Rob Moll on Religion & the Brain
Date: October 12th, 2014

Many of know that prayer can be good for the soul, but can it also help the brain and body?  And what about attending communal religious worship?  Can that too help us improve our mental and physical health?  Author Rob Moll, who recently penned the book What Your Body Knows About God, discusses what he discovered when he investigated the fascinating world of spirituality and neuroscience.

Rob’s journey of discovery on the path of neuroscience began when he was writing his previous book, The Art of Dying.  He notes that he became interested in the topic of death when writing about the Terry Schiavo case for Christianity Today.  His curiosity took him to, of all places, a position answering phones and serving as an usher at a funeral home.  We discuss what that experience was like and how it prompted him to think about the connections between the spirit and the body.  One his main observations that he took from that job was how people who treated the physical body as something reverent (and not just a shell) tended to work through the grieving process in a healthier manner.  Along the way, Rob provides us with some personal details about his own background, being raised by some “Jesus freaks” who drifted from the faith but eventually came back to, in all places, a California church that was founded by Chinese.

We then dive in the world of the brain.  Rob admits to not being a brain surgeon and finding the task of examining neuroscience as being somewhat daunting, but he found it fascinating with the help of a number of scientists who made the research task very accessible. He reveals the three big things he learned from all of this brain research.  First, spirituality is hardwired in us.  And this is not just a matter of being epileptic, as some earlier research suggested.  Second, our conscious mind are not in control of our body as much as we tend to think.  Much of what we work out in our behavior lies in the subconscious.  And third, we are actually connected to people in ways that are reflected in the brain.

After getting through all the biology, we then turn to the connection between faith and our bodies.  We start at the individual level with the power of prayer.  When talking about prayer, Rob is not merely talking about the quick recitation of grace that we might say around the dinner table.  Instead, prayer gets us into the world of deep meditation.  Noting how research shows significant changes in the brain after about 12 minutes of intense reflection, Rob discusses how he has been developing a habit of praying for fifteen minutes after putting his kids to bed.  He details how research has shown that such a process actually had long-term effects in the part of the brain that deal with compassion.  There are also some fascinating studies that indicate such meditation affects how we orient our body in space — not the “out of body” experience that some people report, but rather how we develop feelings of “oneness” with God.

We then scale things up a bit by looking at communal activity.  Here we discuss how religion is a social activity, recalling a quote from John Wesley an itinerant Methodist preacher.  And it is social activity that is not just being in a very large group, but having more personal and intimate connections with small groups of people.  It is here we note that the success of megachurches is not that they pack in big crowds, but that the break people down into “small groups” that reinforce spirituality and community.  Group activity has a variety of effects on our brain, including effects that get at our subconscious.  Rob notes that scientists have discovered “mirror neurons” that prompt us to adapt to the behavior and emotions of those around us.  Managers who tend to walk around their offices and visit staff tend to be more effective in motivating a positive workplace than those folks who do things over email.  This translates to our religious life as well, as the spiritual experiences of others also reinforce our own religious feelings.  The social connection is also reinforced by physical contact, which also appears to affect our brain.  We discuss this in the context of orphanages and “cuddle parties.”

The interview finishes up with Rob’s reflections on what he has learned through this process of study.  He is very impressed by the actual biological “power of prayer” and how much we are truly limited in our cognitive ability, but that religious faith helps bolster a healthier and more whole person.  Recorded: October 3, 2014.




Rob Moll’s personal web page.

What Your Body Knows about God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive, by Rob Moll.

The Art of Dying: Living Fully in the Life to Come, by Rob Moll.



Justin Barrett on the Naturalness of Religious Belief.

Jeff Levin on Religion & Health.

Jeff Levin on Judaism & Health.

Robert Barr on Quantum Physics, Religion, and the God Particle.

Bradley Wright on Soul Pulse.

Rodney Stark on How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.

2 Responses to “Rob Moll on Religion & the Brain”

  1. […] A one-hour interview with the podcast, Research on Religion. […]

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