Pursue What Matters
Episode 134: Book Review – The Awakened Brain
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
is spirituality really that important? Or is this just an antiquated notion of yesteryear will join me today? Because I am discussing some fascinating research about spirituality and what it means for you?
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:38
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So what does spirituality have to do with pursuing what matters? Well, some would say there’s nothing more important. When you have clarity about who you are and how you fit in the world. It really helps you to pursue what matters to have clarity about life, when we think about spirituality, one word, really, I think, can be very helpful. And that is that spirituality brings us perspective, right? And think about how important that is in your life. Right? Regardless of what your leadership looks like, if that is, you know, leading yourself leaning home, leaving at work, right to have perspective really makes all the difference. And, you know, one of the things I’m fond of talking about is this idea that one of the lead, one of the leaders most important responsibilities is to understand what matters, right. And this requires perspective. And so I want to share with you today, some really compelling research about the power of spirituality in our lives. And I want to be clear, right, that spirituality is not necessarily the same as religion, and I’m going to talk about some of those findings and, and how that can sometimes be confusing for folks. But the bottom line is, our discussion today is going to help you to have more resilience, to cope better with life’s challenges, and to truly pursue what matters. So I’m really excited to bring this book to you. So of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead, I try to do that in one of three areas, either clarity, curiosity, or leaving a building a community. And today, we’re really focusing on helping you lead with clarity, which is all about connecting to purpose and meaning and living a spiritual life helps us to do that. And you don’t have to take my word for it, I’m going to share some of the research. And then if you would like to follow up with this great book, I would, I would love for you to do that. We’re also going to be talking about how you can lead with curiosity, because you know, the Awakened Life, a spiritual life requires curiosity, right? It requires some contemplation. And so any way that we’re able to cultivate this skill of curiosity, and I really do believe it is a skill, the better off we’ll be, it helps us to make better decisions to see ourselves clearly, to see others more clearly. And you know, that can really, you know, simplify a lot of life’s challenges. So we’re going to help you in those two primary ways. So let’s start with an introduction of the book, and the author. So the book we’re talking about today is the Awakened brain, the new science of spirituality and our quest for an inspired life. So this book is quite new. And yeah, I hadn’t heard about it. And boy, this is the kind of book that I totally geek out about. I was actually at dinner with a great friend, a fellow psychologist, and she was reading this book and she recommended it and even said, you know, I think you would probably appreciate this book. And so I was getting on a flight the next day. So I did, I got I got an audio version and listen to it on the plane. And let me tell you, it was really fascinated, I loved it. And then of course, I’ve been reading the the paper version and getting a lot out of it. So this is a very pleasant book to listen to. It’s a really enjoyable book to read. Because she weaves in her personal story and, and her experience of awakening right and that word Miko little uncomfortable for you. But I want to pin it down a little bit more as we go through and that’s exactly what this author does. And so who is the author? The author is Dr. Lisa Miller. So she’s PhDs I
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:49
think, I believe she’s a psychologist, and she has really dedicated her career to studying spirituality. First of all, you know, Is it a thing, right? Like, is it something that exists for us, and she’s done extensive neuro imaging studies to, to confirm and pin down exactly where in the brain. We are wired for spirituality. And it’s really fascinating research. And so that’s one big thread of her research. The other big threat of her research is how spirituality can be protective. Right? So getting practical and really thinking about, does spirituality help us as humans? does it protect us from mental health concerns? Does that help us to build resilience? Does it help us to get through the challenges of life, and her findings are profound. She’s in fact, she’s won the Templeton award. For some of her research, she’s gotten some major grants to take a look at this. And she began researching these things when, you know, spirituality, the study of spirituality and the study of religion, right, both of those topics, were very, very unpopular in psychology, and there was a belief right, which maybe some people still hold on to this. But there was a belief that spirituality or to study spirituality was very squishy, right, that psychologists kind of needed to, to, you know, prove themselves with, you know, really hard science, which and I say that in quotes, because, right, like, whatever that means, and so there was a collective issuing of research related to spirituality and religion. And I know that because I was a graduate school student during this time and actually worked with my research advisor, one of my research advisors, was actually doing groundbreaking research on spirituality and religion. He’s got several great books geared toward psychologists and academics on this topic, but I, you know, I saw his experience and I also had my own experience of doing this research as a graduate student and finding that the world of psychology, right, so the the research institution, the clinic, clinical world, they really didn’t have much appetite for it. And it really wasn’t until some of Dr. Miller’s groundbait groundbreaking research that psychologists and you know, more generally, social scientists started