Jefferson University Hospitals

Case Series Examines Brain Activity During Islamic Prayer

11/22/16

Dr. Newberg

In the first study of its kind, a case series examined the neurophysiological effects of Islamic prayer and showed that the practice decreased blood flow to areas of the brain controlling willful behavior and movement, as well as sense of self. This finding is consistent with Islam’s central theme of surrender. Jefferson researchers measured changes in cerebral blood flow (CBF) using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) in three Islamic individuals while they prayed. The Journal of Physiology-Paris published the results.

“Our study showed that Islamic prayer practices have powerful effects on the brain,” said Andrew Newberg, MD, first author, Professor of Emergency Medicine and Radiology in Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson. “Furthermore, our previous research and the growing body of literature examining the effects of prayer in the brain allowed us to compare Islamic prayer to other religious and spiritual practices.”

Islamic prayer showed some similarities with the Pentecostal Christian practice of speaking in tongues and mediumship (communication with spirits), in which participants often report a feeling of surrendering to a higher power and a “one-ness” with God or the universe. The participants’ brain scans showed a decrease in activity in the frontal and parietal lobes. The frontal lobe is responsible for many functions but is associated with purposeful or willful behavior and body movements, while the parietal lobe takes in sensory information to establish a sense of self and how it relates to the world.

In contrast, Dr. Newberg’s previous research found similarities between attention-focused practices like the Centering prayers of Franciscan Nuns and Buddhist meditation which both showed increases in the frontal lobe activity.

There were also several unique characteristics of Islamic prayer, particularly increased activity in the anterior cingulate which strongly regulates emotions, and the caudate nucleus which is part of the reward system in the brain.

Dr. Newberg said, “Our study raises big picture questions about the similarity and differences of religious and spiritual practices. When they differ – is it because of the belief system or the way that it is practiced?”

Article Reference: Newberg, A.B., et al. A case series study of the neurophysiological effects of altered states of mind during intense Islamic prayer. J. Physiol. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jphysparis.2015.08.001  

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Media Only Contact:
Gail Benner
Jefferson University Hospitals
215-955-2240