Your Brain On Faith

africa sunsetFor the past year I’ve had some deep discussions with a dear friend who wants to believe in God, but just can’t do it. It’s made me realize that believing in a higher power, an unseen force that watches over us and guides us is a gargantuan leap of faith. I mean come on kids, faith in God is trusting that our prayers matter enough to merit answers. That WE matter enough to garner God’s attention—the Divine Being who created and controls the endless cosmos.

I happen to be a believer. I’m convinced beyond doubt that we are children of a always-loving God. Our lives have purpose. Our feelings, thoughts and actions matter. I believe that God’s plan is perfect, and it would not be perfect if it excluded a single one of His children. That makes YOU essential to the great plan.

That said, I wonder why it’s easier for some people to have faith while others struggle. For me, faith has become stronger over time and experience. My brain banks memories of answered prayers and what I deem divine interventions on my behalf. I replay faith-related emotions. Every time I re-avow my beliefs, I lay down actual protein circuitry in my brain. Believing a little creates the potential to believe a lot.

More than a few neuropsychology researchers agree that faith requires practice, same as mastering the piano. Your faith then, depends to an undetermined degree, on how you choose to use your brain. You see, the right side of your brain focuses on self, while your left side is more concerned with others. When you train your brain to diminish selfishness, you open yourself to a feeling of being connected to something bigger than just you. This isn’t just true for Christians who sense a connection to God. It works the same for Buddhists seeking Nirvana, and for atheists who desire a deeper bond with Mother Earth. It applies to all faith seekers. Once that connection is made, your brain can use what it knows to substantiate your faith.

Does this mean that faith is merely manufactured—or is it real? Why can’t it be both?

Ever since the first brain imaging technology was developed, and now that we have fMRIs, scientists have wondered if they could locate a “God spot” in the human brain. So far they’ve concluded that faith lights up a number of areas in your brain, but there is no pinpoint place that fires to testify of God’s existence.

In fact, thousands of related research projects are inconclusive. They produce data, but provide no definitive proof one way or another. And so the debates continue and the research goes on. You see, science will never prove or disprove faith. Faith isn’t scientific. It’s spiritual. But science can and does strengthen my faith. The more I learn about the brain, the more connected I feel to my Highest Power.

Now let me ask you a few loaded questions…is faith the same as other kinds of knowing or thinking? Do you believe that God exists with the same functions that lead you to believe Tide is a laundry detergent, or 10 + 10 = 20? And is faith different than religion? I say yes. I think religion can be explained. Faith has to be felt—maybe even comprehended with what Aristotle deemed the sensible beyond our five senses. He taught of an force that allows us to perceive and know something that we can’t see or explain. He taught of acquiring knowledge from a pool of knowledge that already exists. He did not determine where that pool is, only that it’s external and complex. It’s really a connection between the tangible and the intangible.

Religion, on the other hand, registers as a single operation in the brain. Religion involves repetition. It’s taught. It’s practiced. It can be reinforced so often that it gets rutted until it registers as “true,” in a very different way than faith registers.

Faith demands something of us that no one has been able to adequately explain. Faith is deeply personal. It’s hope. It’s belief. It’s understanding what seems impossible to understand.

For now I’m satisfied with the fact that our brains are designed to accommodate faith. It’s something we can consciously choose to develop if we’re open and willing.

Which leads us back to my precious friend who wants to believe in God, but just can’t —yet. That’s okay. More than okay. The fact that she’s seeking means she’ll find. Besides, spirituality is a solo journey. Yes, others might surround us, but faith blossoms from within. As much as I’d love to pour my faith into her, I can’t. All I can do is love her and make accessible anything that might help in her quest. But it is her quest. Her brain. Her heart. Her journey.

Now that I know the human brain is equipped to process and develop faith, I know how to strengthen my own beliefs. I reinforce them. I write them down. I talk about what’s not too sacred to talk about. I let my heart lead with gratitude. Gratitude is like fertilizer for faith. Ha!

Here’s to an increase in your own faith, and here’s my favorite quote on the subject, from St. Augustine, a profound Christian thinker: “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”

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