to take the, the role of spirituality and religion more seriously now. Lisa Miller studies, mostly spirituality. So we’ll, we’ll keep to that focus today. But certainly, that includes the study of religion, right, like, so it’s, it’s been interesting, I feel like I have had a front row seat to kind of see the evolution. And now we are at a place where you know, collectively, right, like, as a world, researcher, psychologist, social scientists recognize the value of spirituality right now. We might not value it as much as other interventions. But there is, you know, even if it’s a begrudging acceptance of spirituality that that does exist for many people that I do think we owe a lot to Dr. Miller and her groundbreaking research. And of course, she has a lot of colleagues that she has collaborated with over the years. But she documents that research here, but she also talks about her own personal spiritual journey, and it’s beautiful. She has some really powerful examples. And so I would say it feels like a personal memoir, but one that you would want to read, right? We don’t always want to read other people’s stories, but if she doesn’t, really lovely job and so this is a very engaging read. So let’s hear what others are saying. So Deepak Chopra. Of course, we know him. He has said about this book, and new revolute at revolution of health and well being and a testament to and celebration of the power within. So I thought that was a really great endorsement. So a little bit, a little bit more about the book.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:07
So So as I said, Right, we’ve been her deeply personal journey of awakening. With groundbreaking research, Dr. Lisa Miller’s book reveals that humans are universally equipped with a capacity for spirituality. So listen to that. We have a we have an innate capacity for spirituality, and that our brains become more resilient and robust as a result. So all your business leaders listen up for leaders in business and government, truth seekers, parents, healers, educators, and any person confronting life’s biggest questions. The Awakened brain brain combines cutting edge science, from MRI studies to genetic research epidemiology and more with on the ground application for people of all ages and from all walks of life, illuminating the surprising sciences virtuality and how to engage it in our lives. So it’s really, really a great book. And so let me just say a little bit more about Dr. Miller. So she’s the New York Times bestselling author of the spiritual child, and a professor of clinical psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She’s the founder and director of the spirituality, Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program in spirituality and psychology now, that is really saying something, right. And this really harkens back to some of the resistance in the academy to accept the role of spirituality. So the fact the fact that she established the first spirituality, Mind Body Institute at an Ivy League institution is pretty remarkable. And for over a decade, has held joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry, at Columbia University Medical School. So she’s had her research published in over 100, peer reviewed articles. She is really so well versed in this and has contributed so much to the research. And so let with that, let’s jump in and learn more about what can be helpful for you. So I really highly recommend this book, I want to share first, some of the research findings, because I think it makes a really compelling case for spirituality, and why right, regardless of where you’re at in your life, regardless of your history, with or without spirituality to consider cultivating spirituality in your life, because let me tell you, the case is really strong for the power spirituality to not only protect us, but to help us cope with life. So first of all, one of the first things that Dr. Miller does is she defines what she means by an awakened brain. And so she based on all of this research, she says that each of us has an awakened brain, we each of us is endowed with a natural capacity to perceive a greater reality, and consciously connected to the life force that moves in through and around us. Okay, so that might feel a little confusing, but she does a nice job of breaking that down as we move forward in the book. So our brain has a natural inclination toward the docking station for spiritual awareness. Right. So we are wired for spirituality, that’s what you need to take home from that the awakened brain is the neural circuitry, right. So this is the circuitry of the brain that allows us to see the world more fully, and thus enhance our individual societal, and global well being okay. And so if you look at the details of that definition, it’s all about perspective, when we have when we embrace and practice cultivating our awakened brain, right, because we are all wired for spirituality, but not all of us. Live spiritual lives. But when we do that, we bring in perspective, which not only enhances our individual well being but societal, and global wellbeing, as all and as a whole, okay, and so some of the gifts what are some of the gifts of cultivating an awakened brain.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:13
So what she says, and this is, of course, grounded in the research, we feel more fulfilled. And at home in the world, we build relationships and make decisions from a wider view. So there’s that perspective idea again, we move from loneliness and isolation to connection, we move from competition and division, to compassion and altruism. We move from an entrenched focus on our wounds, our problems, and our losses, to a fascination with the journey of life. And that’s really what she talks about. It is a journey, and we’re all seekers. We are not meaning makers, we are meaning seekers. Because right, we don’t make the meaning. Our brains are hard wired, to recognize and seek meaning. And that that has profound implications for the quality of our life. So we’re wired to cultivate a wave being built on an awareness of love, interconnection, and the guidance and surprise of life, okay. And, you know, if we think about historical or, or general definitions of spirituality, it is this felt sense of not being alone