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Meditation and Emotions: Their Impact on Your Brain and Health

An Interview with Peter Van Houten M.D.
Spring 2011 2 Comments

Q: Peter, this interview is based on the book, How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman. What is your overall impression of the book?

A: I think the authors did a brilliant job in bringing together all the latest research, including some of their own, on how religious beliefs and practices affect the brain. The book is well written and accessible to the non-scientist, but a scientist can also gain from it. I’ve thought about this subject deeply for years and I find the book very helpful.

One thing I really appreciated about the book is that the authors included studies of a wide range of different religions. Because of this, they were able to show that the positive effects of religious beliefs and practices on the brain are not tied to any specific religion or belief system.

Q: Does the book suggest that all religious beliefs and practices are helpful to the brain?

A: Generally speaking yes, but there are exceptions. The book shows that certain concepts of God are not helpful because they evoke negative emotions like anger and fear. The authors found that about half the people in the United States who believed in God, from a broad spectrum of religious disciplines, viewed God as authoritarian or critical. These people saw God as someone who laid down all the rules for them to obey — if they didn’t obey the rules, they would get “in trouble.” The studies show that concepts like these not only evoke anger and fear, but lead also to judgmental attitudes and intolerance towards anyone perceived as “different.”

From the standpoint of health, negative emotions like anger, fear, and intolerance activate the limbic system, the part of the brain that stores negative emotions and functions as the brain’s “fight or flight” safety net. All negative emotions, but especially anger and fear, release destructive neurochemicals into the brain which, over time, can cause cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems.

Q: Does the book discuss other practices, religious or otherwise, that are harmful to the brain?

A: Yes. The book explains that the brain engages in an ongoing process of “mirroring.” When you see someone who is angry, even if it’s just a picture of an angry person, your brain begins to respond in an angry fashion, and of course that response affects your limbic system. Watching violent movies, listening to music with violent lyrics, listening to military music—all of these have an arousing effect on the limbic system. Violent music and images in particular have a very negative effect.

Violent interactive video games present an even more serious danger. The video games today have become very realistic. There are video games in which you shoot down planes, and kill other people, and games in which you fight other people hand to hand. The young people playing the games are modeling aggressive and violent behavior, and their brains will respond as though the video reality were a true reality. The result is not only increased violence among young people but also more anxiety and depression.

What the book really shows, in an understandable way and backed up by scientific evidence, is why our mental diet—the environment we create for ourselves—is so very important. At the clinic where I work, we often caution parents of young children: “No television at all before age two and limit it very strictly until age five.” In those early years children’s nervous systems are so pliable that the exposure can be harmful.

Q. Does this process of mirroring also occur in positive ways?

A. Interestingly, mirroring also occurs when people smile. Even if you’re not smiling yourself, when you see a smiling face, your brain cells begin to mirror those of the person who is smiling. Frequent smiling stimulates the brain circuits that enable you to maintain a positive outlook on life. When Yogananda said we should all become “smile millionaires” he obviously meant it. We’re changing our brains, and the brains of others, just by smiling at them.

I was very pleased to find this research about the benefits of smiling. If I said to one of my patients, “If you smile, you will feel better,” he or she would probably balk if I didn’t have scientific research to back this up. So it’s very helpful to have studies showing that smiling is among the most important things you can do to maintain a positive outlook on life.

Q: What does the book say about the effects of meditation on the brain?

A: Of all the practices discussed in the book as helpful to the brain, meditation is given the greatest emphasis. One of the points the authors make that I really appreciate is that you don’t need to meditate six hours a day to begin to strengthen the areas of the brain associated with spiritual development. If you’re having trouble meditating long periods, you can start with 10-20 minutes a day and gradually increase the length of your meditation over time. But you can make meaningful brain changes by meditating 10-20 minutes a day for two months. Your brain will begin to function differently.

Q: There are studies supporting that conclusion?

A: Yes. The authors of the book did a study of people ages 35-69 which shows that when someone is meditating 10-20 minutes a day, within days, at a microscopic level, there is a growth of new dendrites in the brain. The dendrites are the extensions that grow out from the brain cells. Within two months it’s possible to see these brain changes on an MRI or PET scan, two of the most common brain-scanning procedures.

The incredible changeability of the brain is tied to the astonishing speed at which these dendrites can grow or recede. Since there are about 10,000 dendrites per brain cell, changes in even a handful of brain cells can make a difference in the overall functioning of the brain.

