Dr. Andrew Newberg, Renowned Neuroscientist, Explains How Your Words (And Thoughts) Change Your Brain
Manage episode 260081354 series 2661367
Dr. Andrew Newberg, is a ten-time author, TEDx speaker, leading researcher, and neuroscientist who studies the relationship between brain function and various mental states. He’s appeared on Dr. Oz and a Netflix documentary hosted by Morgan Freeman called God, and his work referenced in countless media publications including The New York Times, O Magazine, and Reuters, just to name a few.
In this episode of Unmessable, Dr. Newberg and Tanya discussed what enlightenment is and the role it plays in you being an effective leader. Hint: enlightenment is correlated to leadership. They also discuss how one can practice enlightenment by design and how words change your brain. Additionally, Dr. Newberg shares some of his scientific findings on how to build trust and resolve conflict at work and in life.
Tune in to get the full conversation and learn about:
- How your brain changes with meditation, religious and spiritual practices
- Why we believe what we believe
- How words change your brain
- How to build trust and resolve conflict
- Neuroscience concepts
- Mental health and states
Dr.Andrew Newberg’s biography:
Dr. Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. He is board-certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine.
Andrew has been asking questions about reality, truth, and God since he was very young, and he has long been fascinated by the human mind and its complex workings. While a medical student, he met Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, who was studying religious experiences. Combining their interests with Andrew’s background in neuroscience and brain imaging, they were able to break new theoretical and empirical ground on the relationship between the brain and religion.
Andrew’s research now largely focuses on how brain function is associated with various mental states—in particular, religious and mystical experiences. His research has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states, as well as surveys of people’s spiritual experiences and attitudes. He has also evaluated the relationship between religious or spiritual phenomena and health, and the effect of meditation on memory. He believes that it is important to keep science rigorous and religion religious.
Andrew has also used neuroimaging research projects to study aging and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Connect with Dr.Andrew Newberg:
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Andrew: I think a lot of my interest really did grow out of some of the thought processes I had as a kid. I was always just surprised that people had such diverse perspectives on things. I didn’t understand why we had different religious, why we had different political parties. To me, I felt like aren’t we all looking at the same world and shouldn’t we all believe the same thing?
Tanya: That’s Dr. Andrew Newberg, ten time author, TedX speaker, leading research, and neuroscientist who studied the relationship between brain function and various mental states. He’s appeared on Dr. Oz and Netflix’s documentary hosted by Morgan Freeman called God, and his work referenced in countless media publications including The New York Times, O Magazine, and Reuters, just to name a few. Dr. Newberg is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and is a physician at the Jefferson University Hospital. He is board-certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine.
Andrew: Those distinctions, I think for me, really weighed heavily on my mind and were in some senses upsetting to me, especially jumping forward to today’s world when you see such hostility amongst people for different ways of thinking and believing. To me, it’s very concerning to think about that, and so I was always trying to understand the big question to me, which was how do we understand reality? How do we make sense of reality? I started that process off by looking at the brain. I thought well, here’s our brain and it’s our brain that’s helping us to see and hear and experience everything around us, and so it must have something to do with the brain itself that helps us to understand the reality around us.
As I went through my own thought processes, I went through my training, especially in college taking courses in comparative religions and philosophy and so forth, I realized that the questions were far more complex and while the brain is certainly part of the process, there are a lot of other aspects to how we experience reality, especially when it starts to come to things like spiritual experiences, mystical experiences, and those fascinating perspectives on reality as well.
With all of that swirling around, I kept thinking a lot about how all these things are tied together and then it was in medical school where I was doing research looking at brain imaging studies of very traditional kinds of stuff, looking at Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and depression, and that kind of thing. I had also connected with a psychiatrist who had been exploring the relationship between the brain and religious experiences really as early as the 1970s. As we were talking about all this, I realized gee, if we’re doing brain scans of people with depression, then why can’t I do a brain scan of somebody who’s spiritual?
That’s really what launched the more recent approach of this neuro-theology, as it’s called, this field of study that looks to find a relationship or the link between the brain and our religious and spiritual selves but that was what really pushed us forward in doing research studies to explore that in more detail. Here we are, 20, 25 years down the road and we’ve scanned probably four or 500 people doing all different kinds of practices and exploring what’s going on in their brain. I’m still trying to find the answer to that big question of how we understand reality. As I always like to tell everyone, if I ever figure it out, I’ll certainly let everyone know. I think that out best chance at getting to an answer is to find a truly multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, however you want to use that term, approach that blends the best of what science has to offer with the best of what our mind, our spirit has to offer in terms of trying to figure out that reality and hopefully someday, we will figure it all out.
Tanya: Yeah, from my understanding, there’s a lot we don’t know, a lot, and actually the more that we get to know, the more we realize the less that we know.
Tanya: Certainly that’s my experience with my own life. How religion, meditation, and spiritual practices – how do those impact our brain? You talk a lot – a lot of your work has focused on how those impact our mental state and what do you mean by mental state?
