Mark Robert Waldman, Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, University of Pennsylvania, reveals current research on the effects of meditation on universal, positive ideas on the brain. He currently conducts research with Andrew Newberg, MD, on the neurological correlates of beliefs, morality, compassion, meditation, religious experiences, and spiritual practices. Mark is co-author of the best-seller How God Changes Your Brain, a book named by Oprah as one of nine “Must Read” books for 2012.
I think this is a perfect day to change the world, and I’m going to begin with God. Yes, God. God? Oh, God. No matter how you think about it, God is going to change your brain, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or disbeliever. It may anger you. It may delight you. It may confuse you. It may even mystify. But our brain scan research at the University of Pennsylvania is definite: God will change your brain.
Why? Because God is a big idea, and perhaps the second biggest idea in the world. And any big idea, any really big idea, is going to grow dendrites in some of the most important parts of your brain. Big idea, like peace, compassion, or love, like God. There’s no scientific evidence if these ideas actually exist in the world, but they will build a better brain.
Some ideas can reduce anxiety, depression, or rage. Others can actually improve memory, cognition, social awareness and consciousness itself. And then, there are a few ideas that will actually scare the living dendrites out of your amygdala. Like money, or to be more specific, the fear of losing money.
And here we have an actual brain scan study of an individual who is about to lose twelve dollars to a computer. How is this possible? How can a single idea or even a single word change the structure and function of your brain? It can. It does. All big ideas, whether it be God, or peace, or compassion, begin as an idea in your frontal lobes. And this information is sent to your thalamus–grand central station of reality processing–and this is the thing that tells your brain what it thinks is going on in the outside world. It may send the information to your occipital lobes, where you can create a vision of what you want to bring in the world. So this is your vision and your big idea coming together.
But what’s really important is that the information is sent to your parietal lobe back here, and this is the part of your brain that creates an artificial construction of you. You do not exist in the world, you are a fantasy, a useful one created in the parietal lobes of your brain. And by meditating on your big idea, you begin to align yourself with your dream, your goal, and your vision.
If that dream and goal and vision is a positive one, it’s going to stimulate parts of your body and your brain that are enormously healthy, and we actually think that it will affect certain parts of your brain that will add a few years onto your life.
If, however, your big idea is a little on the negative side, like war, this will not stimulate those parts of the brain and it will create neurochemicals that will actually destroy the limbic system that controls destructive emotions. So the more you grumble, the more you complain, the more you are frustrated, you are killing yourself.
And if you meditate on your big idea for forty-five or fifty minutes, most unusual thing begins to happen. Your parietal lobe activity goes down. You actually disappear. You’re losing your ego, and all that remains is your big idea. So if you’re focusing on peace, peace becomes your inner and outer reality. Peace becomes anything that you want. If your idea is to change the world, then you will begin to change the world because that’s all there is that exists.
Now, these are actual brain scan studies, and what’s important about this is that if you are a Buddhist and you’re focusing on pure consciousness, or if you are a Franciscan nun who’s simply attempting to feel closer to God, we get almost exactly the same neurological stimulation going on in the brain. Two totally different belief systems, but because they’re positive, because they’re deeply meaningful to the individual, you create a healthier brain. And if you do this type of meditation for a few years, and we can actually see it beginning to happen in the first eight weeks in our studies, your thalamus permanently changes its structure by ten percent. You actually cannot see reality the same way before you meditated.
So if you don’t like the reality that you live in, if your reality is one of worry or fear or depression, do meditate on a positive belief system, and maybe you too can end up with an asymmetrical thalamus. Very weird.
God is a big idea, and it’s good for your brain, but only if your image of God is positive. If you ruminate on a negative god, if you ruminate on a negative thought, for more than twenty seconds, you’re actually going to do damage to your brain. And, yes, although we have to keep our subjects anonymous, we do have evidence. We’ve been working with him for years and years. You can see what actually happens to his brain.
And, please, women out there, forgive us because of we also think this is the notion that most men’s brains that are out there. We’re just born that way. We cannot help it.
So what happens if you believe in something or focus on something that you don’t really believe in. So I’m going to tell you a personal story. I’ve meditated for many years. And although i don’t believe in that story of the old man with a white beard in the sky, I always found that doing a God meditation felt very, very good. And I’ve tried out meditations from virtually every religious tradition around the world, and we find that they’re all beneficial for you.
