16616In Search of God
- May 3, 2009In the Sunday New York Times, there was an
article dealing with Faith and in it, they
cited this article from the New Scientist Magazine
that deals with "The God Question" that in a way
a previous recent post brought up. In any event,
it is very interesting in its own right/write. Enjoy!
In search of God
By Bob Holmes, New Scientist Magazine, 21 April 2001
Are our religious feelings just a product of
how the brain works? Bob Holmes meets the researchers
who are trying to explain our most sacred thoughts.
EINSTEIN FELT IT. It's what draws people to church,
prayer, meditation, sacred dance and other rituals.
Chances are you've felt something like
it too--in the mountains, by the sea, or perhaps
while listening to a piece of music that's especially
close to your heart. In fact, more than
half of people report having had some sort of
mystical or religious experience. For some, the
experience is so intense it changes their life forever.
But what is «it"? The presence of God? A glimpse
of a higher plane of being? Or just the mystical
equivalent of déjà vu, a trick the brain
sometimes plays on your conscious self? At some
level, of course, all our thoughts and sensations
--however unusual--must involve the brain.
Indeed, experiments on the brain have led
neuroscientists to suggest that the capacity for
religion may somehow be hardwired into us. If so,
why do people's religious experiences differ so
profoundly, moving some so deeply while leaving
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University
of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has been fascinated
by the neurobiology of religion for more than a decade.
He admits it's an awkward role for a scientist. "I
always get concerned that people will say I'm a
religious person who's trying to prove that God
exists, or I'm a cynic who's trying to prove
that God doesn't exist," he says. "But we try to
approach it without bias." Earlier this month he
published a book, which lays out the most
complete theory to date of how mystical or
religious experiences can be generated in the brain.
Together with the now deceased Eugene d'Aquili, a
colleague from Penn, Newberg was keen to study the
sensations that are unique to religious
experiences but shared by people of all faiths.
One of these is the sense of «oneness with the
Universe» that enthralled Einstein. The other
is the feeling of awe that accompanies such
revelations and makes them stand out as more
important, more highly charged, and in a way more real
than our everyday lives.
But Newberg realised that rare, fleeting revelations
would be almost impossible to study in the lab.
It meant he had to ignore the one-off
experiences that strike out of the blue and
focus instead on meditation
and prayer--sedate, but at least reproducible.
Through a colleague who practised Tibetan Buddhism,
Newberg and d'Aquili managed to find eight skilled
meditators who were willing to undergo brain imaging.
The volunteers came to the lab one at a time, and
a technician inserted an intravenous tube into one
arm. Then the volunteer began to meditate as
normal, focusing intently on a single
image, usually a religious symbol. The goal was
to feel their everyday sense of self begin to
dissolve, so that they became one with the image.
«It feels like a loss of boundary,» says Michael
Baime, one of the meditators and also a researcher
in the study. "It's as if the film of
your life broke and you were seeing the light
that allowed the film to
Hidden in the next room, Newberg and d'Aquili
waited. When the meditator felt the sense of
oneness developing--usually after about an
hour--they would tug on a string. This signalled
the researchers to inject a radioactive tracer
through the intravenous line. Within minutes
the tracer bound fast to the brain in greater
amounts where the blood flow, and hence brain
activity, had been higher. Later a scanner would
measure the distribution of the tracer to yield
a snapshot of brain activity at the time of binding.
The technique, called Single Photon
Emission Computed Tomography, or SPECT, allowed
the subjects to meditate in the relative peace
of the lab rather than the claustrophobic whirr of
a scanner. Once the tests were completed, Newberg
and d'Aquili compared the activity of the subjects'
brains during meditation with scans taken
when they were simply at rest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found
intense activity in the parts of the brain that
regulate attention--a sign of the meditators'
deep concentration. But they saw something else,
too. During meditation, part of the parietal
lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was
much less active than when the volunteers were
merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and
d'Aquili realised that this was the exact
region of the brain where the distinction between
self and other originates.
Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of
this region deals with the individual's sense
of their own body image, while its
right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context
--the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe,
the researchers thought, as the meditators
developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually
cut these areas off from the usual touch and
position signals that help create the body image.
