How often do you find yourself irrationally angry, becoming more upset by small things than you should be?
And what the heck do these questions have to do with prayer?
Well, you see, there's evidence in neuroscience that tells us focused, prolonged prayer not only increases our relationship with God, but actually proves physiologically beneficial. More simply, prayer can make your brain healthier. Of course there's reason to be skeptical of such an apparently radical claim, but there's also a balm to assuage those fears.
This comes from a book, in which I'm currently engrossed, called, How God Changes Your Brain. While you might expect this kind of title to come from devoted practitioners or even fundamentalists of a particular religion, neither Dr. Andrew Newberg or Mark Robert Waldman are bound to a particular religious community. Newberg professes agnostic tendencies while Waldman identifies as a naturalist. In other words, there's a heavy spiritual skepticism from the researchers, and yet, they together conclude that meditation and prayer increase your brain's healthy activity. So it's actually healthy to say a (not so) little prayer for yourself everyday. I say more than a little prayer because these positive physical changes are seen when people pray daily for minimum of ten minutes. Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns, who've spent hours in prayer daily their whole lives, show the most profound neurological effects.
I've got a number of friends who are spiritually curious but have expressed a profound skepticism about prayer. And who can blame them? Talking to a wall or fidgeting amidst an uncomfortable silence doesn't make a whole lot of sense on the surface. What Newberg and Waldman found, though, was that people who prayed, regardless of their belief, experienced the same benefits as devout believers, as long as they undertook the practice intentionally. In other words, if people desire to become holistically healthier, focus in the prayer, regulate their prayer's embodiment (such as following beads with the rosary or performing another simple, repetitive movement as you pray), and practice that daily, and expect that they can get achieve the goals they've set, then the benefits appear regardless of belief. That's the good news for us all: prayer, undertaken seriously with a desire to change can actually change us.
I can understand why some people of faith might view this as problematic. One might ask if we're leasing our spiritual practices to scientific research. However, we must remember that, theologically speaking, we're embodied spirits. As creatures, we have an intertwined spiritual and physical existence, so it makes sense that there's spiritual benefit to physical health and physical benefit to spiritual health. This means that prayer, for Christians, is both a spiritual truth of engaging with God and a physical truth that exercise makes us healthier.
We wouldn't scoff at the orthopedist who told us that exercising our joints with low impact cardiovascular movements like cycling or using an elliptical would keep our joints healthy as we strengthen our heart and other muscles. Why, then, would we balk at a neuroscientist certified in internal and nuclear medicine who tells us that exercising our mind and body together in focused, contemplative modalities can actually change the physiology of our brain? To me, that says God created us to be fully integrated creatures, that our prayers relate not only to heavenly thoughts but earthly realities. That's good news.
So, wherever you're at on the spectrum of spirituality, take some time to develop a more focused, devoted prayer life. At the minimum, it can strengthen your brain, which helps your memory, increases your compassion, and reduces anxiety. As we Lutherans believe, it does even more than that: it connects you with the God who created you, who loves you, and who works for the salvation of your whole being, body and spirit.