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Mind control

Medicine | Researchers say belief and behavior cause changes to the brain

Issue: "Barrier riffs," Feb. 10, 2007

Believers in God often say God changed their hearts to describe the difference their faith makes in their lives. Scientists are finding evidence that belief changes the brain, too, in real, physical ways.

Researchers with the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Spirituality and the Mind have so far scanned the brains of Tibetan Buddhists, yoga practitioners, and people who speak in tongues. The center formed in April 2006 to combine the brainpower of neurologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other scholars who want to investigate the connection between belief and the brain.

They already know Tibetan monks experience decreased activity in the part of the brain that controls self-awareness during meditation. Brain scans taken while other subjects spoke in tongues, meanwhile, showed a slow-down in the part of the brain that commands language.

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In light of those findings, one author is asking whether humans could muster those physiological symptoms at will. A new book called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Ballantine, 2007) promotes the use of spiritual practices for physical gain. The Dalai Lama wrote the book's foreword.

The book challenges the scientific belief that our physical brain controls our mental health, not vice versa. It cites one study in which cognitive-behavioral therapy caused more desirable changes than anti-depressants in the brains of depressed people. The book's author, Sharon Begley, calls the effect "neuroplasticity."

Neuroplasticity may have applications beyond self-help. The Penn researchers are studying whether meditation could prolong the mental acuity of Alzheimer's patients.

"This is a form of exercise for the brain which enables the brain to strengthen itself and battle the unknown processes working to weaken it. We want to keep the mind sharp and work that muscle," said Andrew Newberg, principal investigator at the Penn center. "If this kind of meditation is successful in helping patients with neurological problems, it could then someday become a low-cost additional treatment to current therapy."

Making the Rounds

SMOKING: A new study shows damage to a certain part of the brain may cure smokers of their addiction. Scientists studied 19 cigarette smokers who, because of stroke or other neurological problems, experienced damage to the insular cortex deep in the brain. The study, published in the journal Science, stated 12 of the subjects had "the ability to quit smoking easily, immediately, without relapse, and without persistence of the urge to smoke." The study's authors are not advocating brain damage as a way to quit smoking, but they hope to figure out what aspect of smoking stimulates the insular cortex, or insula.

ADDICTION: Great Britain's National Health Service wants to adopt a pay-for-sobriety program to combat drug use in the country. Addicts could receive shopping vouchers of up to about $20 if they test negative for drugs. The vouchers would be for food or leisure activities that "promote a healthy lifestyle," a psychologist who was consulted for the proposal told the BBC.

PREGNANCY: New research out of Denmark could have moms-to-be guzzling double-shot lattes guilt-free. If a study published in the British Medical Journal is correct, then babies born to moms who drink caffeine during the second half of their pregnancies are just as healthy as the children of women who drink no caffeine. Previous studies about caffeine and pregnancy questioned women about their caffeine intake but did not control it as part of an experiment.

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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