this interconnectedness and connection to a power greater than yourself. Okay, so that is a general definition of spirituality. And she really builds on that with her with her explanation of the awakened brain. So now let’s think about what is spirituality, right? Because that might be a little confusing, and I would say it can be confusing for everyone regardless of your faith history. So this is how she describes spirituality, right? So she thinks she encourages you to think about a moment of deep connection with another being Right, whether it’s a human, whether it’s an animal or a nature, she talks about a feeling of awe or transcendence, right? Have you ever spent a moment where you’re you watch the sunrise and it just it takes your breath away. And you have this moment of awe. The other night, I was out on a walk with my girlfriend, and it was dark, it was late. It was, you know, probably about 10pm. But the moon was so beautiful. And he just had this moment where I just had to stop and take it in that right. It was a small moment, it was a small, everyday moment, that that was a moment of awe for me to recognize, right? Like I am such a small part of this vast thing known as a life that’s off. And she talks about startling synchronicity, right. So a time in your life where things just lined up, or something happened. It’s like, wow, like, where did that come from? Synchronicity is a key component of spirituality. And she talks about some remarkable experiences in her own life. And they really remind me of events that I’ve experienced as well. So that feels a little like synchronicity right there. But I’ve had times in my life were,
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:12
like, I knew the path that I needed to go on. But I had no idea how it would work out. And in fact, if we just went with the powers of reason, right, the power of reason, like there was no way it would work out. And yet it did. And it did in incredible ways. And that is an example of synchronicity. So to round out this definition of spirituality, she talks about a time where maybe you felt held or inspired, or buoyed up by something greater than yourself, right? For those of us with a strong spiritual connection, right, those moments of comfort, where you can’t really explain it, right. It’s not about having another person in the room. But those times where you, you, you feel deep love, and that absolutely is a core component. Spirituality. So now let’s talk about the benefits, right? What are the benefits of cultivating an awakened brain? And so right, one thing that she makes that the point she makes throughout the book, is that the awakened brain is both inherent to our physiology, and invaluable to our health and functioning, right. So it’s part of how we’re wired, that also helps to improve our health and functioning. So the awakened brain includes a set of innate perceptual capacities, okay, so this ability to perceive certain things that exist in every person through which we experience love, connection, unity, and a sense of guidance, okay. That’s, that’s how the awakened brain works. They’re our perceptual capacities, they have studied this very rigorously. And so that’s really the first part right that we have this capacity, we have this capacity to perceive more than what’s just before us in this slide. And then, of course, the second part is choosing to engage these perceptual capacities, learning to cultivate these practices that really strengthen these perceptual capacities. So she talks about it is making full use of how we’re built right, our brains become structurally healthier, and better connected as we cultivate these perceptual capacities. So there’s lots of psychological benefits, so less depression, anxiety, substance use, and more positive psychological traits such as grit, resilience, optimism, tenacity, and creativity. And I don’t know about you, that I think Those all sound really great. And of course, we’re able to do all of that with greater purpose and meaning. So we see our part in the greater fabric of life. And we develop a shared responsibility, not only for ourselves, but those we are sharing life with, and right, even on a global level. And, you know, the key here is that we need to choose to engage these perceptual capacities, right, because just like any other muscle, right, she describes this as a muscle, and that we want to learn to strengthen, otherwise it will atrophy. And you can certainly see that in folks who deny any spiritual life. They write, they, they don’t have, they don’t have strong neural connections in these areas of the brain. And the result of that is life is harder, and they’re more vulnerable to the to the impacts of life. Okay, so I just want to quickly share some of the most compelling findings. She goes into a lot of detail about these, but it’s it’s conversational, right, so there’s it’s really good But I just want to cover some of the big findings. So and I’m certainly not covering all of them, because she’s got some extensive research here. But one of the findings was that there is an intergenerational transmission of spiritualities. Right. So if you, if you come from a legacy of spirituality, right, which is not the same as religion, but spirituality, you are better protected. Now, this is the finding. And let me just tell you in social science, you never have findings like this. It’s remarkable. So she found that intergenerational transmission of spirituality, spirituality, held the same astounding 80% protective benefit, it was the largest protective effect I’d seen anywhere in the resilience literature. Okay. So what that means is, if
