Mental Health Pt. 1

The Power Of Prayer in Your Brain

There is a new field of scholarship emerging in science: Neurotheology. It’s quite mesmerizing as a follower of Christ to witness the birth of the convergence of neuroscience and Biblical Study. Dr. Caroline Leaf is a forerunner in this new field of study who has boldly proclaimed that science is finally catching up to the Bible. I began to research Neurotheology more in depth after realizing the physiological effects of depression. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” wisdom declares (Proverbs 13:12) and I can testify from a place of hopelessness that my heart, my mind, and my body all felt sick at the same time.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is leading various studies on the spirit, mind, body connection. After reading her research, and research from other neuroscientists, I think it is extremely significant to reference what is happening physiologically to our brains as we go through stress and why some of us face depression.

Taking a physical look at the changes that occur in the brain during times of stress, transition, and even during prayer reveals how absolutely marvelous our Creator is and, also, how fragile our human bodies are. Neuroplasticity is “the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.” If the brain is capable of forming new neural connections, that means our thought life can change our physical selves. Good thoughts, God inspired thoughts, can lead to healthy neural connections, which can lead to making good decisions. This is incredible evidence to support Biblical truth, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7 NKJV). “It was discovered that the brain continually changes in response to mental and sensory signals throughout the human lifespan.” Meaning our environments and our thought life have a significant physical impact on our brain health.

Andrew B. Newberg M.D. is practically the founder of neurotheology as he co-wrote the book How God Changes Your Brain. He and his research team have concrete evidence from several studies on how prayer and spiritual connection to God changes how the brain operates. His team found that individuals who continually [over many years, or high in frequency] meditate or pray have a thicker frontal lobe.  The frontal lobe is responsible for cognitive thinking, decision making, and planning. Basically, prayer is like mental weight-lifting, giving your brain more strength to make better decisions.

Dr. Newberg’s team also discovered that prayer influences several changes in other parts of the brain. The thalamus can be affected after only 8 weeks of meditation/prayer, the parietal lobe increases in activity during meditation/prayer. This is significant because the thalamus and parietal lobe work to make sense/organize the sensory information we take in from our surroundings. The thalamus organizes the information our brain receives when we see, touch, taste, and hear something. The parietal lobe processes that information and lets us know if it’s good or bad for us. This affects our attention spans, our spacial awareness, our sleep patterns, our language skills, and maintaining consciousness. They’re, in a way, similar to the processor in a computer. If the computer’s processor is overloaded the computer will operate slowly. With continually healthy stimulation, our brain’s processor (thalamus and parietal lobe) can function at a higher capacity.

Here is a little more context: those three areas of the brain (frontal and parietal lobes, thalamus) control decision making skills and process sensory information. The parietal lobe, specifically, has been attributed to establishing a person’s sense of self and sense of space and time. In a healthy, active church community where prayer is made a priority, it’s safe to bet that our parietal lobes are continually engaged. If that’s the case, then our sense of self and physical awareness stabilizes in that environment. By sense of self I mean, our confidence in ourselves and our comfort in how we operate in our day to day lives.

Personally, during a time where I battled severe depression and anxiety, prayer was my constant. I didn’t have the headspace for elaborate speech. My prayers were often a few words, God, help… Lord, I trust you. This hurts but I trust you... Father, I still choose you. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief. These simple, yet constant prayers were my mental lifeline in the midst of a storm.

Prayer is vital to spiritual and physical health. It should absolutely be prioritized in church communities. “Be unceasing and persistent in prayer…” 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Don’t overcomplicate prayer, thinking of it as a religious task mandated by ancient traditions. Prayer is conversational, honest, and absolutely relevant to our current culture. If you’re unsure about how to pray, ask for guidance from your Pastoral leadership. It’s incredible how quickly prayer can become an essential part of our lives, making us healthier spiritually and physically.

This article was adapted from A Joy Unequaled. All Rights Reserved.

Next in Part 2: The Science of Stress

  • Positive stress is an opportunity to let your body’s natural physiological response do what it was created to do.

  • Long-term neural fatigue can lead to depression.

  • We are not helpless or left victims of physiological fate.

  1. “‘Neurotheology’ refers to the multidisciplinary field of scholarship that seeks to understand the relationship between the human brain and religion.” © 2014 Iranian Neurological Association, and Tehran University of Medical Sciences.

  2. definition from June 6, 2014.

  3. Flugge, Gabriele and Fuchs, Eberhaud. Adult Neuroplacicity: More Than 40 Years of Research. Neural Placidity Volume (2014) Article ID 541870, 10 pages.

  4. Newburg, Andrew M.D.. How God Changes Your Brain: An Introduction to Jewish Neurotheology. (2016) Page 22. CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly.

  5. Newburg, pg 22.

  6. Newburg, pg 20.

Ashlee Wright