Andrew: When it comes to the impact on our brain, I guess maybe the simplest thing to start out with is that I think when we look at all of the imaging studies that we’ve done and other people have done, when we think about the complexity of spirituality and religion in terms of the different elements, the cognitive, the emotional, and the experiential elements, what I think we can fairly confidently say is that there’s not one part of our brain that is the spiritual part. There’s not one part of our brain that turns on when somebody walks into a church or something like that and then shuts off when the person leaves. Again, because of the complexity of how our brain operates, because of the complexity of our perceptions of reality, because of the complexity of what spirituality and religion are, to me it looks like it involves virtually the entire brain. All the different parts of our brain become involved that has to do with our emotional responses, and the things we think and believe, and the different behaviors that we do, and all that.
There are a lot of very complex processes that occur. Some of the work that I’ve done in both books as well as in some of the research articles that we’ve published tries to delineate how these different areas of the brain operate in the context of religious and spiritual experiences and our perceptions of reality. One really good example that I talk a lot about is, for example, the parietal lobe. Parietal lobe is located in the back of our brain, the back top part of our brain, and it helps us to create our sense of self and how that self interacts with the world. Well, when people engage in a practice like meditation or prayer and they have that classic experience where they lose their sense of self or they feel a sense of oneness with all things, the parietal lobe actually starts to quiet down. I think that makes a lot of sense because if the parietal lobe is designed to – functions to help us establish that sense of self, then a loss of activity in that area would be associated with a loss of the sense of the self, a loss of the boundaries between our self and the rest of the world so that it helps us to make that connection, to feel that deep connection with humanity, with the universe, with God, whatever is the target of that practice.
Again, we can talk about a lot of different kinds of changes that go on in the brain, a lot of different parts of the brain, depending on what elements we’re looking at but ultimately, it seems that there is a spiritual part of ourselves It is really the entire brain and of course, as an integrative medicine physician, I look at the link between the brain and the body. It ultimately comes down to all of us, our whole entire self, seems to me to be the spiritual part of ourselves, but that spiritual part is intimately linked with our biological parts.
Tanya: Do you think that – you were mentioning that the parietal lobe really creates this sense of self and when you are engaged in a practice like praying or meditation or some form of spiritual practice, that sense of self decreases. Do you think that that is a positive thing on our society or it makes no difference?
Andrew: That’s a really interesting question and issue that we have explored to some extent, at least theoretically, but more needs to be done to really look at whether or not these experiences are good or bad. A lot of this stems from the practice of various rituals like meditation, prayer, other types of rituals that we do, and as my late colleague used to like to say that ritual is a morally neutral technology. What he meant by that is that if you engage in a practice that makes you feel deeply connected to something, that can be a wonderful experience and certainly, there’s a lot of data that show that when people feel a sense of connectedness with a group of people – might be a church or a synagogue or a mosque, all of humanity, with God – that can be a very overwhelmingly positive experience that can be very beneficial for the individual It can give them a great sense of meaning and purpose in the world. It can quell various anxieties. It can make them feel less depressed. It ultimately has a very beneficial effect, and that’s what a lot of the data has shown.
However, as I said, there are times where these experiences can be problematic. If a person feels deeply connected to a relatively small group of individuals, then sometimes while the connection between the group is strong, the connection to people outside of that group can become very antagonistic. It can create this us versus them mentality which can lead to a lot of struggle, strife, conflict, war, and so one always has to ask the question, when you say I feel at one with something, what is the something? Sometimes it can actually be very detrimental when you start to think about where religion has gone bad with terrorists or cults or something like that where you get into these very negative types of processes, very destructive behaviors either for the individuals or for the larger society.
That’s where we don’t really understand enough about that There’s a lot of room for future research to explore that. As a general statement, these kind of spiritual experiences and the practices that people have – in one of our recent books called How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, we did present data from a survey that we did of over about 2,000 people. Over 90% of people report positive feelings from these experiences. Again, it could be an improvement in their sense of spirituality and religion. It could be an improvement in their sense of meaning and purpose in life. It can be improvement in their sense of well-being. There’s a lot of different ways in which these experiences cut across and help people to feel better. It isn’t 100% and so it is important for us to understand when it doesn’t go well and try to find ways of redirecting people into that more positive way of looking at things
Tanya: You mentioned that 90% of the people in the survey reported having an extremely positive experience. What did the 10% report that didn’t have a good experience?
Andrew: Sometimes what is reported is that they will have some kind of – it becomes terrifying for them. They feel this incredible sense of oneness but instead of connecting with it, they feel disconnected from it. They lose themselves in it, and that can be very scary for people. The other place where sometimes these experiences can be problematic for people is that – which is an interesting problem is it’s sometimes the experience itself is overwhelmingly positive but it is so foreign to them that they have a great deal of difficulty knowing how to incorporate it into their prevailing belief system.
What I mean by that is – let’s say you were raised Catholic your whole life and then you have some kind of mystical experience or a near-death experience and when you come out of that experience, you think to yourself no one ever explained it this way. It feels completely different than anything I was ever taught. Now you have a conundrum because the question is do you reject the experience, which was overwhelmingly positive and important to you, or do you reject the tradition that you have grown up in that you also feel is an important part of who you are. That can be very problematic for people.
