By Prof. Raphael Nyarkotey Obu
Worship has effect on the brain
Recent advances in neuroscience and brain-imaging technology have offered researchers a look into the physiology of religious experiences.Like Richard Dawkins says, “Why do people believe in God when there isn’t any evidence that God exists?” Well, probably, he’s talking about a particular kind of evidence. And yes, maybe there isn’t scientific evidence for it. But if you go to a church or a synagogue, you’ll find people who have loads of evidence that God exists in their lives. It may not be evidence he is willing to accept, but nonetheless it’s still evidence. But what does brain science add to age-old debates about the existence of God and the value of religion?
The Oxford Dictionary(n.d.) explains: “Worship” will be defined as “Reverent honor and homage paid to God” or “to render religious reverence and homage.” Worship is assumed to be the necessary consequence of a believer who has faith as defined in Hebrews 11:6 (King James) “he who comes to God must believe that He is”.
David gives us a little clue about how to access all of the benefits of worship. Psalm 100:4 says: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” David is referencing God’s temple in Jerusalem. The temple consisted of the temple, inner courts and outer courts. The temple is where God’s presence dwelt back before Jesus. Today, we are the temple and God lives in us so worship happens in our innermost part — our heart. Entering gates with thanksgiving refers to the outermost part of the Temple and the courts are the inner courts.
The Brain function and Worship
Liedke(2018) thesis found that when we worship God, there is an increase in BPNF, which is a neurotransmitter that helps us grow healthy brain cells. Liedke notes:
“Every morning, we wake up with 300 million more brain cells. When we worship, gamma waves are created in our brain that can actually help us feel the presence of God”.
Psalm 22:3 says that God inhabits the praises of his people and we actually get a physical boost as these gamma waves fire in our brains while we worship.
Liedke(2018) agrees that the Gamma waves do more than just make us feel better, they actually increase our intelligence, too. Research has shown that as you worship, you increase in wisdom and there’s an increase in your capacity to understand the goodness of God. So your relationship with God deepens as you worship him. As you worship, your brain is comprehending wisdom from the living Word helping grow your capacity to understand that God absolutely adores you. Interestingly, just seven minutes of worship every day will change your brain.
But this actually takes intentionality. When I think of worshippers in the Bible, the first person I think of is David. He danced and wrote 73 of the 150 Psalms in the Bible. David loved worship. In Psalm 27:6, David says, “At his sanctuary, I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy, singing and praising the Lord with music.” Another version says, “I will bring him my offerings of praise” (Psalm 27:6 TPT). Did you notice that David said sacrifice? A sacrifice of praise. This means that it won’t always be easy to praise. Sometimes we won’t feel like it or sometimes something in life will make it hard to praise God. Our parents get divorced. Our best friend moves away. Our family member has cancer. We feel anxious or depressed or lonely. In these moments, we, like David, give up a sacrifice of praise. We make a choice to worship. We make a choice to believe God is still good.
Isaiah 61 talks about God giving us a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. If you are battling depression or anxiety or loneliness, God wants to take away your despair and clothe you with praise and joy.
Worship Effects on the Brain
Krause and Hayward (2014) found religious music to promote a strong sense of connectedness with other people.Worship and prayer have a well-documented positive effect on both the person who engages in the prayer and worship, and the person who is the subject of prayer (Galton 2012).
Another 2008 study by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of schoolchildren in Boston found that children with three or more years of musical instrument training performed better than those who didn’t learn an instrument in auditory discrimination and fine motor skills. They also tested better on vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning, which involves understanding visual information. The interesting thing about this study is that you would naturally expect someone who is learning an instrument to develop fine motor skills, which they did. However, you wouldn’t necessarily expect better vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning. It’s amazing how the brain is wired and how music shapes the brain.
Andrew Newberg a radiologist who first began to study the effects of prayer on the individual using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) conducted a study on prayer and the brain effects. fMRI was a relatively new form of advanced imaging technology which is able to show detail unprecedented in prior imaging techniques, using the properties of the highly-oxygenated blood in the brain and is able to capture minute metabolic changes and extrapolate a detailed image of not only the physical location studied but also the metabolic characteristics of the same location (Logothetis, Pauls, Augath, Trinth, & Oelterman, 2001).
