5. Exploring Spirituality
For some, being spiritual means going to church every day. For others, it means finding a silent place (youre less likely to be disturbed in the bathroom) to meditate and think about the bigger picture in life. And for a few, it means closing your eyes and looking to the sky when the field goal kicker is looking at a 50-yarder with time running out. There is some hotly disputed evidence suggesting a genetic influence in the amount or degree of spirituality a person can have that people who are more spiritual than others actually have a gene thats linked to a specific spirituality receptor in the brain. Which would mean that people have various dispositions for feeling spiritual, just the same way they have predispositions for heart disease. Of course, we also have the ability to tweak, modify, and change those predispositions with the choices we make (just as in people with predispositions for heart disease). The telomere caps on the tips of our chromosomes are a way of judging your rate of aging the longer your telomeres, the more your stem cells can reproduce and repair damage elsewhere in your body and the younger you are. People with purposes in life (ones that dont stress them) have much longer telomeres (almost eight years worth longer) than their chronological age and other health behaviors would justify the telomeres seem to be elongated by having that purpose.
Scientists have long speculated that religious feelings can be tied to a specific place in the brain. They found this out by studying a form of epilepsy in which seizures originate as electrical misfirings within the temporal lobes. Epileptics who have this form of the disorder often report intense religious experiences, leading researchers to speculate that localized electrical storms in the brains temporal lobe might sometimes be related to religious experience. These feelings may be connected to the limbic system, which comprises interior regions of the brain that govern emotion (amygdala) and emotional memory (hypothalamus). Its also possible that different religious feelings arise from distinct locations in the brain (and individual differences might also exist). So now the question is: How can you learn to be spiritual? Well, primarily through training your brain with transcendent experiences such as meditation or prayer that is, altering your state of consciousness to focus on a sacred image or thought. Maybe you got your first taste of prayer before meals or before going to bed. Maybe you pray every Sunday or every day. Or maybe the only time you ever prayed was in the half second that your car hydroplaned on the highway. Clearly, we all have different perceptions of what praying means and what it does. And, like many other things, prayer works for some people and doesnt do diddly for others. (There are a lot of conflicting data to do with the effects of prayer, proving just that.) For us, prayer isnt asking for a specific answer or outcome (give us rain!) but rather gaining the ability to cope with a desperate situation (a drought). The purpose of prayer isnt to change the Divine or alter what your god is thinking but to change you to give you the strength to manage tough times.
Prayer, to us, is somewhat interchangeable with meditation in that its silent contemplation. Few people would say that prayer gets the medical and scientific attention that, say, Alzheimers research gets, but that doesnt mean that there isnt some impressive scientific evidence about the power of prayer. For example, we know that prayer and meditation change neurological structure. Meditation leads to a thicker cortex (any kind of regular mental activity builds new brain connections). And we know that meditation works for relaxation, at least partially by soothing the vagus nerve a nerve that carries a truckload of information to the brain. So you can build up your brain just like your biceps if you do the correct exercises. Some studies have also shown that the frontal lobe (which deals with concentration) lights up like a campfire during prayer and meditation. Still other researchers used EEG tests to show that meditating monks had higher than normal gamma waves, which are thought to be helpful in synchronizing separate forms of brain function to help form a unified perception of the world (the purpose of prayer and meditation, after all, right?). And believe it or not, though your body is not spending energy during such meditation, your brain can almost double its activity level. Regardless of what motivates people to pray, theres no denying that a lot of people do it. One study shows that 36 percent of people use complementary and alternative medicine, but that number almost doubles when prayer is included in the definition. Those respondents say they use prayer for their own health and to help others.