Exploring the biology of religious experience
By RICH HEFFERN
Those who deeply and regularly pray report that when praying they feel at
one with the universe, unafraid of death and in awe of the Mystery they
connect with. Scientists have connected some of these people to instruments
that peer into the enchanted loom that is their brain, tracing the weaving,
flashing shuttles of their neural connections. They seek understanding of
the physical dynamics beneath those beatific experiences. They are probing
the biology of religion.
Studies have been conducted by scientists in Canada, Britain and the United
States. A key researcher in the United States is Andrew Newberg, a physician
and fellow of the Division of Nuclear Medicine at the hospital of the
University of Pennsylvania Medical School, in Philadelphia. Newberg worked
closely with Eugene dAquili, a professor of psychiatry at the hospital, who
died in 1998. DAquili began doing neurological studies of religion more than
25 years ago. Newberg began his
association with dAquili 10 years ago.
Their research suggests that religion is intimately interwoven with human
biology, that the brains structure, in fact, compels the spiritual urge and
that the brain has the capacity to make spiritual experience real. They use
the term neurotheology. Their
findings suggest religion and spirituality had anevolutionary function.
DAquili and Newberg first published their research and findings in
scientific journals, then in a book titled The Mystical Mind: Probing the
Biology of Religious Experience, published in 1999 by Fortress Press, a
Lutheran publisher. Their new book, Why God Wont Go Away: Brain Science and
the Biology of Belief, was released by Ballantine Books on April 3. This new
book is a more popular reworking and update of their research.
In their empirical work, these researchers constructed a model of what
happens in the brain during significant spiritual experiences by peering
into the gray matter of praying Franciscan nuns and meditating Tibetan monks
is known as single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT).
Conclusions based on their laboratory findings and on what is already known
about brain function reveal surprising insights into the biological basis of
Activation studies using image-scanning techniques have given us a detailed
picture of functions of the individual structures of the brain, according to
Newberg. We know which areas of the brain are associated with the five
senses, which are activated by motor behaviors, from jogging to making
high-fives. Scientists watch various parts of the brain turn on and off as
subjects do algebra, write verse or feel a cramp. More information comes
from studying patients with injuries or tumors in various areas.
Neurobiological research, though, has largely bypassed religious experiences
and beliefs except that done by a handful of scientists.
Until the 1970s, religious experience and activity were believed to be
purely cultural phenomena, a product of social conditioning, and not in any
way biological. Little effort was made to investigate the physiological
aspects of, say, ritual or chant. Thanks to the work of dAquili, Newberg and
their colleagues, the biological side is becoming an important component in
the study of human religious experience.
Spiritual experiences are the inevitable outcome of brain wiring, said
Newberg. We believe that the human brain has been genetically wired to
encourage religious beliefs.
The two scientists have identified areas of the brain that work together to
provide the network that underlies religious activities like prayer,
meditation or ritual. They have found evidence that, for example, liturgy
has an evolutionary survival value (see sidebar, page 16). The capacity for
mystical experience, they theorize, is a byproduct of sexual development in
the human. They think that the religious experiences people near death
commonly report have a neurological basis.
Religious and spiritual experiences are typically highly complex, involving
emotions, thoughts, sensations and behaviors. These experiences seem far too
rich and diverse to derive solely from one part of the brain, according to
Newberg. It is more likely that many parts of the brain are involved. They
have evidence that both the arousal and quiescent systems, the most basic
parts of the bodys nervous system, are involved in religious activity. Also,
the limbic system, the old part of the brain that controls and conveys
emotions, seems to be a key player. Other brain organs like the
hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus participate, too.
Newberg and dAquili point out that as soon as the human brain became
sufficiently complex in structure, mind took shape, consciousness sparked
into being. They use the terms mind and brain in the same way physicists
talk of light in terms of wave
and particle, two ways of looking at the same thing.
Andrew Newberg was raised in the Jewish tradition; Eugene dAquili came from
the Catholic one. Newberg told NCR that his colleague and friend loved to go
to Mass, that his avid interest in religious liturgy and practice certainly
stemmed from this heritage. DAquili held a doctorate in anthropology. They
met when Newberg was a medical student; the combination of dAquilis
interests and Newbergs background in brain imaging allowed the two to move
forward in research.
Hooked up to prayer
Their lab work involved brain scans of experienced Tibetan Buddhist
meditators and Franciscan nuns seasoned in prayer. The investigative
technique they use is fairly simple, starting with a baseline scan of the
subjects brain state at rest. They then
hook her up to a long intravenous line. A simple string tied to a finger
allows the subject to signal to the doctors when she has entered the deepest
stages of her prayer. At that signal they inject a radioactive dye into the
line, wait for the prayer to finish, then trot the subject off to the SPECT
camera waiting in the Nuclear Medicine Department.
The camera detects radioactive emissions. The injected tracer locks almost
immediately into brain cells and stays there for hours, so they soon have an
image of blood flow patterns as they occurred just moments after the
injection. Increased blood
flow to a part of the brain correlates directly with heightened activity.
