Monday, January 31, 2011

How God and Quakerism changes your brain

I've been deeply impressed by a book called "How God Changes Your Brain" by Dr. Mark Waldman, a neuro-scientist who has done significant research on how various spiritual practices affect brain functioning. What most impressed me is how this research validates what I have experienced as a Friend. In fact, I am thinking of writing an article called "How God and Quakerism Changes Your Brain."

Dr. Waldman began his workshop by telling a story that touched my heart as a Quaker. He told of a very old rabbi who was asked to speak at an interfaith event. The rabbi was in his 90s and walked so slowly to the podium that people were afraid he might not make it. When he finally reached the podium, he paused for a long, long time. The pause was so long that some people wondered if he was having a senior moment and had forgotten why he was standing there.

Finally, the rabbi smiled and spoke these wise, memorable words:

"I hope what I have to say will be an improvement on the silence."

This story confirms what Friends and other contemplatives know experientially. Silence is not "dead air"; it is not something to fear or to fill up with words and activities; it is precious and can be deeply healing. One of the important discoveries of brain research is that relaxation through meditation and/or silent worship affects your brain functioning in many positive ways. (Research also shows that yawning can achieve similar results.)

Quakers place more emphasis on silence and "presence" than on words, which confirms what brain research has shown to be important factors in communicating. In a section on compassionate communication, Dr. Waldman notes that the most important communicator is facial expression, followed by body language, tone of voice, speed of speech, and numbers of words used to convey a message. If one smiles, speaks slowly, briefly and clearly from the heart, people are more apt to listen and receive your message positively.

Negative words like "No, terror, bad" instantly cause the brain to emit chemicals that can be harmful, while the use of positive words like "peace, love, joy" causes the brain to emit chemicals that can actually prolong life.

Dr. Waldman is careful to provide notes and sources showing that all his assertions are backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies.

As I took Dr. Waldman's workshop, listened to his CD, and read his book, I began to think about how our Quaker practices use many of these techniques. When people give vocal ministry during Quaker meeting for worship, they tend to speak more slowly and reflectively. Their facial expression tends to become gentler. They often smile in that Mona Lisa type way that Dr. Waldman says conveys compassion.

During a recent gathering of Quarterly meeting clerks, I decided to engage in an experiment. I began to observe how I felt during the meeting. What inward states was I experiencing?

Granted, this was not as scientific as a brain scan, but I have done enough meditating over the years to become fairly alert about what is happening inside me as I go through various experiences. I hope that someone like Dr. Waldman will someday be inspired to monitor the brain waves of participants in various kinds of religious meetings, including a Quaker business meeting. My hunch is that research will show that those who take part in Quaker business meetings have much more peaceful brain activity than those involved in conventional meetings.

The meeting I monitored began with a "check in" in which participants shared what was happening in their lives. The ten of us did this very unhurriedly, over a period of nearly an hour, with each person speaking for around 3 minutes and with approximately two or three minutes of silence between sharing. We began with 5-10 minutes of silence to center down. Then one Friend shared how he had not been looking forward to coming to an all-day meeting, but then had realized he wasn't coming just to give, but also to "draw from the well." The image of "drawing from the well" resonated with many of us and helped create a positive mindset that felt good.

Others shared from the personal lives. It felt good to hear what was being shared, and also to realize we were in no hurry. There was ample silence after each period of sharing in which we could reflect on what had been said. It felt good to know that no one was judging, criticizing, or offering advice. We were listening compassionately. We felt at peace.

I was especially moved when a friend shared her personal struggles. "I feel young, but my body is getting old," she said. She told us about the horrendous physical challenges she had been through over the past few months, but ended on an upbeat note. She told us about joyful times she had spent with her grand children, and how she was looking forward to coming to this meeting. "I knew I couldn't miss this," she said. "I need to be among my good friends."

Everyone spoke slowly and calmly, and from the heart. There was no "spiritual rhetoric," but now and then a pearl of wisdom emerged naturally (just the way pearls are produced in nature). This set the mood for our day's work. We managed to get through the day in a calm spirit of worship, except for one moment when Friends got a little excited about something I no longer can remember. Many of us started raising our hands to get the clerk's attention, and then the clerk said calmly:

"Let's have some time of silent worship."

We took a deep breath and centered down. After three or four minutes of calming silence, a Friend raised her hand, made a very clear point, and our issue was resolved. We moved on to the next business item in the spirit of worship.

During the meeting, we took time to make sure we were clear about our decisions. Our recording clerk read them back to us, and we paused and reflected. Is this really what Spirit wants us to do? Does this really convey the consensus of the group?

At the end of the afternoon, the minutes were read a final time, just to be sure we were all clear about what we had decided. Everything was done with deliberate slowness.

It felt very good, very calming.

What I have described is, I think, pretty typical of how seasoned Friends conduct business. When I first began to attend Quaker meetings 25 years ago, I found this process rather slow and even boring. But having experienced other groups and how they conduct business, I am convinced that the Quaker way is probably very good for the brain, as well as for the heart and the spirit. My hope and prayer is that other groups can learn how to conduct their business in a slow, reflective and Spirit-led way. I believe, and research has confirmed, that inner peace begins when we listen and communicate compassionately.


  1. Thanks Anthony Manousos. This is a beautiful piece. For me it describes perfectly how the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us as we learn how to dwell in God.

  2. I am a 'returning Quaker' who also practices mindfulness meditation. I know of research that demonstrates positive brain changes resulting from meditation, and it would be fascinating indeed to apply the same study to group dynamics. ...If you do write your article, I would love to see it.

  3. Thank you, Anthony, for writing this. When I first attending a Quaker meeting for worship with attention to business, it drove me crazy, because I came with the expectation that a "business" meeting would be conducted quickly and efficiently. Committee meetings were especially difficult - I wanted things to just get DONE. It has taken some time, but I now appreciate (and prefer) the Quaker way of doing things. It is much more peaceful, and I love the emphasis it provides on discerning God's will, instead of ours.