Of course, another side piece that becomes difficult is that – and sometimes okay, I want to try to resolve this. I will talk with my friends, my family, a clergy member. A lot of times, they get very bad reactions from those individuals as well if somebody writes it off or sometimes it could be even worse. Sometimes it could be somebody who says oh, well, that’s the work of the devil or that was psychosis or something like that and what’s wrong with you? It can be a positive experience but still be negative for people. Very few people have truly negative experiences but usually if it is, it’s more of just a total fear. They just don’t know what to do with it and they’re not prepared for it, and so it becomes more negative for them than anything
Tanya: I can get that, actually, and I hadn’t thought about that before. It’s like if everything you believed in and were told your entire life, in one instance something challenges the core of what you believe, it’s totally dislodging and it inserts uncertainty in you and puts everything into question, which is very uncomfortable.
Andrew: It can be, yes, absolutely. Again, the large majority of people figure out a way to do that, whether they find a way of embracing both and figuring out a way to integrate them together or they just decide no, I’m going in a different path and I feel good about it. There could be a variety of different approaches that people take that makes them – helps them to resolve that, but it is a problem.
In fact, there have been a couple of studies of something called religious struggle where it really can be very detrimental. It can increase anxiety; it can increase depression in people whenever anybody’s struggling to figure out who they are and what they believe, especially in the context of maybe how they were raised, so it is something that can definitely be problematic for people. For that reason, a number of approaches have been developed that have tried to incorporate both the more traditional psychoanalytic approaches, as well as incorporating various religious or spiritual themes in the hopes of trying to bring those two together. Try to help people figure out a way to deal and cope with these very powerful experiences that are life-changing, but help them to figure out not just what it means psychologically but what it means spiritually as well.
Tanya: This might be a misconception of mine, but I never really thought of the spiritual religious world integrating deeply into the medical world because it’s fundamentally two different practices. One is evidence-based and the other one is really philosophical-based. Is that right? Does that make any sense?
Andrew: Oh, absolutely. Although part of what we’re seeing is that over the last, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 years, a lot of people in the medical profession have recognized the importance of not just thinking about human beings as biological animals and realizing that there’s a social side, a psychological side, a spiritual side as well. The idea of trying to embrace all those different dimensions of who we are as people is something that has gained a lot of interest in the medical field over the years. A little bit in contrast to how it used to be of, let’s just take care of the biology and not worry about whether somebody has religious beliefs that are relevant or not. I think there has been a shift at least in that direction in terms of realizing the importance of religious and spiritual beliefs for people.
Sometimes it’s extremely practical if you’re trying to deal with issues such as abortion or organ transplantation or end-of-life issues. Often people turn to their religious and spiritual beliefs as a way of guiding them through that decision-making process. Trying to understand that has become even more important for us to look at, but I think there has been an openness to this importance of these other sides of who we are as human beings and then bringing in this whole field of neurotheology in a very practical way and saying, “Okay, what does happen when somebody prays or how do people use their religious or spiritual beliefs as a sense of coping with cancer or losing a loved one or something like that.” There can be some very valuable ways in which religious and spiritual ideas, beliefs, and attitudes can play a role in the healthcare setting. It’s been exciting to see more and more people embracing that. Hopefully, as we develop more and more research, we’ll understand more effective ways of trying to do that.
Tanya: Yeah. No, I’m so happy that you say that. To me, anecdotally, there’s a complete correlation between my state of mind and my level of stress and my body pains. For instance, when I gave birth to my identical twin girls, who are two now, I gave birth at 28 weeks, and I was diagnosed with twin-to-twin transfusion. That threw us on a whole journey of being in the hospital for a – the NICU actually. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for six months, and they both had PDA ligations, which is heart surgery. They were on respiratory support for 210 days and feeding tubes for 300 days. All types of stuff happened during that period, and we’re discharged with oxygen and all types of stuff. I could see that my mental state was directly correlated to my physical state, and during that time, my back was killing me, just killing me. I could go see a doctor but not much – and I went to go see an osteopath, a chiropractor. I took scans to see if there’s anything going on, and it turned out to be emotional.
Andrew: Absolutely. Again, we see this over and over, the importance of that psychological state and spiritual state of an individual as it relates to their health and well-being. Absolutely, there is evidence to show that people engaged in specific practices like meditation reduce their response to pain. People who are more religious will have lower rates of depression or anxiety and cope better with various problems.
Tanya: Why is that? You brought up meditation, and the only thing that gave me a little bit of relief during this period was meditation. What happens from a brain perspective that would describe or make sense of my anecdotal experience?
Andrew: There’s certainly a lot of data which have shown that practices like meditation helped to alter the body’s physiology and the brain’s physiology. Part of how this works is that it helps us to regulate certain parts of our brain like our frontal lobes that help us to manage our emotions. When you concentrate doing a meditation or prayer practice, you’re activating your frontal lobes, and those frontal lobes are designed to modulate your emotional responses. They help us to feel a little bit less anxious, to feel a little less depressed, and so these practices like mindfulness and transcendental meditation or prayer practices in general help to reduce the amount of reactivity in the brain, helps reduce the activity in the emotional centers of the brain.
