As we saw in the previous post, God designed us to know Him and to communicate with Him! Brain imaging during the heights of spiritual experience in prayer reflects a pattern of activity in which the sense of self disappears (1).
More recent research (2) has looked at brain activity during improvised prayers (from the heart, as opposed to memorized prayers) in people who consider God to be a real entity with Whom they interact. Not surprisingly, activity increases in brain areas typically involved in social recognition and interaction exchange – i.e., “fellowship” with God. The involved regions include the temporoparietal junction, the temporopolar region, and the anterior medial prefrontal cortex.
But God’s Word promises not only that we will find Him if we seek Him, but that He will reward us for diligently seeking Him (Hebrews 11:6). These rewards include life (Psalm 69:32), joy (Psalm 105:3), blessings (Psalm 119:2), peace (Philippians 4:6-7), and answered prayer (Jeremiah 29:11-13). Sometimes the blessings we receive from prayer are tangible, and sometimes they are intangible but equally real. We should pray not because we expect God to immediately fulfill our wish list, but because prayer pleases Him and changes us. The peace, joy and fellowship with Him we receive through prayer is its own reward.
Once again, neurotheology is just beginning to reflect what the Bible has shown us all along. Silently praying the Model (Lord’s) Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) or other memorized prayers is associated with activation of the reward system in the brain known as the mesolimbic dopamine reward system, or ventral tegmental area- nucleus accumbens pathways (3). Once these pathways are activated, the rewards perceived by the mind, including pleasure and relief of pain, tend to encourage repetition of the experience. Establishing the daily practice of prayer therefore makes it easier for us to “pray without ceasing”(1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Similar activation of this reward system occurs with feelings of romantic love, but how much better to be blessed by loving prayers to One Who will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Just as the natural use of our body, intended for sexual pleasure in marriage, can be perverted to fulfill sinful lusts, the mesolimbic dopamine reward system can be misused by drug addiction or by other compulsive and risk-taking behaviors such as gambling. God’s Word warns us not to seek rewards from mind-altering substances such as alcohol, but to be Spirit-filled by uplifting one another, thanking God and singing to Him in our hearts (Ephesians 5: 18-20).
Jesus asks us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). We can selflessly love one another only because we have the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ enables us to refrain from sin (Romans 7:25) and removes our fear, replacing it with power, love, and wisdom (2 Timothy 1:7). As we pray and give thanks, the mind of Christ allows us to focus on God’s truth, justice, purity, beauty and holiness, which brings us joy and peace (Philippians 4:4-9).
The mind of Christ allows us to communicate with the Holy Spirit, Who instructs us (1 Corinthians 2:9-16), and to have a servant’s heart, losing our sense of self (Philippians 2:5-8) and preferring to serve others in love (Romans 15: 5-7). Simply put, the mind of Christ enables us to love one another as Christ loves us.
When asked to make judgments of themselves or of others, Christians had increased activity in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which was different from the activated region of non-religious people performing the same task (4). Even more fascinating was that activity in the dorsal MPFC in Christians was directly related to their rating scores of how important Jesus' judgment was in subjectively evaluating a person's personality!
A few weeks ago, breaking news (5) in neurotheology revealed that there is no single “God spot” as earlier researchers had thought, but that many brain regions are involved in spiritual experiences. Not surprising, since we are to love God with all our mind! (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30)
This research showed that decreased activity in the right parietal lobe (photo), which is involved in self-orientation, is associated with an increased feeling of closeness to God. Less concentration on self could also enable believers to concentrate on the well-being of others, having a servant’s heart and putting the needs of others ahead of their own needs. Being faithful to church and participating in religious practices was correlated with increased activity in the frontal lobe governing attention and concentration (5).
In no way do I intend this article to imply that brain regions and pathways could slavishly control believers’ perceived experiences of faith, love, joy and peace. Nor can our precious communion with Him in prayer be reduced to or explained by brain activity. Rather, I believe that God endowed His favorite creation with the neural circuitry, or hard-wiring, needed to fully appreciate and fellowship with Him!
1.Newberg A, D’Aquili E, Rause. V, Brain Science and the Biology of Belief: Why God Won’t Go Away. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
2. Schjoedt U, Stodkilde-Jorgensen H, Geertz AW, Roepstorff A. Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitve and Affective Neuroscience. 2009;4:199–207.
3. Schjødt U, Stødkilde-Jørgensen H, Geertz AW, Roepstorff A. Rewarding prayers. Neuroscience Letters. 2008 Oct 10;443(3):165-8. Epub 2008 Jul 31.
4. Han S, Mao L, Gu X, Zhu Y, Ge J, Ma Y. Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing. Social Neuroscience. 2008;3(1):1-15.