What happens in the brain when we pray compared to when we meditate? An EEG study
When I was working at the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland, I did an EEG study, looking at what activity occurs in the brain during prayer compared to during meditation.
Initially the idea of the experiment was to look at what happens in the brain when we receive Divine Love, by asking participants who were interested in Divine Truth to long for God's Love while we measured their brain waves. We then wanted to compare what we saw with people who were performing a loving kindness meditation, which is a type of Buddhist meditation where the meditators cultivate a feeling of love for people. Therefore we wanted to compare what happens in the brain during the specific reception of love, from God, with what happens in the brain during the generation of human love.
However we discovered that it was difficult for the Divine Truth participants to get into an emotional state where they felt open to God under experimental settings. However they were able to long to God for love. Therefore what our experiments now show is the comparison between prayer - a longing towards God for love, and potentially a feeling of love for God - with a non-referential love by the meditators.
What we found was that there were marked differences in the patterns of brainwaves observed at particular frequencies in the two states.
For example, during the loving kindness meditation, the meditators showed increases in; delta power, which is known to be active during sleep and other forms of love; alpha power, known to be active during relaxed states and positive emotional states; and beta power, known to be active during concentration and mental processing.
In contrast, during prayer, the Divine Love participants showed increases in; alpha power, known to be active during relaxed states and positive emotional states; gamma power, and the ratio of gamma: theta power, which are both known to be active during euphoria, and in learning and memory, suggesting that the brain was changing it's pathways during prayer.
The increase in beta power during meditation but not prayer is indicative of the higher mental effort that is required to sustain a meditative state, compared to prayer.
When we looked at both prayer and meditation compared to when participants were resting, we saw increases in; theta, alpha, beta and gamma; frequencies that have been shown to be active during positive emotional experience, and to be involved in short and long term changes in the circuitry in the brain.
This suggests that activity in theta, alpha, beta and gamma may represent changes in brain activity during spiritual love, regardless of how whether that love is directed towards God or towards other people.
You can download a pdf of the whole paper here.
This is the abstract of the paper:
The neural correlates of two forms of spiritual love: an EEG study
"Spiritual practices are gaining an increasingly wider audience as a means to enhance positive affect in healthy individuals and to treat neurological disorders such as anxiety and depression. The current study aimed to examine the neural correlates of two different forms of love generated by spiritual practices using EEG; love generated during a loving kindness meditation performed by Buddhist meditators, and love generated during prayer, in a separate group of participants from a Christian-based faith.
"The loving kindness meditation was associated with significant increases in delta, alpha 1, alpha 2 and beta power compared to baseline, while prayer induced significant increases in power of alpha 1 and gamma oscillations, together with an increase in the gamma: theta ratio. An increase in delta activity occurred during the loving kindness meditation but not during prayer.
"In contrast increases in theta, alpha 1, alpha 2, beta and gamma power were observed when comparing both types of practice to baseline, suggesting that increases in these frequency bands are the neural correlates of spiritual love, independent of the type of practice used to attain the state of this type of love.
"These findings show that both spiritual love practices are associated with widespread changes in neural activity across the brain, in particular at frequency ranges that have been implicated in positive emotional experience, integration of distributed neural activity, and changes in short-term and long-term neural circuitry."
Below is one of the figures from the paper; a heat map showing brain activation areas during prayer, compared to rest, for the different brainwave frequencies. Wamer colours show more activity.
The other figures and full results can be viewed within the paper.
The paper can also be found on the preprint site bioRXiv: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/045898