The Neurobiology of Mind and Body Practices: Perils and Prospects

Faculty Sponsor

Jim Nelson


Arts and Sciences



ORCID Identifier(s)


Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-23-2016


Over the recent decade, studies investigating the neuropsychological and neurobiological underpinnings of prayer, mindfulness, and meditation techniques have increased considerably with the core attractant of boosting overall wellness and self-actualization. Potentially mistaken as the long-waited emergence of a unified investigative purpose within the field, this frameshift has trivialized and artificialized the significance of religious and cultural contexts. Gravitation towards the mass applicability of these mind and body practices, grounded in the larger modern agenda for self-efficiency, is at the expense of religious tradition, cultural integrity, and experimental measures concerning internal and ecological validity. Most assume without verification that mind and body experiences produced in a research setting are the same as normal settings across religious and cultural settings. These “thick” contexts must remain integral to the mind and body practices and the neurophysiological investigations associated with them. Therefore, offered as a methodological critique, the purpose of this article is to address the dangers of this newly developed “extraction project” through the comparative analysis of the pertinent neuropsychological and neurobiological findings on mediation, prayer, and mindfulness techniques with Clifford Geertz’s anthropological thick and thin cultural descriptions as the operative framework. The primary neuroscientific findings concern the neuroplasticity and activation of neural pathways involved in executive functioning, attention and contraction, and emotional responses. We argue for the appreciation and incorporation of thick descriptions of religious traditions within quantitative and qualitative assessment measures, and that thin descriptions are reflexive of researchers’ presuppositions regarding mind-brain dichotomy.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Katelyn Marak is a senior psychology major with a human biology minor. As a recipient of the 2015 J. Melvin and Lucille G. Nelson Award in Psychology of Religion, she was afforded the opportunity to investigate the past decade of research on the neurobiology of mind and body practices.

Jim Nelson serves as a professor of psychology and a member of the Chinese-Japanese studies faculty at Valparaiso University. He will be a guest professor in the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame this upcoming fall.

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