Sunday, April 19, 2015

A neurological argument about why prayer and meditation help combat addiction

Why do I think a spiritual approach to addiction works?

I often speak with people who are skeptical that a spiritual approach works for addiction.  In some cases, this is because these people do not believe in a higher power.

I see no reason why you should have to believe in a higher power in order to work a 12 step program.  I believe it is necessary to pray, but that does not mean one has to believe in a higher power.  I would like to offer a sketch of a neurological argument for why a spiritual approach should work.  First, I will talk about some articles that I have read.  Then I will talk about impressions that I have in my own head — what some things have felt like to me — and connections I see between my own impressions and the articles that I have read.

I’m struggling to make this coherent.  I tend to get too complicated.  I may edit it more later.

Very shortly after I joined program in the fall of 2004 there was a short article in Science News that strongly influenced my thinking (Science News, 11/13/2004, Vol. 166, No. 20, p. 310). This article dealt with the topic of synchronized gamma activity in the brain. The article compared two studies.

The first was a study of schizophrenics. This first study showed that schizophrenics have less synchronized gamma activity than normal people.

The second study compared normal people with Buddhist monks who had been meditating several hours per day for fifteen to thirty years. These monks had much more synchronized gamma activity than normal people, and especially spreading into more areas of the brain. The article said that it wasn't known what was cause or effect here, because possibly people with more synchronized gamma activity were choosing to be Buddhist monks, but they found that normal people who tried to meditate would increase the size of the areas of their brains that had synchronized gamma activity.

Moreover, I saw another article (Scientific American Mind, November/December 2009 pp 65-67) where Buddhists were interviewed and they explained what they were doing when meditating.  One stated goal was to try to expand their mediation into more parts of their brains. 

I have seen some articles proposing that the schizophrenic impression of hallucination relates to some lack of connectivity between brain centers generating the hallucination and brain centers perceiving the hallucination, (cf P. Boksa, “On the Neurobiology of Hallucinations,” J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2009 Jul; 34(4): 260–262) 

This reminds me of my experience in natural childbirth. At the time I did that, I was doing a lot of yoga, so I was in a what I would now call “fit spiritual condition”. I got a sense of being in contact mentally with the labor process and even of having some control over it, despite labor allegedly being involuntary. That sensation of being in contact with the process had a spiritual feel to it, something like ESP.

Shortly after childbirth, I read the fiction book The Mists of Avalon, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legends from a female perspective. This book talked about women who had been in childbirth believing that they some kind of second sight, a sort of ESP. I really related to that, from my own prospective of having ESP-like feelings while in childbirth.

I also found a diagram on a government website related to addiction that posited that addiction is related to the central portion of the brain, including the amygdala. These central portions of the brain are at approximately on eye level.

Another article in Science News gave a diagram of the brain showing areas of the brain that have been linked to conscious thought. (Science News, 2/11/2012 p. 24) These areas were almost all on the outer surface of the brain, in contrast with the suspected areas relating to addiction, which were deep in the center.

Yet another article that I saw (Currents -- Science Journal: A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight --- Researchers Map the Anatomy of the Brain's Breakthrough Moments and Reveal the Payoff of Daydreaming, Robert Lee Hotz. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern Edition). New York, N.Y.:Jun 19, 2009. p. A.11 ) said that neurological researchers have seen decisions being formed in the subconscious part of the brain eight seconds before we are aware of them. The conscious brain is a delusional egomaniac. It thinks it is in control, but it is not.

My impression as an active food addict was that there was a part of my brain that wanted to stop eating and a part that didn't want to stop, and, somehow, the part of the brain that didn't want to stop was winning. A lot of other addicts have told me the same thing, and chapter three of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is dedicated to this phenomenon, the idea that the conscious brain wants to stop, and, yet, there constantly arises this insanely trivial excuse to go back and engage in the addictive behavior, and the conscious brain is powerless to stop it.

When I first got abstinent, I had a sensation of fluid flowing inside my brain.  I have sometimes had a similar sensation after a limb falls asleep.  As sensation returns, there is sometimes a feeling as if fluid were flowing into the previously numb area.  I therefore got the definite impression, early in program, that somehow prayer and meditation were causing parts of my brain that were asleep or numb to wake up, or have circulation return.

In view of the different positions in the brain of the conscious brain and the centers for impulses and desires, it makes total sense to me that one would not have conscious control over addiction — that there would be a disconnect between those regions.  In view of the ability of meditation to cause some form of neurological activity, namely the synchronized gamma activity, to move into more areas of the brain, it makes sense to me that meditation could help connect the conscious and unconscious brains.  This also makes sense to me in view of my experience with natural childbirth.

When I started program, I devised a meditation of an ocean wave at eye level washing into the back of my brain. I spoke about this in another blog. This was even before I saw the diagram of where the amygdala is, but, in fact, this meditation involved reaching with a wave image into precisely those areas that the government diagram specified as relevant to addiction.

The use of prayer seems analogous to me — a potential tool for getting one part of the brain to connect with another, precisely what seems to be missing in the addict who wants to quit and yet finds him or herself continually returning to the behavior that s/he wanted to stop.


Addendum 9/2/15

Also prayer releases endorphins which is generally what addicts are seeking -- and prayer is much healthier than other things that addicts are doing to get endorphins.