This morning's *Salon* includes Steve Paulson's interview of
neuroscientist Andrew Newberg: "Divining the brain."
Here's Paulson's introduction, followed by the interview:
Can we actually see God in the brain? Well, not exactly. But a few
enterprising neuroscientists have found ways to detect and measure the
varieties of our religious experience. Using brain scanning technology,
researchers have been able to pinpoint which parts of the brain are
activated during prayer and meditation. While they can't answer the
biggest question of all -- does God exist? -- they are probing one of
the deepest mysteries in science: the nature of consciousness.
They're also wading into a thorny issue in the science and religion
debate: the connection between brain and mind. Most neuroscientists
assume the mind is nothing more than electrochemical surges among nerve
cells in the brain. But neuroscientists who study spirituality tend to
be open to the possibility that the mind could exist independently of
the brain. Some even question the materialist paradigm of science -- the
idea that the only reality worth studying is what can be tested,
quantified and reproduced. They wonder whether current scientific
methods will ever be able to explain consciousness. But others are
skeptical. Stephen Heinemann, president of the Society for Neuroscience,
recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I think the concept of
the mind outside the brain is absurd."
One of the pioneers in the new field of neurotheology is Andrew Newberg,
a 40-year-old physician at the University of Pennsylvania and director
of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, who has just published a
book, "Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need
for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth," written with his colleague Mark
Robert Waldman. Over the last decade, Newberg has conducted a series of
brain-imaging studies of various spiritual practitioners, including
Franciscan nuns, Buddhists and Pentecostal Christians who speak in
tongues. His lab research has brought some surprising -- and curious --
results. For instance, during his study of Pentecostals, Newberg was
amazed to see one of his own lab assistants start to sing and speak in
tongues. It turned out that she had been doing it as part of her own
religious practice for almost 10 years. Newberg himself hasn't joined
any organized religion, but he's clearly been influenced by various
Newberg uses an imaging technique called single photon emission computed
tomography, which measures blood flow in various parts of the brain.
More blood flow, of course, means more brain activity. In his studies,
Newberg has found that there's no single part of the brain that controls
all religious experience. In fact, a specific religious belief will
shape a person's spiritual experience -- and what happens in his or her
brain. And while his research falls short of proving the presence of
God, it does show that engaging our spiritual selves can have profound
effects on our biological selves, too.
I spoke with Newberg by phone about his brain-imaging studies, the
nature of mystical experiences, and whether scientists will ever crack
the mystery of consciousness.
Do you think the human brain is hard-wired for religious belief?
Well, I think the brain is structured in such a way that we can very
easily have religious beliefs and spiritual experiences. But the problem
with the term "hard-wired" is that it implies that someone or something
did the hard-wiring. And I'm not sure that I can say that. When we look
at how the brain is set up to help us understand our reality, it's very
easy to see how we have different types of spiritual experiences and
feelings of transcendence. And ultimately, this spills over into our
ability to form religious concepts. So our brain is always asking those
questions, which often wind up resulting in a spiritual or religious quest.
In your book, you say God may exist but we can only experience God
through our brain. Can brain-imaging technology actually tell us much
about the experience of the divine?
It certainly can tell us what happens in our brain when we have a
religious or spiritual experience. For example, in our study of
Franciscan nuns during prayer, our brain scans show what happens in the
brain if they experience being in God's presence. What those scans don't
prove is whether or not that experience was real in some sort of
objective sense -- that God really was in the room, communicating with
them. At this point in our technology, that is something we can't
answer. Whether we will ever be able to answer it, I don't know.
You studied Franciscan nuns who had prayed for decades, and you also
studied Tibetan Buddhists who'd meditated for many years. What happened
when they came into your lab?
We found that the Franciscan nuns activated several important parts of
the brain during prayer. One part was the frontal lobe. I've been
particularly interested in the frontal lobe because it tends to be
activated whenever we focus our mind on something. This can be very
mundane, like focusing on a problem we're trying to solve at work. Or it
can be focusing on a phrase from the Bible, which was happening with the
Franciscan nuns. They would focus their attention on a particular prayer
of great meaning, and they'd begin to feel a lot of unusual experiences.
They would lose their sense of self. They would feel absorbed into the
prayer itself. They'd no longer see a distinction between who they are
and the actual prayer process itself. Some people call it a feeling of
connectedness or oneness.
Another part of the brain that changes in the prayer state is the
parietal lobe. This is located toward the back top part of the head. The
parietal lobe normally uses our sensory information to create a sense of
our self and relates that self spatially to the rest of the world. So
it's that part of our brain that enables us to get up out of our chair
and walk out the door. We've hypothesized that when people meditate or
pray -- if they block the sensory information that gets into that area
-- they no longer get a sense of who they are in relation to the world.
They may lose their sense of self, and they feel they become one with
something greater -- ultimate reality or God.
Do the Buddhists have that same sense of oneness when they meditate? Was
the same thing happening in the brain, even though Buddhists don't
believe in God?
