Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion

Exploring the Nexus of Culture, Mind & Religion

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Spirituality and Health Causation Project Portal

Spirituality and Health Causation ProjectIBCSR's Spirituality and Health Causation Project aims to move beyond the hundreds of correlational studies identifying the health effects of religious and spiritual practices to identify the causal, biochemical mechanisms that mediate spirituality-health connections. IBCSR's partners in this project are Dr. Katherine Verdolini Abbott and Dr. Nicole Li at the University of Pittsburgh. The Spirituality and Health Causation Project is funded in part by an NIH subcontract through the University of Pittsburgh and by Boston University.

Religion makes patients hold on to life

Many think of religion as a source for reassurance and comfort in the face of death. Often the highly religious are expected to be more inclined to accept their end than those without the hope of eternal reward or a sense of divine providence guiding events. However, as the Terri Schiavo case highlighted, the deeply religious regularly opt for extraordinary means to maintain life, even in the face the extreme unlikelihood of recovery. In a new study published in JAMA, and reported in the New York Times, researchers have found that religiously devout patients with terminal cancer “were three times as likely as less religious ones to be put on a mechanical ventilator…during the last weeks of life.” It seems that far from encouraging a peaceful passing, highly religious patients hold on to life whatever the costs, be they monetary or in personal pain for themselves and their loved ones.

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Religious belief and practice linked to self-control

Psychological Bulletin CoverFew would be surprised that religious people have greater self-control than others. With all those rules and highly choreographed social interactions (rituals) how could it be otherwise? According to a new study by psychologists Michael McCullough and Brain Willoughby at the University of Miami religious belief and piety does in fact promote self-discipline but not merely through external means of social control. Apparently, religious belief and practice contribute to “inner strength” which helps make believers less distracted and more able to focus on positive life tasks. McCullough and Willoughby “reviewed eight decades of research” in order to test six propositions related to religious belief, practice, and self-control. Even when controlling for self-selection bias, higher religiosity was found to be related to higher self-control.

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Religious belief reduces anxiety response

ANXIETYYou’ve felt it before: the embarrassed, self-conscious realization that you’ve just committed a major error, made a mistake when you should have been performing better. We all experience this unpleasant feeling. Measuring electrical activity in the brain, researchers call it “error-related negativity,” relating it particularly to a part of the midbrain called the anterior cingulate cortex. New research indicates that religiousness may reduce activity in this part of the brain, physiologically buffering people against their own mistakes. Most interestingly, the source of this effect may be the generation of meaning itself.

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Religious beliefs affect neural self-processing

Neural_beliefIt’s one of the most basic human experiences. The world and I are different things – the world is out there, and I’m looking out at all the action. But this division might not be so strict for everyone. Researchers in China have discovered that people from different cultures show distinctive patterns of neuronal activation when asked to think about themselves. Specifically, Tibetan Buddhists do not exhibit the typical brain activity associated with concepts of a self. This suggests that religious beliefs directly affect not only our neurology, but our fundamental experience of the world.

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Religious extremism linked to anxiety

Religion, said Marx, is the “opiate of the masses.” This well-known phrase has come to represent the pacifying impact of religion, especially popular religion, used for the social control (or exploitation) of the majority by the elite. The assurance of heaven or some other supernatural good is meant to take the sting and uncertainty out of everyday life. New research at York University suggests that religion may well have a tranquilizing impact. So, updating the expression slightly, we might ask, is religion the Valium of the masses?

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Sick? Your religion may matter.

SickIn 2006, scientists who worked on the John Templeton Foundation study of anonymous, intercessory prayer released their conclusion that such prayer does not aid in recovering from illness. However, religion may still play an important role in recuperating from disease. Religion can contribute to combating diseases in other ways than asking for supernatural intercession. Evolutionary biologist David Hughes (Pennsylvania State University, University Park) argues that religious social structures and how a group handles epidemics mutually shape each other.

