Although I. Growing up as a Catholic, for most of my adult life, I didn’t give much importance to religion. Like many scientists, I assumed that it was built on opinion, conjecture or even hope, and was therefore irrelevant to my work. This work is running psychology labs to find ways to improve people’s conditions, using science tools to develop strategies that can help people cope with their challenges. But within 20 years of starting this work, I have learned how psychologists and neuroscientists can change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors – how to support them in their time of need, how to help them more morally, how to find their connection and happiness. Let’s get – religions echo the ideas and strategies used for thousands of years.
Science and religion were often at odds. But if we remove the theology God the nature of God, opinions about the creation of the universe, and the daily practice of religious belief, the hostility of debate evaporates. What we have is a continuum of rituals, customs and feelings that are themselves the result of a kind of test. For thousands of years, these experiments have been conducted in the haphazard concentration of life as opposed to sterile labs, what we might call spiritual technology – tools and processes that calm, move, imply, or otherwise tweak the mind and study these technologies. Part, even if removed from the spiritual context, psychologists are often able to influence the human mind in that measurable way.
For example, my lab has found that people are kind when they practice Buddhist meditation for a short time. After just eight weeks of studying with a Buddhist lama, 50 percent of those we randomly assigned to meditate on a daily basis helped a stranger with pain. Only 16 percent of those who did not meditate did so. (In reality, the stranger was an actor we hired to use a crutch and wear a removable leggings while trying to find a seat in a crowded room.) Empathy was not limited to strangers, though; This also applies to enemies. Another study found that after three weeks of meditation, most people, unlike many who did not meditate, refrained from taking revenge on those who insulted them. Once my team observes these profound effects, we begin to look for other links between our previous research and existing religious rites.
Gratitude, for example, is something we have studied closely and are a key element of many religious practices. Christians often say grace before meals; The Jews thank God Modeh Ani Pray every day while waking up. When we study the act of giving thanks, even in a secular context, we see that it makes people more virtuous. In one study where people could make more money by lying about the consequences of flipping a coin, the majority (53 percent) cheated. But that number has dropped dramatically since we first asked them to count their blessings. Of these, only 27 percent chose to lie. We have also found that when gratitude is felt towards a person, luck or God, people become more helpful, more generous and more patient.
Even very subtle actions – such as walking together – can have a significant effect on the mind. We see parallels in almost every religion in the world: Buddhists and Hindus often chant together in prayer; Christians and Muslims regularly kneel together while prostrating; Jews often swing, or Shackles, While praying together. These actions believe in a deeper purpose: to make connections. To see how this works, we asked a pair of strangers to sit across a table from each other, put on headphones, and then tap a sensor on the table each time they heard a voice. In some of these pairs, the order of the melodies matched, meaning they were tapping their hands together. For others, they were random, meaning hand movements would not be synchronized. Later, we created a situation where one member of each pair got stuck doing a long and difficult task. Not only did those who removed their hands in the report together feel more connection and sympathy for their partner who is now working, 50 percent of them decided to give a hand to a partner – an increase of more than 18 percent who decided not to just help sink.
The combined effects of common elements like these – which change our perceptions, what we believe and who we can rely on – accumulate over time. And when they are bound to religious practice, studies have shown that they may have some sort of protective property. Participating in regular religious practice reduces anxiety and depression, increases physical health and even reduces the risk of early death. These benefits don’t just come from general social communication. There is something specific about spiritual practice.