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