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Newsweek Cover: ‘God & the Brain: How We’re Wired for Spirituality’

Maynard S. Clark MSClark@MEDIAONE.NET
Mon, 30 Apr 2001 00:58:43 -0700


Newsweek Cover: 'God & the Brain: How We're Wired for Spirituality'
New Field of 'Neurotheology' Links Brain Activity to Spiritual, Mystical
Experiences, Contemplation

NEW YORK, April 29 /PRNewswire/ -- A new field of scientific research is
showing how the human brain responds to -- and may create -- religious
experiences and intimations of the divine. A slew of new books, scientific
publications and the establishment of research centers in "neurotheology"
are trying to identify what seems to be the brain's spirituality circuit,
and to explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move
believers and nonbelievers alike, Newsweek reports in its cover package in
the May 7 issue (on newsstands Monday April 30).

(Photo:  http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20010429/HSSU001 )

All the new research shares a passion for uncovering the neurological
underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences and for discovering
what happens in our brains when we sense that we have encountered a reality
different from the reality of an every-day experience, writes Senior Editor
Sharon Begley. In neurotheology, the study of the neurobiology of religion
and spirituality, psychologists and neurologists try to pinpoint which
regions of the brain turn on, and which turn off, during experiences that
seem to exist outside time and space. The studies try to identify the brain
circuits that surge with activity when we think we have encountered the
divine, and when we feel transported by intense prayer, an uplifting ritual
or sacred music.

Brain imaging techniques have enabled scientists to prove that spiritual
contemplation or a religious experience affects brain activity. What they
found is that as expected, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the seat of
attention, lit up, and what surprised them was the quieting of activity. A
bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of
the brain, went dark. This region, nicknamed the "orientation association
area," processes information about space and time, and the orientation of
the body in space. It determines where the body ends and the rest of the
world begins.

But, the bottom line, says Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of
Pennsylvania, a radiology specialist, is that "there is no way to determine
whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experience mean
that the brain is causing those experiences ... or is instead perceiving a
spiritual reality." In other words, as Begley writes, "it is likely that
they [scientists] will never resolve the greatest question of all --
namely, whether our brain wiring creates God, or whether God created our
brain wiring. Which you believe is, in the end, a matter of faith."

In a companion essay, Religion Editor Kenneth L. Woodward warns that the
problem with neurotheology is that it confuses spiritual experiences with
religion. "The most that neurobiologists can do is correlate certain
experiences with certain brain activity. To suggest that the brain is the
only source of our experiences would be reductionist," he argues.

(Articles attached. Read Newsweek news releases at

http://www.Newsweek.MSNBC.com. Click "Pressroom.")

Religion and the Brain

By Sharon Begley

One Sunday morning in March, 19 years ago, as Dr. James Austin waited for a
train in London, he glanced away from the tracks toward the river Thames.
The neurologist -- who was spending a sabbatical year in England -- saw
nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy
buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly,
about the Zen Buddhist retreat he was headed toward. And then Austin
suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever
experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the
physical world around him, evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn.
He saw things "as they really are," he recalls. The sense of "I, me, mine"
disappeared. "Time was not present," he says. "I had a sense of eternity.
My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death and insinuations of selfhood
vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of
things."

Call it a mystical experience, a spiritual moment, even a religious
epiphany, if you like -- but Austin will not. Rather than interpret his
instant of grace as proof of a reality beyond the comprehension of our
senses, much less as proof of a deity, Austin took it as "proof of the
existence of the brain." He isn't being smart-alecky. As a neurologist, he
accepts that all we see, hear, feel and think is mediated or created by the
brain. Austin's moment in the Underground therefore inspired him to explore
the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experience. In
order to feel that time, fear and self-consciousness have dissolved, he
reasoned, certain brain circuits must be interrupted. Which ones? Activity
in the amygdala, which monitors the environment for threats and registers
fear, must be damped. Parietal-lobe circuits, which orient you in space and
mark the sharp distinction between self and world, must go quiet. Frontal-
and temporal-lobe circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness,
must disengage. When that happens, Austin concludes in a recent paper,
"what we think of as our 'higher' functions of selfhood appear briefly to
'drop out,' 'dissolve,' or be 'deleted from consciousness'." When he spun
out his theories in 1998, in the 844-page "Zen and the Brain," it was
published not by some flaky New Age outfit but by MIT Press.