We did see similar changes. In both prayer and meditation, we see a
decrease of activity in this orientation part of the brain. So when the
Buddhist meditators feel a blending in or absorption with the visual
object -- in this case, they're doing a visualization technique -- we
see a similar change. And it raises some very intriguing issues. How
similar are these different practices? Are they associated with similar
or different changes in the brain? When these practitioners had the same
kind of experience -- a feeling of oneness or an experience of focusing
the mind -- we saw very similar changes in the Buddhist meditators and
the nuns. But one difference was the nuns actually activated the
language areas of the brain. Of course, that made sense because it was a
verbal practice. They were focusing on a prayer, whereas the Buddhist
meditators activated the visual areas of the brain because they were
focusing on a visual image -- a sacred object they would hold in their minds.
This is fascinating. You're saying once you get past a few specific
differences, the same kind of thing seems to be going on in the brains
of the Buddhists and the nuns. Both have a sense of oneness and that
oceanic feeling that the mystics have talked about for centuries, even
though their metaphysical systems are quite different.
Exactly. And part of why I've been doing this research for the last 10
years is to see where the similarities are. I think one of the great
equalizers, in many respects, is the human brain. If you go anywhere in
the world and take a person's brain and slice it up and look at it -- as
a lot of medical people do -- you will see a lot of the same basic
structures and connections and functions.
Clearly one thing you've done is to show there's nothing delusional
about spiritual or religious experience. This is a normal thing
happening in the brain. But I'm wondering if there's anything especially
spiritual about these experiences. Could an intensely pleasurable
experience -- say, sex or great music -- produce similar brain activity?
To a certain extent, I think it can. When we look at how the brain
works, it has a limited set of functions. So if one has a feeling of
euphoria -- whether one gets that through sex or religion or watching
your team win the championship -- it's probably going to activate
similar areas of the brain. There's a continuum of these experiences.
People can describe a religious experience as being anything from a mild
sense of awe to a profound mystical experience, where the person changes
fundamentally how they understand the whole world. Now, religious or
spiritual experiences do seem to be among the more complex sets of
experiences. When somebody meditates, it involves a lot of different
parts of the brain. There's not just a religious part of the brain. And
that makes sense when you look at the richness and diversity of these
But I think you're also asking one of the most important questions: Are
we really capturing something that's inherently spiritual? This is a big
philosophical question. If the soul or the spirit is really non-
material, how does it interact with us? Of course, the human brain has
to have some way of thinking about it. Perhaps the most interesting
finding I could have would be to see nothing change on the brain scan
when one of the nuns has an incredible experience of transcendence and
connectedness with God. Maybe then we really would capture something
that's spiritual rather than just cognitive and biological.
You also did a study of some Pentecostal Christians who speak in
tongues. What happened when you hooked them up to your brain-imaging
Well, this was a fascinating study for me personally. One of the
problems I have with the meditation studies and the nun studies is that
what they're doing is all internal. So you see them sitting in a room,
but you're missing the big fireworks. It's a much more fascinating
experience to watch people who speak in tongues. They're moving and
dancing and making vocalizations that are incomprehensible to the rest
of us. And we found some very unique differences from all the meditation
states that we'd seen. We saw an actual decrease of activity in the
frontal lobes. They are not really focusing their attention on the
practice of speaking in tongues. They actually lose their attention.
They feel they are no longer in control of what's happening to them. And
we think that may be associated with this drop of activity in the
When the Franciscan nuns prayed, they activated the language part of the
brain. Was that true with the people who spoke in tongues?
We did not observe that. That also is intriguing. Speaking in tongues is
a very unusual kind of vocalization. It sounds like the person is
speaking a language, but it's not comprehensible. And when people have
done linguistic analyses of speaking in tongues, it does not correspond
to any clear linguistic structure. So it seems to be distinct from
language itself. That's interesting because we did not see activity in
the language areas of the brain. Of course, if somebody is a deep
believer in speaking in tongues, the source of the vocalizations is very
clear. It's coming from outside the person. It's coming through the
spirit of God.
So what did you find most significant about that study?
The most fascinating result was that it represented a very different
type of spiritual and religious state than what we saw during prayer or
meditation. We saw very different changes in the brain. Different types
of religious practices and beliefs seem to be associated with different
changes in the brain.
I have to ask, do you meditate?
I don't do a formal type of meditation. A lot of why I got into this
research area in the first place was because of my own exploration of
how we understand reality. I was very intrigued by what our brain, what
our mind could find out about our world. It started out as a very
Western-based, scientific approach. But as I proceeded down this path,
my own thinking became much more contemplative and, in many ways, became
a meditation type of practice. So while I personally don't do a formal
Tibetan Buddhist or Zen meditation, I do look at contemplative
practices. And it's given me a better understanding of what people are
actually doing when they engage in these practices.
We have to recognize the limitations of science. It's great for
understanding that a certain medication is helpful for patients with a
certain disease, but it may not be helpful for trying to crack the nut
of human consciousness. And we may really need to develop a new kind of
science -- or at least a new approach to science -- that would keep the
strengths that science already has, but add a new layer to it that has
to do with subjective experiences and contemplative approaches.
