Written and researched by Bob Murray, PhD
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Spiritual Beliefs Ward Off Depression
February 25, 2002
So concludes a new study carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council based at Loughborough University in the UK. Their research, which explores the lives of recently bereaved older people, found that those who had a strong sense of belief and personal meaning also experienced more wellbeing. The research found that other people, similarly bereaved, but whose beliefs were weaker, were much more likely to reveal depression symptoms. A considerable number of these people also gave indications of similarly low scores on both personal meaning and existential transcendence (rising above the failures of living).
The sample of 28 recently bereaved people's experiences were analyzed as individual case studies. The participants were drawn from three areas in the south of England. They took part in three in-depth personal interviews conducted by a counselor, which were scheduled for the first anniversary of the spouse's death, six months later and after the second anniversary. Evidence was taken on:
- the person's adjustment to bereavement
- the role of belief systems in that adjustment
- the support for those belief systems.
Out of the 28, nine indicated low or weak spiritual beliefs, 11 moderate levels of beliefs and eight had strong beliefs. The researchers were particularly interested in those whose score was moderate and in how spiritual help might be made most relevant to these people.
Eight of the 11 people with moderate beliefs thought that their lives had lost meaning and purpose and several showed depressive symptoms during the second year after losing their spouse.
The remaining three in the 11 moderate belief category were equally interesting, however, in showing in different ways the value of spiritual belief. One woman had major difficulties in adjusting to bereavement and these were related to her doubts about her spiritual beliefs. But these beliefs seem to have been strong enough to have helped her in eventually recovering and went towards explaining her strong sense of personal meaning.
The research identified evidence on the importance of early experience and particularly faith as handed down by parents (the participants had various denominational backgrounds within a Christian setting). "It is possible to conceptualize the development of religious belief as in part an attachment process whereby trust in parents is extended to a higher power," says Professor Peter Coleman, psychologist, University of Southampton.
The decline in the practice of religion, which has been apparent among older people as well as the rest of the population in the last 20 years, does not mean that spiritual beliefs have declined, says the report. A large part of the population still believes in some sort of transcendent power or in God. What has happened is the loss of respect for the authority of the Christian churches. More freedom, however, has to be set against isolation and lack of support provided by organized structures, says the report.
We've been saying for a long time that one's belief in a higher power is often enabled by trust in parents, particularly the dominant parent. In a hunter-gather band belief in the elders was easily converted into belief in pantheistic gods. AF
Read more about the Economic & Social Research Council report
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Saying the Rosary is Good for Your Health
January 7, 2002
A team led by Luciano Bernardi, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Pavia in Italy set out to test whether rhythmic formulas such as the rosary or yoga mantras can synchronize with and reinforce heart rhythms. If so this would lead to a healthier heart. Their findings were reported in the British Medical Journal.
Before the study it was acknowledged that slow regular breathing was beneficial in preventing heart disease by synchronising inherent cardiovascular rhythms.
For the study they took 23 healthy adults. They checked heart rate and blood pressure before the start of the experiment. Some of the group were then given a yogic mantra to recite and the rest told to recite the Ave Maria (in Latin).
According to the researchers "Both prayer and mantra caused striking, powerful, and synchronous increases in existing cardiovascular rhythms when recited six times a minute." Their conclusion: in addition to the known psychological benefits, rhythm formulas that involve breathing at six breaths per minute possibly induce favourable physiological effects.
There, you have it: Prayer works, but only if the prayers are recited at the rate of six breaths per minute. BM
Read more in the British Medical Journal online
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Study Links Prayer And Pregnancy
October 7, 2001
Researchers at Columbia University, expressing surprise at their own findings, are reporting that women at an in vitro fertilization clinic in Korea had a higher pregnancy rate when, unknown to the patients, total strangers were asked to pray for their success. The findings are in the current Journal of Reproductive Health.
The researchers found that women who were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them. The lead author of the report, Dr. Rogerio A. Lobo, Columbia's chairman of obstetrics and gynecology, said he and his colleagues had thought long and hard about whether to publish their findings, since they seemed so improbable. In the end, the differing pregnancy rates between the two groups of women proved too significant to ignore.
Dr Lobo said the idea for the study came from a colleague and co-author, Dr Kwang Y. Cha, a researcher at Cha Hospital in Seoul. The study involved 199 women who went to Cha Hospital in 1998 and 1999 for help becoming pregnant. None knew about the study, and the medical staff caring for them also was unaware of it.
The researchers gave members of different Christian denominations in the United States, Canada and Australia photographs of the patients and asked them to pray. One group was asked to pray directly on behalf of the women, a second group directed its prayers to help the first group, and a third prayed for the two other groups.
