- Washington Post, June 17, 2001 -
Tracing the synapses of our spirituality
Researchers examine relationship between brain and religion
By Shankar Vedantam
In Philadelphia, a researcher discovers areas of the brain that are activated during meditation. At two other universities in San Diego and North Carolina, doctors study how epilepsy and certain hallucinogenic drugs can produce religious epiphanies. And in Canada, a neuroscientist fits people with magnetized helmets that produce "spiritual" experiences for the secular. The work is part of a broad effort by scientists around the world to better understand religious experiences, measure them, and even reproduce them. Using powerful brain imaging technology, researchers are exploring what mystics call nirvana, and what Christians describe as a state of grace. Scientists are asking whether spirituality can be explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry. What creates that transcendental feeling of being one with the universe? It could be the decreased activity in the brain's parietal lobe, which helps regulate the sense of self and physical orientation, research suggests. How does religion prompt divine feelings of love and compassion? Possibly because of changes in the frontal lobe, caused by heightened concentration during meditation. Why do many people have a profound sense that religion has changed their lives? Perhaps because spiritual practices activate the temporal lobe, which weights experiences with personal significance. "The brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual experiences and religious experiences," said Andrew Newberg, a Philadelphia scientist who wrote the book "Why God Won't Go Away." "Unless there is a fundamental change in the brain, religion and spirituality will be here for a very long time. The brain is predisposed to having those experiences and that is why so many people believe in God."
The research may represent the bravest frontier of brain research. But depending on your religious beliefs, it may also be the last straw. For while Newberg and other scientists say they are trying to bridge the gap between science and religion, many believers are offended by the notion that God is a creation of the human brain, rather than the other way around. "It reinforces atheistic assumptions and makes religion appear useless," said Nancey Murphy, a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "If you can explain religious experience purely as a brain phenomenon, you don't need the assumption of the existence of God." Some scientists readily say the research proves there is no such thing as God. But many others argue that they are religious themselves, and that they are simply trying to understand how our minds produce a sense of spirituality. Newberg, who was catapulted to center stage of the neuroscience-religion debate by his book and some recent experiments he conducted at the University of Pennsylvania with co-researcher Eugene D'Aquili, says he has a sense of his own spirituality, though he declined to say whether he believes in God, because any answer would prompt people to question his agenda. "I'm really not trying to use science to prove that God exists or disprove God exists," he said. Newberg's experiment consisted of taking brain scans of Tibetan Buddhist meditators as they sat immersed in contemplation. After giving them time to sink into a deep meditative trance, he injected them with a radioactive dye. Patterns of the dye's residues in the brain were later converted into images. Newberg found that certain areas of the brain were altered during deep meditation. Predictably, these included areas in the front of the brain that are involved in concentration. But Newberg also found decreased activity in the parietal lobe, one of the parts of the brain that helps orient a person in three-dimensional space. "When people have spiritual experiences they feel they become one with the universe and lose their sense of self," he said. "We think that may be because of what is happening in that area -- if you block that area you lose that boundary between the self and the rest of the world. In doing so you ultimately wind up in a universal state."
Across the country, at the University of California in San Diego, other neuroscientists are studying why religious experiences seem to accompany epileptic seizures in some patients. At Duke University, psychiatrist Roy Mathew is studying hallucinogenic drugs that can produce mystical experiences and have long been used in certain religious traditions. Could the flash of wisdom that came over Siddhartha Gautama -- the Buddha -- have been nothing more than his parietal lobe quieting down? Could the voices that Moses and Mohammed heard on remote mountaintops have been just a bunch of firing neurons -- an illusion? Could Jesus's conversations with God have been a mental delusion? Newberg won't go so far, but other proponents of the new brain science do. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has been conducting experiments that fit a set of magnets to a helmet-like device. Persinger runs what amounts to a weak electromagnetic signal around the skulls of volunteers. Four in five people, he said, report a "mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near" them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits. "That's in the laboratory," Persinger said. "They know they are in the laboratory. Can you imagine what would happen if that happened late at night in a pew or mosque or synagogue?" His research, Persinger said, showed that "religion is a property of the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there."
Those who believe the new science disproves the existence of God say they are holding up a mirror to society about the destructive power of religion. They say that religious wars, fanaticism and intolerance spring from dogmatic beliefs that particular gods and faiths are unique, rather than facets of universal brain chemistry. "It's irrational and dangerous when you see how religiosity affects us," said Matthew Alper, author of "The God Part of the Brain," a book about the neuroscience of belief. "During times of prosperity, we are contented. During times of depression, we go to war. When there isn't enough food to go around, we break into our spiritual tribes and use our gods as justification to kill one another." While Persinger and Alper count themselves as atheists, many scientists studying the neurology of belief consider themselves deeply spiritual.
James Austin, a neurologist, began practicing Zen meditation during a visit to Japan. After years of practice, he found himself having to reevaluate what his professional background had taught him. "It was decided for me by the experiences I had while meditating," said Austin, author of the book "Zen and the Brain" and now a philosophy scholar at the University of Idaho. "Some of them were quickenings, one was a major internal absorption -- an intense hyper-awareness, empty endless space that was blacker than black and soundless and vacant of any sense of my physical bodily self. I felt deep bliss. I realized that nothing in my training or experience had prepared me to help me understand what was going on in my brain. It was a wake-up call for a neurologist." Austin's spirituality doesn't involve a belief in God -- it is more in line with practices associated with some streams of Hinduism and Buddhism. Both emphasize the importance of meditation and its power to make an individual loving and compassionate -- most Buddhists are uninterested in whether God exists. But theologians say such practices don't describe most people's religiousness in either eastern or western traditions. "When these people talk of religious experience, they are talking of a meditative experience," said John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "But religion is more than that. It involves commitments and suffering and struggle -- it's not all meditative bliss. It also involves moments when you feel abandoned by God. "Religion is visiting widows and orphans," he said. "It is symbolism and myth and story and much richer things. They have isolated one small aspect of religious experience and they are identifying that with the whole of religion."
Belief and faith, believers argue, are larger than the sum of their brain parts: "The brain is the hardware through which religion is experienced," said Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist who studies the effect of religion on people. "To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music." At the Fuller Theological Seminary's school of psychology, Warren Brown, a cognitive neuropsychologist, said, "Sitting where I'm sitting and dealing with experts in theology and Christian religious practice, I just look at what these people know about religiousness and think they are not very sophisticated. They are sophisticated neuroscientists, but they are not scholars in the area of what is involved in various forms of religiousness." At the heart of the critique of the new brain research is what one theologian at St. Louis University called the "nothing-butism" of some scientists -- the notion that all phenomena could be understood by reducing them to basic units that could be measured. "A kiss," said Michael McClymond, "is more than a mutually agreed-upon exchange of saliva, breath and germs." And finally, believers say, if God existed and created the universe, wouldn't it make sense that he would install machinery in our brains that would make it possible to have mystical experiences? "Neuroscientists are taking the viewpoints of physicists of the last century that everything is matter," said Mathew, the Duke psychiatrist. "I am open to the possibility that there is more to this than what meets the eye. I don't believe in the omnipotence of science or that we have a foolproof explanation."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company