Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 14, 2009
Prayer: Pathway to health or insanity
Orthodox bishop cites brain research on therapeutic effects of prayer
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Prayer may help reshape one's brain for better or for worse. It can make you healthy or it can make you insane.
During prayer, several important parts of the brain are activated, including the frontal lobe, which virtually lights up leading one into a state of calmness and peacefulness.
That's according to Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo from British Columbia and professor Tim Parker from the Camrose-based Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta.
Both spoke on the topic of prayer and mental sanity during the last of a series of lectures called the Philosopher's Café. More than 40 people attended the discussion at Steeps, the Urban Tea House on Whyte Avenue. The university's Chester Ronning Centre, led by David Goa, sponsored the event.
"When we pray we are talking about communicating with Christ. We are also talking about communicating with the deepest part of ourselves and trying to bring ourselves together with Christ in this communication," Puhalo said in an interview.
According to Puhalo, the theory of neuroplasticity, the ability to reach parts of the brain to change connectors and synapses, had been realized by the early fathers and mothers of the Church by the third century and was used to great effect.
"Prayer has a therapeutic value that was understood very early, particularly by the eastern tradition, including Eastern Christianity," he said during the discussion.
"The fact is that this process of neuroplasticity can be used positively to help people recover from stroke damage and can be used negatively to lead people into very deep addictions and also to lead people into the addiction of prejudice."
Puhalo, archbishop of the Canadian Orthodox Archdiocese, lives at the All Saints Orthodox Monastery in Mission, B.C.
He maintains that while traditional Christian forms of prayer can bring peace and harmony into people's lives, modern Pentecostalism tends to agitate the spirit, "cultivating a kind of insanity."
Parker of the Augustana faculty said, "The purpose of prayer is to be able to change the mindset in some way." Current research taking advantage of brain scanning approaches has led to the emergence of a new field known as neurotheology, which asks what happens in the brain when intense states of prayer happen in the mind of an individual?
A wide variety of individuals have been tested this way, some of whom would qualify as practitioners of intense prayer. It includes people like Sikhs and some Franciscan monks.
In one case, a study was done on an individual capable of reaching an intense stage of arousal during prayer. The scan showed a strong activation of the individual's frontal lobe, which plays an important role in curbing impulsivity.
What was more surprising was there was a strong reduction in activity in the parietal lobe, located near the back and top of the head, which is the brain's "perceptual unit." This man's scan was similar to someone who has received damage to the parietal lobe perhaps through a stroke.
Nevertheless, while being scanned, the praying man said he felt he had become one with the universe. "These people lose the distinction between internal space and external space and that seems to be the focus and in many ways the purpose of this type of prayer," Parker said."
Also tested was a neuroscientist who became a monk in a British monastery and practised meditation techniques for three decades. He was invited to come back to the laboratory and undergo scanning while he generated different kinds of mental states.
The researchers were interested in his ability to reach a state he referred to as "pure loving kindness." "When he did this what they found was that it was definitely the frontal lobe that lit up," Parker said.
"But in this particular stage it was the left pre-frontal cortex that showed dramatic increase in activity and this seemed to be really the footprint of that state."
Parker contrasted this case with the results obtained from a biomedical company that scanned its own employees after meditation.
Half of the company's 41 employees were given meditation practice every day for eight weeks and after eight weeks they showed the same kind of activation of the left pre-frontal cortex when they were engaged in the meditative state.
"So here we have a nice distinction between one individual who spent most of a lifetime learning how to generate this state and these other individuals who after only eight weeks are able to show the same general sort of pattern. And they have a variety of different reports that show that they are encountering life a lot better than when they started."
However, people with damage in their temporal lobe can develop what Parker described as hyper-religiosity, "a dramatic obsession with anything to do with religion."
These people often receive this damage while undergoing surgery to alleviate epilepsy or through accidents.
"They become what we call sticky - it's hard to disengage them from this type of (religious) activity."
Prayer can be destabilizing as well.
"It depends on what one's approach to prayer is. Prayer can be seen as a system of magic formulae by which we compel God to do something for us," the archbishop noted. "Or it can be used to bring us into the state or condition that our faith says we should be in - having self-control and self-discipline."
The real spiritual struggle for humanity is to struggle towards unselfish love. We achieve that through prayer, which can help us cure all of our addictions, including our addiction to guilt or to guilty feelings.
"The story of the Garden of Eden is the story of our fall into egotism and self-centredness and self-love," the archbishop continued.
"So part of the prayer life or part of the prayer struggle is to cure our minds of our abnormal desires and the passions that cause human suffering and make it possible for us to open ourselves again to the possibility of unselfish love. This is how we use prayer - in a therapeutic manner, which helps to promote sanity in our world."
In the interview the archbishop said the Orthodox liturgy is designed to reshape the brain.
PEACE TO SCHIZOPHRENIC PEOPLE
"If we really enter into the Divine Liturgy, it can renew the connectors within the brain," he said. "I've seen the way in which it brings peace to schizophrenic people who stay in our monastery. It actually brings calmness and peace to these people."
The Catholic Mass is designed to bring one to a state of peace as well. "You can enter into the realm of grace that's taking place in the Mass and that can bring you spiritual peace because that's what the Holy Spirit does.
"You are going to be more peaceful and not so angry and malicious toward other people."
Prayer can also make you insane. "Some of the Pentecostals and extreme Protestants are really cultivating a kind of insanity. They bring people toward greater agitation. The Mass is designed and the Orthodox Liturgy is designed to bring a spirit of peace, which is what the Holy Spirit is all about.
"But what these people (Pentecostals) are doing, while saying that they are pursuing the Holy Spirit, is bringing down the spirit of agitation and chaos within their lives."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.