That ultimately translates into changes in the body’s physiology in terms of various hormones and neural responses to things like pain and how pain is perceived. There’s a lot of different avenues of research that have explored these relationships and can show exactly how by doing something very simple like concentrating on a phrase or an image or the breath can have very dramatic effects in the brain and the body that can be ultimately beneficial for people.
Tanya: Is that true with people that have chronic depression? If they were to do these practices, would that somehow alter or improve their mental state?
Andrew: Certainly, the research suggests that. It may not necessarily be the only treatment that one should do. Certainly, if people are severely depressed, then we would always argue that medications are important to help people when necessary, but as something that can be part of that therapeutic process, whether it’s part of psychotherapy, whether it’s part of the medication intervention, practices like meditation and prayer across the board have generally shown reductions in the depressive symptoms and have even shown that either by themselves or in conjunction with other therapies can be very effective at helping to improve depressive symptoms in people who have a diagnosis of major depression. I think the answer is definitely those practices can be beneficial for people.
Obviously, there’s one other piece to it which is that, not every practice is right for every person. There are practices that have been very widely studied. That have been adopted by a lot of different kinds of people. Some of them are more well-known like mindfulness practices, transcendental medication is another one, but there are hundreds of different types of practices. Yoga is another approach. These practices have all been very effective, and each one has been valuable in its own right. We don’t have a lot of head-to-head data yet so we don’t know if some are better than others per se, but certainly, what seems to be the case is that, each person has to find a path that works best for them.
What I usually tell people to do on a very practical level is say, “Okay, if you want to start a meditation practice, part of what you need to do is think about why do you want to start that. What are your goals? Is it for health purposes? Is it to reduce stress? Is it to achieve something spiritual or something else?” Then look around. Obviously, we have the internet today so look around at different practices that are out there and see if what they teach and what the goals of the practice are, are useful for what your goals are. For example, mindfulness has been a very widely used practice in healthcare settings. If your main goal is to reduce stress, it might be particularly effective for that. If your main goal is to become a more religious individual, it could be helpful for that but that may not be the best approach to take. Maybe you want to do something that incorporates more prayer and other types of meditation. That’s important.
Then ultimately, I think contacting whoever the teacher is of the particular practice, talking to them, seeing what their philosophy is. Is it consistent with what your goals are? Is it consistent with who you are as a person? Then ultimately, you have to try it and see what happens. Usually, you have to give it a reasonable try. Usually, you have to try it for a month or two to see how you feel about it. Then at that point, make an evaluation. If it’s working for you, then terrific and if it’s not, then move on to another one and check something else out. Some are really good in groups. Some are really good by yourself. There’s all kinds of apps these days and things to do online. All of my books have different meditation-based practices that are described in there. Each person really can look around and figure out what works best for them.
Tanya: Just for those listening, I highly recommend that you check out some of the work that Andrew Newberg has done. It is absolutely amazing. Ten books, a TED Talk, which speaking of, on your TED Talk you were talking about enlightenment, and you described enlightenment. Actually, the description came from the survey that you did which contained – I think it was more than 2,000 people, right, participated in that survey?
Andrew: About 2,000 altogether, yeah.
Tanya: Enlightenment was described as something being intense. Having a deep sense of clarity, a oneness, and a sense of surrendering. One of my questions – actually, two of my questions is one, is religion, meditation, and spiritual practices linked to enlightenment? Is that a path to enlightenment if that was somebody’s goal? The second question is, some of the great leaders like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi were known to operate from – actually, most great leaders are known to operate from a place of unity and clarity. Is there a relationship between effective leadership and enlightenment?
Andrew: Those are some great questions. As far as the elements of enlightenment and how that is associated with the practices like meditation, yet part of what we were trying to draw into in terms of – in our book, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, is that very process because meditation itself, prayer itself are not typically defined as enlightenment but they lead to enlightenment. We always think of the Buddhist monk who spends 40 years in meditation until they finally achieve enlightenment, but the enlightenment is because they have been doing these practices for many years. It’s not the actual act of doing the practices. Part of what we came to was I think a very important finding in our research, and so to blend a couple of the parts of the question together.
You had mentioned this issue of surrender. A very common theme in these experiences for people is that they are not making it happen. That it is something that ultimately takes them over and they surrender to it. How does that relate to the practices of meditation? When people surrender to a particular experience, and we’ve seen this in a number of the practices that we’ve studied. Part of what we have found is that the frontal lobes actually experience a decrease in activity. Now this is interesting because the frontal lobes, and we talked about the frontal lobes a little while ago, primarily help us to focus our attention to help us to concentrate on whatever it is that we happen to be doing. When we actually are doing a practice like meditation, when you’re concentrating on your breath or concentrating on an image, frontal lobe activity actually goes up, and we’ve seen this in a number of practices. That the frontal lobe increases its activity, but in these moments where the person feels that they have been taken over by the practice, when they feel that they surrendered to the practice, the frontal lobe activity actually goes down.
