SCIENCE

Book Review: 'How God Changes Your Brain' by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman

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Review By Wray Herbert
Sunday, March 29, 2009

HOW GOD CHANGES YOUR BRAIN

Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist

By Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman

Ballantine. 348 pp. $27

Gus was not a "meditation type of guy." He was more of a Joe Sixpack, a Philadelphia mechanic not much interested in religion. He hauled himself into Andrew Newberg's clinic for one reason: His memory was failing.

Newberg, a neuroscientist and memory expert, has a special interest in spirituality; he has scanned the brains of worshipers ranging from Franciscan nuns to Pentecostals speaking in tongues. So why was he bothering with Gus? Well, Newberg explains in "How God Changes Your Brain," his studies (with coauthor Mark Robert Waldman) had convinced him of a link between spirituality and cognitive health: The neurochemical changes that he observed during meditation and prayer appeared to improve brain function. But Newberg had studied mostly devotees with years of spiritual training; he wanted to see whether a novice might benefit, too.

So Gus learned the basics of Kirtan Kriya meditation. Rooted in 16th-century India, Kirtan Kriya involves conscious regulation of breathing as well as repetitive movements and sounds. Gus picked it up right away, practicing 12 minutes a day for eight weeks.

That's a blip compared to what many students of meditation do. Even so, Newberg writes, Gus had greater clarity of mind, empathy and emotional equilibrium. What's more, his working memory improved as much as 50 percent on some tests.

Gus's case may be inspiring to readers worried about the mental decline that comes with aging. But those looking for the loftier answers promised in the book's title may come away unsatisfied, and a bit confused. At times Newberg seems to be writing about a broad notion of spirituality, while at other times he focuses on rituals -- the mantras and mudras and prayer beads -- without any spiritual content or commitment. He doesn't want to leave anyone (even atheists) outside the tent, so his definition of God is whatever any individual's neurons are conjuring up at the moment -- or the next moment or the next, because God is "constantly changing and evolving." Inclusiveness is all well and good, but loose theology doesn't necessarily make for rigorous testing.

The second half of "How God Changes Your Brain" is a how-to book. There are lists upon lists here, and even lists within lists: eight best ways to maintain a healthy brain, including five essential reasons for yawning; nine steps for dealing with anger; six strategies for improving communication and six more for creative problem-solving. You get the idea.

Aging baby boomers are hungering for good science writing on both brain health and spirituality. Happily, there are excellent books on this important topic, notably Sharon Begley's "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain" and Daniel Goleman's "Social Intelligence." Start with them. Unhappily, this bloviating volume will leave most readers still seeking.

Wray Herbert writes the "Mind Matters" column for Newsweek.com.


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