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God on the Brain

By February 23, 2015 No Comments

Over the weekend I heard Dr. Andrew Newberg speak; he’s a neuroscientist who researches the effects of religious experience on our brains. Newberg coined the phrase “neurotheology” and has written extensively on the ways that our human physiology interacts with religious faith. Using powerful imaging technology, he and his colleagues at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia have looked at how practices such as prayer and meditation impact blood flow to the brain and longer term structural changes in the brain. It’s fascinating stuff. For instance, neuroimaging shows that when people are deeply engrossed in prayer or meditation, the “orientation” part of their brains quiets down considerably. This biological phenomenon may well account for the way that those religious practices lend themselves to a feeling of losing a sense of self, even momentarily, in order to have a sense of transcendence and oneness with the Divine and humanity. It’s as though our brain stops paying attention to the delineations of self vs. other, and stops focusing our awareness on the immediate environment, and enables our minds to tap into a broader perspective. There’s a similar correlation, says Newberg, in brain imaging studies of people speaking in tongues. These people describe a sense of not being in charge of what they are saying, as though another entity is speaking through them. This is reflected in a corresponding decrease in blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain, which would provide the sense of not having intention over one’s actions.

Important questions remain, however–for example, Newberg is still exploring the more nuanced questions of why and how religious belief can lead to compassion and empathy in some cases and to hatred and violence in others. What makes religious belief and practice prompt Mother Teresa-like action in some, and terrorist activity in others? These questions strike me as increasingly important as we try to comprehend religion’s role in some of the atrocities happening throughout the world. I confess, however, that I remain a bit skeptical about what “neurotheology” can ultimately offer. I worry about the momentum of any theory that can too easily lead to a reductionist view of our experiences and of our sense of self. I worry about the ways that the “benefits” of spiritual practice get interpreted in medicalized terms, as if those outcomes are ends in themselves. I do hope that we can harness scientific revelation for the greater purposes of fostering global harmony and compassion even in the midst of tremendous religious and spiritual differences, but I also suspect that there will always be other realms of revelation at work that cannot be measured or pictured and which will always dwell in mystery.

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