So I became one of Andy’s brain scan subjects, as disbelievers are an unusual creature to look at, particularly disbelievers who happen to like to meditate upon God. And here i am about five minutes into the study, and I’m visualizing the God that we all know best, the God at the Sistine chapel– incredible picture, and He disappears. Oy vey, right in the middle of a brain scan. What in the world am i going to do? Well, fortunately, I was filled with the sense of radiating light coming through me. I know that’s also a very wonderful meditation that will change your brain in positive ways. I got so ecstatic i couldn’t sleep for three days and i thought maybe, just maybe, we captured the mystical experience on film. This has been Andy Newberg’s dream for about ten years to actually see what happens when you have that “aha!” experience.
Boy, was I wrong. When the the brain scan subject studies came back, I discovered that one-half of my frontal lobe activity was going way, way up, the other half was going way, way down. We have a word for this: neural dissonance. It’s not a very good thing to nurture. And, yes, I too, have an assymetrical thalamus. Very, very rare event. So i’m going to encourage you all throughout the rest of your life to find your big idea, and to meditate and contemplate on that day after day, so that you turn out as weird as me.
Our research also shows that focusing on a disbelief is socially disruptive. Negative thoughts stimulate the amygdala.
Here is your amygdala. And in Latin ‘amygdala’ stands for almond, and it looks exactly like an almond. And it is literally that part of your brain that makes you go nuts. Our advice: do not focus on negative beliefs.
A recent study found that for a highly anxious or depressed individual, if you look at a list of negative words–I’m sorry for destroying your brain right now—you become worse. In fact, if I put you in an fMRI machine and show you this word for less than one second, it will release more stress neurochemicals than can possibly be good for your body or your brain.
And yet, if you see a positive word hardly anything happens. Why? It’s not a threat to your survival. This is why you have to meditate on your positive belief, your positive image, your optimism, for a very long time, if you want to achieve the types of neurological benefits that we’ve been able to document in the lab.
Now our research shows that God, for most people, is not a very big idea. Money is a much bigger idea. But it’s still not the biggest idea in the world. What is? Well Andy and I think that we’ve discovered the single question that can help you find what that biggest idea is in your life. Can you guess what that question is? It is not, “what makes you happy?” If you google that question, you get over three million hits. And the question I’m about to ask you brings up less than fifty hits.
How is that possible? How can one of the most important questions that could lead you to one of the most important issues in big ideas in your life only show up fifty times? How can we be so ignorant of what this is? Why don’t we focus on our own big idea?
I’m going to help you right now find your own big idea, but i need your help. I need you to close your eyes for a moment, to relax. In other words, we’re going to need you to meditate. It’s going to change your brain right here and right now, it’s the easiest thing to do because all you have to do is breathe in deeply. Stretch a little bit and move around in your chair. And it requires to do one other thing that we’ve become notorious for. I’m going to ask you to yawn. And we have forty-three documented studies to show you that this is one of the eight best ways to exercise your brain.
So let’s begin. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Yawn, it’s very contagious. Breathe deeply. Stretch, even if you don’t feel like it. Roll around your head, shake out your arms and legs. And now think about something or someone you deeply love. And now ask yourself this question, “What is my deepest, innermost value?” Find a single word or phrase that captures that essential deep value. This is your big idea, an idea so powerful it will change your brain. It will change your life, and it may even change the world.
Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist–we all have a hidden value that is our guide to personal life. For me it’s compassion, and I’m not very good at it. Which is why i have to meditate on that every day of my life. And when you share your deepest belief with other people from other traditions, you’re going to find out that we are all members of the same church, the church of humanity, the church of life.
And if you meditate on that word, that sacred belief, that big idea for just a few minutes a day, in eight weeks you will neurologically begin to change the structure and function of your brain. It will bring a little bit more peace into your heart and, as our research documents, if you bring those values into your speech, with a half-smile on your face and a soft gaze in your eyes, as you speak as slowly as I am speaking for very brief periods of time, you will change the listener’s brain. It’s called neural resonance, and it is the key to getting along with others.
About Mark Waldman
Mark Robert Waldman is an Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, University of Pennsylvania. He conducts neurological research with Andrew Newberg, MD, at Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine. Mark is co-author of the bestselling book, How God Changes Your Brain, named by Oprah as one of nine “Must Read” books for 2012, and 12 other books including Born to Believe and Why We Believe What We Believe. Time, Newsweek, and the Washington Post call Andy Newberg and Mark Waldman the world’s leading experts on spirituality and the brain. Mark is also adjunct faculty at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, where he is developing communication tools for the Executive MBA program.
Mark lectures frequently at conferences, colleges, and churches on topics relating to the neuropsychology of stress, relaxation, emotional control, relationship dynamics, conﬂict resolution, mediation, communication, weight management, and the neurobiological development of personal values and business ethics (neuroeconomics). His research has been featured in Time magazine, Washington Post, Oprah Magazine and Radio, USA Today, The New York Times science section, and his interviews have appeared on dozens of radio and television programs, including Oprah and Friends.