There’s a change that occurs. There’s a change that occurs between having your frontal lobes being highly active to be being highly under-active. What we have proposed is – and again, there’s some evidence to support this is that – that it is in fact that change that is the most relevant. It’s not being low or being high, but it’s the actual shift that’s occurring. The analogy that I often use, and there’s a couple of different analogies, but one of them is, if you’re in an airplane. If you’re sitting on the ground, you don’t really feel like you’re moving very much. If you’re way up in the sky, even though you’re going 500, 600 miles an hour, you don’t feel the movement. You don’t feel like you’re moving 500. The plane is pretty stable. It’s when you’re coming down or when you’re taking off where something’s changing and that’s when you feel it. That’s when you feel the change happening, and that’s what we think is actually going on when somebody experiences enlightenment. They actually are experiencing the shift in the brain’s activity from one state to another. That’s also why the practice of meditation winds up being very effective because – again, the other analogy that I like to use is, if you climb up a couple of steps and you jump down, not much happens to you.
If you climb up a ten-foot ladder and jump down, you’re going to feel it. You might even hurt yourself a little bit. If you climb up a 10-foot ladder and jump into an emptied swimming pool that’s 10 feet deep, now you’re falling 20 feet. Something pretty dramatic is now going to happen to you. Part of what happens during the practice of meditation to frontal – it’s like climbing up that ladder. You’re increasing the activity in that frontal lobe of the brain, and then when that moment of enlightenment happens, it’s as if you now have fallen down into the well of the swimming pool and now something really dramatic is happening. That’s part of how we started to understand what these practices do is that they prime the brain or predispose the brain – I don’t know what word might be the best. To be able to have this kind of an experience. That’s why we think these practices are so valuable to individuals especially towards helping them to achieve an experience of enlightenment.
Now you mentioned also about some of the great individuals throughout history, and again, I think you’re absolutely right that many of them wind up developing their ability to lead and lead the way and demonstrate how to live and what to do in life through the experiences that they have that are often considered to be an experience of enlightenment or some type of deep spiritual or mystical experience that provides for them a sense of clarity and understanding how the world is, how the world works that they then – now that they have had that experience, they come back to us and start telling us, “Well, this is how I now understand the world. This is what we should be doing as human beings.” This is how to behave, how to think, and hopefully, that has value to everybody so that everyone begins to achieve this understanding of what enlightenment is about and how we are to be able to look at life.
Tanya: That’s so interesting. Would you agree or would you highly recommend people that are in leadership positions, whether that’s in business or whatever leadership positions they’re in, to develop a practice for them to help them be more effective?
Andrew: There are several reasons to do that. We were just talking about one, which is, how does one find that approach to leadership and having that sense of clarity, that sense of meaning and purpose in your own life I think is essential to being a good leader in terms of how one decides what to do and how to lead a company or how to lead a team or whatever it is that – or a country. To have those ideals, those beliefs, those perspectives that can be useful and brought to the people who you are leading. There’s another way that it also is valuable which is to give leaders that sense of comfort and direction and these practices can ultimately be very valuable in reducing stress. When we’re talking about leaders, we don’t have to talk about the Gandhis of the world but just people who are in charge of small companies and running – teaching classes to students. These are all leaders in one form or another and being a leader can have a great deal of stress.
Practices like meditation or prayer can ultimately be very helpful for people in terms of reducing that level of stress and giving them a sense of strength that they can fall back on to help them to continue to lead in the ways in which they want to. I think that there are a number of ways in which practices like meditation are very valuable to individuals in leadership roles. The evidence certainly suggest that people can be more effective as leaders. Even teams can be more effective working together when they are in practices such as meditation or prayer or other types of rituals. That’s why a lot of just the old team building practices and other types of programs that people do to bring people together, the more we bring people together, the more people feel connected as a unit, the more people a sense of strength and belonging, then the better they work and the more efficiently they work together.
Tanya: When you say have the team do – be active in some type of practice, do you mean do it as a team activity or have individual practices and then these people happen to be on a team?
Andrew: Ultimately, it can be both. Certainly, there is value in doing things together as a team. When we talk about – we talked about rituals a little while ago. The whole goal of rituals for the most part is to bring people together, and so we see rituals in so many facets of human life. They can be rituals that are part of schools and how you bring freshmen in and how you teach people and maybe what you do – you do the same thing every day at noon. Everything runs in some rhythmic process that binds people together. We see this with sports teams and everybody listening to certain types of music or saying things in certain ways or doing certain cheers in certain ways. These are all rituals that help to bind people together. That’s what rituals ultimately do, which is to create a physical understanding of the connection that you have with other individuals who are part of that ritual.
Also, it helps to bind the people with whatever the ultimate goal or doctrine is. Again, it could be a religious or spiritual ritual that God is one or that Jesus helped to save humanity, or it can be, this is the mantra of our business, that we’re going to be compassionate to our clientele, that we’re going to be successful. Whatever it is that by doing these kinds of rituals it helps to bring people together. Now rituals often have both a group, as well as an individual piece to them, and so having people to be able to do this not only as a group but to be able to strengthen that process through individual practices can be part of that as well.
