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Researchers: Prolonged Meditation Alters the Brain

The changes were detected mainly in the frontal and parietal lobes

Andrew Newberg and colleagues have found that extended periods of prayer and meditation
can change the brain:

We studied one such seven-day programme in Pennsylvania based on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. Our research on this retreat programme, which is typically conducted in silence and consists of extended periods of prayer and meditation, showed a number of differences in participants’ brains after the retreat compared with before it. For one, our study looked at the effects of the retreat programme on serotonin and dopamine, two critical neurotransmitters involved in many of our emotional and cognitive processes. The results suggested that a person’s brain becomes more sensitised to the effects of serotonin and dopamine, which might help us understand how retreat programmes of this nature can improve measures of wellbeing (in this case, decreased self-reported tension and fatigue). Our research also found that, after the retreat, there were changes in how different parts of the brain were functionally connected, particularly the frontal and parietal lobes.

Andrew Newberg, “How an intense spiritual retreat might change your brain” at Psyche (August 11, 2021)

Newberg is the author, with Daniel A. Monti, of Brain Weaver: Creating the Fabric for a Healthy Mind through Integrative Medicine (Kales Press, 2021)

Here is the Abstract of an open-access paper the researchers recently published:

Background: Many individuals participate in spiritual retreats to enhance their sense of spirituality or to improve their overall mental and spiritual well-being. We are not aware of any studies specifically evaluating changes in functional connectivity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in individuals undergoing an intense spiritual retreat program. The goal of this study was to determine whether such changes occur as a result of participating in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Methods: We conducted psychological and spiritual measures in conjunction with functional connectivity analysis of fMRI in 14 individuals prior to and following shortly after their participation in a one-week spiritual retreat. Results: Significant changes in functional connectivity were observed after the retreat program, compared to baseline evaluation, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex, pallidum, superior frontal lobe, superior parietal lobe, superior and inferior temporal lobe, and the cerebellum. Significant changes in a variety of psychological and spiritual measures were identified as result of participation in the retreat. Conclusion: Overall, these preliminary findings suggest that this intensive spiritual retreat resulted in significant changes in brain functional connectivity, and warrants further investigation to evaluate the physiological, psychological, and spiritual impact of these changes.

Nancy A. Wintering et al., Effect of a One-Week Spiritual Retreat on Brain Functional Connectivity: A Preliminary Study, Religions 2021, 12(1), 23; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010023

Here’s the Abstract of a more technical paper on the topic:

Spiritual retreats are a commonly used intensive program of meditation and prayer, along with other elements, designed to provide participants with opportunities for spiritual and psychological growth. While individual elements of such retreats have been studied, there have been no reports in the literature regarding the neurophysiological effects of these retreats. This preliminary study presents the first data we are aware of on the neurophysiological effects, particularly those related to dopamine and serotonin, in a group of participants undergoing an intensive seven-day spiritual retreat. We used DaTscan single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) in 14 individuals before and closely following participation in a seven-day spiritual retreat. We observed significant decreases in dopamine transporter binding in the basal ganglia and significant decreases in serotonin transporter binding in the midbrain after the retreat program. Participating in the retreat also resulted in significant changes in a variety of psychological and spiritual measures. We also report the relationship between neurophysiological and subjective measures along with a discussion of potential methodological challenges for future studies.

Andrew B. Newberg et al., Effect of a one-week spiritual retreat on dopamine and serotonin transporter binding: a preliminary study, Pages 265-278 | Received 12 Jun 2016, Accepted 26 Nov 2016, Published online: 22 Mar 2017 The paper requires a subscription.

You may also wish to read: Tibetan monks can change their metabolism. Far from disproving it, science has documented it.For decades, a default assumption would be that claims that meditating monks in the Buddhist tradition could greatly raise their temperature or slow their metabolism were assumed to be exaggerations that would yield to a scientific explanation. The scientific explanation turned out to be that they can do exactly that.


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Researchers: Prolonged Meditation Alters the Brain