The divine rush of running

Andrea Useem writes on’s Poked and Prodded blog about the condition known as runner’s high, and her own experience with it during her first marathon. The exultation she felt reminded her more of a religious experience than of any chemical rush, she says, and it piqued her interest enough to drill down into the phenomenon a bit more, interviewing Andrew Newberg, MD, a researcher who has explored brain imagery and how it changes during meditative experiences. Useem points us to a Pew event transcript in which Newberg and others talk about this phenomenon, and goes on to tie it back to her marathon experience:

I experienced my moment of transcendence near the end of the race, after close to two hours of running, when I had the strange sensation of being carried forward without conscious thought, as if my legs were running on autopilot.

Other runners, much more accomplished ones, have written of similar feelings. Ultradistance runner Yiannas Kouros wrote back in 1990 about the experience of nearly running himself to death and then having the amazing sensation of his mind taking over his failing body: “It is as if I see my body in front of me; my mind commands and my body follows…It is a very beautiful feeling and the only time I experience my personality separate from my body.”

“This is exactly what people describe experiencing in meditation or prayer, this sense of peak experience at moments of surrender,” says Dr. Newberg, noting that this may be related to a decrease in activity in the brain’s frontal lobes. Dr. Newberg’s brain-imaging studies of Tibetan monks in meditation, Franciscan nuns in prayer, and Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues showed decreases in activity in parts of the brain that orient and direct us in the world.

“When the part of your brain that normally makes you feel like you’re in control suddenly steps down, then automatic processes take over,” Dr. Newberg says, adding that it allows for moments of transcendence.

Read more about this here.

And, you’ll remember from last winter, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is a runner, too.

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