By Dr. Amanda Alexander
As a child, I was taught to pray using the formula J-O-Y: Jesus, Others, Yourself. First, offer thanks to Jesus, then pray for others, and finally, ask God for those things that I want.
In my early teens, I stumbled upon the practice of lectio divina: a slow, mediative reading of scripture. In college, after having converted to Catholicism, I learned other mediative forms of prayer like the Rosary, Centering Prayer, and the Jesus Prayer. I also started to notice that “meditation” was becoming wildly popular! It was touted as a way to improve athletic performance, enhance memory, reduce anxiety, treat depression, combat disordered eating and even experience a pain-free birth.
I realized that, structurally, the meditative forms of prayer I practiced were very similar to those types of mediation popularized in the secular world, even if the content of those meditations was very different. I began to wonder, what does prayer do to our bodies? To our brains?
We are flesh and soul composites. Though we often speak of the spiritual life as if it is somehow separate from our physical life, the two are inseparable. Jesus, after all, is the Word of God made flesh. During his life, Jesus not only forgave sins but also healed physical illnesses and weaknesses. When Jesus, having been resurrected, ascended into heaven, he ascended bodily. And every time we say the Creed, we profess our faith in the “resurrection of the body.” Given that our bodies are so important, it makes sense that prayer would have not only spiritual benefits but also physical benefits.
Neuroscientists are beginning to turn their attention to the practice of prayer and to study the effects prayer has on the brain. Several years ago, I ran across a study of an eastern prayer practice that seemed to correlate with the practice of praying the Rosary directly.
Dr. Andrew Newberg invited participants in this particular study to practice a form of meditation that is structurally very similar to other prayer practices that use beads, like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Participants in Newberg’s study were asked to touch their fingers with their thumb as they chanted sequentially, “sa, ta, na, ma” (one syllable for each finger). They were to continue this chanting and repetitive touching of the fingers for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the beginning and end of the study, Newberg scanned the study participants’ brains to discover what changes, if any, had occurred.
The results of Newberg’s study were surprising: even inexperienced meditators showed significant changes in their brain function after only eight weeks. In particular, the brain circuit that governs activities involving consciousness, clarity of mind, reality formation, error detection, empathy, compassion, emotional balance and the suppression of fear and anger were strengthened. Newberg notes that the malfunction of this particular circuit “contributes to the formation of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and schizophrenia” (Newberg, “How God Changes your Brain,” 29).
In his apostolic letter “On the Most Holy Rosary,” St. Pope John Paul II notes that the Rosary has historically been a prayer of peace, a prayer that combats the “forces of disintegration on both the ideological and practical planes.” When I set these spiritual benefits alongside the results of Newberg’s study, I began to realize that part of the grace and power of a prayer like the Rosary is its ability to change my brain physically. In altering my neural circuits, the Rosary makes me a more peaceful, less fearful more integrated person.
This inner, neurological change that results from my practice of prayer directly impacts my relationship with those around me. The more faithful I am to the discipline of prayer, the more compassionate and empathetic I become. Through the grace of the prayer, I am physically healed of a malfunction I may not even have been aware of, and the brokenness that malfunction has wrought in my life and relationships also begins to heal.
Neuroscientific studies of prayer cannot explain every benefit and grace of prayer. However, knowing that my daily practice of prayer has measurable, tangible benefits has helped me remain committed to carving out time for prayer, no matter how tired, busy or overwhelmed I may feel. I know that in momentous times, I need prayer, physically and spiritually, the most.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.