Self-Control

How to Control Your Mind: The Link to Religion and Meditation

Part II: There's a a strong relationship between religiosity and self-control.

Posted Feb 26, 2021 |

As a follow-up to Part 1 on this subject, here are two more ways to improve control over your thinking and behavior.

"Mind over matter" is a central theme in most religions. The idea is that proper spiritual belief gives you the strength to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Paradoxically, the most religious people, like monks, may not use their strength of faith to cope with life but actually escape worldly stress by living in monasteries or nunneries.

Also, there is the problem that many people dismiss religion as superstition. Nonetheless, for those who do believe, the indisputable fact remains that it can affect your thinking and behavior.

tracy siermachesky shutterstock
Source: tracy siermachesky shutterstock

Literature surveys reveal a strong relationship between religiosity and self-control. Self-control in religious people is manifest in that they tend to suffer less from depression, avoid trouble with sex or drugs, do better in school, and even visit the dentist more regularly. It is not clear whether religious experiences promote self-discipline or whether a self-disciplined person is more likely to respond to the self-control requirements of religion. It could be both. Whatever the case, to be mentally and spiritually healthy, we must learn to discipline our thinking, just as we discipline our body to improve our golf game or other physical skills.

How Religion Can Motivate Us

An interesting survey of 213 people measured both the degree of self-control and religiosity.1 People who believed in traditional religions were more likely to have a motivational drive and strategic planning for their actions. Perhaps not surprisingly, people who had more superstitious beliefs were less likely to control impulsive behavior.

Prayer seems to be an active way to promote mental replenishment. A demonstration of this point comes from an experiment where subjects engaged in personal prayer or an equivalent time in free mind-wandering thought. A subsequent self-control test revealed superior scores for those in the prayer group.2

Adolescents seem to have less self-control than mature adults. One study involved 1,785 young adults of different religions (Muslims, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox- and Bible-belt Christians) in different countries.3 Young people with intrinsic religiosity, living one's faith, were less likely to exhibit deviant behaviors, such as theft, substance use, cheating, and so on, than those driven by extrinsic religiosity, using one's faith for personal advancement. The religious beneficial effect was greatest in those who had low natural levels of self-control.

Most religions make a positive social impact by teaching and requiring self-control. Just thinking about God can improve our willpower. One experiment demonstrated this in a trivial way by priming subjects with a pretest task of unscrambling sentences that contained religious thoughts. The subsequent task was to drink an unpleasant mixture of orange juice and vinegar, for which they were paid for the amount they drank. Compared to a neutral-primed control group, the religion-primed group drank twice as much of the sour juice. In another part of the experiment, investigators told participants that when the study was over they would receive monetary compensation. If the participants came back the next day, they would receive $5, but if they came back a week later, they would receive $6. Even with the small $1 difference, a greater percentage of the participants in the religious-primed group decided to wait and receive the larger amount of money than those in the neutral-primed group.4

Some evidence indicates that people are more motivated toward good behavior if they view God as punishing rather than a God of love. In a study at Brigham Young University, Mormon students were assigned a task to button press when they saw a picture of juice or to inhibit the press when they saw a picture of beer, which their religion forbids. A neural signal over the anterior cingulate cortex that is known to be an error indicator became smaller when subjects were reminded of God's love instead of God's punishment. The interpretation was that focusing on God's love and forgiveness made students less worried about making mistakes in the task.5

One of the more obvious and measurable examples of religion's effects is how it can reduce pain. A common way that medical service providers assess pain is to ask a patient to rate the intensity of pain on a scale of 0 to 10. In one experiment, 24 patients, half practicing Catholics and the other half avowed atheists, had been screened to have equal baseline pain thresholds. They were then given electrical shocks while staring at different images, some religious and others not. Pain scores dropped when viewing religious images, and non-religious images had no effect. Brain scans showed that when the pain was reduced, the activity level was increased in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a region that other investigators had shown was instrumental in driving top-down circuitry that inhibits pain.6 

A simple explanation is that the pain-relief is like that afforded when a dentist twists your cheek as he inserts a needle to anesthetize a tooth or a veterinarian slaps a horse's hip as he simultaneously slams a needle to inject the medication. In these cases, the signals that ordinarily cause pain are mixed with other dominant signals that limit the brain's ability to feel pain.

Yoga and Meditation's Affect on Self-Control

Yoga is a practice that most clearly illustrates the ability of the mind to control the body. The most obvious effects of yoga meditation are on breathing, which can be dramatically slowed and made more abdominal, and the cardiovascular system, in which heart rate slows and blood pressure drops.7 Yoga masters can alter bodily functions in even more profound ways, such as forcing extreme sweating or lying on a bed of nails. Mindfulness meditation, wherein attention is focused on breathing or a mantra, promotes the development of attentional skills and changes neural activity related to self-control.8

References

[1] Wain, O., & Spinella, M. (2007). Executive functions in morality, religion, and paranormal beliefs. International Journal of Neuroscience, 117(1), 135-146. doi:10.1080/00207450500534068

[2] Malte Friese, Michaela Wänke, Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion, In Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 51, 2014, Pages 56-59, ISSN 0022-1031, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.006.

[3] Klanjšek, R., Vazsonyi, A. T., & Trejos-Castillo, E. (2012). Religious orientation, low self-control, and deviance: Muslims, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox-, and “Bible belt” Christians. Journal of Adolescence, 35(3), 671-682. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2011.09.003

[4] Rounding, K., Lee, A., Jacobson, J., Ji, L., Religion replenishes self-control. (2012). Psychological Science, 23(6),  635-643.

[5] Good, M., Inzlicht, M., & Larson, M. J. (2014). God will forgive: Reflecting on god's love decreases neurophysiological responses to errors. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, doi:nsu096 [pii]

[6] Wiech, K., Farias, M., Kahane, G., Shackel, N., Tiede, W., & Tracey, I. (2008). An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system. PAIN, 139(2), 467-476. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2008.07.030

[7] Olex, Stephen, Andrew Newberg, Andrew, and Figueredo, Vincent M., (2013). Meditation: Should a cardiologist care?, International Journal of Cardiology, 168(3),1805-1810,

[8] Moore, A., Gruber, T., Derose, J., & Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(18), 1-15.