With the end of the public health emergency, our three-year pandemic is officially (if not completely) over, and we are left to contemplate what’s next. As much as we’d all appreciate a return to normal, we may be better off considering a new normal, a better one, in which we focus on “waking up” our brains. An awakened brain just may be the key to shaking off our national malaise — and the good news is that we are naturally programmed to achieve it.
The human brain is hard-wired for connection. As infants we learn the power of being held and loved, the comfort of never being alone. Our brains start making sense of the world, forging the connections with others that make us all one. The process of human bonding – the loving, holding, and guiding that make us feel safe and connected — stays with us as we mature. In that sense of connection we find what many of us call God, what others call a higher power, and what so many of us, whether or not we are religious, understand as the sacred life force that binds us all together.
A large majority of people — 80 percent — say they have a relationship with God, however they define it. That’s not surprising, since the human quest for connection and spirituality is profound. It’s also physical. MRI scans of the brain have shown a remarkable correlation between spirituality and the thickness of the cortex over the parietal, occipital, and precuneus regions, which manage perception, orientation, and reflection. Those who reported placing a high value on religion or spirituality tended to have a thicker (more robust) cortex in those areas. These are also the areas that are markedly thinner in those with depression. It turns out that finding spiritual meaning in life has a significant neuroprotective effect that helps ward off depression.
But for the past several decades we have been defying our own natures. We live in an age of consumerism, self-centeredness, and isolation, and it’s wearing on us. Membership in fraternal and civic organizations has been plummeting for decades, and fewer than half of Americans now belong to a house of worship. For a species that is naturally social, we seem to become more and more anti-social every day.
At the same time, Americans are depressed in record numbers, and those numbers are still growing — they are not entirely pandemic related. The incidence of suicide, which is closely associated with depression, has soared over the past two decades. As many as 20 million Americans have a dependence on drugs or alcohol. And those are only the official statistics — who among us doesn’t understand the more nebulous, but ubiquitous, feeling of despair at the state of modern society?
That despair is most alarming in young people, the teens and adolescents who are today’s emerging adults. It’s no secret that this population is at grave risk of depression and suicide (the rates of both are increasing in teens). They are subject to pressures that were unthinkable in earlier generations. The erosion of respect for authority, the disappearance of religion and spirituality from public life, and the endless polarization of our society have created a bleak landscape for our kids. Many children live in existential terror of shootings at school, the mall, or their own streets — and now that gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children, who can blame them? The ubiquity of smart phones (and the resulting presence of social media in teen lives), bring it all home to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We seem to have lost the ability to find not only God, but the godliness in one another. Spirituality is common sense — meaning that it should be common to all of us, a reflection of our shared humanity. Our metaphorical public square should be common ground, the place where a magnificently diverse population finds deep connection and celebrates the oneness of humanity. Instead we divide into partisan silos and engage in relationships that are transactional, narrowly instrumental, rather than loving.
We already know the answer to this dire situation; human brains have known it for millennia. We need to feel connected to our community, to our natural world and to the deeper force in life. For some people that means a belief in God, but many others achieve a satisfying connection to the majestic force of life itself, without a deity. Belief in a god is a very good path indeed, but it’s only one element of reclaiming our sacred consciousness. Our brains are wired for connections that are horizontal, connecting us to others, as well as vertical, connecting us to a higher power.
We can accomplish this, if only we open ourselves to it. If we make it a point to awaken our brains, to heighten our awareness of the world, we will naturally move closer to the connected state in which our brains are designed to live.
Meditation is a remarkably easy – and remarkably effective — means of getting in tune with our place in the world. Studies have found that even beginners who try guided meditation show results that include improved mood, decreased anxiety, and better cognitive function. The medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is activated during meditation, is the same area of the brain that engages during religious prayer.
Meditation and prayer are not the only way. Taking walks in nature, where you can spend time absorbing sights and sounds that connect you to the world, goes a long way toward awakening your brain. Walking in nature has been shown to reduce activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with self-focused rumination — an effect that is not found during a walk in urban environments. In fact, studies have shown that moments of spiritual awareness are biologically identical whether or not they are religious, whether they happened in a house of worship or in nature. In other words, a walk in the woods gets you out of your own head and into the larger natural world, restoring your connection to that life force we’re so sorely missing.
The time to start is now, when we are reinventing the world post-pandemic. Viewing our lives through the lens of interconnectedness will suggest new solutions to our pressing personal and societal challenges, from a splintered civic life to the environmental crisis. Let us come back from our overblown sense of individualism and remember the pluralism that’s not only in our country’s founding documents but in our very DNA. Let us awaken our brains to what’s out there, to the life force that joins us all as one human race, and shake off the hopelessness of isolation in favor of the joy in reconnecting into an inspired world.
Lisa Miller, PhD, is a bestselling author of The Awakened Brain; The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life (Random House, 2021) and Professor and Founder of the Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute (SMBI) at Columbia University. She recently appeared on Dr. Philip E. Stieg's “This Is Your Brain” podcast to talk about the awakened brain. You can listen to that episode, Engaging Your Spiritual Core, here.