The Neuroscience of Peace
Three ways to cultivate a neurophysiology of peace:
Mindfulness: There has been much research on mindfulness in past years. Mindfulness is the ability to bring your attention to the present. Another way of defining mindfulness is to see it as the ability to have a third person perspective on your first person experience. It is often associated with being calm within our skin. It involves being conscious and aware.
Research has shown that meditation helps strengthen the default mode network (DMN). The DMN involves many areas of the brain as well as their interconnectivity. When the mind wanders, we might excessively ruminate over past problems, have anxiety about the future, or daydream about some fantasy rather than engage reality. Our mind will jump around like a monkey unless we can train it. One way of training the mind is by relishing the good in our lives. Reflecting on the good for at least thirty seconds will build and strengthen the neural pathway. Neurons that fire together wire together. When we are calm our cortisol level will go down. Other signs of being calm are relaxed and toned muscles, warm hands and feet, and accessibility to the frontal cortex. Being present rather than ruminating over past failures or anxiety of the future is a foundation of peace. Being mindful draws us into the present.
Some Christians are quite apprehensive about meditation because it is associated with Buddhism. The Bible is full of references to meditation. There are many different ways to meditate. We can meditate on God’s word. We do not have to be Buddhist to practice meditation. But we can learn much from eastern styles of meditation and enjoy the benefits of practicing them. These include concentration on the breath and body awareness.
Meditation on compassion and the love of God has been shown to provide increased gamma brain waves. This has been found in Carmelite nuns as well as Buddhist monks.[i] The four main types of brain wave patterns, from lowest to highest frequency, are delta, theta, alpha, and beta. Delta waves are most present during sleep. Theta more so when we are drowsy. Alpha waves are present during relaxed thought, such as daydreaming. And beta waves can be seen when the brain is alert and concentrated. Gamma waves are the highest frequency brain waves and are generally very shortly sustained in most minds. Perhaps from a sudden insight or through the realization of a taste of a favorite food there will be spikes in gamma waves. But research is showing that mindfulness and meditation, especially on compassion can alter the trait of our mind to be more enveloped by gamma waves. Those who experience more gamma brain waves report feeling more “vastness in their experience, as if all their senses were wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.”[ii]
Another way that mindfulness and meditation bring harmony to our bodies is through the insula. The insula is a part of the brain that helps bring awareness about our bodily organs. If we become mindful of our bodies and organs through meditation, then our bodies will be more integrated with our brains. You can be better aware of an increased heart rate, tightness in your shoulders or other responses from your reactions. More awareness will give you greater peace and harmony with yourself and your environment. Research has also shown that “higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.”[iii] Because our emotions come with real physical sensations, it is no wonder that when we have a better awareness of our physical sensations, we will have a better awareness of our emotions.
Rest: The tranquility of good sleep is something that should not be underrated. Neither should we forget that naps and relaxation time are extremely important to our well-being. These are things that primarily recharge and are vitally important to us. But I would like to concentrate on another aspect of rest that relates to peace.
True rest is relationship with God. When we can rest in an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then we will grow in peace. It is not about doing more or judging ourselves and others by how productive we are. Rest is about dwelling in a state of right being. It is about relishing and embracing the way that we are neurologically hardwired. Craving, addiction, anxiety, and all the other bad fruit that can habitually overrun our neurological make-up, will strip us of God’s peace. When we live a life in and by all the fruit of the Spirit then we can live in peace. The neuroscientific basis of this is illustrated in many ways throughout these pages. This book has many tools, resources, and means to help strengthen your relationship with God, but it is not helpful to get caught up in more busy-ness by them. There are loads of excellent tools out there. Richard Foster’s, Celebration of Discipline has many fantastic tools. Bishop Michael Curry’s Way of Love initiative has many practices that will draw us deeper into relationship with God.[iv] No matter where we find tools to bring us closer to God, we can remember that it is about relationship and grace. As our lives become more and more of an expression of the fruit of the Spirit through love, joy, and peace, we will become more at home in ourselves. We can rest in this relationship. We can choose God’s grace. We can avoid busy-ness and the tyranny of the urgent. We can have peace.
Awe: The amount of awe and wonder we have in our lives is largely proportional to our ability to be present and find peace. Awe has amazing neurological effects for us. It draws the mind to a greater sense of self, helps us think more creatively, is positive for our health, and draws us to be more collaborative and social.[v] Even the simplistic beauty of a blade of grass can draw us into awe at the wonder of creation. Wonder is feeling excited by an encounter with the unexpected where beauty, truth or a greater sense of reality is found.[v]
We could all use more awe and wonder. There are awe and wonder present in our bodies. There are awe and wonder present in the vastness of space. Children often teach me much about awe and wonder. They find it in the simplest of things. If we could find more awe and wonder in simple things like children, we would be so much richer! Where do you find wonder and awe in your life? Where could you find more?
[i]“EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, accessed August 21, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18721862.
[ii]Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, Altered Traits, (New York: Avery, 2018), 233.
[iii]Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2010),80.
[iv]“The Way of Love,” The Episcopal Church, accessed August 30, 2019, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.
[v]“Awe and Its Benefits,” Psychology Today, accessed December 5, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-awe/201704/the-emerging-science-awe-and-its-benefits.