Archive for July, 2007

Repetitive Prayer and Cognition

July 11, 2007

I grew up praying repetitively. Twelve years of parochial school will do this to you. I prayed litanies to the Blessed Mother. I memorized all the responsive prayers for the Mass. I knew how to make the correct reply during the Stations of the Cross. I intoned Hail Mary’s after confession and recited my “God Blesses” every evening before bed. I even scribbled JMJ—as in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, help me!—on the top of my school work.

When I grew up I rejected all these kinds of repetitive prayer. At some point they began to feel dry and meaningless. Later I realized that it felt like an attempt at magic, an effort to force God to do what I wanted because I had done my part. My rejection became a matter of principle. I didn’t believe in that kind of god and I wanted no part of that kind of religion.

In the past years, though, I have begun to re-think this position. I still feel that we humans often attempt to manipulate the divine through prayer. But I have also experienced the joy that accompanies the recurrent recitation of a home-truth. Repeatedly telling myself that I want the Holy Spirit to take possession of my mind and actions for the day helps me remember at stressful times that the Holy Spirit is in charge. Singing “I Thank You, Jesus” first thing in the morning reminds me that I want to thank Jesus all day long.

My renewed interest in repetitive prayer has coincided with my increasing knowledge of the findings of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Cognitive scientists now know that when we think the same thoughts over, we set up neural maps in our brains. Thinking is the equivalent, if you like, of a trail in a field. The first time we think something, as in the first time we walk through an empty field, we leave a faint trail. In the field, the nearly indiscernible trail consists of bent grass and broken twigs. If we go back through the field soon enough, and often enough, the trail will become obvious to anyone. Slightly bent grass becomes a path worn down to the dirt.

Our brains function in a similar way. When we think a particular set of thoughts over and over, the activated neurons actually stretch out toward each other. We form a map, or a path, through our brain. So thinking the first thought invokes other thoughts automatically, with increasing speed and decreasing conscious effort. But not only do we get there more quickly—we find it harder to go somewhere else. The path doesn’t just facilitate thinking. The path seems to dictate our thinking.

The practical application of this is easy to see. Let me use an example from my real life. I am driving down the freeway and you cut in front of me. I think—and normally say out loud—“You (bad word).” I have set up a neural pathway related to my experience of driving in the car on the freeway. It includes certain sets of responses to certain situations like you cutting in front of me. I don’t think. I react. I experience a set of emotions, I label them and the situation as stressful, I label you as an idiot, and I label the entire experience of driving on the freeway as unpleasant.

The alternative to this is thinking something different. This is an effort. It is like walking through the part of the field where the grass is knee high and wet. It does not feel natural, easy, or comfortable.

When you cut in front of me and I am consciously trying to change my behaviour, I usually begin by experiencing the same old reaction. I think and say, “You (bad word).” And then I think, and sometimes even say, “You beloved child of God.” It’s like getting halfway across the field and realizing that I wanted to go the other way. So I turn, and slog through the high grass in order to end up in a different place. The problem is that I still started out the same way. The ending makes me feel better, less crazy, less angry, but I still start off feeling crabby and stressed.

This kind of mid-course revision is the grunt work of spiritual life. Mostly we just learn to recognize the ways that we are self-deceptive, self-centered, and self-destructive, and we learn to laugh at them. When we can’t laugh, we can at least learn to correct ourselves. Over time, a lot of it, we get better at this stuff. We don’t react so quickly. We don’t go so far down the path. We catch ourselves in the act of saying, “You (bad word).” We break off earlier from one repetitive neural map and start to draw a new one.

But there is another thing that I think we can deduce from the findings of cognitive scientists, and it has to do with repetitive prayer. I would argue that repetitive prayer can help change behaviour that we don’t necessarily target for change. My repetition of a prayer word or phrase in one situation can affect my response somewhere else. I don’t have to want to change my behaviour on the freeway; I don’t have to say, “I’m going to change what I say in the car when I’m irritated.” Repetitive prayer can change it for me.

Cognitive scientists tell us that thinking normally occurs within broad frameworks that we acquire both from our physical experience of the world and from our culture. When I am driving and I have a certain feeling in my body that I perceive as anger at your reckless driving, I do so within a much broader frame that we might call “transportation by automobile.” This frame includes the idea of cars, drivers, and roads. It also includes a lot of other things, like the need to get gas for the car, road conditions, posted speed, actual speed of other cars, weather conditions, our own speed, our knowledge of the road, the condition of the car we are driving, our familiarity with the car we’re piloting, and so on. One well-known part of this cultural frame is that an error by another driver can harm or even kill us. And another generally accepted part of this cultural frame is that driving is stressful.

Frames are complex neural maps, and we use them to reason about our life. We can add new information into frames – for instance, if we are driving in Great Britain, we learn to factor in the need to drive on a different side of the road. We can learn how to fundamentally alter our driving habits by changing to a stick shift or an electric car or making the commitment never to drive over the speed limit. This is possible, neurally, because we blend together information from one place with information from the frame in order to give a new cognitive blend. This is the process of thinking; and when we act on a new blend, that is a change of behaviour.

I would argue that repetitive prayer can affect us at times when we least expect it, because practice sets up a strong cognitive input—a neural pathway that is available in all kinds of situations. If we practice a short mantra not only during our prayer time but at odd times of the day, in different settings, that neural path becomes stronger and more available for blending. The possibility increases, that we will stumble upon it as we search for solutions to the way we feel. We train ourselves to turn in a certain direction; we lay down strong paths across the empty field; we teach the neurons to reach out in a certain direction, toward a certain conclusion.

When I have added repetitive prayer into my life, it is possible that the prayer will make itself available when I am driving down the road and you cut in front of me. If I make a habit out of resorting to a prayer when I feel certain kinds of stress, then that prayer may just occur automatically in other kinds of stressful situations. Just as I actually train myself to exhibit one response every time I say, “You (bad word),” I train myself every time I say, “Thank you, Jesus.” If I am cultivating a certain response to events that I perceive as stressful, the chances are that my reaction will be “Thank you, Jesus” when you cut in front of me. It may be, “Thank you Jesus for this idiot driver,” but it’s still thank you, Jesus.

I no longer consider repetitive prayer as a kind of magic. Instead, I see it as a practice that can free me from my most unconscious and uncomfortable reactions. So these days I choose my prayers carefully—using ones that I really feel right about. This is the same as choosing a new path that doesn’t skirt too close to the swamp. And then I practice.

We’ve quit talking about perfection in Christianity (and good thing—almost killed many of us!) but biblically speaking, perfection just means wholeness. So I think I can safely end by saying here that practice (of repetitive prayer) makes this Christian closer to perfect (responding the way I want to in difficult situations—wholly integrated).

Copyright © 2007 Mary Therese DesCamp