"When you look at people in meditation, they
really do turn off their sensations to the outside
world. Sights and sounds don't disturb them
any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets
no input,» says Newberg. Deprived of their usual
grist, these regions no longer function
normally, and the person feels the boundary
between self and other begin to dissolve. And
as the spatial and temporal context also disappears,
the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.
More recently, Newberg has repeated the experiment
with Franciscan nuns in prayer. The nuns--whose
prayer centres on words, rather than images--showed
activation of the language areas of the brain. But they,
too, shut down the same self regions of the brain
that the meditators did as their sense of oneness
reached its peak.
This sense of unity with the Universe isn't the
only characteristic of intense religious experiences.
They also carry a hefty emotional charge,
a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists
generally agree that this sensation originates in
a region of the brain distinct from
the parietal lobe: the «emotional brain», or limbic
system, lying deep within the temporal lobes on
the sides of the brain.
The limbic system is a part of the brain that
dates from way back in our evolution. Its function
nowadays is to monitor our experiences and
label especially significant events, such as
the sight of your child's face, with emotional
tags to say «this is important». During an intense
religious experience, researchers believe that
the limbic system becomes unusually active,
tagging everything with special significance.
This could explain why people who have had
such experiences find them so difficult to
describe to others. "The contents of the experience
--the visual components, the sensory components--
are just the same as everyone experiences all
the time," says Jeffrey Saver, a neurologist at the
University of California, Los Angeles. "Instead,
the temporolimbic system is stamping these moments
as being intensely important to the individual, as being characterised by great joy and harmony. When the
experience is reported to someone else, only the
contents and the sense that it's different can
be communicated. The visceral sensation can't."
Plenty of evidence supports the idea that the
limbic system is important in religious experiences.
Most famously, people who suffer
epileptic seizures restricted to the limbic system,
or the temporal lobes in general, sometimes report
having profound experiences during
their seizures. "This is similar to people undergoing
religious conversion, who have a sense of seeing
through their hollow selves or superficial reality
to a deeper reality," says Saver. As a result, he
says, epileptics have historically tended to be
the people with the great mystical experiences.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, for
example, wrote of «touching God» during epileptic
seizures. Other religious figures from the past
who may have been epileptic include St Paul, Joan
of Arc, St Theresa of Avila and Emanuel Swedenborg,
the 18th-century founder of the New Jerusalem Church.
Similarly, neurosurgeons who stimulate the limbic
system during open-brain surgery say their patients
occasionally report experiencing religious sensations. And Alzheimer's disease, which is often marked by
a loss of religious interest, tends to cripple the
limbic system early on, says Saver.
The richness that limbic stimulation brings to
experience may explain why religions rely so heavily
on ritual, claims Newberg. The deliberate,
stylised motions of ceremony differentiate them
from everyday actions, he says, and help the brain
flag them as significant. Music, too, can
affect the limbic system, Japanese researchers
reported in 1997, driving it towards either arousal
or serene bliss. Chanting or ritual movements
may do the same. Meditation has also been shown to
induce both arousal and relaxation, often at the same time. "Sometimes people refer to it as an active bliss,"
says Newberg. That marriage of opposites, he thinks,
adds to the intensity of the experience.
Even if these feelings of oneness and awe fall
short of the personal experiences of God that
many people report, anyone who still doubts the
brain's ability to generate religious experiences
need only visit neuroscientist Michael Persinger
at Laurentian University in the bleak
nickel-mining town of Sudbury, Ontario. He claims
almost anyone can meet God, just by wearing his special helmet.
For several years, Persinger has been using a
technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation
to induce all sorts of surreal experiences in ordinary
people (New Scientist, 19 November 1994, p 29).
Through trial and error and a bit of educated
guesswork, he's found that a weak magnetic field--1
microtesla, which is roughly that generated by
a computer monitor--rotating anticlockwise in a
complex pattern about the temporal lobes will cause
four out of five people to feel a spectral
presence in the room with them.
