describes a cancer patient whose tumors shrank when he was given
an experimental drug, grew back when he learned that the drug
was ineffective in other patients and shrank again when his
doctor administered sterile water but said it was a more powerful
version of the medication. The U.S.
Food and Drug Administration ultimately declared the
drug ineffective, and the patient died. All that may be necessary
for the placebo effect to kick in is for one part of the brain
to take in data from the world and hand that information off
to another part that controls a particular bodily function.
"The brain appears to be able to target the placebo effect in
a variety of ways," says Newberg.
There's no science proving that the intercessions of others
will make you well. But it surely does no harm - and probably
helps - to know that people are praying for you.
Faith and Longevity
If belief in a pill can be so powerful, belief
in God and the teachings of religion - which touch devout
people at a far more profound level than mere pharmacology -
ought to be even more so. One way to test this is simply to
study the health of regular churchgoers. Social demographer
Robert Hummer of the University of Texas has been following
a population of subjects since 1992, and his results are hard
to argue with. Those who never attend religious services have
twice the risk of dying over the next eight years as people
who attend once a week. People who fall somewhere between no
churchgoing and weekly churchgoing also fall somewhere between
in terms of mortality.
A similar analysis by Daniel
Hall, an Episcopal priest and a surgeon at the University
of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that church attendance
accounts for two to three additional years of life. To be sure,
he also found that exercise accounts for three to five extra
years and statin therapy for 2.5 to 3.5. Still, joining a flock
and living longer do appear to be linked.
Investigators haven't teased out all the variables at work
in this phenomenon, but Hummer, for one, says some of the factors
are no surprise: "People embedded in religious communities are
more likely to rely on one another for friendship, support,
rides to doctor's appointments."
But even hard scientists concede that those things aren't
the whole story and that there's a constellation of other variables
that are far harder to measure. "Religious
belief is not just a mind question but involves the commitment
of one's body as well," says Ted Kaptchuk, a professor of medicine
at Harvard Medical
School. "The sensory organs, tastes, smells, sounds,
music, the architecture of religious buildings [are involved]."
Just as the very act of coming into a hospital exposes a patient
to sights and smells that are thought to prime the brain and
body for healing, so may the act of walking into a house of
Neal Krause, a sociologist and public-health expert at the
Michigan, has tried to quantify some of those more amorphous
variables in a longitudinal
study of 1,500 people that he has been conducting since
1997. He has focused particularly on how regular churchgoers
weather economic downturns as well as the stresses and health
woes that go along with them. Not surprisingly, he has found
that parishioners benefit when they receive social support from
their church. But he has also found that those people who give
help fare even better than those who receive it - a pillar of
religious belief if ever there was one. He has also found that
people who maintain a sense of gratitude for what's going right
in their lives have a reduced incidence of depression, which
is itself a predictor of health. And in another study he conducted
that was just accepted for publication, he found that people
who believe their lives have meaning live longer than people
who don't. "That's one of the purported reasons for religion,"
Krause says. "The sign on the door says, 'Come in here and you'll
African-American churches have been especially good at maximizing
the connection between faith and health. Earlier in American
history, churches were the only institutions American blacks
had the freedom to establish and run themselves, and they thus
became deeply embedded in the culture. "The black church is
a different institution than the synagogue or mosque or even
the white church," says Ken Resnicow, a professor of health
and behavior education at the University
of Michigan School of Public Health. "It is the center
of spiritual, community and political life."
Given the generally higher incidence of obesity, hypertension
and other lifestyle ills among African Americans, the church
is in a powerful position to do a lot of good. In the 1990s,
Marci Campbell, a professor of nutrition at the University
of North Carolina, helped launch a four-year trial called
North Carolina Black Churches United for Better Health. The
project signed up 50 churches with a goal of helping the 2,500
parishioners eat better, exercise more and generally improve
their fitness. The measures taken included having pastors preach
health in their sermons and getting churches to serve healthier
foods at community events.
The program was so successful that it has been renamed the
Body and Soul project and rolled out nationally - complete with
literature, DVDs and cookbooks - in collaboration with the National
Cancer Institute and the American
Cancer Society. To skeptics who conclude that the churches
have played a secondary role in the success of the programs
- as a mere venue for secular health counseling - Campbell points
out that in her studies, the most effective pitches came not
from the nutritionists but from the pulpit. "The body is a temple,
and the connection was made between the physical body and religious
and spiritual well-being," she says.
