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How Does Spirituality Change the Brain?

The following article by Dr. Mark Gold, recently published on the Addiction Policy Forum Blog, explores the growing body of research about what regions of the brain are changed during a person’s spiritual practice. It presents compelling ideas for how fellowship and treatment programs can empower individuals in recovery to use spirituality as a proven tool to improve their mental health.

Spirituality can be an important component of recovery from addiction, as it can be a key way for a person seeking recovery to connect to something outside themselves – spiritual practices have long been cornerstones of mutual aid groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Recently, researchers and those looking at trends have concluded that Americans are becoming less religious but at the same time identify as more spiritual. Spiritual engagement can be a way to find, as the authors in the study write, a “sense of union with something larger than oneself.” In a recent study of the brain done at Yale directed by Dr. Mark Potenza, Neural Correlates of Spiritual Experiences, scientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine exactly how spirituality activated or deactivated, certain regions of the brain, changing how people perceive and interact with the world around them.

Dr. Christina Puchalski, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, defines spirituality as “the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” Importantly, the authors of the study encouraged diverse, personally-motivated definitions of spiritual experience, examples of which included participation in a religious service at a house of worship, connection with nature, mindfulness meditation, and contemplative prayer.

How do we Measure the Effect of Spirituality?

Spirituality and religious practices are a key part of many people’s lives – 81% of U.S. adults describe themselves as spiritual, religious, or both. Despite the majority of American adults engaging in some form of spiritual practice, little is known about what happens in certain parts of the brain during these spiritual experiences. Although studies have linked specific brain measures to aspects of spirituality, none have sought to directly examine spiritual experiences, particularly when using a broader, modern definition of spirituality that may be independent of religiousness. This study used a special kind of brain imaging, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to examine neural structures and systems that are activated when we engage in spiritual practice. By detecting changes in blood flow to certain regions of the brain, the fMRI is able to detect activity in the brain when participants were asked to recall spiritual experiences.

Methodology

A potential challenge in this study is the wide variety of spiritual experiences that individuals can find personally meaningful. The authors of the study sought to address this by using a personalized guided-imagery fMRI procedure in which participants were asked to describe a situation in which they felt “a strong connection with a higher power or a spiritual presence.” Their accounts were turned into a script, which was recorded and played back to the participant during fMRI. The brain activation measured during the participant’s recall of a spiritual moment was compared to measurements taken while participants listened to narrations of their neutral and stressful experiences.

Key to this study was that the accounts were completely self-directed by the participants — which enabled the researchers to identify commonalities in brain activity among diverse spiritual experiences.

How Does Spirituality Change the Brain?

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The area highlighted in blue is the Inferior Parietal Lobe, which is associated with perceptual processing

Spiritual experiences were associated with lower levels of activity in certain parts of the brain:

  • The inferior parietal lobe (IPL), the part of the brain associated with perceptual processing, relating to the concept of self in time and space
  • The thalamus and striatum, the parts of the brain associated with emotional and sensory processing

This study furthers a growing body of research about spirituality and its connection to brain processing. These findings tell us that spiritual experiences shift perception, and can moderate the effects of stress on mental health. This study saw decreased activation in the parts of the brain responsible for stress and increased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for connection with others. A sense of union with someone or something outside of oneself and community engagement have been found to support a robust recovery from substance use disorders as well as other behavioral health issues. 

Looking to the Future

Marc Potenza, MD, PhD is an expert in Psychiatry, Behavioral Addictions, and his work at Yale in this important area is a welcome addition to the investigators working in this field. Neural Correlates of Spiritual Experiences has positive implications for instituting spiritual engagement in prevention, treatment, and recovery for substance use disorders. Importantly, participants were scanned while they recalled their own, individualized spiritual experience, but the results were consistent between participants. This means that a person does not have to participate in a certain type of spiritual practice to see the benefits, but can engage in whatever version of engagement is most compatible with their personal beliefs. This encourages treatment and recovery programs to encourage patients to pursue diverse means of spiritual engagement.

This study found a way to measure and visualize what many recovery and treatment communities have understood for years—that spirituality can reduce stress and create feelings of connectedness. By understanding what regions of the brain are changed during a person’s spiritual practice, fellowship and treatment programs can empower individuals in recovery to use spirituality as a proven tool to improve their mental health.