Certainly, when it comes to religions for example, there’s great value in praying together but there’s also value in praying separately. Ultimately, perhaps by doing both, we see prayer having its most effective abilities. The same maybe said of jobs and companies when you can do things as groups. That’s great but that doesn’t mean that doing things as individuals is not helpful. In many ways, it’s just as helpful, if not more helpful and complimentary, I guess.
Tanya: Okay, that’s great. I’m going to switch gears a little bit. You wrote a fabulous book called, Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. I loved this title and the book because in my line of work, we say that your word creates the reality that you live in. Can you talk a little bit about your book?
Andrew: Oh, absolutely. I mean, a lot of what you just said really is a very fundamental part of what we were learning in this book. Part of the overall reason for writing it was to explore how our brain and our language intersect with each other, and how that has implications for who we are as human beings, and how we live our lives. That being said, we try rely a lot on what data we could find in terms of how language affects us as people, and the different parts of the brain that are involved in that. There are many different examples that we talk about in the book, but just the idea of how our words change the way we think about reality. The more you focus for example on positive words, words such as yes, I can instead of I can’t. Words in terms of success. All of these positive words actually can help us to look at the world more positively.
Of course, if we use a lot of negative words, no, can’t, bad, all those kinds of things. Those negative words lead us to think about the world and ourselves more negatively. A lot of how we actually interact with the world depends on the words that we use to understand ourselves and understand the world around us. What happens is, is that, as you use words, you’re basically writing those words into your brain so to speak. If you think yes, I can do this. I can be successful. I’m qualified. I have capabilities. Then in your own brain, the neural connections that support those positive attitudes become stronger and stronger, and the ones that are negative about yourself become weaker and weaker. The opposite is true as well if you keep thinking to yourself, I can’t do this. I’m not going to be successful. It’s never going to work.
Those are the neural connections that also get into your brain, and that changes the way your brain operates. What happens is, is that, the actual behaviors and practices that you do are affected by this. If you think I’m going to be successful, I’m going to make a lot of money, however you define success. If you keep focusing in on those positive ideas, you do the behaviors that support them. You’re going to be careful with your money. You’re going to be careful in terms of how you deal with your boss, with the people who work underneath you. You’re going to work harder because you’re doing all these things to support the belief that you have that you’re going to ultimately be successful. On the other hand, again, if you think that you can’t do it, well, you’re probably going to give up a little sooner or you’re not going to try as harder. As soon as something doesn’t go well, you’re going to give up. There is a lot to be said about how our words shape the reality around us. That’s a very important part of what’s in the book.
Tanya: I heard you talk about words and then I heard you talk about, if you think to yourself. When you’re talking about words, do thoughts also fall – your own personal thoughts without actually verbalizing them count as words, and also have an impact or a similar impact on the brain?
Andrew: Yes, definitely. We do think in words for the most part, and so we articulate what we’re thinking and feeling and those are even – even if we don’t express them outwardly, we think them on the inside. All of those aspects of language, even the internal ones similarly are very important in terms of how we function, how we believe about ourselves, and how we believe about our interactions with the world at large.
Tanya: Got it.
Andrew: Also, I mean, part of – what I was going to say is that, part of what we also talk about in Words Can Change Your Brain, is how to develop an approach to using language that’s based on science. It’s based on what the neuroscience tells us so that it can help to foster better interactions with people, better interactions with our world, more intimate dialogue with people. As an example, we learn certain things just on what brain scan studies have told us about the parts of our brain that operate when we speak, the parts of our brain operate when we hear something negative versus something positive.
When we hear something positive, we activate the reward system in our brain and we feel good and we’re more likely to do good things after that. If we hear something negative, if somebody’s critical of us, then it triggers activity in an area of our brain called the amygdala which is our fear center, our negative emotional center of the brain. We recoil and we become less aggressive and less active. We shy away from doing things again in the future because we’re worried about what’s going to happen. All of those things are part of what we learn. Now what we also learned for example, is that our brain operates better when people speak slowly. If you’re having an important conversation with somebody at work, speaking more slowly, speaking more clearly, these are things that become very helpful in making sure that whatever ideas that you have come across to the other individual.
Another really important point that my co-writer, Mark Waldman always likes to talk about is how much we speak. At this point, I always feel a little embarrassed because here I am going on and on about this, but it’s part of a podcast so we have to go on and on, but what the data show is that our brain really only can hold on to about four or five chunks of information at any one time. To speak to somebody for more than 30 seconds or 40 seconds is, at some point, the brain just isn’t going to continue to hold on to that information. Part of what we talk about in the context of developing a more compassionate form of communication is to speak slowly and to speak briefly and to be more aware and mindful of what other people are speaking so that we can have a more intimate conversation with them.
Tanya: That makes so much sense. At least I can relate to everything you said from an anecdotal standpoint. What words help to build trust?
Andrew: When it comes to building trust, I’d like to actually expand the question to forms of communication [44:42] a very rich resource literature, which has shown that a lot of what helps to build trust is actually not even the words themselves but your facial expressions, your body movements and how you express your words and language through your body. It turns out that from a facial expression perspective, that the face that seems to be most trustworthy we refer to as the Mona Lisa smile, and it’s that very gentle smile, gentle eyes, very soft facial expressions. Big smiles, people think that you’re hiding something. Scowls, makes you nervous. A gentle smile is something that is very helpful at building trust. Speaking slowly but calmly and confidently is another thing that help to build trust with people.
