Neuroscience and Well-Being: How Spirituality Affects Our Health and DNA

Notes for a presentation given on March 18, 2018 at The LA Religious Education Congress

"God created male and female, (who) bear the divine image...
The body alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine."
~St. John Paul II

1. Neuroplasticity: Our brains can change over our lifespan. Everything we do, and everything we don't do, affects the pathways in our brains. Practicing a skill forges deeper connections in the area of the brain that controls that skill. With attention to our habits, we can actually change the structure of our brains, benefiting our bodies, minds and spirits.

2. Our brains change in response to our actions, but also to our thoughts. Three main areas most affected by spiritual practices: Prefrontal Cortex: Judging, Planning, Emotional regulation; Amygdala: Controls responses to fear, arousal, and emotional stimulation; Hippocampus: Memory control center, attunes behavior.

3. Telomeres: protective end caps on our chromosomes. Daily habits affect our telomeres, for good or for bad. Shorten with each cell division. Telomerase is enzyme that makes and replenishes our telomeres. Can slow, prevent, or even reverse this shortening of telomeres. In most of our cells, telomerase generally becomes less active as we age. We want to lengthen our Health-span and delay onset of the Disease span.

4. Short telomeres: Chronic inflammation, weakened immune system, heart & lung disease, aging skin and hair.

5. Stress is one of the key culprits in aging in general. Telomeres very sensitive to stress, and stress decreases the activity of telomerase. The more stress you're under, the shorter your telomeres and the lower your telomerase levels.

6. Chronic stress not only bad for telomeres, can have damaging effects on key areas of the brain. Seems we can reverse the damage by adopting some of these healthy practices.

7. Spiritual Practices: Christian Meditation and Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion/Service, Relationships/Community.

8. After Jesus' teachings on silent prayer, our tradition has the rich example of the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers, who said dwelling in God's presence was only possible through deep, interior, silent prayer, letting go of thoughts.

9. Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB, says that meditation is resting in God's presence. The Catholic Catechism: "Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly." When we meditate, we are being careful to pay attention.

10. Meditation triggers the "relaxation response," a state of rest that decreases stress, heart rate, BP, alleviates chronic disease symptoms.

11. Meditation and Brain changes: Information processed better (gyrification); May slow, stall, even reverse brain changes due to aging; Tamps down amygdala (stress response); 3 days of 20 min. meditation: perceived pain & anxiety lower.

12. Contemplative Prayer Practices: Sitting and Breathing, repeat sacred word; Walking a labyrinth, Taize prayer: Dwelling in God's presence "Anything that slows us down is a spiritual practice." Fr. Don Grayston

13. Christian Mindfulness is the awareness that God is with us in every moment.

14. Julian of Norwich (1342-1430) reminds us that the best prayer is to "Rest in the goodness of God, for that goodness reaches to the depths of our needs."

15. "The Lord lives among the pots and pans." ~St. Teresa of Avila

16. "Carve out a day every week, or an hour a day, or a moment each hour, and abide in the loving silence of the Friend. Feel the frenetic concerns of life fall away..." ~St. John of the Cross

17. "Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever. Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed." ~St. Francis de Sales

18. "The practice of the presence of God is the essence of the spiritual life." Brother Lawrence

19. Thomas Merton: Silence and contemplative prayer are essential tools for living in the world.

20. Dr. Ronald Siegel, Harvard psychology professor, notes Fr. Thomas Keating's work on bringing the tradition of contemplative prayer to the daily lives of Catholics today.

21. Dr. Richie Davidson (U. of Wisconsin, Madison) researches contemplative practices and neuroscience, studying how meditation affects our brain, and cites the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton in his work.

22. Mindfulness: Quiets our Default Mode Network (DMN), We step back, more accepting, grateful, less judgmental & reactive, Amygdala decreases, Attention and Focus strengthening, Stimulates telomerase (perhaps growing telomeres), Inflammation decreases, immunity increases.

23. Hippocampus (area governing learning and memory) is extraordinarily susceptible to stress and stress-related disorders like depression or PTSD. (Army is teaching both mindfulness and meditation to its soldiers.)

24. "Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention." ~John O'Donohue

25. Gratitude's many benefits: Lowers stress, less anxiety & depression, more kind and compassionate, better quality sleep, perceived pain diminished, lower inflammation and blood pressure, seems to keep hearts healthy, better relationships, produces calm.

26. Grateful Living: Live as if nothing is promised you. Appreciate the ordinary as extraordinary. Notice beauty. Nourish love. Be surprised. Be in awe. Recognize your privileges. Share your blessings.

27. "When asked if my cup is half-full or half-empty, my only response is that I am thankful that I have a cup." ~Sam Lefkowitz

28. Compassion: Triggers areas of brain that bring pleasure, Reduces stress and anxiety, Lack of time = Less compassion.

29. Compassion benefits: Service builds cognitive reserve, Fewer aches and pains, less depression, Less lonely, stronger immune system, better overall health, Protects from heart disease 2x as much as aspirin, Volunteering for two or more charities reduced likelihood of death by 44%. "Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." ~Leo Buscaglia

30. Relationships: Shared stressors: Friends' presence protects telomeres, buffer difficulties. Protects cognitive function as you age. Church relationships/community support our well-being: Larger social networks, Feel respected, appreciated, provided for, Relationship with God is a comfort, Sense of purpose. Twice as likely to report being "very happy": Less caught up in materialism, Service to others, increases brain circuits for joy in Prefrontal Cortex, Find meaning in ordinary life events as well as traumatic ones. Learn to forgive and let go.

31. Remembering to practice these: Shift how we look at our "chores" and "delays" as little "prayer pauses" of Mindfulness and Gratitude in our day. Household activities like washing, folding, cleaning, watering, walking dog, etc. Waiting times in line, at traffic signs and lights, computer pauses, walking in nature, opening and closing doors.

32. Other Practices that aid our telomeres: Sleep: Essential for memory stability, Exercise boosts memory, one of best ways to keep brains young (3x/wk, 45 min. aerobic), Plant-based diets best for planet AND our brains, Vary our Activities: Builds cognitive reserve, intellectually challenging activities keep our brains agile. Avoid pesticides and chemicals.

33. Resources:
A Year of Spiritual Companionship, 52 Weeks of Wisdom for a Life of Gratitude, Balance and Happiness, by Anne Kertz Kernion
Altered Traits, by Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman
The Telomere Effect, by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel