Although I Growing up Catholic, for most of my life, I didn’t care much about religion. Like many scholars, I assumed it was based on opinion, conjecture, or even hope, and thus was irrelevant to my work. This work runs a psychology lab focused on finding ways to improve the human condition, using the tools of science to develop techniques that can help people tackle the challenges they face in their lives. But in the 20 years since I started this work, I’ve come to realize that a lot of what psychologists and neuroscientists find about how we change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors — how to support them when they’re grieving, how to help them be more moral, how we let them find connection and happiness — is echoing the thoughts. and techniques that have been used by religions for thousands of years.
Science and religion have often been at odds. But if we remove theology—opinions about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the daily practice of religious belief, the hostility in the debate evaporates. What we have left is a series of rituals, habits, and feelings that are themselves the results of experiences of some kind. Over the millennia, these experiments, conducted in the chaotic midst of life rather than in sterile laboratories, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual techniques—the tools and processes intended to calm, move, persuade, or modify a mind’s mind. The study of these techniques has revealed that certain parts of religious practices, even when removed from the spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways that psychologists so often seek.
My lab, for example, has found that getting people to practice Buddhist meditation for a short time makes them kinder. After just eight weeks of studying with a Buddhist lama, 50 percent of those we randomly assigned to meditate daily Spontaneously helping a stranger in pain. Only 16% of those who did not meditate did the same. (In fact, the stranger was an actor we hired to use crutches and wear a removable foot cast while trying to find a seat in a crowded room.) strangers, anyway; It also applies to enemies. else study He showed that after three weeks of meditation, most people refrained from taking revenge on those who insulted them, unlike most of those who did not meditate. Once my team noticed these profound influences, we began looking for other links between our previous research and existing religious rituals.
Gratitude, for example, is something we have studied closely, and is a key component of many religious practices. Christians often say a blessing before a meal; The Jews thank God with Mawaddah Al-Ani Pray every day when you wake up. When we study the act of giving thanks, even in a secular context, we find that it makes people more virtuous. in a study Where people can get more money by lying about the results of flipping the coin, the majority (53 percent) are deceived. But that number dropped dramatically for the people we first asked to count their blessings. Of those, only 27 percent chose to lie. We have also found that when we are grateful to someone, to fate, or to God, people become more usefulAnd more generouseven more patient.
Even very subtle actions — like moving together in time — can have a huge impact on the mind. We see simultaneity in nearly every religion around the world: Buddhists and Hindus often chant together in prayer; Christians and Muslims regularly kneel and stand in unison during worship; Jews often swing, or CreamBy reciting the prayer together. These verbs belie a deep purpose: to create connection. To see how it worked, we asked pairs of strangers to sit at a table from each other, put on headphones, and then tap a sensor on the table in front of them each time they heard a tone. For some of these pairs, the sequence of tones was identical, meaning they would tap their hands in unison. For others, it was random, meaning that the hand movements would not be synchronized. Next, we created a situation where one member of each pair got stuck in a long and difficult task. Not only did those who were moving their hands in unison report how they felt More connection and sympathy with Their partner who was toiling now, 50 percent of them decided to lend a helping hand to the partner—a significant increase from the 18 percent who decided to help without moving into sync.
The combined effects of simple elements like these — those that change how we feel, what we believe, and who we can rely on — accumulate over time. And when they are included in religious practices, research has shown that they can have protective properties of sorts. regularly Participation in religious practices It reduces anxiety and depression, increases physical health, and even reduces the risk of early death. These benefits do not come simply from general social contact. There is something Specific to spiritual practices themselves.