Since then, more and more scientists have flocked to "neurotheology," the
study of the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. Last year the
American Psychological Association published "Varieties of Anomalous
Experience," covering enigmas from near-death experiences to mystical ones.
At Columbia University's new Center for the Study of Science and Religion,
one program investigates how spiritual experiences reflect "peculiarly
recurrent events in human brains." In December, the scholarly Journal of
Consciousness Studies devoted its issue to religious moments ranging from
"Christic visions" to "shamanic states of consciousness." In May the book
"Religion in Mind," tackling subjects such as how religious practices act
back on the brain's frontal lobes to inspire optimism and even creativity,
reaches stores. And in "Why God Won't Go Away," published in April, Dr.
Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania and his late collaborator,
Eugene d'Aquili, use brain-imaging data they collected from Tibetan
Buddhists lost in meditation and from Franciscan nuns deep in prayer to ...
well, what they do involves a lot of neuro-jargon about lobes and fissures.
In a nutshell, though, they use the data to identify what seems to be the
brain's spirituality circuit, and to explain how it is that religious
rituals have the power to move believers and nonbelievers alike.

What all the new research shares is a passion for uncovering the
neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences -- for
discovering, in short, what happens in our brains when we sense that we
"have encountered a reality different from -- and, in some crucial sense,
higher than -- the reality of every-day experience," as psychologist David
Wulff of Wheaton College in Massachusetts puts it. In neurotheology,
psychologists and neurologists try to pinpoint which regions turn on, and
which turn off, during experiences that seem to exist outside time and
space. In this way it differs from the rudimentary research of the 1950s
and 1960s that found, yeah, brain waves change when you meditate. But that
research was silent on why brain waves change, or which specific regions in
the brain lie behind the change. Neuro-imaging of a living, working brain
simply didn't exist back then. In contrast, today's studies try to identify
the brain circuits that surge with activity when we think we have
encountered the divine, and when we feel transported by intense prayer, an
uplifting ritual or sacred music. Although the field is brand new and the
answers only tentative, one thing is clear. Spiritual experiences are so
consistent across cultures, across time and across faiths, says Wulff, that
it "suggest[s] a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and
processes in the human brain."

There was a feeling of energy centered within me ... going out to infinite
space and returning ... There was a relaxing of the dualistic mind, and an
intense feeling of love. I felt a profound letting go of the boundaries
around me, and a connection with some kind of energy and state of being
that had a quality of clarity, transparency and joy. I felt a deep and
profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there never
was a true separation at all.

That is how Dr. Michael J. Baime, a colleague of Andrew Newberg's at Penn,
describes what he feels at the moment of peak transcendence when he
practices Tibetan Buddhist meditation, as he has since he was 14 in 1969.
Baime offered his brain to Newberg, who, since childhood, had wondered
about the mystery of God's existence. At Penn, Newberg's specialty is
radiology, so he teamed with Eugene d'Aquili to use imaging techniques to
detect which regions of the brain are active during spiritual experiences.
The scientists recruited Baime and seven other Tibetan Buddhists, all
skilled meditators.

In a typical run, Baime settled onto the floor of a small darkened room,
lit only by a few candles and filled with jasmine incense. A string of
twine lay beside him. Concentrating on a mental image, he focused and
focused, quieting his conscious mind (he told the scientists afterward)
until something he identifies as his true inner self emerged. It felt
"timeless and infinite," Baime said afterward, "a part of everyone and
everything in existence." When he reached the "peak" of spiritual
intensity, he tugged on the twine. Newberg, huddled outside the room and
holding the other end, felt the pull and quickly injected a radioactive
tracer into an IV line that ran into Baime's left arm. After a few moments,
he whisked Baime off to a SPECT (single photon emission computed
tomography) machine. By detecting the tracer, it tracks blood flow in the
brain. Blood flow correlates with neuronal activity.

