For some, being spiritual means going to church, for others it means finding a silent place to meditate and think about the bigger picture.
There is evidence that suggests a genetic influence in the amount of spirituality you can have—the people who are more spiritual than others actually have a gene that’s linked to a specific spirituality receptor in the brain. Which would mean that you have various dispositions for feeling spiritual, just the same way they have predispositions for heart disease. Of course, you also have the ability to modify these predispositions with the choices you make.
So how can you learn to be spiritual? Primarily through training your brain with transcendent experiences such a meditation or prayer—that is, altering your state of consciousness to focus on a sacred image or thought.
RESEARCH: Meditation Can Make You Kinder
Everyone has a different perception of what praying means and what it does. We like to think of it as gaining the ability to cope with a desperate situation, giving you the strength to manage tough times. Prayer is somewhat interchangeable with meditation in that it’s silent contemplation.
There’s even some scientific evidence 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 ton of information to your brain.
So you can build your brain just like your biceps if you do the correct exercises. Some studies have shown that the frontal lobe (which deals with concentration) lights up during prayer and meditation.
Other researchers used EEG tests to show 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 (not unlike the purpose of prayer and meditation). And amazingly enough, your brain can almost double its activity level.
Regardless of what motivates people to pray, studies show that many of you find prayer helpful as a form of relaxation (it helps to slow breathing and brain activity, and reduces heart rate and blood pressure). It also boosts positivity. After praying, you’re generally filled with peace and joy.
There’s some evidence that these emotions lead to positive physiological responses throughout the body, including the reduction of stress hormone levels and the calming of the immune system, which then releases fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines).
There’s also a placebo effect of prayer—it helps simply because you feel it’s helping. And lastly, the hardest reason to quantify is the notion that people who pray believe in supernatural forces, which seems to have a strong effect on their health.