Using a simple study design, he recruited patients from different faith traditions and directed them to spend twelve minutes a day in active prayer, a conversation with God and control group who did nothing. After obtaining a baseline fMRI, a repeat fMRI scan was obtained and differences in volume and metabolic activity were evaluated. The startling finding shattered the previously believed myth that the brain would not grow in adulthood. A statistically significant increase in the volume of the cingulate cortex was observed and launched Newberg’s career into the field of neurotheology (Newberg et al., 2003). Newberg’s findings were startling and demonstrated actual quantifiable changes in brain volume and metabolism in two very distinct structures. The first structure was the cingulate cortex which increased demonstrably in volume and metabolic activity. The second was another unexpected finding the down regulation of the amygdala’s fear response and subsequent decrease in the activation of the hypothalamus fight or flight mechanisms (Newberg, 2003). Since this hallmark finding the images collected have brought understanding of the physiological benefits of prayer which have been studied in the past. The main neurophysiologic benefits of worship and prayer can be summarized by Newburg’s findings pertaining to the cingulate cortex and the amygdala.
Worship and the Cingulate
An increase in the volume of the cingulate cortex or gyrus results in an increase in not only the capability, but also implementation of empathetic thinking and feeling. In essence, as the cingulate grows in volume and metabolic activity you transform into a nicer, more forgiving and trustful person (Kuchan, 2007). Jesus’ direction in Matthew 5:44 (King James) to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” becomes a more attainable goal if the person spends time in daily worship and prayer. John 13:34-35 (King James) states the believer should “love one another; as I have loved you” and adds a demonstrable example of a follower of Jesus “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” When Christ describes the scene at the end of the world He describes the actions of those He has come to save, Matthew 25:35 (King James) “For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:” these actions would be the direct result of a larger more active cingulate. The interesting component to this story is that this behavior has become so common place for the believer he is incredulous and they question Jesus by asking, “then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?” Matthew 25:37 (King James). Which can only mean this empathy and love has become so ubiquitous in the life of the believer the frontal lobe does not have to intention to act in this specific way. It has become the most prime directive overriding the self-preservation and self-awareness which is the default of the amygdala (Schjoedt, Stødkilde-Jørgensen, Geertz, & Roepstorff, 2009).
Worship and the Amygdala
Amygdala in the picture
Worship’s effects on the amygdala have also been well studied and demonstrates a wide range of effects as a result of the hypoactivation or down-regulation to the fight or flight mechanism (Boelens, Reeves, Replogle, & Koenig, 2010). This hypoactivation extends to the hypothalamus and the initiation of the fight or flight response. The result is a significant decrease in the deleterious effects of chronic fight or flight activation and the decrease in heartrate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and serum markers of inflammation (Anderson & Nunnelley, 2016). This hypoactivation also has measurable psychic effects, measurable decreases in depression, anxiety, chronic pain and even posttraumatic stress have been identified and can be traced back to one daily action, worship (Simão, Caldeira, & Campos de Carvalho, 2016). These finding have been so robust, that incorporating prayer as part of the treatment plan for pathologies ranging from anxiety/depressive disorders, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and disorders of chronic inflammation has been encouraged (Anderson & Nunnelley, 2016). This effect is most completely captured by 1 John 4:18 (King James) “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.”
The hypoactivation of the amygdala results in a downregulation of the mesolimbic pathway for dopamine use and results in the mesocortical, and its subsequent activation of the frontal lobe and the eloquent process of attention and intention, as the default pathway for stimuli interpretation (Peterson, Zhang, Hu, Chao, & Li, 2017). The result of this pathway becoming the default increases self-control, discipline and reactionary responses. Each stimulus is no longer interpreted from a self-preservation model, but relies on the cognizance of time, evaluation of cause and effect, empathy, moral/ethical evaluation and derives meaning from the actions of the individual (Van Elk & Aleman, 2016).
In conclusion, science demonstrates the effect of worship especially on the brain which Liedke(2018) thesis found that when we worship God, there is an increase in BPNF, which is a neurotransmitter that helps us grow healthy brain cells.
Additionally, Krause and Hayward (2014) found religious music to promote a strong sense of connectedness with other people.
Finally, Worship and prayer have a well-documented positive effect on both the person who engages in the prayer and worship, and the person who is the subject of prayer (Galton, 2012).
The author is an Honorary Professor, Naturopathic Researcher, Theologian, Medical law researcher, chartered management consultant(Canada). President, Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine & Technology(NUCHMT)/ African Naturopathic Foundation. E-mail: [email protected]