The SPECT images are as close as scientists have come to snapping a photo
of a transcendent experience. As expected, the prefrontal cortex, seat of
attention, lit up: Baime, after all, was focusing deeply. But it was a
quieting of activity that stood out. A bundle of neurons in the superior
parietal lobe, toward the top and back of the brain, had gone dark. This
region, nicknamed the "orientation association area," processes information
about space and time, and the orientation of the body in space. It
determines where the body ends and the rest of the world begins.
Specifically, the left orientation area creates the sensation of a
physically delimited body; the right orientation area creates the sense of
the physical space in which the body exists. (An injury to this area can so
cripple your ability to maneuver in physical space that you cannot figure
the distance and angles needed to navigate the route to a chair across the
room.)

The orientation area requires sensory input to do its calculus. "If you
block sensory inputs to this region, as you do during the intense
concentration of meditation, you prevent the brain from forming the
distinction between self and not-self," says Newberg. With no information
from the senses arriving, the left orientation area cannot find any
boundary between the self and the world. As a result, the brain seems to
have no choice but "to perceive the self as endless and intimately
interwoven with everyone and everything," Newberg and d'Aquili write in
"Why God Won't Go Away." The right orientation area, equally bereft of
sensory data, defaults to a feeling of infinite space. The meditators feel
that they have touched infinity.

I felt communion, peace, openness to experience ... [There was] an
awareness and responsiveness to God's presence around me, and a feeling of
centering, quieting, nothingness, [as well as] moments of fullness of the
presence of God. [God was] permeating my being.

This is how her 45-minute prayer made Sister Celeste, a Franciscan nun,
feel, just before Newberg SPECT-scanned her. During her most intensely
religious moments, when she felt a palpable sense of God's presence and an
absorption of her self into his being, her brain displayed changes like
those in the Tibetan Buddhist meditators: her orientation area went dark.
What Sister Celeste and the other nuns in the study felt, and what the
meditators experienced, Newberg emphasizes, "were neither mistakes nor
wishful thinking. They reflect real, biologically based events in the
brain." The fact that spiritual contemplation affects brain activity gives
the experience a reality that psychologists and neuroscientists had long
denied it, and explains why people experience ineffable, transcendent
events as equally real as seeing a wondrous sunset or stubbing their toes.

That a religious experience is reflected in brain activity is not too
surprising, actually. Everything we experience -- from the sound of thunder
to the sight of a poodle, the feeling of fear and the thought of a
polka-dot castle -- leaves a trace on the brain. Neurotheology is stalking
bigger game than simply affirming that spiritual feelings leave neural
footprints, too. By pinpointing the brain areas involved in spiritual
experiences and tracing how such experiences arise, the scientists hope to
learn whether anyone can have such experiences, and why spiritual
experiences have the qualities they do.

I could hear the singing of the planets, and wave after wave of light
washed over me. But ... I was the light as well ... I no longer existed as
a separate 'I' ... I saw into the structure of the universe. I had the
impression of knowing beyond knowledge and being given glimpses into ALL.