Many scientists and theologians who study these matters advocate
a system in which both pastoral and medical care are offered
as parts of a whole. If a woman given a diagnosis of breast
cancer is already offered the services of an oncologist,
a psychologist and a reconstructive
surgeon, why shouldn't her doctor discuss her religious
needs with her and include a pastor in the mix if that would
While churches are growing increasingly willing to accept
the assistance of health-care experts, doctors and hospitals
have been slower to seek out the help of spiritual
counselors. The fear has long been that patients aren't
interested in asking such spiritually intimate questions of
their doctors, and the doctors, for their part, would be uncomfortable
answering them. But this turns out not to be true. When psychologist
Jean Kristeller of Indiana
State University conducted a survey of oncologists, she
found that a large proportion of them did feel it was appropriate
to talk about spiritual issues with patients and to offer a
referral if they weren't equipped to address the questions themselves.
They didn't do so simply because they didn't know how to raise
the topic and feared that their patients would take offense,
in any event. When patients were asked, they insisted that they'd
welcome such a conversation but that their doctors had never
initiated one. What both groups needed was someone to break
Kristeller, who had participated in earlier work exploring
how physicians could help their patients quit smoking, recalled
a short - five- to seven-minute - conversation that the leader
of a study had devised to help doctors address the problem.
The recommended dialogue conformed to what's known as patient-centered
care - a clinical way of saying doctors should ask questions
then clam up and listen to the answers. In the case of smoking,
they were advised merely to make their concern known to patients,
then ask them if they'd ever tried to quit before. Depending
on how that first question was received, they could ask when
those earlier attempts had been made, whether the patients would
be interested in trying again and, most important, if it was
all right to follow up on the conversation in the future. "The
more patient-centered the conversations were, the more impact
they had," Kristeller says.
The success of that approach led her to develop a similar
guide for doctors who want to discuss religious questions with
cancer patients. The approach has not yet been tested in any
large-scale studies, but in the smaller surveys Kristeller has
conducted, it has been a roaring success: up to 90% of the patients
whose doctors approached them in this way were not offended
by the overture, and 75% said it was very helpful. Within as
little as three weeks, the people in that group reported reduced
feelings of depression, an improved quality of life and a greater
sense that their doctors cared about them.
Even doctors who aren't familiar with Kristeller's script
are finding it easier to combine spiritual care and medical
care. HealthCare Chaplaincy is an organization of Christian,
Jewish, Muslim and Zen Buddhist board-certified chaplains affiliated
with more than a dozen hospitals and clinics in the New York
City area. The group routinely provides pastoral care to patients
as part of the total package of treatment. The chaplains, like
doctors, have a caseload of patients they visit on their rounds,
taking what amounts to a spiritual history and either offering
counseling on their own or referring patients to others. The
Rev. Walter Smith, president and CEO of the chaplaincy and an
end-of-life specialist, sees what his group offers as a health-care
product - one that is not limited to believers.
What patients need, he says, is a "person who can make a competent
assessment and engage a patient's spiritual person in the service
of health. When people say, 'I'm not sure you can help because
I'm not very religious,' the chaplains say, 'That's not a problem.
Can I sit down and engage you in conversation?'"
Patients who say yes often find themselves exploring what
they consider secular questions that touch on such primal matters
of life and death, they might as well be spiritual ones. The
chaplains can also refer patients to other
care providers, such as social workers, psychologists
and guided-imagery specialists. The point of all this isn't
so much what the modality is; it's that the patient has a chance
to find one that works. "People say you tell the truth to your
doctor, your priest and your funeral director," says Smith,
"because these people matter at the end." It's that truth -
or at least a path to it - that chaplains seek to provide.
Smith's group is slowly going national, and even the most
literal-minded scientists welcome the development. Says Sloan,
the author of Blind
Faith: "I think that a chaplain's job is to explore
the patient's values and help the patient come to some decision.
I think that's absolutely right."
Sloan's view is catching on. Few people think of religion
as an alternative to medicine. The frontline tools of an emergency
room will always be splints and sutures, not prayers - and well-applied
medicine along with smart prevention will always be the best
ways to stay well. Still, if the U.S.'s expanding health-care
emergency has taught us anything, it's that we can't afford
to be choosy about where we look for answers. Doctors, patients
and pastors battling disease already know that help comes in
a whole lot of forms. It's the result, not the source, that
counts the most.