Why God Won't Go Away

Wednesday, 8 October 2003 - 5:00pm

200 College Hall

Why God Won't Go Away

Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

Andrew Newberg, MD

Assistant Professor of Radiology and Director, Clinical Nuclear Medicine
University of Pennsylvania Medical Center

Are human beings biologically compelled to make myths? What is the neurological secret behind the power of ritual? Are the transcendent visions and insights of the great religious mystics based on mental or emotional delusions? Or are they the result of coherent sensory perceptions shaped by the proper neurological functioning of sound, healthy minds? Could evolutionary factors such as sexuality and mating have influenced the development of religious ecstasy?

Join Andrew Newberg as he discusses the fascinating new field of neurotheology—the brain's role in mystical experience.

Event Synopsis

In a talk bearing the same title as his recently published book (New York: Ballantine, 2001), University of Pennsylvania radiologist Andrew Newberg argues that, whether God creates minds or minds create God, the human brain is "naturally calibrated" to spirituality. In the spirit of an anecdote in which a Buddhist spiritual leader advises his novices that it is neither flag nor wind that moves, but only the mind, Newberg sets forth his central inquiry: how does the mind move us to be spiritual? He and his colleagues have sought to identify the mechanistic functions of the brain that explain spiritual experiences across cultures and history. Against all expectations that God would, in fact, eventually "go away," religion—as Newberg observes—has continued to thrive well into the era of empirical scientificity. On the side of science itself, new fields are beginning to bridge the scientific-religious divide, such as cosmology and quantum mechanics, which investigate the nature of the universe, and neurobiology, which brings questions of spirituality under the helm of "hard" science. Newberg, who believes that the social, psychological, and spiritual are all interrelated and should be scientifically examined as such, proceeds methodologically in his experimental work by isolating the mind (defined as the functions of the brain) as the source of thinking and believing. Newberg departs from the premise of the cognitive imperative; that is, the automatic functioning of the brain, which is forced to use its cognitive abilities to process myth, broadly understood from the academic perspective as a story with authority that provides an explanation of reality. Myth operates through binary oppositions (God vs. human beings, good vs. bad, right vs. wrong) that help us to resolve those issues in a cognitive process that involves functions of both cerebral hemispheres. Ritual constitutes an "acting out" of myth that engages multiple sensory systems and produces a visceral feeling, fusing the cognitive with the experiential. A morally neutral technology, ritual may only be evaluated through a perspectival view: it decreases aggression within a single group, but increases aggression between groups; it leads to unitary experience, but that unitary experience is not necessarily perceived as universal. To explore the physiology of these issues in a quantifiable way, Newberg conducted a study of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, groups whose ability, respectively, to meditate and pray on command made them ideal candidates for measurement in a lab situation. Both sets of subjects describe meditation and prayer in similar terms, as a diminishment of the sense of self that awakens an oceanic feeling of quiescence and leads ultimately, amid moments of ecstasy, to a sensation of complete unity. SPECT (Single photon emission computed tomography) imaging was taken of the subjects' brains, first in a state of "everyday" conscious attention and then in a deeply meditative state. In both groups, these scans revealed that frontal lobe activity—in the attention center—increased during meditation, whereas parietal lobe activity—in the center responsible for orientation in time and space—decreased dramatically. Newberg was able to chart the path to "absolute unitary being" as a process of neurotransmission, yielding a neurobiological counterpart to the narrative description of heightened awareness and spatial-temporal fluidity as conditions of "oneness" with the universe. The furthest reaching implication of Newberg's findings is that there is a physiological drive in humans to traverse the continuum from everyday attention toward the spiritual state of "absolute unitary being." Religion, then, would be properly understood as a formal system that renders intelligible on a collective level the individual process of making that inner journey. This drive may stem from the positive impact of spirituality on health and well-being: blood pressure and heart rate drop in the state of "absolute unitary being," just as anxiety and depression have been found to be lower in members of spiritual communities. For the moment, however, Newberg prudently refrains from making such sweeping assertions, insisting on the need for further research. Perhaps relying on the written word to convey in an instant what science cannot without systematic proofs, Newberg suggestively commingles his caveat with powerful reference to diverse religious leaders and scientific thinkers (8th-century Taoist poet Li Po, Jewish Kabbalist Rabbi Eleazar, medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, 20th-century physicist Albert Einstein), whose philosophical teachings coincide in signaling "absolute unitary being" as the pinnacle of human spirituality and existence.