Since neuroscience has a good idea of the specific functions performed by
brain regions, the SPECT images reveal what the brain was doing at the
moment of injection.
Finished images (see photos) showed increased activity in the frontal lobes,
the attention area, and decreased activity in the posterior superior
parietal lobe. Biologists know that this latter area of the brain primarily
orients us in space, keeping track of which way is up or down, forward or
behind, and helping us judge distances and angles. Structures in this part
of the brain combine to form the orientation association area (OAA), which
must constantly generate a clear, consistent awareness of the
physical limits of the self in order for us to function without looking like
Buster Keaton, always stumbling and collapsing.
Its the minds way of telling us the difference between us and everything
else, and its a function that must work all the time flawlessly so we can
get around. People who suffer injuries in this area have difficulty
maneuvering in space; they are unable to even get into bed or lie down once
The increased activity in the attention area was expected, since meditation
tends to focus the brain. Scientists know however that the OAA never rests,
according to Newberg, so what would cause the drop in activity in an
essential function area of the
What if the area was working as hard as ever, but somehow the act of
meditating had blocked its flow of sensory input? We were fascinated by this
possibility, said Newberg. Does meditation blind the OAA deliberately? And
if the OAA has no
information upon which to work, what would the brain make of it?
Newberg and dAquili write: Would the orientation area interpret its failure
to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that
such a distinction doesnt exist? In that case the brain would have no choice
but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with
everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel
utterly and unquestionably real.
This is exactly how the empirical subjects and generations of people of
prayer before them have described their peak mystical moments: the
dissolving of boundaries between the self and everything else. A
13th-century Franciscan Angela of Foligno expressed it this way: I possessed
God so fully that I was no longer in my previous customary state but was led
to find a peace in which I was united with God and was content with
everything. Consult manuals of Zen meditation, texts from Hindus, Sufis or
Christian desert fathers on prayer and you will find the same generic
description, couched in the language of that particular culture and
tradition -- a description of unitary states.
Newberg and dAquili believe that the neurological phenomenon known as
deafferentation, when a brain structure is cut off from sensory input
(afferents), is responsible for the experience of a unitary state.
Newberg told NCR that there were differences found between the scans of the
Franciscans and those of the Tibetans. The sisters had been doing Centering
Prayer, which traditionally involves the interior repetition of a Christian
phrase or mantra, which leaves the praying person open to experiencing Gods
presence. Their SPECT scans showed activity in the right inferior parietal
lobe, a part of the brain known to be involved in evaluating the emotional
weight and inflection of
words, phrases. Someone with damage in that area would not be able to
evaluate, for example, the phrase, Get out of
here! as either a rejecting command or a slang phrase for disbelief. The
same deafferentation of the orientation area was observed as well. Its
interesting that the nuns prayer, which was more involved with words, showed
activation in the brains
word areas, Newberg said. Such findings reinforce the validity of the study.
The machinery of transcendence
The overcoming of the barriers between the individual and the Absolute is
the great mystical achievement, wrote William James more than 100 years ago.
Once revered as sages and seers in ancient and medieval societies, mystics
fell on hard times in the age of rationality, often being considered as
delusional or disordered. That is changing as a result of the recent
interest in all things spiritual.
We now know the health benefits of spirituality. Significant research shows
that people who pray on a regular basis enjoy higher levels of psychological
health than the public at large, according to Newberg. Meditation, for
example, lowers blood pressure, heart rate and decreases anxiety and
depression. Ironically, the American Psychiatric Association listed strong
religious belief as a disorder in their diagnostic manual as late as 1974.
>From relaxing in a tub after a hard day to the most profound prayer, the
brains complex functions, evolved over millions of years, make possible this
continuum of unitary states that culminate in the deepest religious
experiences. Throughout human
prehistory and history, write Newberg and dAquili, mystical techniques were
intuitively devised by shamans, saints, gurus, dervishes and spiritual
masters -- ways like prayer, chanting, meditation or ritual -- to trigger
the process of deafferentation, leading to various degrees of unitary
states, in turn perpetuating human spirituality.
What evolutionary advantage do mystical states bring to human development?
We suspect all this did not evolve initially for spiritual purposes.
Evolution doesnt plan ahead, said Newberg. Instead intermediate steps evolve
for their own reasons, like nubbins on small reptiles in the Cretaceous era
that made for better temperature control, then gradually elongated into more
complex webbing that made gliding possible, then full-fledged wings that
could be used for the first animal flight.
We believe the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from
the neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience, said
Newberg. Mystics use terms like bliss, rapture, ecstasy, exaltation. Its no
accident that this is also the
language of sexual arousal, Newberg and dAquili write. Scientists think the
quiescent and limbic systems evolved partly to link sexual activity to the
pleasurable experience of orgasm, with obvious evolutionary benefits.
Components of the limbic system are involved in the deafferentation process.
Psychologists have long known that play and social activity are not just
related to socialization but also influence development of the brain. Sex
and prayer are obviously not the same experience, said Newberg.
Neurologically they are quite different, but mystical prayer and sexual
bliss use similar neural pathways.