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you come from, let’s say, a family or relationships, where there is strong spirituality, and that spirituality is transmis T rise taught to you cultivated, helping, helping you to understand the spiritual life, you have an 80% protective benefit against the challenges of life. So an example of this is that a child is five times less likely to be depressed, when they have a spiritual life that is shared with their mother, right? So in a very real way, we can pass down our spiritual, our spirituality and our ability to perceive the spiritual life to our children. And that creates incredible protective effects for them much stronger than any sort of intervention would ever be. This is compelling. She won a Templeton Prize for that research. And of course, it led to a lot more research along those lines. So really incredible findings. Another finding that’s really compelling has to do with twin research right now, twin studies are the gold standards become a gold standard, right? Because when you have identical twins, then you can recognize that, you know, their genetic makeup is exactly the same. And so it really gives you a lot of freely valuable information. And so, you know, there are some big twin databases. And so she participated in some research. And then there was also a researcher, Dr. Candler, who was really looking at the difference between personal spirituality. Okay, so this personal connection to a higher power doesn’t have to be God, it can just be in a power greater than yourself, and those who strictly adhere to the rule of religion. Okay, so we think about the difference here between cultivating spirituality and being a member of a religion. And so, you know, let’s give some examples. So individuals who ranked high on personal or personal spirituality, really ranked high on frequency of seeking spiritual comfort, frequency of private prayer, right? So think about cultivating this personal relationship of who am I in the world and where do I stand. So this could be with a higher power could be with God, it could be with the larger good, whereas those who scored high on a strict adherence to the rule of religion, they really endorse items such as belief that God rewards and punishments arise kind of that rule of law, a literal belief in the Bible. And so what Candler found from this research is that certainly you could have people that were high in both, okay, so they were high in personal devotion, so spiritual, strong personal spirituality, and they could also be high in the the strict adherence to the rule of religion, right. And that certainly happens. But not the majority of those studied, were high in both of those, what he actually found was that people were typically high in personal spirituality and low on adherence to religion, and you know, vice versa. And so, this is what’s important to recognize, right that it from counselors research, it was the first major empirical study supporting the important distinction that people can be spiritual, with or without being religious and religious, with or without being spiritual. Now, for those of us who you know, who are on a spiritual path, this research which is stunning, confirms what most of us know, right that you can, you can go to church or to see synagogue, right? You can you can follow the structure of religion, and never have a spiritual moment. Now to me, right as a person of faith, that’s heartbreaking, and that should never happen. But we know that it happens quite a bit. And that is what Kendler found in his research. And you can write the, and vice versa is true, you can have someone that never sets a foot in a church, or synagogue or any sort of organized religion, and they can be deeply spiritual, right, they can have a much more robust spiritual life than the folks sitting in the pews. And so it’s really important to recognize that religious is not the same as spiritual. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. And so he also found three really key correlations between spirituality and mental health, right. So he looked at the difference between, you know, strict adherence to religion and spirituality and found that there were really positive correlations between cultivating a personal spiritual life and mental health. So first, the first finding was that low levels of depressive symptoms are related to high levels of personal devotion or personal spirituality, okay. So if you have a lot of spirituality, this personal spirituality, you’re less likely to be depressed. So there’s a case for spirituality right there. Second, the second finding, he found that personal devotion or that personal spirituality can serve as as a buffer against the negative psychological effects of stressful life events, such as illness, divorce, or loss of a loved one. And so right, it, it makes you less likely likely to be depressed, but also cultivating a strong spiritual life. Next, helps you weather life’s storms. Better, right. So personal devotion, a sense of a personal relationship with a higher power was the active ingredient that carried the protective benefit with or without religion. Okay. So we often like to say religion saves, and this research says no, slow down the bus there. It’s actually personal devotion. So you can have that in or outside of a religion, but it is personal devotion, it is personal spirituality, that actually that’s the active ingredient that helps to protect us from life’s challenges. It’s not church alone, it’s not synagogue alone. It’s not sitting in a pew alone that will do it. And I think, for most of us, who, who consider ourselves on a path of faith, know that right? And it doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with that. But we recognize, you know, the inherent hypocrisy, quite frankly, at times in that, okay. And then the third finding from that research, he found that personal devotion, that personal spirituality, decrease the lifetime risk for alcoholism and nicotine dependence. And so, in a nutshell, spiritual people are less likely to be addicted, okay, so it, it serves as a protector. So if you have a genetic predisposition towards addiction, you should cultivate a spiritual life. And you know, when we think about addictions, treatment, right, so I spent a lot of years in that world. Is there any wonder that A is one of the most effective interventions, right, there are lots of psychological approaches, the results aren’t that good. But one thing I think most of us know intuitively and the research certainly backs this up, is that if you want to get over an addiction, you need spirituality in your life, right. And if we think about the, the 10 steps of AA, they are all about acknowledging a higher power, right spirituality is, is woven in throughout all of a all of the 10 steps and so I don’t think that is a mystery, and we have some confirmation of what might be happening there.
