People who value spiritual and religious practices show different brain structures than those for whom these beliefs are less important, according to Columbia’s Lisa Miller, Ravi Bansal, Priya Wickramaratne, Xuejun Hao, and Myrna M. Weissman, Craig E. Tenke and Bradley S. Peterson.
This finding is consistent with an earlier summary of transformations of brain structure and function associated with spiritual experiences compiled by University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew B. Newberg.
Miller’s team rated more than 100 volunteers on their risk of depression, based on family history of having parents or grandparents with major depression.
They also evaluated participants’ ratings of spiritual and religious values as well as religious participation at two times during a five year period.
The team also performed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of each volunteer’s brain at the second time point.
MRI brain scans showed significant differences in brain structure for those who valued spiritual and religious practices: Thicker cortices in the left and right parietal and occipital regions and mesial frontal lobes, and left hemisphere cuneus and precuneus.
In separate investigations, Miller, Wickramaratne, Tenke, and Weissman collaborated with Columbia colleagues Daniel Pilowsky, Helen Verdeli, Marc J. Gameroff, and Mia Sage, and New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Virginia Warner, with Yoko Nomura of Queens College in a 20 year longitudinal study following adult children of people diagnosed with major depression.
Adult children who also reported at the beginning of the study that religion or spirituality was “highly important” to them had 75%-90% less risk of experiencing major depression over 10 years, compared with people who had no family history of depression.
These findings suggest that spiritual and religious values buffer genetic risk of depressive disorders.
Further support for this notion comes from related work by Columbia’s Tenke, who collaborated with Jürgen Kayser, Carlye G. Manna, Shiva Fekri, Christopher J. Kroppmann, Jennifer D. Schaller, Daniel M. Alschuler, Jonathan W. Stewart, Patrick J. McGrath, and Gerard E. Bruder to report that people who recover from depression have high-amplitude alpha brain activity, which is also associated with continued practice of Qigong meditation, according to University of Graz’s Gerhard Litscher, G. Wenzel, Gerald Niederwieser, and Gerhard Schwarz.
Taken together, these findings on brain wave activity, spirituality, and depression suggest that spiritual practice affects brain function.
Miller’s team posited that spiritual or religious practices like mindfulness, meditation, and religious practice may reduce high familial risk for major depression due to structural changes in the brain.
-*How credible are suggestions that spiritual values and practices alter brain structure and function?
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