One thing that's difficult about this whole subject is the language we
use. We've used words like "transcendent" and "mystical" and
"spiritual." Do they all mean the same thing?
Well, throughout this discussion we've been talking about spiritual and
religious experiences in the same way. And that may or may not be
accurate. I've come to realize that everyone defines those experiences a
little bit differently. So if I asked 15 people, what does spirituality
or God mean to you, I would probably get a different answer from each
person. But a lot of people will describe spirituality as having
something to do with a sense of the self connected to some greater
reality. Whether they ultimately call that a spiritual realm or some
deeper interconnectedness of all things in the universe, there's that
kind of similarity.
There is a history of defining some of these words in very specific
ways. Didn't William James define "transcendence" as something quite
rare -- experiences that are not reproducible?
That's true. People talk about transcendence as being indescribable or
ineffable. And they've tried to use certain kinds of ideas or emotions
to describe it. But that's part of the problem. A lot of these
experiences are indescribable. It's like trying to explain what love is
-- what it means to say you love your spouse or your child. How does one
describe that? We can talk about words but it's harder to get at what
exactly that experience is about.
Well, it raises interesting questions. In the William James definition,
the Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns in your lab were not having
a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime experience. This must be a problem
for you as a neuroscientist. I'm sure you'd love to see this kind of
experience in your lab, but it's highly unlikely you'll ever get a brain
scan with someone who has one of these truly profound experiences.
That's true. That is a great challenge for us to figure out how to
capture this very rare, mystical experience. The way we've established
our research is to look at a whole continuum. So even though the imaging
studies we've done haven't specifically measured or captured a mystical
experience, the changes that we see support an overall model that we've
been developing over the years. Different parts of the brain may be
involved when someone has one of those truly unique, life-altering kinds
Would you be willing to speculate here? Suppose you could somehow record
what the medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart or St. Francis talked
about -- these truly big, profound experiences? What's your guess as to
what happened in their brains when they had those experiences?
I think the orientation part of the brain would be profoundly affected.
So while we're seeing decreased activity in this orientation part of the
brain during prayer, for example, I think if somebody had a true
mystical experience, we would see a vastly greater change -- to the
point where there would be a complete loss of their sense of self in
relation to the world. Now, one other aspect of the overall function of
the brain that we haven't mentioned is the autonomic nervous system that
regulates our arousal and our quiescent responses in the body. What we
have hypothesized is that in these peak states, there is a simultaneous
activation of both this very profound sense of arousal and alertness and
also a deep sense of oceanic bliss and calmness. Maybe someday, if we're
fortunate enough, that could actually be captured on a brain scan.
There's a fundamental mystery in all of this research you've been
describing. A religious person might call a mystical vision a gift from
heaven, while a neuroscientist would say it's just an electrochemical
surge firing in the brain. Is there any way to resolve this question?
Well, I think there is. We really need to look not just at what science
has to say, but what the subjective nature of these experiences are,
what the spiritual side has to say. And it's been my goal to get people
to look at both of these perspectives. What is the reality of those
experiences -- that's really what the question is. Is it really a
spiritual reality, or is it just a biological one?
This is essentially the question that divides atheists from religious
Exactly. I think it's something that could be answered at some point.
But it really requires a philosophical and consciousness perspective, as
well as a biological perspective. What we have to be careful about is
explaining away those experiences just because we capture something in
the brain that's associated with these experiences. It's possible that
we might be able to explain it away at some point, but at this time, I
don't think we can.
I often get asked, could we just develop a drug that makes people
spiritual? Well, that already exists. If you look at shamanic cultures
throughout the world, many use different substances that don't diminish
their experiences at all. It doesn't become just a drug-induced state
that affects their physiology. It's their way of opening up their brain
as a window into the spiritual realm. Again, I think it ultimately comes
down to the belief systems that we hold.
Would it ever be possible to devise some kind of brain-imaging test to
get at the question of whether there is some reality outside of us?
That's really what we're talking about: some larger intelligence -- God
or some divine presence. Could we determine whether there's something
that's not just in our brains?
I think it would be very difficult. I never want to say never, but the
problem is that all of science is something that we as a conscious
observer look at and interpret. So we never really get outside of our
own mind to look at what's out there in reality. On the other hand,
let's say we get lucky enough to see an experience where someone does
feel they get beyond the brain, where they feel intimately
interconnected with the universe or with God. And we see whether or not
that is always associated with something going on biologically or
whether there's ultimately something that happens beyond simply the
biological. That's why I think we always need to consider both the
scientific perspective, but also, what consciousness is all about and
how the conscious mind interprets the world. I think it's possible, but
it's very complicated. Could we design an experiment to do that? I think
it's very hard to do without making a lot of assumptions that ultimately
will explode the research and foul us up in our science.
There's a basic metaphysical question here: Does consciousness exist
outside the brain? Do you want to weigh in on this?
Well, at this point, there isn't an answer. I'm open to both
possibilities. I don't think we have enough information to be able to
say one way or the other.