Exploring the scientific background of spiritual claims.
Science and spirituality are two forces that seem to counteract each other. While science focuses on the natural world, spirituality connects us to the supernatural (or something bigger than ourselves). While science seeks the origin of species, spirituality may give direction in life. So what is the connection?
With the increasing popularity of spirituality in Western societies, science is called upon to determine its value. From a professional point of view, this popularity makes me curious about the link between science and spirituality. From a personal point of view, I believe the supernatural exists and I practice spirituality on a regular basis. Therefore, I aim to reveal how scientists investigate spirituality.
How do scientists approach spirituality?
To assess the value of spirituality, this article aims to give a clear, imaginable and humble impression of spirituality research. The selected research describes spiritual practices, which are practiced by people of multiple religious affiliations and even by irreligious people. In the remainder of this article, five relevant studies describe health- and/or cognitive effects of five spiritual practices: Meditation, prayer, yoga, choir singing and fasting.
1. Meditative relaxation activates healthy genes
Where? General Hospital Boston, USA
Why? Meditation enhances the ability of the brain. Does it also positively influence gene expression?
How? 26 inexperienced meditators participated in an American study, performing a meditative relaxation training. This training included reciting words, breathing, prayer and several meditative exercises. Participants executed an eight-week training program, performing the meditative relaxation routine (lasting for 10-20 minutes) on a daily basis. Blood samples of the participants were frequently collected and used to test the differences in gene activity of different blood cells.
What? After eight weeks, the gene profile of the inexperienced participants changed tremendously, resembling those of experienced meditators. The changed gene activity has four main effects: more efficient energy production, improved control of blood sugar, anti-aging effects and anti-inflammatory effects.
Spirituality-meter: 4.5 out of 5. Meditation is a relaxation exercise, which is frequently used to achieve a higher consciousness or to focus on God. The beneficial health effects of meditative relaxation are proven convincingly. Both inexperienced and experienced meditators train their genes to contribute to a long and healthy life. The most logical next step is to repeat the experiments with bigger experimental groups.
2. Personal prayer pushes self-control to higher levels
Who? Malte Friese and colleagues
Where? Saarland University, Germany
Why? Personal prayer improves self-control in the long-term. So what about short-term effects?
How? This question motivated German/Swiss scientists to recruit 60 religious and irreligious volunteers and divide them into four groups: two experimental and two control groups. All groups performed similar procedures, only the first task for the experimental groups was more stressful. First, all groups wrote down all their thoughts for six minutes. At the same time, the experimental groups were asked to suppress thoughts of white bears, making the task more stressful. Second, all groups were asked to either pray freely (for people, concerns, desires etc.) or to think about anything, both for five minutes. Third, all participants performed the same computerized Stroop task, recognizing the ink color of the color terms as quick as possible. For example: blue or red. The Stroop task results of the thinking- and praying experimental groups were compared with the results of the non-stressed thinking- and praying control groups, respectively.
What? The stressed thinking group performed worse than the corresponding non-stressed group, whereas the stressed prayers performed equally well. Therefore, prayer probably counteracts cognitive depletion after stress. Interestingly, the beneficial effect of prayer was independent of the religiosity of the participants.
Spirituality-meter: 4 out of 5. Personal prayer, which is usually interaction with God or other spiritual beings, helps to cope with stressful situations, whereas free thinking does not help. This could be due to the social aspect of prayer since earlier research shows that social interactions improve cognitive functioning. Comparing divine- and earthly interactions could underline the importance of prayer. The downside of this study: Only end results were reported, speed and accuracy were not scored separately.
3. Yoga immediately improves brain function
Who? Neha Gothe and colleagues
Where? University of Illinois, USA
Why? Research on yoga and cognition is rare.
How? American scientists recruited 30 inexperienced female students for a 20-minute yoga practice, which included physical movements, postures, regulated breathing and meditation. The same participants also performed a 20-minute jogging exercise on another day. After both sessions, the volunteers performed several computerized cognitive tasks, such as pressing the right button when a yellow cross appeared. During the tasks, the women’s accuracy and speed were assessed.
What? Volunteers had higher accuracy and shorter reaction times after the yoga practice than after jogging exercise. Because all participants did not regularly attend yoga sessions, the positive effect is an immediate effect. Yoga practice boosted the cognitive abilities, such as focus, accuracy and information processing.
