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Scientist's Brain Scans Produce a Photo Album of the Soul

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Forwarded to us from an article in the St. Petersburg Times Scientist s brain scans produce a photo album of the soul The doctor asks the nun to begin her
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 17, 2008
      Forwarded to us from an article in the
      St. Petersburg Times

      Scientist's brain scans produce
      a photo album of the soul

      The doctor asks the nun to begin her centering
      prayer. It's a Catholic method of prayer, goes
      back to the 14th century, a form of deep
      meditation. The nun sits straight, in silence.
      She closes her eyes and focuses on a sacred word,
      or small prayer. She "rests in God."

      A catheter dangles from her arm. After 45 minutes,
      the doctor injects her with a radioactive tracer.
      He lets her pray 10 more minutes as the tracer in
      her bloodstream wends its way through her brain.

      Then he leads the nun into his lab, has her lie
      down, and scans her brain. He's using a process
      called single photon emission computed tomography,
      or SPECT. It's a common technique in nuclear
      medicine, used to photograph the brains of patients
      suffering anything from seizures to brain trauma
      to heart disease to Alzheimer's.

      The nun isn't sick. She's "on God."
      She's a person of faith donating the use of her
      brain to a scientist — Dr. Andrew Newberg of the
      University of Pennsylvania. Amid today's
      ideological struggles between people of faith
      and science, that kind of collaboration sounds
      heretical. But Newberg is among a small group
      of doctors and scientists on a different track.
      They do not find science and faith incompatible.
      They are using sophisticated technology to hunt
      down and map the soul.

      Newberg, a professor of radiology and psychiatry,
      is not religious. He's Jewish by birth, but Judaism
      isn't a big part of his life. If a dying patient
      asked him to pray beside him, he'd do it. But he
      wouldn't lead the prayer. When his 8-year-old
      daughter asks him about God, he answers her with
      a question: "What do you think?"

      But he has searched for spirituality in the brain
      for almost 20 years. He has probed the brains
      of praying nuns, meditating Buddhist monks, and
      Pentecostals as they speak in tongues. He has
      written three books: Why God Won't Go Away, The
      Mystical Mind, and his most recent, Why We Believe
      What We Believe. He has another book coming out
      next year.

      Scientific exploration of spirituality has
      quietly prospered outside the red zone of
      Darwinism, creationism, embryonic stem cell
      research and abortion. Newberg is a noncombatant.
      "The actual battle is overblown," he says from
      his lab in Philadelphia. "It focuses on extremists.
      It leads people to think scientists believe
      religion is a bunch of crap.''

      In Why We Believe, Newberg suggests the human
      brain can't function without beliefs, without
      a search for meaning.
      "In spite of our lapses of memory, our inconsistencies
      of logic, and the inherent shortcomings of
      consciousness, humans have done a pretty good
      job at surviving. For better or worse, we reinvent
      the world every day, searching for the ultimate
      reality we call truth, enlightenment, or God."
      • • •
      Besides, he wanted to know what's going on in there.
      In the early '90s, Newberg had fallen under the
      mentorship of psychiatrist Eugene d'Aquili, an early
      pioneer in the effects of religious and mystical
      experiences on the brain.

      Newberg was then a student at the University of
      Pennsylvania medical school. He was completing an
      extra year of research in nuclear medicine. But he
      had always been interested in psychiatry and brain
      research. D'Aquili's work looked especially novel,

      He made a pitch to d'Aquili: Why not test your
      theories in the brain scan lab, using human
      guinea pigs? Why not photograph brains during
      religious experiences?

      They found willing volunteers among three
      disparate groups: Tibetan Buddhist monks,
      cloistered nuns and Pentecostals who speak in tongues.
      Starting with the monks and nuns, they shot them
      up with radioactive isotopes and zapped them with
      the SPECT machine.

      If the brain houses such things as souls, they did locate them:
      • • •
      Looking for belief in the brain is like looking
      for God in the universe, Newberg writes. "God is
      everywhere and nowhere, depending on whom you ask,
      and the same holds true for beliefs: They seem to
      be everywhere and nowhere in the brain, again
      depending on whom you ask."

      But as Newberg combed through his brain scans of
      nuns and monks, some hot spots were obvious. The
      frontal lobes got especially busy. They're the part
      of the brain he calls the "attention area." The
      meditators had clearly tapped their frontal lobes
      to focus on their task.

      He also saw the thalamus kick in. That's a
      pea-sized piece of the brain atop the brain
      stem that, among other things, sends sensory
      information to the frontal cortex, where much
      of our heavy thinking happens. Whatever was
      happening in meditation, the thalamus was making
      it feel very real.

      The surprise was elsewhere, in the parietal lobe,
      the part of the brain that helps us orient ourselves
      in relation to things around us. Newberg discovered
      that the nuns and Buddhists had actually shut down
      that part of the brain, suspending their senses of
      space and time. It was then that they entered the
      peak of their transcendent experiences — altered
      states of "timelessness and spacelessness."
      Why the brain does it, no one knows.
      But it's not by accident.
      • • •
      Newberg is still looking. His next book, How God
      Changes Your Brain, comes out in March. It includes
      an online survey of people's different religious

      He concluded Why We Believe by saying we may
      never know all of why we believe. "It is the
      questions that give us meaning, that drive us
      forward and fill us with transcendent awe."
      All the scientist really knows is what he tells
      his 8-year-old daughter when she invents another
      new notion of God, of faith, of truth.
      "Isn't that interesting?"
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