References:

  1. Smith, G., Van Capellen, P., (2018, March 7) Rising Spirituality in America [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/rising-spirituality-in-america.
  2. Lipka, M., Gecewicz, C., (2017, September 6). More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/

The Lifelong Quest For Sobriety…The Ultimate Hero’s Journey—Part 55

Avalon mythical island

Guest Blogger and long-time Council friend, Bob W. presents Part 55 of a series dealing with Alcoholism and Addiction from a Mystical, Mythological Perspective, reflecting Bob’s scholarly work as a Ph.D. in mythological studies.

Santa Catalina is an island offshore southern California, “26 miles across the sea…” from Long Beach.  The “26 miles…” line is from a 1958 song by the Four Preps, a male quartet of Hollywood teenagers whose name conveyed their image…preppy, well groomed suburban kids in white shirts, identical suits and skinny ties. They had a number of hits in the late 50’s and 60’s as the popular music world was moving from traditional rock ‘n roll to folk ballads.

But the island of Santa Catalina eschewed their image.  It was a quiet, very rocky, almost magical island whose main harbor and city then and now is Avalon, a quaint village of shops, restaurants and B&B’s.  Avalon also was a very reverent name in ancient Celtic legends. 

Avalon was an island in the marshlands of Wales where spiritual beings with great healing powers were said to reside. It was also the place where the magical sword, Excalibur, was reportedly to have been forged, the instrument that empowered King Arthur with a mantle of invincibility.

When Arthur was wounded in his battles with Modred, he was transported to Avalon where he was attended to and healed by the Enchantress Morgana le Fay. While Avalon on Santa Catalina today is just a nice quaint city on a distant isle, those of us blessed with the miracles of the Process of Recovery can easily see it in its mythological constructions. Travelling there across the water, entering the beautiful harbor, walking among the rocky hills of the island, we can imagine ourselves as Arthurian Knights, reveling in the bliss of a magical existence, immortalized in so much literature…for our lives in the “sunlight of the spirit,” afforded by our diligent working of the program, is precisely that…is it not?

Rx Take Back Day at The Council Nets 400 Pounds of Unused & Expired Prescription Drugs

The Council’s drive-through Rx Take Back site made Rx med disposal quick & convenient
DEA agents collected over 400 lbs. of unused & expired Rx prescriptions for disposal

The Council on Recovery was a busy collection site for the DEA’s 16th National Rx Take Back Day this past Saturday. Nearly 100 people stopped by The Council’s drive-in location on Jackson Hill Street to dispose of their unused and expired prescription medications. By the end of the four-hour collection period, DEA agents had collected more than 400 pounds of Rx drugs.

This is the first time The Council has participated in the DEA’s National Take Back Day. The national initiative was launched after Congress enacted the Disposal Act in 2014, which amended the Controlled Substances Act, that gave the DEA authority to collect unused pharmaceutical controlled substances for disposal in a safe and effective manner.

The Council views unused or expired prescription medications as a public safety issue that contributes to potential accidental poisoning, misuse, and overdose. Proper disposal of unused drugs saves lives and protects the environment. As a Rx Take Back Day collection site, The Council provided a secure, convenient, and anonymous way for its constituency to clear their homes of old or unneeded Rx medications in a responsible manner.

As one of nearly 350 collection sites across the state, The Council provided an easily accessible and central location for residents in the Heights, Rice Military, Montrose, River Oaks, Midtown, and near-Downtown areas to dispose of their medications. During the last Rx Take Back Day in October, over 67,000 pounds of Rx prescriptions were collected in Texas, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Control Division. The Council on Recovery is pleased to contribute 400 pounds to this Spring’s total haul and plans to participate in future Rx Take Back events.

If you missed Rx Take Back Day at The Council, you can still dispose of unused or expired prescriptions at DEA authorized collection sites, many of which are located within national and local pharmacies. To search the DEA’s website for a collection site near you, click here.

The Council Taking Back Unwanted Prescription Drugs Saturday, April 27

On Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., The Council on Recovery and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will give the public its 17th opportunity in nine years to prevent pill abuse and theft by ridding their homes of potentially dangerous expired, unused, and unwanted prescription drugs.

Bring your pills for disposal to The Council at 303 Jackson Hill Street in Houston. (We cannot accept liquids or needles or sharps, only pills or patches). This drive up/drop-off service is free and anonymous, no questions asked. The Council’s drive-through covered portico will keep everyone dry in the event of rain. Additional security personnel will also assure the safety of everyone who participates in the event.

Last fall Americans turned in nearly 460 tons (more than 900,000 pounds) of prescription drugs at more than 5,800 sites operated by the DEA and almost 4,800 of its state and local law enforcement partners. Overall, in its 16 previous Take Back events, DEA and its partners have taken in almost 11 million pounds—nearly 5,500 tons—of pills.