" It was not even something that was borderline significant," Dr Lobo said. " It was highly significant. And still I am not willing to say that this is the definitive answer, that there is definitely an association."
A 1999 study by a team led by William Harris of Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, suggested that prayer by strangers also seemed to help heart patients.
Many years ago there were studies carried out at Bath University in England, which I played a bit part in, which tended to confirm the existence of extra sensory perception, even over long distances. Some mechanism of this sort may explain the perceived power of prayer (Read more about the power of prayer in our Health News story )
"'The Prayer Spot' Found"). It may be that the good wishes being sent are picked up on an unconscious level and that a sense of community support triggers the immune system in the case of the cardiac patients and the reproductive system of the women in the Korean clinic. BM
Read more in The NY Times
For Kansas City study
read more in New Scientist
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Christianity 'Almost Vanquished in Britain'
September 21, 2001
Christianity has been "all but eliminated" as a source of moral guidance in people's lives, according to the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, also lamented the fact that people were "indifferent" to Christian values and the Church when he addressed the National Conference of Priests in Leeds. "In our countries in Britain today, especially in England and Wales, that Christianity, as a sort of backdrop to people's lives and moral decisions -- and to the government, the social life of the country -- has now almost been vanquished," the Archbishop said. He added that music, new age and occult practices seemed to be replacing Christ as something in which young people could trust.
Society had been demoralized, with people seeking transient happiness in alcohol, drugs and pornography, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor continued.
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's comments echoed his own views. He said there were many challenges facing the church but equally many opportunities too.
The remarks come against a background of a steady decline in attendance at mass and a worsening shortage of priests. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who is leader of 4.1 million Catholics in England and Wales, also warned against "apathy" and "negligence" in cases of child abuse. "We must recognise the depth and the extent of the damage done to the Church and its mission in these cases," he said.
Dr David Voas, a demographer at the University of Sheffield, said the Church of England was losing about a million members every five years as people who were baptized died without being replaced. He said: "Religion is being passed down like a recessive gene, it does not generally appear in the new generation unless the parents match. With this pattern of transmission, further erosion in church affiliation is almost inevitable."
A society, or a family, collapses when they no longer have a shared set of beliefs or what I call 'world view.' The truth is no society without a shared set of beliefs, or shared outlook, has ever survived. Normally, when a belief system collapses a new one is adopted if the society is to continue. Christianity has been on the wane in Europe for the last hundred years and I do not believe any existing belief system will take it's place. In America the belief in the inherent superiority of capitalism became the shared world view. This is not so of Europe. BM
Read more in BBC News Online
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When is A Church Not A Church?
July 30, 2001
A court case in Connecticut spotlights the meaning of a "house of worship." The town of New Milford went to court to prevent a man from holding prayer meetings in his own home on the grounds that the property wasn't zoned as a church.
Immediately the case became a constitutional issue, and it didn't take long for the plight of Robert and Mary Murphy to become a cause celebre in the conservative world. The American Center for Law and Justice, an international public interest law firm founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, took up the banner, filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of the couple to prevent the town from enforcing its dictate.
They also received backing from the American Libertarian Party. "No American town should be able to snob-zone God out of existence," said Steve Dasbach, the party's national director.
The town countered that the issue was parking -- each day that meetings were held at the house there were up to 30 cars parked in the small cul-de-sac and there were complaints from the neighbors.
The Murphys won.
It seems to me that both the town and the ACLJ are missing the point, and it is a serious one. It is a question of how we define 'neighborhood.' Most 'neighborhoods' in the US and other developed countries are little more than dormitories from which people go to work in the city. A functioning neighborhood, I believe, must be more than that. In order to achieve happiness, as many studies have pointed out, we must be able to live in association with people who share our beliefs or have common assumptions about how the world operates. It is from this that we get, to a large extent, our feeling of physical safety and in part, perhaps, our sense of purpose. A dormitory neighborhood does not fulfil this elementary human need, yet our laws often openly work to prevent local neighborhoods based on shared beliefs -- witness the outlawing of the words "walk to worship" in real estate ads in many US states on the grounds that the words are a code for "this is a Jewish community." As part of the Uplift Program we teach that this need for a more meaningful concept of community is one of the fundamental requirements for human happiness. The real problem in what the Murphy's were doing, I believe, is that the people who came to the prayer meetings had to use their cars to get there and the people in the immediate proximity were alienated. They would have done better to have started a co-housing project peopled by those who shared their beliefs. BM
Read more in CBS Marketwatch
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Religious Observance Leads to Longer Life
July 2, 2001
More studies are showing the connection between religious belief and longevity.