That was how author Sophy Burnham described her experience at Machu Picchu,
in her 1997 book "The Ecstatic Journey." Although there was no scientist
around to whisk her into a SPECT machine and confirm that her orientation
area was AWOL, it was almost certainly quiescent. That said, just because
an experience has a neural correlate does not mean that the experience
exists "only" in the brain, or that it is a figment of brain activity with
no independent reality. Think of what happens when you dig into an apple
pie. The brain's olfactory region registers the aroma of the cinnamon and
fruit. The somatosensory cortex processes the feel of the flaky crust on
the tongue and lips. The visual cortex registers the sight of the pie.
Remembrances of pies past (Grandma's kitchen, the corner bake shop ...)
activate association cortices. A neuroscientist with too much time on his
hands could undoubtedly produce a PET scan of "your brain on apple pie."
But that does not negate the reality of the pie. "The fact that spiritual
experiences can be associated with distinct neural activity does not
necessarily mean that such experiences are mere neurological illusions,"
Newberg insists. "It's no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations
are caused by brain activity than it is to say that the neurological
changes through which we experience the pleasure of eating an apple cause
the apple to exist." The bottom line, he says, is that "there is no way to
determine whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual
experience mean that the brain is causing those experiences ... or is
instead perceiving a spiritual reality."

In fact, some of the same brain regions involved in the pie experience
create religious experiences, too. When the image of a cross, or a Torah
crowned in silver, triggers a sense of religious awe, it is because the
brain's visual-association area, which interprets what the eyes see and
connects images to emotions and memories, has learned to link those images
to that feeling. Visions that arise during prayer or ritual are also
generated in the association area: electrical stimulation of the temporal
lobes (which nestle along the sides of the head and house the circuits
responsible for language, conceptual thinking and associations) produces
visions.

Temporal-lobe epilepsy -- abnormal bursts of electrical activity in these
regions -- takes this to extremes. Although some studies have cast doubt on
the connection between temporal-lobe epilepsy and religiosity, others find
that the condition seems to trigger vivid, Joan of Arc-type religious
visions and voices. In his recent book "Lying Awake," novelist Mark Salzman
conjures up the story of a cloistered nun who, after years of being unable
to truly feel the presence of God, begins having visions. The cause is
temporal-lobe epilepsy. Sister John of the Cross must wrestle with whether
to have surgery, which would probably cure her -- but would also end her
visions. Dostoevsky, Saint Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Proust and others
are thought to have had temporal-lobe epilepsy, leaving them obsessed with
matters of the spirit.

Although temporal-lobe epilepsy is rare, researchers suspect that focused
bursts of electrical activity called "temporal-lobe transients" may yield
mystical experiences. To test this idea, Michael Persinger of Laurentian
University in Canada fits a helmet jury-rigged with electromagnets onto a
volunteer's head. The helmet creates a weak magnetic field, no stronger
than that produced by a computer monitor. The field triggers bursts of
electrical activity in the temporal lobes, Persinger finds, producing
sensations that volunteers describe as supernatural or spiritual: an
out-of-body experience, a sense of the divine. He suspects that religious
experiences are evoked by mini electrical storms in the temporal lobes, and
that such storms can be triggered by anxiety, personal crisis, lack of
oxygen, low blood sugar and simple fatigue -- suggesting a reason that some
people "find God" in such moments. Why the temporal lobes? Persinger
speculates that our left temporal lobe maintains our sense of self. When
that region is stimulated but the right stays quiescent, the left
interprets this as a sensed presence, as the self departing the body, or of
God.

I was alone upon the seashore ... I felt that I ... return[ed] from the
solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is
... Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world encircling
harmony ... I felt myself one with them.

Is an experience like this one, described by the German philosopher Malwida
von Meysenburg in 1900, within the reach of anyone? "Not everyone who
meditates encounters these sorts of unitive experiences," says Robert K.C.
Forman, a scholar of comparative religion at Hunter College in New York
City. "This suggests that some people may be genetically or temperamentally
predisposed to mystical ability." Those most open to mystical experience
tend also to be open to new experiences generally. They are usually
creative and innovative, with a breadth of interests and a tolerance for
ambiguity (as determined by questionnaire). They also tend toward fantasy,
notes David Wulff, "suggesting a capacity to suspend the judging process
that distinguishes imaginings and real events." Since "we all have the
brain circuits that mediate spiritual experiences, probably most people
have the capacity for having such experiences," says Wulff. "But it's
possible to foreclose that possibility. If you are rational, controlled,
not prone to fantasy, you will probably resist the experience."

