Prayer Alters Neural Structures to Enable New Powers

By Grant Stevenson

Why do people feel reborn after Baptism? How does prayer impact our basic neural structure? How does belief help people overcome extreme hardship and suffering? Why does religious conversion cause people to experience the world fundamentally differently? Why do troubled souls find peace in prayer? Why are there so many different religions across the globe?

Throughout recorded history these questions have been answered primarily through personal experience and religious authority. Now, advanced scientific research is beginning to uncover a structural basis for these impacts in the nature of the brain itself.

In James Silberman's seminal work, The Brain that Changes Itself, and Marvin Minsky's groundbreaking study on artificial intelligence, Society of Mind, we see an emerging theory about the diversity and plasticity of neural structure that tells us the brain itself is transformed by religious experience. These are not conclusions that Silberman and Minsky explicated, rather, they are correlative implications of their research that we can extend to new realms of understanding.

There are two fundamental insights that open us to this new understanding. First, the brain is not a singular organism as imagined by Aristotle, nor is it the tripartite layers of Id, Ego, and Super Ego posited by Freud. Instead, the brain is literally thousands of competing and cooperating capabilities that constantly organize and reorganize themselves in response to our actions and beliefs. Second, the neural structure of the brain itself is plastic, in Silberman's parlance, and not fixed sometime after childhood as previously thought.

Taken together these two insights mean that we are constantly undergoing changes in the processing structure of our brain and that these changes also alter the basic capabilities of the brain at the same time. This is a radically new way of thinking about both religious experience and our neural structure so a few analogies might help.

Imagine you're tuning an old-fashioned radio across the dial. You hear the stations buzz in and out, filled with static one moment, clear as a bell the next second.

This action is caused by a device called a condenser which tunes into different resonant frequencies as you move the dial. A resonant frequency is simply the point at which a circuit, or object, will vibrate at its maximum amplitude in response to an external excitation. In electronics these principles are used to tune in a radio so that it amplifies one signal at a time, out of the thousands being transmitted, in order to hear that one station clearly and distinctly.

Doubt prevents the equivalent of a resonant frequency from being established by your neural structure. Doubt, stress and fear allow the thousands of competing components of your brain to assert their own agenda.

These competing and cooperating components of the brain have not been fully mapped by researchers. The human brain is composed of multiple, often competing, structures with various levels of cognitive, ideative, and primal capabilities. We are just beginning to understand the full extent of free will. Free will extends all the way from multiple personality disorder to simple confusion about right and wrong. The classic, albeit anecdotal, evidence for this structure is the person who says, "I knew it was wrong, but I'm ashamed to say, I did it anyway."

Why is it that people who firmly and completely understand they want to lose weight still reach for the extra cookie? Why is it that good people feel compelled to perform immoral actions?
There are competing demands inside our brain structure that are constantly asserting their own will as an influential, though not necessarily dominant, part of the collective will that is finally resolved and exhibited by our external actions. Many of these competing structures communicate non-verbally. At many levels it is easier to "negotiate" with those cognitive components of your brain that use language as a vehicle. But how can the cognitive components negotiate with the limbic elements? These limbic agents communicate by flooding the brain with encoded chemical and electrical signals operating below the level of language, but just as insistently.

Our ability to perform good actions in the face of the various impulses to sin is a result of attaining a sufficient level of discipline over these competing internal forces to not only recognize what is right, but also to do what is right.

Prayer is the action founded on active belief that focuses the brain's competing resources. By focusing on the surrender of the will to another organizing power the competing forces within the brain are channeled in a singular direction; enabling a new set of powers to emerge.

Religious conversion re-organizes and focuses the neural structure of the brain to enable mental capacities previously blocked by the noise and disorder of our naturally composite and conflicted brain structure. Belief structures enable neural structures that allow the perception of impressions heretofore beyond one's ken.

There are inherent capabilities in our brains that are not realized until they are exercised and focused. How is a skilled mechanic able to look at a bolt across the room and tell that it needs a ½ inch or a 7/16th inch wrench? Clearly anyone's eyes have the physical ability to perceive these extremely small dimensional differences, but only a trained brain is able to articulate that discrimination accurately and act on it.

This is why non-believers hear nothing and believers hear everything. Non-believers want a preview, before they commit they want to stand just outside the door and hear a few bars of the song. The reality is that the song is unrecognizable until the belief structure is instantiated.

This requires an act of will, but it is the will to surrender to a higher organizing principle. To put your trust in another, that final step, guided by faith, is needed to cross a chasm as unfathomable as it is impenetrable, until that final step out of the darkness and into the light is taken.

The most poignant example of a belief system's ability to "tune" the brain into different perceptual capabilities is found in the recent testimony of Mother Theresa. Apparently she struggled with faith and doubt throughout her life, although she certainly focused on doing good works despite the turmoil.

As reported by CNN, when Mother Theresa suffered bouts of doubt, "Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love -- the word -- it brings nothing."

Without faith the brain is unable to recognize a single voice speaking quietly through the din of competing voices that normally fill our thoughts and our lives with doubt.

Copyright © 2007, Neural Genesis, LLC
Mr. Stevenson works as a research assistant at Neural Genesis, LLC with responsibility for test marketing publications associated with emerging business segments. Mr. Stevenson also develops ersatz historical documents designed for examination in future settings to alter widely held, but apocryphal, views of the past. Prior to his work at Neural Genesis Mr. Stevenson worked as an author and illustrator of corporate presentations, technical manuals and children's books.

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At May 19, 2008 at 8:46 PM , Blogger PaytonGirl said...

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