Study of Catholic sisters helps point to the neurological correlates of prayer and mindfulness

Prayer is not often couched in terms of meditation and mindfulness, although the two states share many behavioral and psychological similarities. Both involve mental calm, for example, as well as introspection, daily or regular observation, and certain contextual and behavioral practices, like sitting still in a quiet space.

Likewise, little research has been devoted to understanding how prayer and mindfulness relate on a neurological level, or if and how the benefits of each are related. A recent study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology that looked at a sample of 33 healthy Catholic sisters set out to do just this.

The researchers’ goal, specifically, was to determine whether prayer “is associated with electrical brain activity patterns consistent with meditation and therefore a likely pro-health behavior.” To do so, they asked each participant to complete three resting sessions and three prayer sessions, during which time the authors recorded electrical brain activity.

The results of their study demonstrate some interesting similarities between brain activity in prayer and in meditation, but perhaps fewer than might have been expected.

For example, participants exhibited greater alpha wave power in the praying condition, although findings were limited to the posterior-occipital region of the brain. Alpha wave power is associated with improved cognition and memory function, and has been shown to increase during meditation. The posterior-occipital region in particular is believed to help in “calming irrelevant neural processing while enhancing selective attention”, two functions necessary for and reinforced by meditation.

A second measurement, that of frontal alpha asymmetry (FAA), was not found to vary with prayer and resting states, contrary to the authors’ hypothesis. FAA and specifically left FAA, which is associated with focused attention and approach-oriented emotions (as opposed to right frontal activation, related to negative, withdrawing emotions), did correlate significantly with the sisters’ age, although whether and how this relates to prayer is unclear, as no control group was used.

The authors conclude by affirming that contemplative prayer may contribute to healthy aging, and assert that prayer may be “an easier and more cost-effective” behavior, as it “requires little to no equipment or added space”, although the same can be said of many meditation and mindfulness practices. Nonetheless, prayer might come more naturally to individuals living in or exposed to religious contexts. Understanding whether prayer is as effective as meditation in healthy mental aging will require further research.

The study, “Frontal alpha asymmetry during prayerful and resting states: An EEG study in Catholic sisters“, was authored by Jeanne Barcelona, Mariane Fahlman, Yulia Churakova, Robin Canjels, James Mallare, and Marion I. van den Heuvel.

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