In survey after survey since the 1960s, between 30 and 40 percent or so of
those asked say they have, at least once or twice, felt "very close to a
powerful, spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself." Gallup
polls in the 1990s found that 53 percent of American adults said they had
had "a moment of sudden religious awakening or insight." Reports of
mystical experience increase with education, income and age (people in
their 40s and 50s are most likely to have them).

Yet many people seem no more able to have such an experience than to fly to
Venus. One explanation came in 1999, when Australian researchers found that
people who report mystical and spiritual experiences tend to have unusually
easy access to subliminal consciousness. "In people whose unconscious
thoughts tend to break through into consciousness more readily, we find
some correlation with spiritual experiences," says psychologist Michael
Thalbourne of the University of Adelaide. Unfortunately, scientists are
pretty clueless about what allows subconscious thoughts to pop into the
consciousness of some people and not others. The single strongest predictor
of such experiences, however, is something called "dissociation." In this
state, different regions of the brain disengage from others. "This theory,
which explains hypnotizability so well, might explain mystical states,
too," says Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society, which debunks
paranormal phenomena. "Something really seems to be going on in the brain,
with some module dissociating from the rest of the cortex."

That dissociation may reflect unusual electrical crackling in one or more
brain regions. In 1997, neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran told the annual
meeting of the Society for Neuroscience that there is "a neural basis for
religious experience." His preliminary results suggested that depth of
religious feeling, or religiosity, might depend on natural -- not
helmet-induced -- enhancements in the electrical activity of the temporal
lobes. Interestingly, this region of the brain also seems important for
speech perception. One experience common to many spiritual states is
hearing the voice of God. It seems to arise when you misattribute inner
speech (the "little voice" in your head that you know you generate
yourself) to something outside yourself. During such experiences, the
brain's Broca's area (responsible for speech production) switches on. Most
of us can tell this is our inner voice speaking. But when sensory
information is restricted, as happens during meditation or prayer, people
are "more likely to misattribute internally generated thoughts to an
external source," suggests psychologist Richard Bentall of the University
of Manchester in England in the book "Varieties of Anomalous Experience."

Stress and emotional arousal can also interfere with the brain's ability to
find the source of a voice, Bentall adds. In a 1998 study, researchers
found that one particular brain region, called the right anterior
cingulate, turned on when people heard something in the environment -- a
voice or a sound -- and also when they hallucinated hearing something. But
it stayed quiet when they imagined hearing something and thus were sure it
came from their own brain. This region, says Bentall, "may contain the
neural circuits responsible for tagging events as originating from the
external world." When it is inappropriately switched on, we are fooled into
thinking the voice we hear comes from outside us.

Even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual can be moved by
religious ceremonies and liturgy. Hence the power of ritual. Drumming,
dancing, incantations -- all rivet attention on a single, intense source of
sensory stimulation, including the body's own movements. They also evoke
powerful emotional responses. That combination -- focused attention that
excludes other sensory stimuli, plus heightened emotion -- is key.
Together, they seem to send the brain's arousal system into hyperdrive,
much as intense fear does. When this happens, explains Newberg, one of the
brain structures responsible for maintaining equilibrium -- the hippocampus
-- puts on the brakes. It inhibits the flow of signals between neurons,
like a traffic cop preventing any more cars from entering the on-ramp to a
tied-up highway.

The result is that certain regions of the brain are deprived of neuronal
input. One such deprived region seems to be the orientation area, the same
spot that goes quiet during meditation and prayer. As in those states,
without sensory input the orientation area cannot do its job of maintaining
a sense of where the self leaves off and the world begins. That's why
ritual and liturgy can bring on what Newberg calls a "softening of the
boundaries of the self" -- and the sense of oneness and spiritual unity.
Slow chanting, elegiac liturgical melodies and whispered ritualistic prayer
all seem to work their magic in much the same way: they turn on the
hippocampus directly and block neuronal traffic to some brain regions. The
result again is "blurring the edges of the brain's sense of self, opening
the door to the unitary states that are the primary goal of religious
ritual," says Newberg.

