When neuroscience studies the power of prayer

Thanks to advances in brain imaging, science is advancing on benefits of spiritual practices !

The scanner beams had already pierced the cogs of the feel good meditative. It is the turn of the prayer to pass under the magnifying glass of the researchers. “To better understand these phenomena, it is necessary to extract meditation from its Buddhist framework and prayer from its religious soil”, invites the professor Steven Laureys, neurologist and research director at the Consciousness Research Unit (Brain Center & University of Liège).

Practices between self-hypnosis and relaxation

According to the author of Meditation is good for the brain (Odile Jacob), there is different ways to meditate. We can focus attention on the breath (as in pranayama) but also on a prayer (a sentence), or a mantra, as in transcendental meditation.

“Focusing on certain elements distracts from others,” he says. For the sophrologist and energy therapist Laurence Richard, even without believing in a god, prayer, meditation or the repetition of mantras help to get out of daily worriesto empty the mind and to calm down inside.

The mere fact of imagining oneself aided and protected by the supernatural power of a higher being will have a positive effect, regardless of whether these deities exist.

“These practices put you in an altered state of consciousness; it is a slight state of hypnosis or relaxation. The brain goes into alpha frequencies, slower than in an ordinary state of consciousness. The thoughts or visualizations carried out then have an impact deeper on all levels (physical, emotional, psychic and spiritual), “describes the therapist.

Prayer could therefore be compared to a mild form of self-hypnosis. “The simple fact of imagining oneself helped and protected by the supernatural power of a higher being will have a positive action, regardless of whether these deities exist or can really have an influence on our lives”, advances Laurence Richard. It’she principle of positive thinkingwhich is notably the basis of sophrology.

Neurotheology, a young science with effects already observed

At theInstitute of Humanities in Medicine (UNIL)in Switzerland, the professor of psychiatry Jacques Besson studies the effectiveness of these practices on addictions. He is the European expert in neurotheology.

This very young interdisciplinary science which studies the neural circuits at work in spiritual experiences brings together neurologists, psychotherapists, geneticists, epidemiologists, historians and psychiatrists.

“I introduced mindfulness meditation to my psychiatric ward 10 years ago. I have observed that it helps prevent drug relapse for which we do not have effective drugs, such as cocaine”, explains Professor Besson.

The practice inhibits the activity of the regions of the brain where one is aware of space and time, which plunges into what poets call the oceanic feeling. “Meditating also stimulates the frontal lobe, responsible for imagination or abstraction,” he adds.

If we are a little trained, these moments of meditation allow us to take a step back from our context, which is very useful in addiction.

Prayers, boosters of positivity

Furthermore, the author ofAddiction and Spirituality (Ed. Erès) looked at the so-called secular prayers, practiced in movements such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Millions of adherents worldwide are recovering through an approach that invites surrender to a higher power, whatever you call it. In particular, brain imaging was carried out on people during the “serenity prayer” performed at the end of each session.

“The secretion of endorphins and serotonin is stimulated, which spreads a feeling of well-being, positivity. The production of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, is also favored”, notes the researcher.

Addressing the invisible promotes mental and physical health

Meditation is defined by theologians as a “unitive” activity: it nourishes the impression of being part of the whole – the famous oceanic feeling, which makes us contemplate the universe and our presence in the world.

Prayer, for its part, introduces a third entity. “By decentering ourselves, we get out of our egocentric automatisms more easily”, says the professor of psychiatry. “It does not matter whether one addresses God, as in monotheisms, or beings of light, animals of power, as in shamanism”.

This cultivates a certain positive reconnection towards our feelings.

These communications with the invisible promote mental and physical health.

The imagery shows that prayer engages the same region of the brain as meditation, but by using words it also stimulates the language region. For Steven Laureys, when we pray to express gratitude, or to project universal love, then it is the emotional neural networks that are solicited.

“It cultivates a certain positive reconnection towards our feelings”. Emotional re-education, in short.

Mirror neurons in action in visualizations

The therapist Natacha Calestrémé, author of the bestseller find my place (Albin Michel), regularly uses prayers in his treatment protocols.

“Crystallizing our thoughts, our intentions in words helps clarify our intentions, which drains more willpower,” she observes. And to advance the work of Giacomo Rizzolatti, the researcher from the University of Parma who highlighted the action of mirror neurons.

“They are fantastic because they allow our brain not to tell the difference between something experienced and something imagined to be real“, marvels the neo shaman. “If I imagine that I put a ball of aluminum foil in my mouth and that I grit my teeth on it, I will necessarily feel something unpleasant, whereas there is strictly no nothing in my oral cavity! e she illustrates.

Efficiency that depends on deep conviction

“The effectiveness of the prayer depends on the deep beliefs and conviction of the person who issues it”, warns Laurence Richard. Spirituality makes it possible to connect with high vibrations (deities, saints, guides, positive egregores of healing, protection…).

Gold, the human being takes charge of the energies to which he connectswhether positive or negative.

Beyond a simple effect of well-being, of calm brought by prayer or meditation, the healing of illnesses and major changes essentially depend on real and deep conviction, including on the unconscious planes.

“We can sincerely believe in a god but feel abandoned, too guilty or even not important enough to deserve his attention. In this case, prayer remains interesting but much less effective”, estimates the sophrologist. The more or less unconscious image of a severe god who risks punishing constitutes an important blockage, partially or even completely canceling out the effects of prayer.

Choose the thoughts that permeate us

Our education and the school system teach us above all to judge, to criticize, to pay attention to what is wrong, regrets Laurence Richard. This is what programs our mind to see life through a negative filter.

Repetitive training to develop positive emotions, especially towards others, has real effects on the brain.

“The more our thoughts are repetitive and emitted with conviction or emotion, the more they gain in strength and power”, analyzes the sophrologist. They end up completely tinting our life, by attracting events of the same vibration, that is to say similar, and even condition our health over time. This is the famous law of attraction. Our thoughts end up inscribing themselves on our face, creating wrinkles showing joy, sadness, anger, resentment…

Neurologist Steven Laureys talks about the neuroplasticity. “We now know that billions of neural connections are constantly changing the brain landscape. Repetitive training to develop positive emotions, especially towards others, has real effects on the brain. It can be done verbally or by viewing pictures”.

For the researcher, this type of practice is sorely lacking in our schools. “Our children should have lessons in mental and emotional well-being as well as sports lessons.”

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When neuroscience studies the power of prayer

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