Issue 108 / November - December 2015
Our Brains, Ethics, and the Practice of Prostration
A report from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, tells us that prostration (sajda) as the early Muslims practiced it during their daily prayers was so humiliating to non-believers that most of them could never bring themselves to embrace faith. Raising one's buttocks and putting his or her face on the ground was disgraceful to them, even if it was done to show respect before the Almighty. Indeed, arrogance, and faith in the Supreme Being, are diametrically opposed states of the mind in a person. No soul with a grain of arrogance in his or her heart, as stated in the words of the Prophet of Islam, will be admitted to Paradise.
The Qur'an verses refer to prostration as a sign of being free of arrogance: "Only they (truly) believe in Our signs and Revelations who, when they are mentioned of them (by way of advice and instruction), fall down in prostration, and glorify their Lord with His praise, and they do not behave with haughtiness. (32:15).
Prostration (sajda) is the way to show respect to the Creator â€“ not only for human beings, but also for angels and other creatures: "Before God prostrates itself whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth of living creatures, and the angels (likewise, for) they are not arrogant." (16:49).
Prostration has been practiced in Judaism and Christianity as well, sometimes with one's knees and face on the ground, and sometimes as a full-body prostration: lying flat on the ground with the face down and the arms open. Even today in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches, and amongst Ashkenazi Jews, these practices continue. This makes sense, for the Qur'an talks about a promise that God took from the Children of Israel to establish the prayer (2:83).
In summary, putting one's face on the ground as a sign of respect or as a part of worship has been one of the central practices in all Abrahamic religions. The Almighty God wants His servants to make it a frequently observed practice that we bow down and put our foreheads on the ground in worship of Him. The spiritual and psychological impact of a prayer of this form can be immense, particularly in the long term, and should be discussed at length in another essay. Here we would like only to point out the neurological aspect of prostration and its connections.
Another The Fountain article discussed the function of the frontal brain lobe ("The Sinning Forelock," Issue 51, 2005) and its importance in forming ethical and moral values:
"Frontal lobotomy is the term used for the surgical removal of the frontal lobe in patients with emotional disorders (1). It may be difficult today to imagine that an invasive procedure like destroying a large portion of the brain can be employed as a therapeutic approach. Yet, in 1949 the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Dr. Egas Moniz for his development of the frontal lobotomy technique. (Strange enough, Moniz himself was shot in the spine and partially paralyzed by a lobotomized patient.) Tens of thousands of people were lobotomized following World War II . Although frontal lobotomy did not significantly alter the patient's IQ or memory functions, some other profound side effects emerged."
The negative impacts of this surgical procedure on the personality of these patients were so serious that frontal lobotomies had to be abandoned after some years. Instances of local injury to the frontal lobes have clearly demonstrated that after losing parts of the forebrain, a human loses much of their moral values, ethics, and many of the general traits that make them human.
We can see this by looking at the case of Phineas Gage (2). According his doctor, who followed Gage for 12 years after the accident (until his death), "He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating ... His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was no longer Gage" (2).
It is interesting to note here that it is the forehead (forelock) that is mentioned in the Qur'an as the sinning part of the head: "No indeed! If he does not desist, We will certainly seize and drag him by the forelock; a lying, sinful forelock!" (Alaq 96:15-16).
On a different note, the benefit of exercise and physical therapy has been well established in neural disorders. The main rehabilitative effect of physiotherapy in stroke patients and other neurological disorders is the elevation of neural activity in the spinal cord and the brain, which in turn encourages the neurons to rewire, i.e. form new connections and replace the networks that have been lost due to injury.
If we look at the Hebbian theory of learning, or neural plasticity (3) â€“ which can be summarized as, "neurons that fire together wire together" â€“ we can understand that when a subset of nerve cells in the central nervous system are somehow made to fire almost simultaneously, through exercise or other means, they begin to form connections. As a result, in injured patients, these new connections form a neural network that replaces or substitutes for the functions that are lost after injury.
Recent neuroscience research also shows that the rehabilitative effect is highly correlated with an increase in the blood flow to the brain area that is affected by the injury (4, 5). Contrarily, the blood circulation increases in an area of the brain within a few seconds as a response to increased neural activity because of a heightened demand for oxygen and glucose. Indeed, one of the most successful imaging techniques, the BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) fMRI technique, completely depends on this phenomenon. These basic findings in neuroscience teach us that there is a close relationship between the local blood flow in the brain and the neural functioning, and this is a part of the process of eventually forming new networks.
Going back to the concept of prostration, lowering one's head and putting the forehead on ground can elevate the blood flow to the frontal brain areas simply by the hydrostatic effect. We all know how blood rushes to the head when the legs are raised when lying down in the supine position. The neurological outcomes of hydrostatic blood pressures may not have been studied so far, as suggested by the lack of publications on this topic. However, in light of all the other evidence above, it would not be surprising to find out that the new neural networks form faster under higher blood flows and pressure to a local brain area.
Let us now recall the topics discussed above: prostration in Abrahamic religions, the role of the frontal lobe in forming ethical values, and the effect of blood circulation in forming new neural connections. All of this points us in one obvious direction. Prostration, or sajda, can increase the neural activity and promote new connections in the frontal lobe, a center that is instrumental in forming moral values. And this could be the neural basis of becoming more religious as one practices prostration as a part of his or her prayers. It also makes complete sense that The Creator asks His servants to worship Him with prostration that would make them better human beings, not only because of the spiritual experience, but also by endowing them with brain connections through prostration which will then function as receiving ears to future inspirations.
1. Bear, M., F., Connors, B., W., Paradiso, M., A., "Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain," second edition, Lippincott Williams& Wilkins, Baltimore, Maryland: 2001.
2. Harlow, J.,M., "Recovery from the passage of an iron bar through the head," Publication of Massachusetts Medical Society, (1868) 2:329-347.
3. Zhang P, Yu H, Zhou N, Zhang J, Wu Y, Zhang Y, Bai Y, Jia J, Zhang Q, Tian S, Wu J, Hu Y.' Early exercise improves cerebral blood flow through increased angiogenesis in experimental stroke rat model.," J Neuroeng Rehabil. 2013 Apr 26;10:43.
4. Zheng Q, Zhu D, Bai Y, Wu Y, Jia J, Hu Y., "Exercise improves recovery after ischemic brain injury by inducing the expression of angiopoietin-1 and Tie-2 in rats.," Tohoku J Exp Med. 2011;224(3):221-8.
5. Hebb, D.O.(1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.