What people make of that presence depends on their
own biases and beliefs. If a loved one has recently
died, they may feel that person has
returned to see them. Religious types often identify
the presence as God. "This is all in the laboratory,
so you can imagine what would happen if the person
is alone in their bed at night or in a church,
where the context is so important," he says. Persinger
has donned the helmet himself and felt the presence,
though he says the richness of the
experience is diminished because he knows what's
Not everyone accepts that Persinger's apparitions
could equal what religious devotees experience.
"That is quite detached from anything
that's a genuine religious experience, in the
same way that psychoactive drugs can affect mood,
but not in a legitimate way," says Julian
Shindler, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbi's office
in London. "It's not the genuine article, somehow."
Whatever their validity, Persinger's experiments
show that mystical experiences consist of not only
what we perceive, but also how we interpret it.
"We fit it into a niche, a pigeonhole," says Persinger.
"The label that is then used to categorise the
experience will influence how the person remembers
it. And that will happen within a few
seconds." There's a third aspect, too: the
reinforcement that humans, as social animals,
get from sharing religious rituals with others.
"Religion is all three of those, and all three are
hardwired into the brain," says Persinger. "We are
hardwired to have experiences from time
to time that give us a sense of a presence, and
as primates we're hardwired to categorise our
experiences. And we crave social interaction
and spatial proximity with others that are the
same. What's not hardwired is the content. If you
have a God experience and the belief is
that you have to kill someone who doesn't believe
as you do, you can see why the content from the
culture is the really dangerous part."
So where does all this leave us? For whatever
reason--natural or supernatural--our big, powerful
brains clearly allow a novel sort of
experience that we call religion. But it's difficult
to say much more than that. "In a sense, biology evolving has discovered something new about the Universe,"
says Charles Harper, executive director of the
Templeton Foundation, a private institution that
explores the interaction between religion and science.
"Almost all cultures have this religious sense,"» he says.
"Does that offer any insight for understanding the
grain of the Universe? That's a haunting question."
Sceptics of religion are quick to claim that the
brain's hardwiring proves that God has no real
existence, that it's all in the brain. "The
real common denominator here is brain activity,
not anything else," says Ron Barrier, a spokesman for American Atheists based in Cranford, New Jersey. "There is
nothing to indicate that this is externally imposed or
that you are somehow tapping into a divine entity."
But Newberg isn't so sure. "We can't say they're wrong,"
he says. "On the other hand, if you're a religious
person, it makes sense that the
brain can do this, because if there is a God, it
makes sense to design the brain so that we can
have some sort of interaction. And we can't say
that's wrong, either. The problem is that all of
our experiences are equal, in that they are all
in the brain. Our experience of reality, our
experience of science, our mystical experiences
are all in the brain."
In fact, he goes on, practically the only way
we can judge the reality of an experience is by
how real it feels: "You can have a dream and it
feels real at the time, but you wake up and it
no longer feels as real. The problem is, when
people have a mystical experience, they think that
is more real than baseline reality--even when
they come back to baseline reality. That turns
everything around." To Newberg, it means that
reductionist science, powerful as it is, has
Religious experts agree. "You could say Shakespeare's
sonnets are nothing but a combination of pencil
lead and cellulose," says Harper.
"But you could also say this is the outflow of
a great soul, and that would also be true."
He says there are different levels of explanation
which are each true at their own level, but
which don't offer a comprehensive explanation.
Just as physicists cannot fully understand the
electron as either a particle or a wave, but
only as both at once, says Newberg, so we need
both science and a more subjective, spiritual
understanding in order to grasp the full nature of reality.
Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg, Eugene d'Aquili and Vince
Rause (Ballantine Books, 2001)
«The neural substrates of religious experience» by Jeffrey Saver and
John Rabin, The Journal of Neuropsychiatry, vol 9, p 498 (1997)
«Experimental induction of the 'sensed presence' in normal subjects and
an exceptional subject» by C. M. Cook and Michael Persinger, Perceptual
and Motor Skills, vol 85, p 683 (1997)
>From New Scientist magazine, 21 April 2001.http://www.newscientist.com/newsletter/features.jsp?id=ns22871
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