The papal visit is a time for ritual, prayer, and meditation.

Research has shown that such activities - even outside a religious context - change our brains for the better.

Andrew B. Newberg, a neuroscientist and director of research at Jefferson University Hospitals' Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, specializes in the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences, an emerging field known as neurotheology. He has taken hundreds of brain scans of nuns in prayer, of Buddhists during meditation, of people involved in rituals, while speaking in tongues, and during trance states.

"Basically, I'm trying to understand what's going on in the brain of people when they engage in meditation or prayer, think about God, practice various rituals and group rituals, when they're going to Mass, church, synagogue, whatever," he recently said in a conversation about his work. "What's happening inside of us? Why does it have such a powerful impact on us?

"The ideas about spirituality and religion continue to be at the forefront of so much humanity. The pope comes in, and millions of people show up. What is it that has that power? As a neuroscientist, I feel it must have something to do with our brain."

His books include How God Changes Your Brain, Why We Believe What We Believe, and Why God Won't Go Away.

What can you learn from scanning a brain at prayer?

Different areas of the brain become part of this process. There doesn't appear, based on my perspective of the research, that there is a particular "God spot" in the brain. There is not one part of the brain that lights up every time someone becomes spiritual. If there is a spiritual part of ourselves, it is the entire brain.

One outcome from all this research is understanding the relationship between our religious and spiritual side and our overall health and well-being.

For instance, people turn to religion to help cope with difficult physical and mental illnesses. People frequently meditate or pray as a way of keeping themselves calm during procedures. We know for sure that meditation and prayer help reduce depression, anxiety, and blood pressure. They basically alter the physiology of the person and, in most cases, in positive ways. This happens certainly in the moment. But people have also found that a lot of these effects are persistent. We've found that if people did meditation for 12 minutes a day, they had improvements in their memory by 10 [percent] to 15 percent, and had changes in their brain not just when they were meditating, but when they were simply at rest.

In these studies, are you referring specifically to religion?

Actual faith isn't always necessary: Atheists who meditate on positive imagery can obtain similar neurological benefits. We all have a brain that is looking out on this world and trying to make sense of it. Some of us come to a religious or spiritual conclusion. Some come to a scientific conclusion. In my view, you have to do something consistent with your belief system. I wouldn't tell an atheist to say a rosary. That wouldn't make sense.

Is there a flip side to all this?

Part of what I hope this whole field of research will help us understand is the ways in which religious and spiritual beliefs turn good, and ways in which they turn bad. To me, the brain-related question is: What's the difference in the brain of someone who turns to religion and becomes immensely passionate and open and loving vs. another person who winds up hating people of other religious beliefs and wants to ultimately do harm to other people?

Some of it has to do with the doctrines themselves. Why this pope is getting a lot of positive support? From my understanding, he's trying to bridge gaps. He's trying to preach compassion and understanding. That's different from if you're sitting in a church or synagogue or mosque and someone is saying, "These other people are evil. We need to defend ourselves. We need to kill people."

What about group rituals, such as services during the papal weekend?

From my research, one of the main effects all these rituals have is that they bring people together, and they make people connected - connected to each other, connected to an idea, connected to God. When you look at these people coming to the [Benjamin Franklin] Parkway, as they listen to what's going on, there are going to be all different kinds of stimuli that their brains are going to be responding to - the cadence of music, the vision of a person that represents meaning to them, the symbol of the cross.

Ultimately, there is a feeling of connectedness, community, and love and compassion for each other.

I compare it to the rituals of a football game, which are basically identical to religious rituals. You sing hymns. Instead of incense, it's the smell of hot dogs and beer. The people know the time of the game to do the different songs, the different cheers. When a touchdown is scored, you do "Fly, Eagles, Fly." It brings 60,000 people in a stadium together, supporting the Eagles. When the pope comes, it will be the same thing, except it will be supporting the Catholic ideals.

What about you?

I was brought up as a reform Jew. I grew up in Philadelphia. I was raised in an environment that encouraged a lot of questioning and a lot of thinking about things. So I suppose that what I would refer to as a spiritual path is also my scientific path.

Through that, I've developed a profound appreciation of everyone's belief systems. Because there are seven billion of us on the Earth, there are seven billion perspectives. But each of us is in the same boat. Our brain is looking out on the world and trying to understand it. Given the infiniteness of the world and complexity of the world, and the limited and finite abilities of our brains, it's amazing we get anywhere at all. I think that means we need each other.

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