Part of what also is so essential in building trust with people is listening carefully to what people are talking about and responding in an authentic and in a very true way. Not being over exaggerating about things even if it’s good. If somebody said, you’re the most fabulous worker we’ve ever had. That maybe great and you think that you’re saying something positive but sometimes to be overly positive is almost problematic, especially if the person doesn’t think they’re [46:10]. Being honest, being straightforward with people, speaking in calm tones, those are the kinds of things with being positive with people, those are the ways of building trust as effectively as possible. It’s okay to be critical of people but part of what we always try to work towards is to be critical in a constructive way. How can we utilize this criticism to be better the next time?
You hear a lot of athletes talk about that all the time. A coach said that they were very blunt with them. You’re not doing this right and here’s how you do it better, but it’s always with the constructive, here’s how you do it better and not just yelling and screaming at somebody for doing something wrong. The coaches that seem to be the most effective usually are appropriately critical, but always give that next step. The way out of that criticality that makes people really want to perform and function well for them.
Tanya: Also, I hear the intention behind it. If the coach is really on for that person to win and succeed, the criticism will be much better received than if they don’t feel that.
Andrew: Exactly, and going back to what we talked about a little while ago about practices like meditation not being for everyone, this is always a problem with any company or sports team is that, not every player is – not every person is the same. Some people actually do respond better if you’re a little bit more critical. Some people do respond better if you give them more direction. Some people respond better if you give them less direction. That’s always a challenge for any leader, which is, how does one tailor a general approach to a larger group of individuals. Some who may respond one way and some who may respond a different way. That is always a bit of a challenge, but again, part of what we always say about some of the great coaches for examples is that they knew their players. They knew who needed to be ridden a little harder and those people who needed to be coddled a little bit, and then hopefully, they’re the ones who wind up being successful.
Tanya: Yeah, that’s brilliant and it’s a point that I think serves everybody to be reminded of. Just want to make one last switch of gears here. You wrote another fabulous book called, Why We Believe What We Believe. My question is, why do we believe what we believe?
Andrew: You have to go read the book. No, I mean, maybe the simplest way of answering it is that, that our beliefs are a composite of many different factors. They are based on the biology of who we are which includes our genetics and how we look. Some people just are naturally more optimistic than others. Some people are more naturally humorous than others, and so how we are built physiologically has a lot to say about what we believe and how we believe it.
Tanya: When you say built physiologically, do you mean what’s hard wired in our brain or are you referring to something else?
Andrew: It’s a little bit about how we are hard wired. Some of us have more dopamine than other people or some of us have a bigger frontal lobe than somebody else. There are just fundamental ways in which people will have those different biological processes will respond to the world. Certainly, the brain is adaptive and responds to the world. I mean, I’m always fascinated when you hear of the person who was raised in some horrible part of town and they becoming incredibly successful. Why did they become successful and their brother didn’t? You don’t always know. It’s the physiological basis of who they are even though their environment may have been exactly the same.
On the other hand, where do our beliefs come from? The majority of our beliefs, in fact, pretty much all of them come from other people. Most of our beliefs come from our parents. They’re the ones who, when we’re growing up, they tell us how to be good, how to be bad, how to go to the bathroom, how to cook food, how to eat, how to sleep, how to drink, and so much of what we all learn derives from our parents including our religious and spiritual attitudes and beliefs as well. If our parents take us to a Catholic church then we’re far more likely to become Catholic as we grow up instead of becoming Jewish for example. Then as we get older, our coaches, our teachers, our friends, and then as we become adults, then it goes over into our communities and our leaders, presidents and political leaders and so forth.
Of course, that’s a part of what concerns so many people these days, which the people at the highest levels, if they operate and act in certain ways, that’s going to filter down into other people acting in certain ways. When people treat people with respect and compassion, then we are more likely to treat people with respect and compassion. If we are treated with disrespect and a lack of compassion, then we are more likely to treat other people that way. The good thing about the brain is that it can always change, but it can be difficult to make those changes at times.
Tanya: Yeah, and the saying lead by example. As you were talking about why believe what we believe, and our parents teaching us and telling us what’s good and what’s bad, I have three daughters and I noticed that the bulk of what they learn is not from what I tell them, but from what they see me do. Actually, pre-kids I didn’t realize just how powerful that is. This idea of lead by example is really, I think where a lot of the power is.
Andrew: Right. From a neurobiological perspective, one of the ways in which that happens is that we have social areas of our brain, and we have neurons that are referred to as mirror neurons. This actually reflects what we see in the world, and so if we see somebody being angry then there’s a part of our brain that’s angry. If we see people being happy, there’s a part of our brain that feels happy. There’s even been brain scan studies that show how people’s brains can resonate with other people.
Again, talking about leadership, talking about teaching and raising children and so forth, so much of it does have to do with how we are, both in terms of our language and our body processes, and our behaviors. Those are reflected and mirrored in the people who we are around and whether those are people above us or below us. In the compassionate communication approach, trying to remain calm. You can only imagine if your boss came to you being very upset and you remain calm, you will make that person more calm even though they may be upset with you. If you get upset back, it’s just going to explode.