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Yoga may help produce vital brain chemical

yoga_girlYoga has been prominent in the public eye recently – it seems like everyone from housewives to movie stars is suddenly carting around a yoga mat en route to their favorite studio (sending some Christian pastors into an existential panic while they’re at it). But is yoga just a trend, or does it actually do anything useful for people? As it happens, new research from Boston University suggests that it’s more than just a fad: yoga may help increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brain, leading to greater well-being than exercise alone.

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Muslim prostrations increase alpha waves in the brain

ProstrationThe religious brain is hot stuff right now. Publications as diverse as Science and Newsweek seem to be gaga about how meditation affects the frontal cortex, how praying soothes the amygdala, or how religious belief affects the psyche. But there’s a catch to all this excitement: nearly all the research focuses on either Christian or Buddhist forms of religious practice. Where are the other religions? A team of researchers from Malaysia recently helped to answer this question by studying how Muslim prayer affects alpha waves in the brain, and their results show a profound connection between mind and body.

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Mind-body therapies gaining recognition for cancer patients

cancer_spiritualityWhy do we humans have things like rites, rituals, prayers, and beliefs? Many might answer that they help us to find meaning and purpose in life, feel connected with something greater, or ward off fear of death. But spirituality also often helps with something else: health and well-being. From Siberian shamans who also function as healers to the growing modern interest in mind-body medicine, spirituality is deeply entwined with our quest for wholeness. Now, researchers are finding that spirituality can help patients cope with one of the most challenging diseases of all: cancer.

First things first: very few researchers claim that prayer or meditation can shrink tumors, inspire spontaneous remissions, or lead to miracle cures. Instead, the vast majority of the research into spirituality and cancer has focused on how spiritual faith and practice can help cancer patients to deal with their illness, including the often painful and disruptive treatment processes. What they’re finding is that cancer patients who utilize spirituality or mind-body medicine often report feeling happier, better-adjusted, and less plagued by the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy than their peers.

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Mind over matter

Mind_over_MatterPeople have speculated over the value of meditating for thousands of years. Meditating seems to improve people’s mood, increase their self-awareness, and help them relax. Of course, mere hearsay will not convince neurologists—only empirical investigation will. To that end, a group of researchers headed by the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) recently investigated to see if there are any benefits to meditation, finding that persistent meditation can increase gray matter density in the brain.

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Meditation may affect more of the brain than supposed

Meditation_concentrationIn recent years, much ado has been made about mindfulness meditation. Researchers and psychologists have found strong, persistent connections between meditation and enhanced executive cognitive functions – that is, high-level brain processes, like attention switching, planning, and impulse control, that depend on the frontal cortex region of the brain. But now investigators are finding that meditation may help develop bottom-up cognitive processes as well. In fact, new research from the Netherlands shows that people with experience in meditation may be better at automatic information processing, which depends on some of the oldest parts of the brain.

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Is religious zeal a response to anxiety?

Psychological Science 20(3)In a recent article published in Psychological Science, Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, and Kyle Nash demonstrate that people who score very high on measures of religious zeal and conviction make fewer errors on a standard measure of cognitive conflict. As the authors themselves say, “That greater belief in God predicted less cortical activity along with greater behavioral accuracy, even after we controlled for closed-mindedness and conservatism, implies that conviction is not the product of a rigid need for certainty.”

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How religion shapes genetics

Near EastIn the United States, religion is usually said to be a personal affair – one’s own private decision about how and what to believe. But this remarkably private and individualistic approach is somewhat odd when compared with the vast majority of cultures and religions throughout history. Far more often, religion has been a public affiliation, determining cultural identities, affecting marriage and family choices, and defining groups in relation to each other. A fascinating recent study published in PLOS Genetics shows just how inextricable religion often is from culture, finding that religious identity has decisively shaped the genetic landscape of the Levant - so decisively, in fact, that Lebanese Muslims are more closely related to fellow Muslims from Morocco or Yemen than they are to their Christian or Jewish compatriots.   

