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March 16, 2016

An anti-depression vaccine?

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

More by this author...

Since the development of a smallpox vaccine in 1796 the pharmacological industry has worked continuously to build the body's immunity against other diseases. Could a depression vaccine be next? Or can we learn more about tapping the potential of our own natural antidepressants?

In his book The Science of Happiness, Stephen Braun quotes Swedish Psychotherapist Dr. Emmy Gut, who argues; “It makes a good deal of sense that depressed feelings should be relatively common. That’s because unconscious mental conflict is a hallmark of the human experience and an unavoidable result of the brain’s architecture.”

The global pharmacological industry currently emphasizes that a leading cause of depression is a deficit in certain counteractive brain chemicals.

But it ignores the important fact that when we fail to manage mild depression, we can create or exacerbate the chemical imbalances that cause it in the first place. Society today constantly pushes us toward the unrealistic goal of maintaining happy, energetic, outgoing, lighthearted lives 24/7, implying that occasional or even frequent unhappiness is somehow a personal failure.

Author Braun reports on his own experience with depression, in which he was dominated by the feeling that “life is fundamentally meaningless and that everybody’s hopes and dreams amount to nothing in the cosmic scheme of things.”

He adds; “Since I lack even a shred of belief in an afterlife, I am vulnerable to the depressing view that when we die, we die, and that a hundred years after our death, or two hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand, depending on the impact we happen to have on those around us – not a trace of us will survive.”

The health benefits to our physical well-being of eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly are well known for preventing or reducing the impact of depression. For generations scientists and therapeutic professionals have known and promoted the well-established correlation between the human body and brain.

But what about the health benefits of spiritual well-being? Can we measure these as well? Can religious rituals actually help us in preventing or ameliorating depression?

In their book Why God Won’t Go Away (2001) Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Eugene D’Aquili, M.D., PhD note: “From the neurobiological perspective, human ritual has two major characteristics. First, it generates emotional discharge, in varying degrees of intensity that represent subjective feelings of tranquility, ecstasy, and awe; and second, it results in unitary states that in a religious context, are often experienced as some degree of spiritual transcendence. Both of these effects, we believe, are neurobiological in origin.” (Italics are mine.)

For example, Islam prescribes the rituals of praying five times daily, praying weekly on Fridays with a congregation, annually fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, yearly charity contributions, and finally, performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime.

Newberg and D’Aquili’s book became a best-seller in what is still a relatively new field – neurotheology – the discipline of exploring the complex relationships between spirituality and the brain.

They pose two key questions: “Why does consciousness inevitably involve us in a spiritual quest? And why, won’t God go away?”

Their revolutionary conclusions are that the “religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain,” and “God is hardwired into the human brain.”

They based their findings on a long-term investigation of brain function and behavior, as well as studies they conducted using high-tech imaging techniques to examine the brains of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns at prayer.

From this research they suggest that; “It seems possible to unravel the brain mechanisms that underlie the process of meditation and obtain a clear view into the workings of the brain during rituals.”

Furthermore, they add; “Studies have shown that participating in spiritual behaviors such as prayer, religious services, meditation, and physical exertion can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, lower rates of respiration, reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, and create positive changes in immune system function.” These effects aid in “identifying specific changes in the brain’s blood flow, and the brain’s electrical activity.”

Do all religions offer rituals that can lead to the spiritual and physical anti-depression benefits observed in D’Aquili and Newberg’s work?

The Qur’an repeatedly states that God is always near and listening to us, so our troubles, whether physical, mental or spiritual, never go unnoticed. Believers know and trust that, compared to even their closest human friends, God’s friendship is not only deepest, but also everlasting.

As the Qur’an teaches: “Surely God’s friends – those who believe and follow God’s commands – on them no fear (of the future) shall come, neither shall sorrow (of the past). For them are glad tidings in this life and in the Hereafter. This is God’s True Word. This is for them a great felicity (the high state of being happy, especially in a high degree of bliss.) (Qur’an 10:62-63)

But as any devout person of faith can tell you, it is not always easy to balance belief in one’s Creator with the obligation to observe certain rituals.

As D’Aquili and Newberg point out; “The concept of an unknowable, ungraspable God is more difficult for the monotheistic religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all founded upon the revelation of a God who is a distinct Supreme Being; a specific supernatural entity, set apart from the natural world, with a name, history, and a specific agenda for his people – but he is believed to be dramatically and empirically real.” (Italics by the authors.)

Moreover, science requires that something be measurable in order for it to be real.

But over the centuries, the practitioners of these three great religions have developed practical techniques to make living according to one’s faith easier and more accessible. 

For example, the Prophet Muhammad taught that one must taste faith to appreciate its sweetness. The use of the verb taste is significant. It means that it is not enough to believe in the abstract – you must also physically and mindfully do.

Christianity and Judaism also echo Islam in expressing the principle of holding judgment in check until one “tastes” the idea; that is, use all of your human senses to experience faith, and in so doing you may like it. Then, and only then, you may appreciate its sweetness and hence benefit from its rituals.

And as neurotheologians are beginning to discover, some of those rituals whose power and value we may once have doubted could just turn out to be those physical expressions of faith that kick-start our natural human antidepressants.

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