Are You A Believer? The Neurological Benefits of Spiritual & Religious Faith

Believe it or not, spiritual and religious faith has been shown to have many positive outcomes for neurological well-being!

As Tony Jack points out in the below video, you don’t have to be religious to benefit – you just need to take a step back and indulge in some ‘fuzzy’ thinking from time to time.

Tony Jack - TEDx - A scientific defense of spiritual & religious faith

Two Types of Logic: Our Brains Are Dualistic By Nature
As described by Tony, there are two main kinds of logical thought processes that we can adopt when it comes to solving problems: a “cold” rational one or a “warm fuzzy” one.

Cold, rational logic allows us to do mathematics and is naturally what drives the sciences as well as business. On the other side of the spectrum lies the humanities as well as the arts, which tend to adopt warm “fuzzy” logic to solve problems. This warm logic also includes spirituality, religious beliefs and faith.

While we are using one of these modes of thinking, our brains are unable to see it through the other mode.

This is not only to do with physical limitations within the brain itself but also to do with the fact that these types of logic appear to contradict one another. Paradoxically, a healthy balance between the two is required for emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.

Society tends to place greater emphasis on cold logic, which is not always a good thing.

While cold logic is great for furthering technology and advancing what we can achieve, it does not lend itself to the unity or equality that warm logic does. Another way to view this is the difference between reason and wisdom.

Without warm logic or faith, we lose our sense of connection to nature and to one another, which can lead to increased levels of anxiety, separation, alienation and ultimately depression.

In light of this, it’s beneficial to develop ourselves to the fullest of our potential, using both modes of thinking to maintain a harmony between all our needs.

One way of doing this is to maintain some form of faith or spirituality in our everyday lives. While being religious helps, it is not a requirement for ensuring spiritual well-being!

4 Ways In Which Faith Improves Brain Health
There are many studies that have been carried out to show that faith improves quality of life and mental well-being. Let’s take a closer look at how!
1) Reduces Emotional Distress, Anxiety & Depression
The power of belief and faith have both been proven extensively to lower anxiety and depression.

In one study that involved over 3000 participants, a higher level of spirituality was associated with a positive psychology and a lower level of both depression and substance abuse[1] Spirituality and Positive Psychology Go Hand in Hand: An Investigation of Multiple Empirically Derived Profiles and Related Protective Benefits.

Many people turn to their faith as a coping mechanism when under severe stress. In life-threatening scenarios such as a stroke, spiritual faith has helped many to overcome emotional distress, lowering anxiety and helping them to remain calmer[2]Can Faith Protect From Emotional Distress After Stroke?.

Other studies have shown that students who either pray or meditate regularly experience less pre-exam anxiety than those who did not[3]Testing faith: A mixed methods study investigating the relationship between prayer and test anxiety amongst college students.

The fact that faith reduces anxiety and depression appears related to a heightened reverence for life, a sense of meaning or purpose, more of a connection to others through community as well as specific spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation.

2) Helps Prevent Cognitive Decline
Not only is one’s spirituality great for lowering stress, it has also been shown to slow cognitive decline in those with dementia[4]Spirituality and religion in older adults with dementia: a systematic review!

There are many aspects that come into play as to how spirituality achieves this result.

Depression, stress and anxiety are all factors which promote cognitive decline by reducing neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Spiritual practice and community both help to alleviate these factors, giving one a sense of rapid calm.

Certain religious and spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, prostrations and other physical forms of prayer such as Salat[5]HEALTH BENEFITS OF SALAT (PRAYER);
Neurological rehabilitation
all confer brain-protective effects that combine the benefits of both exercise and meditation.

3) Boosts Cognition & Memory
There are two ways in which including more faith in your world can directly help to improve cognition and memory.

The first is that it often results in building a stronger sense of connection and trust with a like-minded community.

In our article on how motivation boosts cognition, it is explained that socializing with others who understand and acknowledge what motivates you tends to release more of the neurotransmitters Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin. This in itself helps to enhance neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, creativity, cognition, learning and memory.

The second way is through spiritual practices, especially prayer[6]The effects of prayer on attention resource availability and attention bias and meditation[7]Effect of meditation on cognitive functions in context of aging and neurodegenerative diseases, both of which have been shown to improve cognition.

4) Increases Longevity
There is no direct evidence to suggest that faith will definitely make you live longer. However, in a few studies it was noted that those who regularly undertake spiritual practices live longer lives[8]The role of spirituality in health care.

This is backed up by the fact that those who are more spiritual tend to have lower levels of Interleukin-6 (an inflammatory compound). This compound has been linked with the onset of many potentially fatal diseases.

At the same time, many scientific reports are elucidating the benefits of spirituality regarding recovery from chronic illnesses or acute conditions.

Patients with a larger degree of faith tended to come off better with improved health outcomes. This has been seen in both post-operative surgery as well as in rehabilitating off drugs. This has, once again, been stipulated to the fact that having faith helps patients to relax, decreasing the levels of inflammation in their bodies and thus producing generally more favorable outcomes.

Ways To Benefit From Faith (Even If You Are Non-Religious)
At the end of the day, many similar results can be seen when testing mind over matter or placebo effects. Whether you have faith in a religious, spiritual context or simply in yourself, you can benefit from these effects.
1) Meditation or Prayer
While prayer and meditation are different, they confer many similar benefits.

Meditation has been shown to be superior to prayer in terms of improving cognition, while prayer has been shown to trump meditation in terms of psychological well-being. Thus it is best to use both prayer, with a positive directed focus, in combination with meditation that stills the mind to reap the full benefits!

For those of you who have never tried mindfulness meditation, here are a few helpful resources to get you started.

Enhance your focus, reduce stress, and get a grip on how you perceive the world through learning how to meditate!

2) Encouraging Humanity, Heart Awareness & Compassion
A common theme throughout the literature on spirituality is a sense of purpose, connectedness, unity, empathy and compassion.

Spiritual practices, faith, and religion usually provide a robust framework for encouraging these principles, which in turn is associated with a reduction in anxiety. Aside from these means, which are highly effective if one is devout to them, one can incorporate these elements into their lives regardless.

If you find it difficult to think along humanitarian lines naturally, one great technique that can help is self-reflexivity. Understanding ourselves is key to understanding others.

Writing down your emotions in a diary will not only help you feel better, but they can help you to reflect upon yourself and work through your subconscious mind.

Getting out into nature is another great way to feel more connected to life in general, which may help to increase empathy, compassion and humanity. So is reaching out to your community.

3) Implementing Physical Spiritual Practices
Prostrations, yoga and certain forms of prayer that incorporate physical movement all have beneficial neurological effects connected to faith.

While much of these are a result of the exercise, there is a point to be made here about exercise, visualization, and belief. Visualization techniques have long been used by athletes in the sports world to increase their performance, by seeing where they want to be while they workout.

One can use exercise similarly in combination with the power of prayer and visualization to improve their faith in spiritual beliefs as well as enhance the exercise.

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