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This Ivy League researcher says spirituality is good for our mental health

Professor Lisa Miller has dedicated most of her career to the study of neuroscience and spirituality.
Professor Lisa Miller has dedicated most of her career to the study of neuroscience and spirituality.

People have asked me what I've learned so far through this series. Have I gotten any clarity on what makes up my own spiritual identity? And the answer is, not really. I'm still in the research phase of this project. I'm still collecting experiences and perspectives and I imagine I'll keep doing that forever, but it's too early to draw any definitive conclusions — except for one.

I believe each and every one of us is capable of making our own meaning. Some of us do that by living according to a set of religious principles. Or by feeling the beauty and sanctity of nature. Or by choosing to see spiritual connections in what others might call mere coincidence.

I don't need anyone to validate those experiences for them to be meaningful to me. But according to Lisa Miller, a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, having a spiritual life is good for your mental health.

Lisa Miller, PhD.
/ Columbia University
Columbia University
Lisa Miller, PhD.

Miller is a psychologist and has dedicated most of her career to the study of neuroscience and spirituality. Her newest book is called The Awakened Brain, and in it she makes some really bold claims about how holding spiritual beliefs can decrease our rates of anxiety and depression and generally make us most likely to lead happier lives. I can hear your skepticism already! I get it. I'm a spiritually inclined kind of person but it's still hard for me to understand how, scientifically speaking, believing in something bigger than yourself can make you healthier and happier.

I needed to understand how Miller came to these conclusions. But before she got to the actual science, she told me a story.

It was the mid '90s. Miller was in the early stages of her career and working at a residential mental health facility in New York City. After she'd been there a few months, Yom Kippur rolled around — the day of atonement, considered the most significant of the Jewish religious holidays. One of the older male patients with severe bipolar disorder asked if there were any plans to mark the day. The doctor in charge shrugged his shoulders and said, no — there's no service planned. The patient walked out of the room with his shoulders slumped and Lisa, who is Jewish, saw an opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Miller: I approached the unit chief and said, "I'm certainly not a rabbi, but I've been to two-and-a-half decades of Yom Kippur services. I'd be happy to facilitate if that might be OK with you." So I showed up on Yom Kippur and the patients had arrived early to the kitchen, which was to be our sanctuary. The fluorescent lights were quite strong and as we crowded around the linoleum table there was an extraordinary feeling of specialness.

As we started the prayers that we all knew from our childhood, joining together saying in Hebrew the prayers of Yom Kippur, I looked over and noticed that as the gentleman with bipolar was davening, he could not have been further from explosive. He was holding our group in the cadence of the prayers and we were actually following him.

I took a pause and I said, "I feel so grateful to be here today in our Yom Kippur ceremony. Would anyone like to say anything?" We went around the table and the first person to speak was a very otherwise withdrawn woman with recurrent depression. She said, "You know, I always knew on Yom Kippur we could ask for forgiveness. But sitting here now with you all, I'm aware that we can be forgiven. God can forgive us." And she looked liberated.

As I looked around the table at the patients, whatever their symptoms had been yesterday, they were free in that moment. They were free of suffering. They were free of the characteristic patterns that had dragged them down in a way that was equal and opposite to their main symptoms. And so I thought a mental health system minus spirituality made no sense, and that became my life's work, to understand the place of spirituality in renewal, in recovery, in resilience, and to put this in the language of science.

Rachel Martin: What happened when you brought these kinds of questions to your peers, to the other people in your scientific community? Like when you said for the first time, "Hey, I think we need to look at the effect of spirituality on mental health." What did people say to you?

Miller: Well, the vast majority were very respectful, nodded, and didn't pick up the thread. Some of them would say, "That's not psychology, that's not psychiatry." And in fact, I remember early on giving a grand rounds presentation and I opened up saying, "I'm going to speak today about a body of data using nationally representative samples on spirituality and mental health with all the gold standard methods." And about 10 people got up and walked out. It was absolutely not of interest.

Martin: Using the gold standard, what did that mean in terms of the experiments you were running and the studies and the data you were collecting? How did you make sure that it would hold water in the scientific community?

Miller: If I were to characterize the first five years of my investigation, I would say I used the data sets that everyone else knew and trusted. I only asked one new question, which was: "What's the impact of spirituality on the DSM diagnosis of addiction and depression?" The findings were jaw dropping.

The protective benefit of personal spirituality, meaning someone who says their personal spirituality is very important, is 80% against addiction. They have 80% decreased relative risk for the DSM diagnosis of addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Martin: Wait, so someone who self-identifies as having a meaningful spiritual life is 80% less likely to get addicted to drugs or alcohol than someone who says they don't?

Miller: Yes.

