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16616In Search of God

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  • medit8ionsociety
    May 3, 2009
      In 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
      others cold?

      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
      be projected."

      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
      going on.

      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
      its limitations.

      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.


      Further reading:

      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.
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