Book Review

How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. Ballentine Books, NY,  2009; 349 pages, ISBN 978-0-345-50341-1, hardback, $27.00.

"Ultimately, this book is about compassion," say the authors (p. 18).  Based on their own and other neurological research, they promote techniques and attitudes that have been found to increase feelings of unity and acceptance of others, and dissipate or discourage anger and exclusiveness.   The effectiveness of these meditation, relaxation, and awareness practices, often taken from religious traditions, does not depend on any religious content or context. They are presented in a form acceptable to anyone, whether atheist, agnostic, spiritual, or member of any religion.

Despite the title, God is not actually the causative agent here: rather, "if you contemplate something as complex or mysterious as God, you’re going to have incredible bursts of neural activity firing in different parts of your brain. . . . when you think about the really big questions in life – be they religious, scientific¸ or psychological – your brain is going to grow.” (p. 16)  It is considering deeply any complex subject that creates changes in the brain, not specifically thinking about God or religious matters. 

The first two sections of the book examine concepts of God from an evolutionary, developmental, and utilitarian viewpoint.  The emphasis is on scientific research pointing to the health and mental benefits of certain practices, activities, and attitudes.  They consider and evaluate many definitions of God, ranging from an anthropomorphic personal God, to a divine energy, to the meaning behind life and the universe.  While the authors defend religion as a personal and social good, neither is himself religious: one sees the universe purely scientifically, the other is spiritual but not religious.  The latter says, "In looking at the positive side of our ability to understand our universe, I like to think of God as a metaphor for each person’s search for ultimate meaning and truth." (p. 244) 

We may ask then: Is God real?  Science, they affirm, is not in a position to say.  However, they point out what makes God real to believers in neurological terms:

"We would argue that the more you meditate on a specific object – be it God, or peace, or financial success – the more active your thalamus becomes, until it reaches a point of stimulation where it perceives thoughts in the same way that other sensations are perceived.  And if you exercise an idea over and over, your brain will begin to respond as though the idea was a real object in the world.  . . . Thus, the more you focus of God, the more God will be sensed as real. . . .

"The thalamus makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality.  Your belief becomes neurologically real, and your brain will respond accordingly.  But for someone else, who has meditated on a different set of beliefs or goals, a different reality will seem true.” –  p. 55

The human mind, they state, is not very good at distinguishing what really exists in the outside world, but is excellent at creating consistency.  Once a belief is established, the mind interprets and sifts its perceptions to conform to that belief,  and so all our observations tend to confirm it.  This is true of beliefs of every kind.

This book presents itself as an apologetic for religion, and as such it was to me unsatisfactory.  I was unconvinced by their many positive claims for religion itself, since most if not all of the benefits they cite are available using the same types of techniques, attitudes, or social practices stripped of any religious references or connections, as the authors themselves often point out.  They apply the double standard of attributing anything good associated with religion to religion itself, and anything bad associated with religion to the negative side of human nature.  Nor would I think most theists would find it a satisfying defense, since it considers religious practices and belief in God as psychologically and physically healthy or unhealthy rather than as being true or false.  Nonetheless, this is a convenient compendium of simple psychological exercises which promote health and compassion that people may find beneficial. – Sally Dougherty (June 2009)