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Health, forgiveness, and religion

Happy coupleMost religions preach forgiveness. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs, and not letting things go leads to poor spiritual health (according to such religions). While scientists cannot test claims about spiritual health, they can test physical health. Can forgiveness lead to improved health? Researcher Michael McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues posed this question, and found that forgiveness does positively correlate with health over time.

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Guilt hurts – in more than one way

guiltGuilt: it’s no fun. Knowing that we’ve harmed or let down someone we care about leads us to feel blue, self-conscious, and eager to make amends. However, many psychologists have suggested that the emotion of guilt is actually a highly useful social tool, because it inspires people to reach out in an attempt to repair injured relationships. But what if the work people put into making things right comes at the expense of others who haven’t done anything wrong at all?

Although nobody likes feeling guilty, psychologists have long classified guilt as a “moral” emotion, because it inspires prosocial or selfless behavior. Namely, it drives people who have hurt others to try to make things right again by offering extra attention, apologies, and even gifts. In this way, guilt helps smooth the social fabric of a community, ensuring that relationships remain strong even when someone has acted inappropriately or selfishly.

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Gamma waves may be meditation's tool for changing the brain

Gamma_wavesLong-term meditators know that meditation can change people’s experience of the world, usually for the better. Highly experienced practitioners of meditation often report greater feelings of equanimity, patience, and compassion for others – even at times when they’re not meditating, such as during the workday or at dinner with family. Now researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany say they have an explanation for the new states of consciousness that arise as a result of meditation – gamma brain wave states, associated with expert-level meditation, assist in the reshaping of brain structures that persist beyond actual periods of meditation.

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Forgiveness may be linked to long life

ForgivenessFrom the mythical fountain of youth to modern cryogenics, the desire to extend our lives runs deep in the human psyche. Peruse any magazine stand and you’re likely to find a dozen ways to maximize your stay on planet Earth. Some are obvious: eat healthy, exercise, and don’t abuse yourself with drugs and alcohol. Other solutions are a bit more surprising: drink green tea, eat dark chocolate, and own a pet or two. Even more counterintuitive (and perhaps less self-congratulatory) than enjoying chocolate, a recent study suggests that longevity is also linked to your readiness to forgive those who harm you.

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Earn $63,628 worth of happiness: pray

Prayer guyPeople commonly say that “money can’t by happiness,” but such people do not bother economists. Economists like to quantify everything in terms of money, including happiness. And when they got wind of research that religion increases long-term happiness, they naturally asked, “By how much (in US dollars)?” More exactly, Timothy Tyler Brown (University of California, Berkeley) investigated the value of happiness prayer yields for the average individual per year in dollars, and found that the answer is $63,628.

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Does spirituality help well-being, or do we just need to be good to each other?

helpFor some, religion is a way to achieve salvation – ensuring that, for example, one’s soul will be taken care of in the afterlife. But for many others, religion and spirituality are also about life in the here and now. Research in recent decades has suggested that religiosity and spirituality may be associated with a wide variety of positive life outcomes, such as less disease and higher overall well-being. Not everyone agrees, however. James Benjamin Schuurmans-Stekhoven (Charles Sturt University, Australia) thinks that it’s virtuous traits, not spirituality, that lead to a happier life, and he’s using statistics to prove his point.

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Does prayer help marriage? Sort of.

black_coupleIt’s a familiar quote: “the family that prays together, stays together.” Folk wisdom says that participating in religious activities with a significant other is beneficial for the relationship, but now scientists are beginning to test that claim. Recently, a team of investigators looked at marriage training programs in African-American couples to find out whether prayer actually makes partnerships better. Like so many results in the study of religion and well-being, their findings leaned positive, but raised as many questions as they answered.

African-American marriages often face more challenges than those of other ethnic groups in the United States, with higher divorce rates and lower reports of satisfaction within marriages. However, African-American couples are also significantly more religious than most other groups, attending church far more often and praying to God more regularly. Steven R.H. Beach (University of Georgia) and colleagues wondered whether this meant that African-American couples might have religious and spiritual resources that could help build stronger marriages. To find out, they conducted a study assessing the benefits of marriage training that included prayer.

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