Aging Through Disparate Lenses

How God Changes Your Brain:
Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist

by Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman

Ballantine Books, 2009

The Elder
by Dr. Marc B. Cooper and
James C. Selman

Sahalie Press, 2011

Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

Topics such as elderhood and spirituality intrigue many of the followers of Itineraries and Second Journey. In this issue, we explore two books full of information and practices about both subjects. The authors of the two books approach their material from very different perspectives. One book is a summary of neurological studies about the effect spiritual practices and experiences have on the brain. The other book is is a parable (or fable). Attending to the information and suggested practices of either book can lead to a more creative and satisfying life.

In How God Changes Your Brain, a neuroscientist and a consultant/coach/researcher from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind analyze scientific studies about how spiritual practices and experiences affect brain functioning. Their analysis included brain scan studies on memory patients and meditators, a Web-based survey of people’s religious and spiritual experiences, and an analysis of adult drawings of God. Subjects of the studies included practitioners from a wide variety of belief systems: Catholic nuns, Buddhist meditators, Pentecostal practitioners, Sikhs, Sufis, Yogis, and advanced meditators from a number of belief systems.

The second half of the book explores the implications of these research findings and suggests practical exercises for enhancing physical and mental health through improved brain functioning. There is also a section devoted to the “aging brain.”

The book’s title is somewhat misleading. The authors focus on spiritual practices and experience, not on God. In fact, they state emphatically that neuroscience has yet to answer such questions as: “Is there a God?” or “Is there a spiritual reality, or is it merely a fabrication of the mind?”



Andrew Newberg, M.D., is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. Dr. Newberg is Board certified in Internal Medicine, Nuclear Medicine, and Nuclear Cardiology. His research focuses on how brain function is associated with various mental states. He is particularly interested in the relationship between brain function and mystical or religious experiences. The results and implications of this research are delineated in his best-selling books: Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief; The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (with Eugene G. d’Aquili); and Principles of Neurotheology.

Mark Robert Waldman, consultant, coach, researcher, and lecturer is an Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. In collaboration with Andrew Newberg, he conducts research on the neurological correlates of consciousness, beliefs, morality, compassion, meditation, religion, spiritual practices, and conflict resolution. Waldman has written 12 other books including: Why We Believe What We Believe and Born to Believe (both with Andrew Newberg); and The Way of Real Wealth: 365 Ways to Create a Life of Value.

The authors’ conclusions are provocative and fascinating; they will probably cause intense debate as the work becomes more widely known. Those who understand research design will wonder if a different design in some of the studies might have yielded different conclusions. Below is a sample of the authors’ conclusions:

  • Spiritual practices, especially meditation, even when stripped of religious belief, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.
  • Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world. The most influential factor here is time. The longer and more frequently you meditate, the more changes you will notice in your brain.
  • Spiritual practices can be used to enhance mental functioning, communication, and creativity.
  • Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
  • Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
  • Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.

How God Changes Your Brain is very readable in spite of the complexity of the subject matter. Readers will find the suggested exercises practical and easy to do. Especially fascinating is the information that new brain scan technology makes available to scientists trying to understand brain functioning.

The Elder by Marc Cooper and James C. Selman of the Eldering Institute in Bainbridge, Washington, brings together practical information, skills, and attitudes one needs to live life as an “elder.” Written as a parable (a short, fictitious story that illustrates a lesson), The Elder is the story of Samuel Block whose struggles represent the challenges of all who embark on their “second journey” determined to find a creative way to age in 21st-century western culture.

On the eve of his 65th birthday, Samuel learns that his best friend and hiking partner (Thad) has died suddenly and unexpectedly. The news comes in the midst of a negative self assessment during which our hero focuses on the unpleasant aspects of his life: divorced, overweight and out of shape, missing friends who have moved away, wishing for a better relationship with his son, dissatisfied with life’s achievements, and feeling out of tune with his career goals. The negativity of Samuel’s musings almost turns the reader away in the first chapter. The news of Thad’s death seems to be the final straw.

Fortunately, the adage “Every cloud has a silver lining” is true. At Thad’s funeral, Samuel meets Ben, one of Thad’s friends from his eldering group, and begins his quest for a way to live as an elder. The conversations between the two men and a woman elder named Fawn give Samuel and the reader information and insight about how to live life as an elder.



Marc Cooper is the driving force behind of The Eldering Institute in Bainbridge, Washington. His professional career includes experience as a private practice periodontist, academician, researcher, teacher, consultant, coach, trainer, seminar director, board director, author, entrepreneur, and inventor. His five books include Mastering the Business of Practice; Running on Empty; and Source and Valuocity: A Fable for Dentists.

James Selman, founder and chair of the Eldering Institute, is CEO of Paracomm Partners International, a member of the Transformational Leadership Council, a Huffington Post blogger, and principal contributor to the Serene Ambition blog. Selman is a former member of the California Commission on Aging, a past director of the Breakthrough Foundation, a founder of Growing Older, and a founding member of the Legacy XXI Institute.

The quotes below are samples of the dialog:

  • “Eldering is not some kind of secret society. It’s more a view point, a way of approaching life — especially the last decades of our lives. Eldering is a way to view your life experience.”
  • “There is a tremendous spirituality to aging that can turn losses into gains, weaknesses into strengths.”
  • “Finding what really matters and making that the focus of your life. That’s where the path to becoming an elder starts, discovering the passion and purpose that strengthens you.”
  • “Getting old does not have to be full of regret or bitterness. The physical challenges are always there, but it’s one’s spirit, one’s sense of purpose, that counts.”
  • “People are complicated and aging is complex. But it stands to reason that the longer you’re on this planet, the more you know about how things work and what’s important. You should be accruing capital that creates wisdom.”
  • “Eldering is about finding purpose through giving back to others. In that sense, it can be spiritually uplifting.”

The Elder is a short and stimulating book —well worth the struggle to persevere beyond the depressing first pages. Not only can the information be life changing, but the story itself becomes more engaging as Samuel practices becoming an elder. One closes the book knowing our hero’s life has truly evolved into a “second journey.”