This book is the result of a scientist becoming excited about the therapeutic value of spirituality. It was recommended to me by a university chaplain (writes Debbie Thrower) who was interested from the point of view of depression and young people. I wondered whether the conclusions reached might be relevant to the spirituality of older people as well? The answer is 'yes'.
Lisa Miller's The Awakened Brain (Penguin 2022), begins with a useful description of what is spirituality? 'Many of us', she writes, have had experiences we might describe as spiritual.
'A moment of deep connection with another being or in nature. A feeling of awe or transcendence. An expression of startling synchronicity... A time you felt held or inspired or buoyed up by something greater than yourself - a higher power perhaps, but also nature or the universe or even the surge of connection at a concert or sporting event'.
The book's premise is that it is as we engage these perceptual capacities, 'when we make use of how we're built', that
'our brains actually become structurally healthier and better connected, and we access unsurpassed psychological benefits: less depression, anxiety and substance abuse; more positive psychological traits such as grit, resilience, optimism and creativity.' Indeed, our 'times of doubt, struggle, and depression often serve as portals to our awakened life.'
Lisa Miller reached this point as a result of her own experiences as a young psychologist questioning whether drug prescribing was really enough for some of her patients? Insights came in the wake of reading others' research on which parts of the brain are most active when engaged in 'spiritual' thoughts and activities. She went on to pursue her own research. The path towards convincing frequently-sceptical colleagues weas not easy. She speaks compellingly of 'the discomfort around spirituality as a line of scientific inquiry.'
But it was her insistence that psychologists 'were generally trained to see suffering but not the emergence of a person's spiritual or existential journey', coupled with discovering studies, for instance, which showed that a person's spirituality is determined 29 per cent by heredity, and 71 per cent by environment... in other words that 'one third is inscribed in our genetic code, as innate as eye colour or fingerprints' compared with 'two thirds that has to do with how we are raised, the company we keep, the things we do to build the muscle', which kick-started her own explorations, in earnest.
'What if the elevated rates of addiction and depression we saw in teens were because young people were struggling to form spiritually and we weren't supporting them?...
What if the condition we pathologise and diagnose as depression is sometimes actually spiritual hunger - a normal genetically derived part of human development that is unhealthy to muffle or deny?'
Miller's own journey through infertility, leading to adoption and then natural conception - she and her husband Phil are parents to a son and two daughters now living in the USA- is intertwined with the struggles in her professional life. However, a breakthrough came when she secured lucrative grants to explore this branch of research. Her persistence had paid off, and she began overturning some long-held assumptions.
Much of the book explores differences between what she calls the 'achieving brain' and the 'awakened brain'. Her descriptions of spiritual awareness are accessible to a lay person. For example, she says the two types of brain mode are 'a way of toggling between different kinds of information and experience. I'd been awakened to being in a relationship with life.' She continues, 'It was a collaborative relationship, an integration of inner and outer life, a way of tuning into, receiving...'
The first part of the book charts her journey towards understanding the protective benefits of spirituality, while the final sections detail some of the practices which might help us 'cultivate core dimensions of spirituality, increasing our brain's health' and enabling us to lead lives that are 'effective, connected and inspired.'
'Quest' is a key word in Miller's lexicon; one with profound significance for spirituality as we mature. For, while we have body, brain and breath within us, seeing life as a quest... may enable us to thrive as we age; feeling more fully alive, than ever, perhaps?