If I were to become a practicing psychiatrist, two signs would be prominently displayed in the office. One would read, What does prayer do? It takes us beyond the nature of our biological selves. The other would say, What does love do? It takes us beyond the ego of our human selves.
With regard to prayer, I would quote from the English novelist George Meredith, “Who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.” Concerning love, go to the French writer Edmond Goncourt, “I believe that love produces a certain flowering of the whole personality which nothing else can achieve.” I would say that together these statements refer to the two aspects of human consciousness that must be experienced and their psychological significance personally understood if one is to become psychically whole as an individuated self. After all, it is the psychiatrist’s job to help in bringing this self together, which is the reason for a patient’s visit.
At this point I always find myself wondering just how our brains manage it. How, on the one hand, they bring all our objective sensory experiences of the world (sight, hearing, etc.) to register as perceptions of reality, while on the other hand they induce subjective meditative and creative states of mind that remove us from temporal and factual experience of the world and its events. And prayer and love are two such states of mind that many psychiatrists believe play an essential role in bringing this about.
But if you, the reader, are uncertain about the significance of such intimate and inner psychological experiences as praying and loving, and see them as simply examples of wishful thinking, then I would ask you to consider the emotive power of the following verse from A.E. Housman’s poem, “A Shropshire Lad”:
If truth in hearts that perish
Could move the powers on high,
I think the love I bear you
Should make you not to die.
To pray and to love profoundly are essentially internal meditative states of consciousness. Both can bring about a suspension of the routine flow of sense impressions informing of what is factually going on in the outside world of time and space. Prayer takes one into an inner mental realm where thoughts and feelings are generated which relate to the human spirit, transcending the physical and temporal reality of our day-to-day existence, while love brings one to feel extraordinarily deeply for, and to identify with, another living creature and live in the heart. “The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know,” wrote Pascal.
May I reiterate that the experiences of loving and praying represent aspects of consciousness that stand in marked contrast to the constant daily round of living objectively via the senses in the real world of time and space. As Francis Bourdillon put it, “The mind has a thousand eyes, And the heart but one; Yet the light of a whole life dies, When love is done.”
Yet these two aspects of consciousness (our existential life on the one hand and our inner life of thought, feeling and imagination on the other) which bring us to consider the how and the why of everything we know and feel, is all courtesy of this physical organ we call the brain.
Two scientists, Andrew Newberg, a radiologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the late Eugene d’Aquili, a psychiatrist and anthropologist, came together to work on d’Aquili’s theory that “brain function is responsible for all mental activity” whether it be sensory and objective in terms of the facts of life or subjectively intuitive and imaginative as, for example, “the range of religious experiences, from the profound epiphanies of saints to the quiet sense of holiness felt by a believer during prayer.”
Here are the words used by Vince Rouse writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine to describe Newberg’s and d’Aquili’s experiment:
They used an imaging technology called SPECT scanning to map the brains of Tibetan Buddhists meditating and Franciscan nuns engaged in deep, contemplative prayer. … When the scientists studied the scans, their attention was drawn to a chunk of the brain’s left parietal lobe they called the orientation association area. This region is responsible for drawing the line between the physical self and the rest of existence, a task that requires a constant stream of neural information flowing in from the senses. What the scans revealed, however, was that at peak moments of prayer and meditation, the flow was dramatically reduced. …Their research suggested that all these intuitive feelings – states of mind – are not the result of simple emotion or the fantasy resulting from wishful thinking, but actually are generated by the genetically arranged wiring of the brain itself.