By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Vatican has debuted a $110 wearable tech called the eRosary. The Click to Pray eRosary website describes it as a device that pairs with an app on smartphones to help people learn to pray the rosary. The invention offers one example of why religion stays with us in a changing world of technological innovations.
According to the official website for the wearable device, the eRosary seeks to bring religion into the age of smart tech by pairing with Pope Francis’s official Click to Pray smartphone app, which itself is part of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network. Activated by making the sign of the cross, the eRosary “serves as a technology based pedagogy to teach the young how to pray the Rosary, how to pray it for peace, how to contemplate the Gospel.” There will also be thematic rosaries to be prayed that will change every year. The eRosary is a modern example of how religion endears itself to our daily lives and our brains themselves.
Religion and the Self-Maintaining Brain
“When we get down to it, it seems that the brain ultimately has two very basic functions or goals,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “Those two things I would refer to as a mechanism of self-maintenance and a mechanism of self-transcendence.”
Self-maintenance, Dr. Newberg said, encompasses all the things we do in order to survive. The most obvious examples he gave were eating, drinking, mating, and navigating through the world. However, he also mentioned things like avoiding dangers like when our brain activates the “fight or flight” response. Religiosity helps support those functions.
Religion “helps to lower stress levels, improve our feelings of anxiety, and teach us ways of dealing with the world or help us with ways of coping with the world,” Dr. Newberg said. “And if all that comes together to help improve our mental well-being, to help increase our overall lifespan, and reduce the risk of different disorders and different diseases, then we can see how potentially important religion could be as a way of helping the brain in its goal of self-maintenance.”
Religion and the Self-Transcending Brain
“The brain needs to be able to change; it needs to be able to adapt and adjust to whatever’s happening in our environment so that we can function as effectively as possible,” Dr. Newberg said. “Self-transcendence refers to the brain’s ability to actually do this.”
Neuroplasticity, Dr. Newberg said, is a function of the brain that allows the brain to rewire its neurons’ connections and maybe even change their functions. This is how we adapt to change and learn different ways of doing things. While much of the brain retains its neural connections, there is some malleability as we learn new behaviors and discover the right way to live.
“The primary tenet of most religions is to better ourselves,” Dr. Newberg said. “Religions generally provide a system of morals, a set of practices and behaviors, and a set of beliefs that we’re supposed to strive towards. This means, of course, that religion is providing a framework for change.”
In other words, the ways in which religions suggest that we focus on self-improvement can encourage us to do just that, leading to greater neuroplasticity and being overall better citizens.
“As the brain ponders how and why to change in the future, these religious traditions tell human beings to try to be more kind, to be more charitable, and to strive to be good,” Dr. Newberg said. “Religions appear to realize the process of change that human beings experience throughout their lives. To some degree, religions help to put this change into context; they give it a certain degree of meaning so that we can understand what the change is all about, not fear the change, and in many ways embrace that change.”
In an entirely different way, the eRosary seems to be embracing the changing world itself.
Dr. Andrew Newberg contributed to this article. Dr. Newberg is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University, and he teaches undergraduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania.