Prayer Beads: The Upside and Dangers
April 3, 2009 Blogs by: Tim Jennings, M.D.

In last week’s blog I pointed out the futility to computerized prayer or prayer wheels or any ritualistic prayer. I also pointed out the risk that prayer beads could lead to a non-thinking, empty formalism. This week I want to point out the upside to prayer beads.

Andrew Newberg, M.D. and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have done research on meditations effect on the brain. Recently they have discovered that certain forms of meditation can enhance higher brain function.

The portion of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, the part right behind your forehead, is the part of the brain involved in higher functioning. It is involved in moral decision making, planning, organizing, prioritizing, but also in contemplating God, worship and other-centered love. The parietal lobe, the part of the brain half way back and on top, is the portion which gives us a sense of individuality or self. And the deep part of the brain called the limbic system is where we get our passions and emotions and our survival instinct of fear and aggression.

Healthy brains are those in which the pre-frontal cortex is highly developed and able to exercise governing influence over the deeper emotional structures keeping one calm and living in love rather than fear. As the fear center of the brain flames up, due to lack of appropriate control from the pre-frontal cortex, a cascade of destructive consequences ensues. Inflammatory factors are released, stress hormones rise, immune system is impaired and pre-frontal cortex becomes more impaired in its functioning. Over time this wears out our physical health, increasing our risk of physical illnesses such as diabetes, elevated cholesterol, heart attacks and strokes. Additionally this imbalance causes a general sense of anxiety, insecurity, and fear resulting in increased rates of mental illness including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and dementias.

Healthy forms of meditation and worship contribute to greater health of the pre-frontal cortex. In one study Dr. Newberg explored the effects on the brain of meditation done 12 minutes a day in which a person modulates breathing, fingers prayer beads in a rhythmic pattern while repeating a simple prayer. It was even more effective if the prayer was sung out loud. The results demonstrated increased activity of the pre-frontal cortex which was measurable both by imaging studies but more importantly cognitive and memory testing improved in only 12 weeks.

Finally, those who participated in this type of meditation experienced decreased activity in the parietal lobe (where we get our sense of self) and therefore during meditation experienced a “oneness” with God as one’s sense of self dissolves away in contemplation of the divine. But interestingly in between meditation sessions, the parietal lobe was active demonstrating a healthy sense of self in relation to others.

The study found that the more brain regions activated in the meditation the better the effect and the more complex the subject matter of meditation the greater the development of the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, conscious decision making such as fingering beads while contemplating complex spiritual themes seems to improve our brain function for the better.

The danger with this research is that the brain changes, sense of wellbeing, positive benefits on blood pressure, heart rate and lowered stress hormones were achieved regardless of what one meditated upon. In other words, meditation without even including God gave physical benefits to the body and brain. Why is this dangerous? Because there will no doubt be some who, experiencing the physical benefits of empty (not focused on God) meditation, will be lulled into a complacency of better physical health while remaining unchanged in heart and never coming to know God.

A false meditation, in which physical health benefits are noted, but which fails to enlighten the mind about God and transform the character to be like Christ is a grand deception. The meditation of the Bible is one in which we focus on eternal themes of our infinite God, His goodness, character, methods, principles and actions. I was reminded of something I read years ago in a book called Education.

And not alone in searching out truth and bringing it together does the mental value of Bible study consist. It consists also in the effort required to grasp the themes presented. The mind occupied with commonplace matters only, becomes dwarfed and enfeebled. If never tasked to comprehend grand and far-reaching truths, it after a time loses the power of growth. As a safeguard against this degeneracy, and a stimulus to development, nothing else can equal the study of God’s word. As a means of intellectual training, the Bible is more effective than any other book, or all other books combined. The greatness of its themes, the dignified simplicity of its utterances, the beauty of its imagery, quicken and uplift the thoughts as nothing else can. No other study can impart such mental power as does the effort to grasp the stupendous truths of revelation. The mind thus brought in contact with the thoughts of the Infinite cannot but expand and strengthen. {Ed 124.2}

So, if you consider meditation, I challenge you to always keep the truth about God, as revealed in Jesus, the Bible and nature as the central focus of your mind.

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Tim Jennings, M.D. Timothy R. Jennings, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist, master psychopharmacologist, Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Fellow of the Southern Psychiatric Association, and an international speaker. He served as president of the Southern and Tennessee Psychiatric Associations and is president and founder of Come and Reason Ministries. Dr. Jennings has authored many books, including The God-Shaped Brain, The God-Shaped Heart, and The Aging Brain. In 2022, Dr. Jennings became Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Lynchburg, Virginia.