Anyone who has been to a meeting of a 12-Step Program has heard the saying “Let Go and Let God.” Its roots are in the Bible—“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding,” reads Proverbs 3:5; “In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths”—but a more proximate source is Let Go and Let God: Steps in Victorious Living, a bestselling book that was published in 1951 by a biochemist and New Thought Leader named Dr. Albert E. Cliffe.
Over the past century and a half, advocates of New Thought, Christian Science, Unity Church, Divine Science, the Power of Positive Thinking, A Course in Miracles, and 12-Step Recovery programs have argued that the power to change one’s life and one’s fortunes—not just for eternity, but in the here and now, and not just spiritually but materially—lies, paradoxically, in an act of surrender. And the evidence suggests that for some people, at least, it works.
At the turn of the last century, William James gave a lecture in Edinburgh on “Mind-Cure” or “The Religion of Healthy Mindedness,” which would eventually become a chapter of his landmark Varieties of Religious Experience. “It makes no difference,” he declared, “whether you consider the patients to be deluded victims of their imagination or not. That they seemed to themselves to have been cured by the experiments tried was enough to make them converts to the system.”
James’s thinking was essentially pragmatic, but it reflected a frame of reference that was capacious enough to imagine a world that consists “of many interpenetrating spheres of reality,” in which “religion and science, each verified in its own way from hour to hour and from life to life, would be co-eternal.”
Whether the practitioner is a believer or not, spiritual practices enhance neural functioning in ways that promote emotional and physical health.
But what if religion and science are not separate and equal but coterminous? What if religious thoughts, religious feelings, religious revelations, and even religious miracles are hard-wired into our brains? A believer might say that the brain is something like a radio receiver or a modem that can receive transmissions on multiple channels, some originating from locations in this world, some from the next.
Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, and an adjunct professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has investigated the “neural mechanisms of spirituality with the same fervor that a minister contemplates God,” he writes in How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. “Our research team at the University of Pennsylvania has consistently demonstrated that God is part of our consciousness and that the more you think about God, the more you will alter the neural circuitry in specific parts of your brain.”
‘Our brains won’t allow God to leave. Our brains are set up in such a way that God and religion become among the most powerful tools for helping the brain do its thing—self-maintenance and self-transcendence.’
- Different parts of the brain construct different perceptions of God.
- Each brain assembles its perceptions of God uniquely.
- Whether the practitioner is a believer or not, spiritual practices enhance neural functioning in ways that promote emotional and physical health.
- Intense, long-term contemplation of God permanently changes the structure of the parts of the brain that control moods, spatial perception, and the sense of self.
- Contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates a sense of peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion.
When asked “Why won’t God go away?” Newberg replied: “Our brains won’t allow God to leave. Our brains are set up in such a way that God and religion become among the most powerful tools for helping the brain do its thing—self-maintenance and self-transcendence. Unless there is a fundamental change in how our brain works, God will be around for a very long time.”
Few of us, in other words, are able to let go of God altogether, even those who find the idea of surrendering to a religious faith or discipline foreign or even distasteful. No matter what we may believe, our brains are wired (and rewired) for mystery and awe.