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Customer Review

451 of 462 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A SPECTACULAR BOOK (for believers and disbelievers alike), March 24, 2009
This review is from: How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Hardcover)
Details about this book appeared in Time magazine a few weeks ago, featuring Newberg's and Waldmans research on spirituality and the brain. They touted it as a "self-help field guide to the health benefits of spirituality" and meditation practice. Then it was featured in Oprah magazine, so as a mental health professional, I had to see what their research was all about.

What I found was a brainstorm of some of the most amazing research on how spiritual practices change the structure and function of our brain. Like the classic book, Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, the authors, who are neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania, summarize a dozen different ways the human brain processes spiritual experiences.

For example, one part of the brain can generate images of an angry god; another, feelings of a compassionate god; yet another part of the brain can generate doubtful thoughts, and so on. They also present new data showing how Americans are becoming less religious but more spiritual as they embrace images of a universe that is scientific yet mystical. Their online survey of a thousand participants shows that nearly everyone holds radically different concepts of "God." They even track, using people who draw pictures of God, how this concept begins as a face in a child's brain, and that the more a child thinks about god, new abstract conceptualizations begin to form in different parts of the brain.

The authors show many brain scans of many different practitioners (religious and secular) which demonstrate that the more intense one contemplates any spiritual issue-or even evolution or the Big Bang-the more it changes the structure and function of other parts of the brain in healthy ways (for example, meditators from Christian, Buddhist, and nonreligious backgrounds permanently alter their thalamus, and thus their perception of reality), which makes their deepest beliefs feel "neurologically real." This explains the book's title, for even atheists, when they try to make sense out of religion, grow new dendrites in important areas of the brain that appear to slow down the diseases we get as we age.

Fortunately, the authors put the neuroscience in terms anyone can grasp, and they proceed to give explicit instructions that the reader can use to stimulate their precuneus (a key center of consciousness), the frontal lobes (logic, reason, motivation), and the anterior cingulate (compassion, intuition, and social awareness). There's so much practical and provocative material, that the best way to review this book is to briefly describe each chapter:

Ch 1: "Who Cares About God?" - We all do, argue the authors, who introduce basic concepts of neuroplasticity, the neurologal "war" between beliefs and disbeliefs, and why any religious concept generate both anger and compassion in virtually everyone's brain.

Ch 2: "Do You Need God When You Pray?" The authors describe a new study showing how a 12 minute chanting meditation practice improved memory in older people with mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to Alzheimer's disease)in less than 8 weeks. They also show you how to create your own "brain enhancement" exercise program.

Ch 3: "What Does God Do to Your Brain?" This chapter explores the neural varieties of meditation and prayer, and how different parts of the brain create different perceptions of God. They also discuss how different neurochemicals and drugs alter spiritual beliefs and realities.

Ch 4: "What Does God Feel Like?" The authors' data shows that, for most people, God is more of a feeling than an idea, that everyone's spiritual experiences are unique, and that mystical experiences often generate long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness, and love.

Ch 5: "What Does God Look Like?" The authors collected adult drawings of God and compared them with pictures drawn by children. It turns out that the most sophisticated drawings are made by liberal believers, atheists, and agnostic college students. However, many atheists maintain childhood images, which could explain why god doesn't make any rational sense to them. The authors suggest that everyone has "God" neuron or circuit in their brain, and they show you where it is.

Ch 6: "Does God Have a Heart?" They examine the Baylor University survey depicting four "personalities" of God, but they present their own survey evidence showing that a previously unrecognized and large segment of Americans maintain a mystical and loving vision of nature, God, and people.

Ch 7: "What Happens When God Gets Mad?" Surprisingly, the authors (one is agnostic, and the other describes himself as being personally guided by evidence-based natural science)both find value in all spiritual practices and traditions. They found little evidence to criticize religious fundamentalism, except when it involves angry rhetoric. They point out the neurological dangers of hostility, fear, authoritarianism, and idealism, and they suggest that we all have a fundamentalistic and an atheistic mentality hardwired in the brain.