Q: The body ages, of course, but it sounds as though the brain, perhaps even more than any other part of the body, has an amazing ability to rejuvenate?

A: Yes. Although the cells of the brain and their dendrites deteriorate with age, the more you meditate, the more you preserve your cognitive functions and the ability to remember things as well as you did when you were younger. One thing I’ve said for years to my patients is: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” To retain cognitive function a person has to stay mentally active. We now have scientific evidence showing that adding a meditation practice provides a very important additional bulwark against the loss of cognitive function with age, because it spurs the growth of new dendrites.

Q: What do the studies show about the effects of longtime meditation on the brain?

A: When we look at the brains of longtime meditators, what we see is a quiet limbic system and strong, robust prefrontal lobes. When a person meditates at the point between the eyebrows, the spiritual eye, his or her awareness is focused in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, the brain’s most superconscious area.

Focusing at the prefrontal lobes has an automatic quieting effect on the limbic system. The more you meditate and strengthen the prefrontal lobes, the more you inhibit activity in the limbic system. The authors cite studies showing that longtime meditators have limbic systems that are very calm, more “un-arousable,” and less reactive. Longtime meditators might be described as having, in Paramhansa Yogananda’s words, the ability to remain calm “amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”

Strong prefrontal lobes are also associated with improved stress management, increased emotional self-control, and greater social awareness and compassion for others—qualities we find in most longtime meditators. The studies have also identified an area associated with the prefrontal lobes called the anterior cingulate, which we now know relates specifically to the ability to feel compassion and to get along with other people.

Q: Are any other areas of the brain affected by longtime meditation?

A: Yes. When people are meditating and feel a sense of expansion, timelessness, and oneness with all life, there is decreased activity in the parietal lobe, which is a region in the rear of the brain. The parietal lobe function is known to be associated with our sense of time and space, and how we relate to others who are different from ourselves.

Q: Does the book explain why, over the years, meditators may experience God as more of a reality?

A. Yes. The research shows that the more you meditate on God, or on any concept or object that’s meaningful to you, the more real the object of your meditation becomes. For those who meditate on God, God becomes tangibly real—as real as any object they can see or touch.

These changes in perception are reflected in the area of the brain known as the thalamus, which is associated with mental concepts becoming tangibly real to a person. What’s also interesting is that we can now determine if someone is a longtime meditator simply by looking at a scan of the thalamus. The scan demonstrates very clearly that the thalamus of a longtime meditator functions differently from that of a non-meditator.

Q: Apart from meditation, how do Paramhansa Yogananda’s other techniques relate to what the authors discuss in the book?

A: The authors discuss a number of different practices including breathing techniques and positive affirmations, and discuss why they seem to be helpful. Science is still trying to understand exactly why these practices may be helpful, and research on these questions continues.

Toward the end of the book, the authors cite eight positive practices that the studies show to be beneficial for both neurological and spiritual health. One of the practices is smiling, which we’ve already discussed. Another practice they mention is repetitive finger movements.

The book shows that simply going through the finger movements associated with keeping track of mantras or saying the rosary, is both relaxing and neurologically beneficial. I think we can conclude, from this research, that counting kriyas using kriya beads, or the fingers, has a similar effect.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say about the book?

A: I think for anybody who teaches meditation or hatha yoga, this is an important book to read. I’ve talked about some of the studies on meditation. The book also discusses studies showing that hatha yoga, when done in a meditative way, has positive effects on the prefrontal lobes. This seems to me a good description of the way Ananda Yoga approaches yoga postures—with gentle stretches and calming, uplifting affirmations.

I’d also like to say that this is a excellent book for the general public, especially for people to learn how a meditation practice can transform their lives over time, even if they start by meditating only 10-20 minutes a day. Most people would like to be happier and to live less buffeted by the winds of fate. The book shows how to achieve these goals using techniques that science has shown to be effective.

Finally, it’s important to mention that Paramhansa Yogananda said that the central nervous system is the pathway to God—that we all find God through our own nervous system. This book shows that more and more, yoga and science are coming together on the vital importance of the nervous system spiritually.

Peter Van Houten, a Lightbearer and resident of Ananda Village, is the founder and CEO of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village.

Related link: click here to learn about our online meditation course.

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2 Comments »

  • Michael Vera says:

    Thanks for the Great review. I bought this book a while back but never got around to reading it. Now it is on my must reading list. I have been meditating since 1975 and I can feel the difference.

  • Barbara says:

    This is a great book and this article is a wonderful review. It connects nicely our teachings with current brain research. Thank you!

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