For some time, in the popular press, there have been persistent articles linking church attendance to longer and healthier lives (see Psychology Today TK). It is also something that evolutionary psychologists and the like have long suspected. There is a definite survival advantage to belief and our brains have specific areas devoted to both belief and prayer.
However scientific and academic journals are now reporting studies which confirm the link. One recent study was written up in the journal Health Psychology. This study was carried out by researchers at Stamford, Duke and Iowa Universities and the National Institute for Healthcare Research, and involved detailed examination of the data from 42 independent studies.
They found that religious involvement is good for lowering high blood pressure, protects against cancer and reduced the risk of heart disease and stroke. Religious people are less likely to commit suicide and have better mental health generally. The question that remains unanswered is: why should this be so?
The authors of the study suggest that it is the psychosocial aspects of religion that are most important -- the more upbeat attitudes of the religiously inclined, the community of church worship and so forth -- rather than private beliefs. They also found that church goers were less likely to be obese or to smoke and more likely to exercise. They were also more likely to be women (a sure indicator of greater longevity!).
Put bluntly they found that when follow-up investigations were done on people who had taken part in earlier studies, those who had a firm set of religious practices were more likely to be alive.
Read more in Health Psychology
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May 22, 2001
Many women feel that if they can't have a child they might as well be dead. Well, according to the new universal definition of life produced by a Polish researcher, they are.
The researcher, Bernard Korzeniewski of the Institute of Molecular Biology at Jagiellonian University in Krak, Poland, claims his definition will lay to rest arguments about what is and isn't alive, and might offer insights into when life on Earth got started. And if we ever find something that looks like life on another planet, his definition could help us settle whether it's alive or not. Well, perhaps.
Korzeniewski says that definitions of life usually list the attributes an organism must have, such as genes, a certain level of complexity, the ability to reproduce and evolve, and so on. But this, he says, merely describes life rather than providing a useful way of deciding what's alive and what's not.
So he set out to formulate a fundamental definition of life, "which would apply not only to life presently existing on our planet but also to the first living organisms on Earth, as well as to life-like henomena existing presumably on other planets in the Universe", as he puts it. His definition is this: "A network of inferior negative feedbacks subordinated to a superior positive feedback." In other words, it's a system that tries to regulate itself to preserve its identity. (Is a nation state or a bureaucracy alive then? Both try to self-regulate to preserve their identity -- BM)
Under his definition, sterile worker ants are not alive because they rely on others to reproduce and preserve their own identity. And although it would be anathema to most people, he says the same applies to infertile humans.
But an ant colony is a living system, according to Korzeniewski, because individuals work together to preserve the colony as a whole. "An ant is alive in the manner, say, a liver or a heart is -- only as a part of some bigger system," he says. Individual ants may be complex systems, but complexity is not unique to life -- just look at computers.
The definition of life presented here does at least acknowledges that some life forms function rather like cells of a larger organism, like the example of worker ants. I have always thought that there are two forms of 'life' -- individual existence and the metaexistence of the group to which that individual belongs Thus an individual human, which, like an ant, is a social animal, is only fully alive when a member of a supportive group. Assuming that this is true, it still does not mean that the individual ants or humans are not also alive in any sense. An infertile human or ant is infertile for a number of evolutionary and biological reasons which the definition does not take into account. There is also a theological problem with the new definition as it stands. If souls are confined to living things then this definition of life would condemn infertile humans to a soulless existence. Does this mean that women lose their souls as they hit menopause? And if the definition is accepted then, in the future, we may have to accept that self-perpetuating computers are alive and have souls. BM
Reported in New Scientist online
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'The Prayer Spot' Found
May 22, 2001
A couple of years ago researchers at the University of California at San Diego found the famous 'God Spot,' a part of the brain that reacts to certain spiritual/religious stimuli. Now scientists have gone even further to probe the biological underpinnings of prayer and other kinds of religious experience.
Professor Newberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose work appears in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, takes images of the brains of people during peak religious experiences -- deep prayer and religious meditation.
A pattern has emerged from Professor Newberg's experiments. There is a small region near the back of the brain that constantly calculates a person's spatial orientation, the sense of where one's body ends and the world begins. During intense prayer or meditation, and for unknown reasons, this region becomes a quiet oasis of inactivity. "It creates a blurring of the self-other relationship," said Professor Newberg, "If they go far enough, they have a complete dissolving of the self, a sense of union, a sense of infinite spacelessness."
Professor Newberg and other scientists are finding that people's diverse devotional traditions have a powerful biological reality. During intense meditation and prayer, the brain and body experience signature changes, as yet poorly understood, that could yield new insights into the religious experience.