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Okay, another finding quickly it and this is for adults and teens, but I’m going to talk about the study with teens that, you know, teens with a strong personal spirituality where 35 To 75% less likely to experience clinical depression. Okay. And so her one of her studies really shows spirituality to be so protective against mental health concerns, nearly twice as protective in teens as in adults. And with us take a step back and look at that, right like that might sound like okay, that’s pretty good. But there, there is no other mental health intervention. Clinical or pharmacologic, pharmacological, so think about pills, think about therapy, think about all the different therapeutic interventions, none of them, none of them, for adults or teens has anything close to these prevention rates. So if you care about your kids, if you care about their well being, you should help them cultivate the spiritual life, it will be, it will be probably the most protective thing that you could do to set the foundation for lifelong well being. The other thing related to this finding is that folks who are at the greatest risk for mental illness due to say their developmental stage, so we think about teenagers, they actually have the most to gain from spirituality. So the most at risk individuals, right for depression and anxiety, other mental health concerns, actually get a ton of benefit from a spirituality practice. And, you know, I think if we just think about that, anecdotally, right, think about the hard times in your life, the most challenging times in your life, whether that was developmental, whether that was a result of other experiences, traumatic experiences, those experiences bring you to your knees, literally, and spiritually speaking, right, because you have to try and find a way to make sense of what’s happening to you. And the spiritual life helps you to expand your perspective that helps you to integrate these deeply painful experiences into the larger narrative of your life, and on the larger narrative of life, right, recognizing that life is bigger than any one person. So spirituality helps us to make sense of these experiences. It helps us to cope with these experiences and in a very real way, right? If we allow it, if we cultivate these perceptual capacities, we become more resilient. And that is remarkable to me. Okay, the last thing that I want to share with you before I identify three ways to cultivate the awakened brain is that from this extensive body of research, what Dr. Miller has found is that depression and spirituality are two sides of the same coin. So you can think about depression as spiritual hunger. Right? You can think about depression as spiritual loss, spiritual yearning, right, that there is a disconnection spiritually for the depressed individual. Now, that is not to say that there aren’t plenty of other things going on, because of course, we want to have a healthy respect for that. But depression is one side of that coin. And then spirituality is the other. So as we cultivate these perceptual capacities, we in a very real way, help to protect ourselves from depression, we help ourselves to heal from depression, right. So of course, we know that depression and the spiritual life are very different experiences, but they actually share some very significant physiology. And so that’s why she talks about them being two sides of the same coin. And she has a really very fascinating discussion of that. And so right, if you’re prone to depression, if you have folks in your life, who struggled with depression, consider considering spiritual practices would be very, very indicated, right, based on the research something that would absolutely be worth your time. So then she wraps up the book, towards the end, right. So she makes the case for why having an awakened brain and cultivating the spiritual life is valuable. And then she ends the book by talking about three key ways to bring the wisdom of our awakened brain into our daily lives. And so she talks about this in three ways. So awakened attention. So seeing, seeing everything right, like having more perspective,
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awakened connection, right. So when we cultivate a spiritual life, how are we connecting with others? How do we connect with ourselves? How do we connect with our higher power? And then the third one is the Awakened heart. So how do we what are the choices that we make? How do we have a Bothy and care for others even individuals that we don’t know? So these three keys in terms of cultivating the awakened brain she then discusses some specific ways that you can do that right. Like one example would be noticing synchronicity in your life right so there’s kind of this idea there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Right and so if if you if you tend to appreciate that perspective, that’s really gearing you towards synchronicity to see wow, how did you know that happened? And then this happened and everything just really opened the door for another opportunity to start seeing these synchronicity moments in our lives and She gives some really nice practical recommendations for how you can begin to cultivate the spiritual life. And so I really highly recommend this book. My friend who told me she thought I would like it, she was right. I really, really enjoyed it. And I think that, you know, you can think about this in terms of your coping skills. Make sure you have some spiritual practices as part of your coping skills, right. Meditation can be thought of as a spiritual practice, prayer, contemplation, all of these things can be very helpful for us to to not only face life’s challenges, but do it with resilience, do it with joy, imagine that to face life’s challenges, even with joy. And so it’s absolutely possible. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think this book gives us a lot of hope that we can live lives of meaning. And so head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode, including a link to Dr. Miller and her work and this book. So you can find all of that by going to www.drmelissasmith.com/134-awakenedbrain/.So one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/134-awakenedbrain/ so every day I have more information, more learning more insights from the podcasts on my Instagram account. So I’m totally social. I would love to connect with you there. That’s @dr.melissasmith and I’d love to hear what you think of the book and the podcast. So I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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