Researchers' newfound interest in neurotheology reflects more than the
availability of cool new toys to peer inside the working brain. Psychology
and neuroscience have long neglected religion. Despite its centrality to
the mental lives of so many people, religion has been met by what David
Wulff calls "indifference or even apathy" on the part of science. When one
psychologist, a practicing Christian, tried to discuss in his introductory
psych book the role of faith in people's lives, his publisher edited out
most of it -- for fear of offending readers. The rise of neurotheology
represents a radical shift in that attitude. And whatever light science is
shedding on spirituality, spirituality is returning the favor: mystical
experiences, says Forman, may tell us something about consciousness,
arguably the greatest mystery in neuroscience. "In mystical experiences,
the content of the mind fades, sensory awareness drops out, so you are left
only with pure consciousness," says Forman. "This tells you that
consciousness does not need an object, and is not a mere byproduct of
sensory action."

For all the tentative successes that scientists are scoring in their search
for the biological bases of religious, spiritual and mystical experience,
one mystery will surely lie forever beyond their grasp. They may trace a
sense of transcendence to this bulge in our gray matter. And they may trace
a feeling of the divine to that one. But it is likely that they will never
resolve the greatest question of all -- namely, whether our brain wiring
creates God, or whether God created our brain wiring. Which you believe is,
in the end, a matter of faith.

With Anne Underwood

Faith is More than a Feeling   The problem with neurotheology is that it
confuses spiritual experiences -

which few believers actually have - with religion.

By Kenneth L. Woodward

Skeptics used to argue that anyone with half a brain should realize there
is no God. Now scientists are telling us that one half of the brain, or a
portion thereof, is "wired" for religious experiences. But whether this
evolving "neurotheology" is theology at all is doubtful. It tells us new
things about the circuits of the brain, perhaps, but nothing new about God.

The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with
specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel
good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we
communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or
sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the
experience of divine presence. The sheer struggle to pray may be more
authentic than the occasional feeling that God is close by, hearing every
word. Very few believers have experienced what Christian theology calls
mystical union with God. Nor, for that matter, have many Buddhists
experienced the "emptiness" that the Buddha identified as the realization
of "no-self."

Neurotheologians also confuse spirituality with religion. But doing the
will of God -- or following the dharma -- involves much more than prayer
and meditation. To see Christ in the person of an AIDS victim or to really
love one's enemy does not necessitate a special alteration in the circuits
of the brain. Nor does the efficacy of a eucharistic celebration depend on
the collective brain waves of the congregation. In short, religion
comprehends a whole range of acts and insights that acknowledge a
transcendent order without requiring a transcendent experience.

On the other hand, most of us have at one time or another experienced the
dissolution of the boundaries of the self -- and a corresponding sense of
being at one with the cosmos. But such peak moments need not be religious.
William Wordsworth found release from self in nature, where his spirit
"Rolled round in earth's diurnal course/With rocks and stones and trees." A
very different poet, Walt Whitman, escaped his individual self by merging
imaginatively with the whole of democratic America -- and everybody in it.
What else is a rock concert but an assault on all the senses so that
individual identities can dissolve into a collective high? Even ordinary
lovers can momentarily feel at one with the universe through the mutual
meltdown of ecstatic sex: "Did the earth move for you, too?"

According to the neurotheologians, evolution has programmed the brain to
find pleasure in escaping the confines of the self. Some religious
practices bear this out. As every meditator quickly learns, reciting a
mantra for 20 minutes a day does relax the body and refresh an
overstimulated mind. The Bible, too, recommends contemplative prayer for
the busily self-involved: "Be still and know that I am Lord." But in the
yogic traditions of India, where overcoming the boundaries of the self is
central to spirituality, severe ascetic practices like fasting for weeks
and more.





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