An example is a National Institutes of Health-sponsored clinical trial at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that will study the effects of group prayer sessions among black women with breast cancer -- the first such study. Already, scientists say, the young field has provided evidence that these meditative states -- which rely on shutting down the senses and repeating words, phrases or movements -- are a natural part of the brain; that humans are, in some sense, inherently spiritual beings.
"Prayer is the modern brain's means of connecting to more powerful ancestral states of consciousness," said Gregg Jacobs, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. With meditative states, people seem to turn off what Professor Jacobs called "the internal chatter" of the higher, conscious brain.
Eventually, researchers hope to identify a common biological core in the world's many varieties of worship.
We have been saying for a long time that humans were inherently spiritual beings. This will not come as news to Fortinberry-Murray practitioners. BM
Read more in the Sydney Morning Herald
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May 1, 2001
It's amazing how un-special we humans are. First it was thought that only we had consciousness. Then they found that chickens had it. Ah well! They said, only humans can have a wide range of emotions. Then they found that any animal with a brain can feel emotion. Well, we're the only ones with speech! Don't tell that to dolphins who have recently been found to have quite complex speech patterns, and regional accents to boot! We're the only ones who use tools? Wrong! Otters, crows and chimpanzees are among the many species making use of tools. The final bastion of human specialness was thought to be the capacity for abstract thought. Alas, even here we are shown to be merely one of many. Parrots have been shown to be quite good mathematicians and now even humble insects are beeing (pardon the pun!) classed as abstract thinkers.
According to a report in the current issue of the journal Nature, the humble honeybee can form "sameness" and "difference, a conceptualizing ability that may help them in their daily foraging activities.
To probe the honeybee's mental prowess, Martin Giurfa of the Free University of Berlin in Germany and his colleagues first trained the insects to associate certain stimuli with a reward: sugar. For example, in one experiment bees saw the color blue at the entrance to a so-called Y-maze. The entrance led to a decision chamber, where the bees could choose between two paths: one carried a blue target, the other carried yellow. The bees received a reward only if they chose blue, the same color as that seen at the entrance. The team then tested whether the bees could apply what they had learned to a new situation. Blue and yellow patches were replaced with black and white patterns of vertical and horizontal bars. The bees passed with flying colors, heading straight for the pattern that matched what they saw at the entrance. Moreover, other experiments revealed that the insects could even transfer their knowledge across the senses: bees that learned about sameness through olfactory training were able to apply that concept to situations involving visual stimuli.
These results, the authors conclude, demonstrate that "higher cognitive functions are not a privilege of the vertebrates." Moreover, because the honeybee nervous system is relatively simple, they write, "there is a realistic chance of uncovering the neural mechanisms that underlie this capacity."
The growing proof that human beings are an intrinsic part of nature rather than at the apex of some pyramid goes against many religious doctrines. How many times have you heard Christian minister speak of mankind as "the epitome of God's creation?" Or heard Buddhists speak of a hierarchy of reincarnation, with mankind at the top? Can we really feel one with Creation, or All There Is, when we have to keep up this absurd burden of supremacy? And what moral changes would society have to make in its treatment of animals if it conceded that they do have feelings and perhaps (gasp!) even souls? AF
Reported in Uniscience
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Clergy Looking for Love
April 29, 2001
A study conducted by Dr Paul Whetham of the University of South Australia, and shortly to be published in book form, found that Australian ministers are lonely, overworked, confused and seriously stressed. Many have few friends, can't talk honestly to congregations and feel isolated by society's expectations.
They also had double the rate of sexual misconduct -- sex outside marriage -- as compared to the rest of the population.
According to Dr. Whetham one in every two clerics leaves their job within five years -- after undergoing four years training.
Australian clergy, the author says, have poor relating skills and suffer from more psychiatric problems than the bulk of the population. They are also seriously overworked.
"Many end up being so busy" Whetham says "they do not have time to nurture relationships with people they love and with God. It's a very sad story."
Whetham is not the only one to have pointed out the clergy's problems. Recently the long-- time president of the Lutheran Church in Victoria, Dr David Stolz said that depressed clergy were increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol and suffering from marriage breakdowns.
In my practice I see a lot of clergypeople in both the US and Australia and Dr Whetham's findings correspond very closely with my own observations. With many the problems stem from three factors: 1) a feeling by some that what their congregations expect them to say and believe is inherently untrue or overly simplistic; 2) a need to live up to impossible standards in their private life with few non-judgemental people to unburden themselves to, and 3) they do not get enough support from their respective churches (this is especially true of some of the new-thought churches which act more like franchises than traditional church organizations). BM
Reported in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph of April 29 and other newspapers
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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