Apparently it can. A scientific study has suggested that spirituality gives people who are prone to depression a thicker outer part of the brain – which may offer some protection from depression.
The report studied 103 adults aged 18-54 from a family background of depression, and took MRI scans of their brains. They found a thicker cortex – the part of the brain that processes senses, language and emotion – in the survey participants who said religion or spirituality was important to them, compared with those who didn’t. A thinner cortex is linked with higher risk of depression.
However, being spiritual does not give you a thicker cortex, the researchers reported. Nor does more frequent attendance at church.
Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric Institute, who worked on the study, said: “Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain, and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this. A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.”
What to make of these results? The researchers had previously found a 90% decreased risk of depression among the adult children of parents who were suffering from it. The therapeutic value of these findings is not clear, not even to the scientists, who believe that it’s the start of further research.
Weissman says the body and mind are connected – but how? Does having faith or belief in something beyond the physical here-and-now body help sustain people through difficult times? In an area that must be incredibly difficult to measure, I’ll be interested in what scientists can prove in the future.