Tanya: That’s right.
Andrew: There are ways of actually modulating what other people do that can be very relevant in terms of altering and changing behaviors.
Tanya: What do you mean that it could be very useful in terms of modulating what people do?
Andrew: As we express different kinds of behaviors, as we use different kinds of language, because of that whole process of the mirror neurons, it will actually alter the way the person is – another person is interacting with other people. It’s a contagious thing so to speak, and it can be contagious good or contagious bad.
Tanya: Okay, I love that concept. How do mirror neurons work?
Andrew: We don’t fully know how they work but they seem to react when other people are doing certain things on a very basic level. For example, if you smile then there’s neurons in your brain that smile or contribute to you smiling. There are a lot of very contagious types of behaviors. Yawning comes to mind, smiling, and being angry and defensive. All of those are ways in which our brain can operate and that’s what these neurons seem to be able to help people to do. They seem to foster empathy and social understanding, understanding of relationships between people and so forth.
Tanya: Empathy, actually. I wrote about this. Currently, there’s been decrease in empathy in the past decade because mostly of the rise of technology and the decrease in interaction and human interaction. I argue that empathy is critical on leadership. I can see now marrying the mirror neurons with this idea of empathy, it helps connect you with your team and the people that you’re leading.
Andrew: Right, and also it gets back to the point I made a few minutes ago that if you’re leading a group of – let’s say you’re a coach and you have 20 people who you’re coaching. The empathy is to understand what each person needs and to know who needs to be pushed. Who needs to not be pushed? Who needs to be given positive feedback? Who needs to be given negative feedback and try to work through that process? Empathy is extremely valuable in trying to understand what other people are doing and thinking and feeling. How do you best interact with them? We see this in the medical profession certainly all the time. The value of being empathic with patients and understanding what their fears are. What they’re worried about? What they feel good about? What are their strengths and weaknesses that we can turn to to help them to figure out the best way to overcome a particular issue or to stay healthy?
Tanya: I love that. Just a few questions before we go here. Out of all the work that you’ve done, all the books that you’ve written, all the research papers that you wrote, what are you most proud of? That may be a tough one. That’s like saying what kid you like the most.
Andrew: Right, right. I guess, the way I tend to think about it, I personally am very passionate about all of this work. I hope that this work helps encourage people to think and to challenge themselves and to ask questions. I guess, if I was to take pride in something, it would be to generate questions in people and to generate question in terms of exploring the world, exploring ourselves. I certainly hope that this work helps to do that. I hope this work helps to foster understanding and compassion in people. I feel like it’s certainly helped that within myself. As I’ve studied so many different types of religious and spiritual practices, I’ve come to have such a deep appreciation for people irrespective of what the practice is or what their beliefs are.
I always feel that everyone can potentially benefit from this information. I hope that getting the ideas out there, challenging people, helping people with what I refer to as a passion for inquiry. To always ask those questions. I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with so many wonderful people in my life who love to ask questions, and that to me is very exciting. I think ultimately, we should never stop asking questions. Hopefully, that’s what this work has done and if it has then I’m very pleased and proud that it did.
Tanya: It certainly did for me. One of the things that we say in my work is, inquiry is the beginning of a new opening. I think that that’s what you’re pointing to. Your work allows us to really expand our minds, and why I think everybody listening should absolutely go and buy every single one of your 10 books. Listen to your TED Talk and all the research papers. It’s really phenomenal. Last question, what is the one thing that you’re still – your biggest question in your work that is not resolved?
Andrew: I think the biggest question is the one I still started with, which is, what is the nature of reality and how do we as human beings understand that and how do we get to it? That is the core of a lot of my own personal philosophical work and thinking this whole field of neurotheology is really a combined scientific and spiritual path or journey to trying to answer that big question. What is reality? How do we understand it? Who are we as human beings? I guess, hopefully, this very integrative multi-disciplinary open and inquiring path will maybe someday get us there. I know we’ve never totally figured it out as human beings, but hopefully, someday we will. Hopefully, it will be something that requires our biological side, our spiritual side, our social sides. All the different parts of who we are as human beings and going to keep pushing right ahead to see if we can get there.
Tanya: It’s certainly a worthy inquiry. I’d love to know the answer to that one. As I’m sure many, many, many other people would too. How do people get in touch with you if they want to reach out?
Andrew: The best way to get a hold of me and also to learn about what work we’re doing, and upcoming things and projects is just through my website. It’s just Andrew Newberg, N-E-W-B-E-R-G-dot-com and then on there there’s a way to contact me through that.
Tanya: Amazing. Andy, thank you so much for being on today. I have so many new ideas popping up in my mind and just going to be rushing to read all of your books. I applaud you for the amazing work that you’re doing. I just love what you stand for.
Andrew: Thank you so much. Appreciate it. It was a pleasure being on your program.
Tanya: Unmessable is recorded in the heart of New York City and a special thanks to all the team involved in producing the show. Visit tanyaprive.com/unmessable to find a transcript of this episode and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.