Theology Thursdays: The Brain At Prayer By Anne Blair Gould
Why do humans pray? What happens in our brains when we meditate? Are we genetically programmed to look for the spiritual experience? These are questions that have driven American scientists to scan the brains of meditating monks and nuns at prayer - in the hope of understanding the link between the religious experience and the workings of the brain.
Ever since he was five years old, Andrew Newberg has been asking himself the big questions - why are we here? Is there a God? How big is the Universe? Now as a neurologist and radiologist, Dr Newberg is still asking big questions about how the mind and brain work - and whether it is possible to "see" a spiritual experience as it happens in the brain. "We've been doing brain-imaging studies to look at what goes on when somebody is praying," explains Dr Newberg, who is Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia. "We wanted to find out how we as human beings experience certain types of spiritual events; how these spiritual experiences affect the different regions of the human brain and to ask important questions about the philosophical and theological implications of such research."
Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns
So Dr Newberg invited local communities of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns into the laboratory where, using radioactive tracers, he could monitor any changes in blood flow to the different regions of the brain during meditation. For this, Dr Newberg used a state-of-the-art imaging tool called a SPECT camera - SPECT stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography - which detects radioactive emissions. "Our volunteers were certainly very happy to take part in these experiments," explains Dr Newberg, "as we explained to them that we were not trying to diminish their experience or explain away a deeply personal and profound event."
So what was Dr Newberg's team looking for and what did they find? Dr Andrew Newberg: "Our theories about what goes on in the brain during spiritual practices is that many different areas of the brain are involved - that there's not one spot. Some people have talked about a "God Module" but we don't really feel that way. When one looks at the broad array of religious experiences, they involve our emotions, thoughts, sensations, feelings - I think it really has to involve many different regions all working together."
The main areas of the brain which the team thought would be involved include the Frontal lobes, which allows us to focus our attention, and the Parietal lobes, which help us distinguish ourselves from the outside world.
Altered sense of self-image
"When we stared looking at the results, we saw that a lot of our hypotheses were correct, says Dr Newberg. "When people meditated, they activated this front attention-focussing area of the brain and turned off this orientation, parietal part of the brain - basically blocking the sensory input into that part of the brain, which would be associated with an altered sense of self-image. We also saw a very significant increase in activity in an area known as the thalamus which plays a key-role in allowing parts of the brain to 'talk' to each other."
So what does all this mean? Did God create the brain or does the brain create God? Dr Newberg remains open-minded; "We've tried to come down in the middle - to find ways to bring science and religion together and to provide information to allow people to open up a dialogue, so that we can start asking the really big questions that all human beings have asked throughout time."
This article first appeared at Radio Netherlands
Thursday, May 1, 2003