Martin: Wow. And how can you prove that it is a spiritual life that is doing that and not some external factor? Because you heard this from other critics, too, some of your peers said you can't attribute that to spirituality, it's gotta be some other social conditioning.

Miller: Well, that's a very important point because in every study we controlled for all of the usual interpretations about this being social support or having resources. So we plugged into our equation every other possible explanation that was generally taken in mental health to explain the road to depression. And nonetheless, it actually turned out that the more high risk we are, the more that there's stress in our lives, the more that we might be genetically at risk for depression, the greater the impact of spirituality as a source of resilience as preventative against major depression.

Martin: What does that look like in the brain?

Miller: One of the most beautiful findings in my 20 years as an investigator was from an MRI study conducted together with our colleagues at Yale Medical School. We looked at people of many different faith traditions and the first finding was that there is one neuro seat of transcendent perception and we share it. Now there's human variability of course, and we can strengthen components.

Martin: How are you actually doing that with people? Are you asking your subjects to pray? What are the spiritual inputs that are going into them so that you can measure it on their brains?

Miller: The very specific prompt was, "Tell us about a time where you felt a deep connection to God, your higher power, the source of life." Everyone had a story like that and as they told their story, we recorded them and it was then played back in their ears while they were inside the scanner.

Martin: Ah, they heard themselves recounting their spiritual experience.

Miller: It was tailor made to their own moment.

Martin: And you saw their brains light up?

Miller: Oh yes. Connecting to these memories, the bonding network comes up online just as when we were held in the arms of our parents or grandparents.

Martin: Wait, when you say the bonding network you mean you can literally see that the brain will respond to spiritual stimuli in the same way that it does to a hug from a family member when you're a baby?

Miller: Precisely.

Martin: Can you tell me how this manifests in the real world? I'm thinking about this anecdote you include in the book about a client of yours. A girl you refer to as Iliana.

Miller: Iliana adored her father, I mean, he was the sun and the moon and the stars to her. They were so close. And one night two men who her father knew, came into his corner store, robbed him and murdered him. And she was devastated. This was a grief that was so deep. She simply could not free herself from the grief that was shackling her heart.

One day, Iliana skips into my office. There's a levity and joy. She plops into the seat and says, "Dr. Miller, you're never gonna believe this. My cousin and my cousin's girlfriend chaperoned me so I could go to a party and I met the most wonderful boy. We talked so long, it must have been 20 minutes. He was so polite and so kind. But here's the best part, his name." Which was the same very unusual name as her father.

She said, "Don't you see? My father sent him. My father is looking out after me." And from that day on she was in the world of the living. What changed everything for Iliana was the awareness that her father walked with her. She maintained a deep transcendent relationship with her father, as most people around the world do.

Iliana trusted her deep inner knowing that this was far too probabilistic to have happened by chance. That this very rare name held both by this new boy and her father could possibly mean nothing.

Martin: Can I ask, what are you thinking as you hear this? I mean, are you thinking that is just a crazy coincidence, but if she needs to believe that this is a sign from God, who am I to tell her otherwise? Because it seems to be working.

Miller: Well, at the time, that was certainly the most common interpretive framework amongst psychologists and psychiatrists. But I could see plain as day that this was a tremendously sacred moment. This was a living miracle. This was a gift.

For me to have treated it like some kind of cultural diversity variable or that it's just the meaning she makes would've actually taken all of the energy and spirit out of that transformative awakening moment. I joined her.

Now I did that authentically because it was my view as well that this is far too nonprobabilistic to have happened by chance, that there are very few people by that very same name and that the first boy she met in a year and a half since her father's passing should have the name of the father. It was a synchronicity. There was a deeper meaning being revealed.

Martin: When you're talking to people who aren't scientists, someone who's skeptical, someone who doesn't have faith, who doesn't have what they define as a spiritual life, what do you want them to take away from your research and your message?

Miller: I've given a number of talks to audiences who, prior to seeing the science, would not necessarily consider themselves spiritual people. And, in fact, I oftentimes hear from people who consider themselves skeptics and very left-brained and when they see the peer reviewed science that says we're naturally spiritual beings, that when we cultivate our spirituality we're 80% less likely to be addicted, 82% less likely to take our lives, it speaks to the left side of their brains long enough that it quiets down the skepticism.

In other words, three cheers for the skeptic. Here is published, peer reviewed science for skeptical audiences to begin to explore, to be curious about our spiritual nature. You know, at the inner table of human knowing we all have an empiricist, a logician, an intuitive, a mystic, and a skeptic. And the skeptic is very welcome, but the skeptic is not the bouncer at the door.

It is not scientific to put a skeptic as a bouncer at the door. It is not more rigorous to toss out an idea before being examined in every way. We are wired to be able to investigate. So I simply say to the biggest skeptic of all, you are most welcome to your own inner table of inquiry, but be sure to invite everyone else.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.