Space & Innovation

Is Religion Good for Your Brain?

A religious group contends that religious activity promotes social well-being, one of four components of brain health. Other research has suggested that religion shrinks the brain. Who's right?

If you live in Georgia, you're more likely to have a healthy brain than if you live in Minnesota. That's according to an annual state-by-state ranking released this week by a national health education campaign called Beautiful Minds.

While Georgians could use more "mental stimulation through reading and game playing," their high level of religious activity elevated them to a No. 10 ranking. And while Minnesotans read more and are active in their communities, their low level of religious activities contributed to their No. 31 ranking.

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Why the emphasis on religion? Research has linked religious activity with everything from reduced stress to better memory retention.

One recent study, published in December of 2013 in JAMA Psychiatry, found that people at risk of depression were much less vulnerable if they identified as religious: Brain MRIs revealed that religious participants had thicker brain cortices than those who weren't as religious (those with a family history of depression often have a thinning of the cortices).

Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University and a professor of psychiatry, said the depression research will likely be hailed as a landmark study -- but he wasn't surprised by the findings. He's written books, including "The Healing Power of Faith," "Faith and Mental Health," about the health benefits of religion. Those benefits include lowered stress through prayer and meditation.

"One of the worst killers of brain cells is stress," said Dr. Majid Fotuhi, founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, as well as a consultant to the Beautiful Minds project. "Stress causes high levels of cortisol, and cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. One way to reduce stress is through prayer. When you're praying and in the zone you feel a peace of mind and tranquility."

The social element of attending religious services has also been linked to healthy brains.

"There's something magical about socializing," Fotuhi said. "It releases endorphins in the brain. It's hard to know whether it's through religion or a gathering of friends, but it improves brain health in the long term. And it's also been shown that people who are introverted and don't participate are more likely to get Alzheimer's."

Listening to sermons and reading religious works like the Bible may also invoke a cognitive benefit, Koenig said.

"You're exercising your higher cortical function, thinking about complex concepts that require some imagination."

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And while a 2011 study found a shrinking of the hippocampus among people of certain religions, Koenig, a co-author of the study, points out that no one has replicated that work yet.

So where does that leave non-believers?

"Out of luck, I guess," Koenig joked. "Actually, I would suspect that people doing the types of things like religious people do -- socializing, doing similarly complex cognitive tasks, would have similar benefits. But it is interesting that religion provides that whole package of things that people can adopt and pursue over time."

While a January study published in the journal Brain Connectivity identified specific networks of the brain used to contemplate religious beliefs, suggesting that some people may be "hard-wired" to be religious, the opposite -- that religious belief begets a healthier brain -- has not been shown. Research has instead focused on long-term religious activity, not belief.

"My personal belief is that having a strong belief is key to getting the benefits," Fotuhi said. "It's hard to study these things; it's why research has stayed away from them. But there does seem to be a strong link between spirituality and better brain health."

March 1, 2012

-- This tomb, carved out of rock, could be "directly connected to Jesus' first followers, those who knew him personally, and to Jesus himself," according to researchers. Located beneath a modern condominium complex less than two miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem, this first-century burial, now named "patio tomb," is only 200 feet away from a second tomb, dubbed the "Jesus Family Tomb." Lying beneath a garden area in the same condominium complex, the burial was discovered in 1980. It contained 10 ossuaries, six of them inscribed with names associated with Jesus and his family. Critics dismissed the synchronicity of names as mere coincidence. "The object of our investigation was to determine whether the 'patio tomb,' still intact, might contain names or other evidence that would provide for us further data that might conceivably shed light on the adjacent 'garden tomb' with its intriguing cluster of names," James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote in a preliminary report published online in the "The Bible and Interpretation" website. He investigated the "patio tomb" with documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.

Photo: Jacobovici at the entrance of the sealed "patio tomb"

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In 2010, Tabor and Jacobovici entered the sealed tomb without actually opening it. They had obtained a license from the Israel Antiquities Authority to explore it through a minimally invasive procedure. Using 8-inch, custom-made diamond tooth drills, the team drilled two holes into the basement floor above the burial. A robotic arm was custom made so that it could be introduced into the tomb through the holes. The robotic arm not only had a main camera mounted on its tip, but a snake camera with a light that could extend about 4 feet beyond the main probe "to allow filming of several of the ossuaries that were deep in the recesses of the niches," said Tabor. The camera also had the capability of shooting laser beams to obtain micro-centimeter measurements.

Photo: Robotic arm

The probe was successful and the researchers were able to reach all areas of the tomb. Typical of Jerusalem in the period from 20 B.C. until 70 A.D, the tomb had a single central square chamber with a very shallow "standing pit" area. It contained nine carved burial niches with skeletal remains and several limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes.

Photo: Map of the tomb

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One ossuary was finely carved with a decoration which the researchers believe is "a clear image of a fish, complete with tail, fins, and scales." According to Tabor, it has "a stick-like human figure with an over-sized head coming out of its mouth." He interpreted the drawing as a representation of the biblical story of Jonah and the "big fish." In the earliest gospel materials, the "sign of Jonah," as mentioned by Jesus, has been interpreted as a symbol of his resurrection. "As Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights, but emerged alive, Jesus would likewise emerge from the tomb/death," wrote Tabor. Jonah images only appear in the third and fourth centuries A.D., but never earlier, given the prohibition within Judaism of making images of people or animals. In this view, the fish would represent the oldest Christian art ever discovered, predating the earliest Christian symbol in the catacombs of Rome by at least 200 years. It would also represent the first archeological evidence related to faith in Jesus' resurrection from the dead -- "presumably by his contemporary 1st-century followers," said Tabor.

Image: CGI enhanced image of Jonah and the Big Fish

Another finely decorated ossuary contained an intriguing four-word Greek inscription. There are several ways to read the inscription, but according to Tabor, almost all of them have to do with resurrection, some linking directly to Jesus. The most likely readings are: "The Divine Jehovah raises up from (the dead)" or "The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place" or "God, Jehovah, Raise up! Raise up!" or "Lord, Jesus, Rise up! Rise up!" "We are dealing here with a family or clan that is bold enough to write out the holy name of God in a tomb, with a declaration about 'raising up' or resurrection -- something totally unparalleled in any of the 900 tombs from the period known in Jerusalem," wrote Tabor.

Photo: The unique four-line Greek inscription

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According to Tabor, the family buried in the tomb was undoubtedly Jewish. Apart from the Greek epitaph and fish image, "the style of the tomb, the ornamentation of the ossuaries, and everything else about it is nothing out of the ordinary," he said. Yet, taken together, the fish image and the inscription represents the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus' resurrection, the first witness to a saying of Jesus that predates the New Testament gospels, and the oldest Christian art ever discovered. "We are convinced that the best explanation for these unusual epigraphic features is its proximity to the Jesus family tomb," wrote Talbot. "What we apparently have is a family connected to the Jesus movement who reaches beyond the standard burial norms of the Jewish culture of the period to express itself individually in these unique ways," he said.

Photo: Complete Findings from the Patio Tomb

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