Spirituality-meter: 4 out of 5. Yoga is a physical activity, which is frequently performed to get a higher consciousness or to worship God. Interestingly, only 20 minutes of yoga was enough to show increased cognition in inexperienced subjects. Furthermore, speed and accuracy are major cognitive factors. Importantly, the order of jogging and yoga is no issue, because it differed between participants. One big disadvantage: no men were involved in the study.
4. Choir singing benefits heart and blood vessels
Where? University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Why? Choir singing improves our health: How come?
How? Swedish scientists grabbed this question by gathering eleven18-year-old volunteers, asking them to perform three 5-minute singing tasks as a group: (1) monotone humming, (2) Christian hymn singing(this song) and (3) mantra chanting. As a control task, the same participants silently read a simple text. During singing and reading, the participants’ heart rate variability or fluctuations (HRV) were measured.
What? Christian hymn singing and mantra chanting increase the HRV of the participants (compared to reading and humming).These bigger heart rate fluctuations (HRV) are beneficial for our health because they decrease the chance of high blood pressure.
Spirituality-meter: 3 out of 5. Spiritual singing and –chanting seems beneficial for heart and blood vessels. The differences between the tasks are convincing, however, this effect could be due to the specific order of singing tasks. For example, could the HRV during mantra chanting be equally advantageous if it was the first singing task? Furthermore, eleven participants is a small experimental group.
Who? De Ridder and colleagues
Where? Utrecht University, Netherlands
Why? Hungry people rely more on their gut feeling. How does this influence their decision making?
How? Dutch scientists selected 30 students with a normal weight. When they arrived sober in the morning, half of them (the control group) had breakfast before doing the computerized version of the so-called Iowa Gambling Test (IGT). The other half (the fasting group) skipped breakfast and executed the IGT immediately. During the test, participants picked 100 cards from four different decks (A-D). A and B cards gave high rewards or even higher penalties, whereas C and D cards gave reasonable rewards or low penalties. In the long run, C and D cards gave the highest yields. The scores of the last 60 trials were compared between the control- and fasting group, assessing the ability of strategic decision making.
What? Fasting students made significantly more money during the IGT, suggesting they are more capable of making right decisions in complex situations. Feeling hungry is probably important since fasting participants reported a much higher degree of hunger than control participants (79% vs. 22%).
Spirituality-meter: 3 out of 5: Fasting activities, like Ramadan, can be practiced to seek the presence of God or other spiritual beings or just to lose weight. This study clearly shows that moderate fasting enhances the strategic abilities of participants, suggesting feeling hungry is an advantage. The big question remains: So what about longer fasting (one or multiple days)? And what is the effect of spiritual fasting, like Ramadan?
Conclusion, limitations and future directions
Together, these studies suggest spirituality boosts our health and improves our cognition. However, there are three main limitations. Firstly, these studies only describe a few effects of spiritual practices. Since spirituality is thought to improve body-mind-spirit as a whole, larger amounts of effects of spiritual practices should be investigated during the same study. Secondly, spirituality depends mainly on the world view and the intention of the practitioners: Do they seek spiritual beings, a higher consciousness, or do they solely aim to improve their health? And what about spiritual experiences? To answer these questions, future participants should report about their motives before- and (non-)spiritual experiences during the spiritual practices. Thirdly, if more promising results appear, researchers could make strong claims by upscaling their experiments to phase III clinical trial proportions.
Gothe N, Pontifex MB, Hillman C, & McAuley E (2013). The acute effects of yoga on executive function. Journal of physical activity & health, 10 (4), 488-95 PMID: 22820158
Vickhoff, B., Malmgren, H., Åström, R., Nyberg, G., Ekström, S., Engwall, M., Snygg, J., Nilsson, M., & Jörnsten, R. (2013). Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334
de Ridder D, Kroese F, Adriaanse M, & Evers C (2014). Always gamble on an empty stomach: hunger is associated with advantageous decision making. PloS one, 9 (10) PMID: 25340399
Friese M, Schweizer L, Arnoux A, Sutter F, & Wänke M (2014). Personal prayer counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and cognition, 29, 90-5 PMID: 25277947
Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang BH, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, Fricchione GL, Benson H, & Libermann TA (2013). Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PloS one, 8 (5) PMID: 23650531
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