There is a hopeful quality to their research, according to Newberg, since
mystical practice may be the best way to change human behavior for the
better in the long run. Consider that domination, greed, cruelty, violence
and all our other ills arise from an insufficient and insecure being, writes
Beatrice Bruteau, an expert on Eastern mysticism quoted in their new book.
Newberg adds that their work also sheds light on the problem of religious
intolerance. Incomplete unitary states might leave a person feeling hostile
to anyone who contradicts their vividly real experience of oneness with God
the Father, Allah or Jesus.
The origins of theology
Everything that happens to us or any action we take can be associated with
activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes
necessarily all religious and spiritual activity and experiences. The only
place God can manifest Gods existence is in the tangled neural pathways and
physiological structures of the brain.
The Word must be made electrochemical to spark across the synapses and
travel our fleshy nerve pathways.
Religion persists because brain wiring continues to provide us with a range
of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God
exists, write Newberg and dAquili. Although its unlikely that the
machineries of transcendence evolved
specifically for spiritual reasons, it seems obvious now that evolution has
picked up on these dynamics and favored the religious brain, they write,
because religious behaviors are good for us.
>From the brains perspective, religion is a wonderful tool and will be around
for a long time to come. But were not saying thats all religion is, Newberg
said, just a trick biology plays on us to keep us healthy. They are
suggesting that the neurological basis for religion can be considered from
the biological or evolutionary perspective, or from others. Its also
probable that the brain structures and functions that allow spirituality to
happen are also ways to connect us with something real beyond the brain.
These are questions for the new field of neurotheology.
What are the implications for theology of studying religion as a
neurophysiological phenomenon? Scholars like Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade,
Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung devoted themselves to the study of the
phenomenology of religion, advancing our knowledge in significant ways. This
new research puts a biological foundation under them, Newberg said.
Theology is a reasoned analysis applied to religious experiences and
beliefs. Its important to consider the functioning of the brain in
considering how we experience God. Newberg says that biology helps explain
why theology exists in the first place.
Newberg and dAquilis work suggests that the complexity of the human brain,
with its billions of neural connections, a complexity that developed to
enable us to survive in hard and hostile environments like those of the Ice
Ages, drove, and still drive, us to, for example, find out what causes what.
In order to get by in a difficult world, Newberg and dAquili theorize that
the brain early on developed what they call a causal operator -- a
combination of brain and mind functions working together -- that must
continually search for and determine why this or that is happening.
For example, that causal operator lets us be aware our fingers hurt because
we handled that hot coal. Research shows that this causal operator is a
function of the left association area and the left parietal lobe in the
brain working together. People who have strokes or tumors in brain areas
that contribute to the causal operator cant determine why something
The causal operator never had an off switch, write Newberg and dAquili.
Maybe between hunts hundreds of thousands of years ago, a few of our
theologically inclined ancestors kicked back, relaxed and used their brains
causal operator in more abstract ways. Their musings eventually would take
causality back, says Newberg, until their minds stumbled up against the
notion of the uncaused cause.
The brains causal operator has probably always driven us to speculate about
why we are here, what the purpose of the universe is, write Newberg and
dAquili. This function of the brain is genetically hardwired into all of us.
Also, the human brain, as soon as it was complex enough to develop a
self-aware mind, discovered death. Newberg and dAquili theorize that the
existential anxiety associated with knowing about death drove us to invent
myth-making ability and the capacity for ritual.
Religion is partly the coinage of our unquiet thoughts. Early in human
development, it seems, our big brains cornered us into becoming liturgists,
religious storytellers and, of course, theologians.
In February 2001, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical
Academy for Life, the Vaticans leading expert on bioethical issues and
medical research, responding to a news report on Newberg and dAquilis work,
said: You cant say its
the brain that causes prayer. That would be confusing the effect with the
cause. As for the idea that the feeling of being in Gods presence might
simply be the result of the brains activity, Sgreccia said that indicated a
mistaken, materialistic view of human actions.
Newberg responded: One can look at our findings and interpret them in a
reductionist way, of course, and many of our critics do. Yet were not simply
saying that the brain creates God, rather that the brain has quite naturally
developed the mechanisms for religious experiences.
Is religion, in other words, merely a product of biology -- a neurological
illusion -- or does the fact that our brains function in such a curious way
argue that God is not only real but reachable?
What if biology has laid down neural paving stones leading to God?
In their new book, Newberg and dAquili quote biologist Edwin Chargaff, who
thinks all real scientists are driven by the mysterious intuition that
something immense and unknowable dwells in the material world. If [a
scientist] has not experienced, wrote Chargaff, at least a few times, this
cold shudder down the spine, this confrontation with an immense, invisible
face whose breath moves him to tears, then he is not a scientist.
The shrewd honesty that is the scientific method hints that in part God may
be an emergent presence, seeking to be known, within our own bodies, those
same bodies so denigrated by the old dualistic religious view that severed
spirit from matter.
Scientist, nun, monk or layperson, we all have brains capable of feeling
those shudders and flesh on which can be raised the goose bumps of awe.
Humans, it seems, are literally made for contemplation.
Rich Hefferns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001
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