This Take Back initiative addresses a vital public safety and public health issue. Medicines that languish in home cabinets are highly susceptible to diversion, misuse, and abuse. Rates of prescription drug abuse in the U.S. are alarmingly high, as are the number of accidental poisonings and overdoses due to these drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows year after year that the majority of misused and abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends. These include someone else’s medication being stolen from the home medicine cabinet.

In addition, Americans are now advised that their usual methods for disposing of unused medicines—flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the trash—both pose potential safety and health hazards.

For more information about the disposal of prescription drugs or about the April 27 Take Back Day event, go to www.DEATakeBack.com or call The Council at 713-942-4100 or contact us online.

The Lifelong Quest For Sobriety…The Ultimate Hero’s Journey—Part 54

Guest Blogger and long-time Council friend, Bob W. presents Part 54 of a series dealing with Alcoholism and Addiction from a Mystical, Mythological Perspective, reflecting Bob’s scholarly work as a Ph.D. in mythological studies.

Jane Austen is recognized as the premier author of the Regency Period in England, the historical period that preceded the Victorian Era.  Her various works adroitly characterize the highly structured yet anxiety riddled social structure of the upper classes of British society. Perhaps her best such rendition is the story Emma, about a privileged, headstrong society girl in a small fictitious town in England.  Early in adulthood, Emma begins to manipulate her peers in her social structure to pursue the lives she believes they should, according to their standing, whether or not they agree with her or whether it is the right thing for them to do.   

Her penchant for such machinations develops to such increasing levels of bad maneuvers that she is ruining various lives irreparably.  Emma remains unconscionable is her efforts until George Knightly, a friend who is her one constant critic, finally convinces her of the extent of the damage she is doing and provokes a change in her behavior.

Emma’s descent into the behavior that so ruins other lives is similar to that of many of us as we descended into the final throes of our disease. We heaped abuse on others as if it was our right to destroy lives; we believed that relationships meant we could treat others as prisoners.  For many of us, it was only in the shock and final realization of such destruction that we could begin to pursue relief and reconstruction.

Think about how we behaved with loved ones at the height of our disease, the abuse and bad behavior that was so destructive and cruel without our even being aware of what we were doing.  And think how we pushed those same loved ones into behavior patterns to protect themselves, even though such patterns set them up for Al-Anon like pathologies. The repair of both sets of behaviors required almost lifelong efforts of recovery for both.

In a late scene in Austen’s book, there is an exchange between Emma and Knightly in which Knightly castigates her for a particularly mean and outrageous series of comments towards a garrulous societal friend. He says: “How could you be so unfeeling? […] How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?” 

Emma tries to explain away her affront by diminishing the target, but Knightly will have none of it.  He adroitly points out that, despite Emma’s innermost self being of much higher quality, her penchant to put down and abuse others is destroying who she really is.  This exchange causes a dramatic change in Emma’s consciousness and the beginning of an ultimate resolution of the story…one that is highly enjoyable and uplifting.

For all of us in Recovery, how much like this has it been that a friend, or group thereof, has finally gotten through to our innermost selves, occasions that finally triggered the Journey that ultimately saved our lives and the lives of those around us.

The Council Receives LegitScript Certification

LegitScript Certification

The Council on Recovery is pleased to announce that it has received LegitScript certification. LegitScript is the certification service for drug and alcohol addiction treatment providers that is relied upon by Google, Bing, and Facebook to vet advertisers for eligibility. The certification is a key requirement for advertising on Google.

The Council’s certification from LegitScript will allow it to fully utilize the
Google Ad Grants that The Council was awarded in 2017. The Google Ad Grants program supports registered nonprofit organizations that share Google’s philosophy of community service. It is an in-kind advertising program that awards free online advertising to nonprofits via Google Ads. The Grant provides The Council with up to $10, 000 per month in online advertising in the Google Ads program .

LegitScript, an independent certification organization, has been by Google since 2018 and is a requirement for addiction treatment facilities to be able to advertise with Google. Both Facebook and the search engine Bing rely upon the seal of certification to assure legitimacy of advertisers.

The LegitScript seal of certification posted on web pages helps differentiate the services of legitimate facilities (like The Council) from those engaged in illegitimate practices or illicit activities. Being LegitScript certified is intended to build trust with prospective patients and clients by letting them know the advertised facility operates safely and legally.