Ch 8: "Exercising Your Brain" Included are eight ways to keep your brain physically and mentally tuned-up. Even yawning appears to be an amazing way to calm down a dysfunctional brain, and they have about 40 references to support this claim. In fact, they include over a 1000 endnotes and references to support what many might think are widely speculative claims. For me, as a professional, this is wonderful, because it shows that they didn't cherry-pick the research; indeed they admirably point out the weaknesses to their own conclusions and work.

Ch 9: "Finding Serenity" This chapter, and the next, are filled with simple, well-tested meditation techniques to help any reader, of any religious or nonreligious persuasion, to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while enhancing cognition,memory, and greater sensitivity and empathy toward one's self and others. This well-documented research shows that nearly any meditation technique can be removed from its theological background to provide beneficial neurological and psychological changes. The authors also provide convincing evidence that only a few minutes of meditation, throughout the day, improves the functioning of the brain.

Ch 10: "Compassionate Communication" This is an original meditation exercise that can be used when dialoguing with others. It takes fifteen minutes to learn, and their research shows that it improves compassion social intimacy by 11%, even when done with with strangers. They then include nearly a dozen ways to quickly resolve interpersonal conflicts,all of which make sound psychological sense.

Finally, in the epilogue, the authors talk briefly about their own journeys into the murky domain where science and religion intersects.

This is a "must read" book for believers and nonbelievers alike, and it might even help, as the authors suggest, to bring a little more peace and tolerance into this world. God knows we need it!
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 11, 2009 9:02:44 AM PDT
Emerald Hope says:
Great review. Thank you for taking the time to share that information with us. It's very helpful.

Posted on Sep 14, 2009 5:28:08 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Apr 14, 2010 1:29:59 PM PDT]

Posted on Jun 27, 2012 3:14:00 PM PDT
I am pleased to read this review in the light of investigating whether to buy their next book, Words Can Change Your Brain. It seems to me, without having read this book, that they use the word God (to sell books, no doubt) but they do not mean God, as people typically use that reference, but rather something in the spiritual domain, something that calls to us beyond the everyday, mysterious, wonder-full, enchanting.

I can surely imagine, and marvel at, that the brain's neurology offers such a dimension and depth to existence, and that it is adaptive, but I think we need to stop using a loaded term like God to refer to such a humanly powerful experience. Theological monotheism is inappropriately present when you choose to title a book: "How God changes [anything]."

Posted on Sep 7, 2012 6:33:41 AM PDT
A Reader says:
Very helpful to understanding the content of this book because of the breakdown of key ideas in chapters.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2013 10:34:44 PM PST
Batash says:
Yet, the word GOD does grab our attention, whether we believe in one God or many, or calling "Nature" GOD. The word will never go away and I think it's a great, eye-catching title, and some people who don't normally talk about GOD or religion need to be open to a non "p.c." word, just as much as the other way. These are positive thoughts, not criticism.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 16, 2013 3:29:33 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 16, 2013 3:32:47 PM PST
This note is in response to the note by J.M. Frank above. Thank you for your note. I don't like the use of the word God in this context for another reason. I think it debases this word's use in metaphysical discussion. If what you mean as an author is some vague spirituality I believe you should make that clear. It is time for psychotherapeutic monism to create its own language and stop smuggling the language of metaphysics, philosophy and theology as if it were its own. That said I am glad for the book. At least it departs from the Materialist view of reality so prevalent in academia.

Posted on Aug 29, 2014 3:42:05 PM PDT
N. Boschee says:
This is an older post, I see, but if any of you are still tracking this post, will you answer a question for me? Here it is; I know Dr, Neuberg has conducted studies on the effect of a persons "speaking in tongue" on the brain. Is that information contained within this book? If so, does he go into any depth on the subject?
Thank you.

Posted on Jan 9, 2016 5:49:00 PM PST
"Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love."

So would it not make sense not to inflict the idea of a punitive god on children in the first place? This sounds like a "You are born sick, so you need god to get well" book.
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