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Scanning the mystical moment

Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Whether you're monastic or Pentecostal, scientists can now map spiritual activity in your brain - but does that prove God exists? BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY scans for answers with a pioneer in neurotheology.


Andy Newberg is something of a rock star in the small world of neurotheology. An associate professor in the department of radiology - with secondary appointments in psychiatry and religious studies - at the University of Pennsylvania, he has written three books and countless articles on the growing study of the brain in the throes of spiritual experience. In 2001 his research made the cover of Newsweek. Fellow neurologists sometimes tut-tut about the gleeful abandon with which he explores the human brain, but Newberg doesn't seem to care. He's traveled way too far into the brain to turn back now.

For the past few years, Newberg has studied spiritual experts of all stripes: Tibetan Buddhist monks, Franciscan nuns, Sikhs, Pentecostals - in other words, those who practice prayer and meditation long and hard. 'As one does a particular practice or a particular task over and over, that becomes more and more written into the neural connections of the brain,' he explained when I met him at the radiology department of the University of Pennsylvania. 'So the more you focus on something, whether it's math or auto racing or football or God, the more that becomes your reality.'

'But when people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?' I asked, picking up his ambivalence. Newberg was prepared with a careful answer. 'Well, it comes down to belief systems,' he said. 'When a religious person looks at our brain scans, they say, 'Ah, that's where God has an interaction with me.' An atheist looks at the data and says, 'There it is. It's nothing more than what's in your brain.'

In fact, Newberg is undecided as to whether brain images reveal there is a God or not. Materialists would say that brain scans prove that prayer is a physical process, nothing more; there is no need to bring an external Being into the equation. But Newberg points out that brain scans do not necessarily exclude an external being. Say you are eating a piece of apple pie, just out of the oven, topped with melting vanilla ice cream. If Newberg took a brain scan of you as you bit into the pie, various parts of your brain would light up - the areas that register smell, taste, form, and shape, as well as the area that recalls the memory of the time you tasted pie this good, at the county fair when you were six years old. The parts of the brain not involved with the task would go dark. But just because your brain is activated in a certain way, does that mean the apple pie isn't real? Of course it's real.

So far, Newberg has identified two types of virtuoso brains: contemplative brains and rowdy ones. Let's examine the contemplatives first. For this study, Newberg put Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhist monks (separately, of course) into the brain scanner at the University of Pennsylvania.

The 'theologies' underpinning these two practices have nothing in common. During their centering prayer - a meditative prayer that emphasizes interior silence - the nuns focused intently on God, and usually on Jesus. During their meditation, the monks nestled into a state of intense awareness, connecting with the underlying reality of life; their belief system excludes a supernatural, external 'God.' Yet each group's descriptions of those transcendent moments bore an uncanny resemblance.

'I felt communion, peace, openness to experience,' Sister Celeste, a charming 70-year-old Franciscan nun, recalled after emerging from the imaging machine. She felt 'an awareness and responsiveness to God's presence around me, and a feeling of centering, quieting, nothingness [as well as] moments of fullness of the presence of God. [God was] permeating my being.'1

Meanwhile Baine - a Tibetan Buddhist and a scientist who works with Andy Newberg - described his meditation experience as 'timeless and infinite.'
'There was an intense feeling of love,' he told Newberg. 'I felt a profound letting-go of the boundaries around me, and a connection with some kind of energy and state of being that had a quality of clarity, transparency, and joy. I felt a deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there never was a true separation at all.'

It sounded to me like two different road trips. The vehicles look entirely dissimilar, as does the scenery - one in the Redwood Forest, the other in the Swiss Alps. But gazing at the giant trees and towering mountains may stir up a similar sense of exhilaration or awe. For Andy Newberg, the question was this: What is going on under the hood? Are the brain mechanics the same for Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks as they experience the transcendent, just as two different cars in two different countries operate along the same mechanical principles?

That is precisely what Newberg discovered when he peered at their brain scans. With both the monks and the nuns, the front part of their brains 'lit up' as they focused on the task at hand. Think of the frontal lobes as the chief operating officer of the brain, one with accountantlike tendencies: it handles the details, helps plan and execute tasks, keeps you awake and alert and, above all, focused. It also processes memory and language and other complicated social tasks, such as figuring out how to behave at a cocktail party or how to respond to your spouse or friend or rival at work.

As the Christian nuns focused on God - on a word like Jesus or Elohim that helped them connect to the divine - their frontal lobes shifted into overdrive. Similarly, as the Buddhist monks meditated on an image that allowed them to connect with the ground of being, their scans showed their frontal lobes as a red glow of activity.

Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.
Newberg calls this the 'orientation area' because it orients you in space and time: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, God 'permeating my being.' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt 'a deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there never was a true separation at all.'

Newberg theorizes that when the nuns and monks focused on their mantra or image, their brain simply screened out other information. You're watching Casablanca and the oven timer goes off, or you're gazing rapturously at your beloved and the phone rings - you don't notice. Increase that a hundredfold and you would lose your sense of time and space. It is not that the orientation area of the brain is not working. Rather, the frontal lobes are physically blocking all the information going to the orientation area - the sounds, the sights, the dog at the door or the timer in the kitchen, the things that would normally create a picture of the world around you.

And yet the orientation area, conscientious beaver that it is, is still trying to do its job. 'It's still trying to create for you a sense of yourself and a spatial relation between you and the rest of the world,' Newberg says, 'but it has been deprived of the information that it normally has to do that, so you wind up with this sense of no self, no space, no time.'

Newberg's description reminded me of the way that psychedelic drugs may behave in a brain to create hallucinations. Some pharmacologists believe that drugs like psilocybin block out external sensory information, allowing you to create your own, transcendent, reality. Chemicals are quicker, but it may be that prayer and meditation accomplish the same high, only without the potential for a bad trip or ending up in handcuffs.

For me personally, Newberg's brain scans are theological dynamite. They boil down to this: a mystical state is a mystical state. The closer one draws to a transcendent state - or, as Newberg calls it, 'absolute unitary being' - the more the descriptions merge. Christian mystics sound like Sufi mystics, who sound like Jewish mystics, who sound like Buddhists. And from the brain's point of view, this makes perfect sense.

'Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and Jews who have had mystical states tend to describe these states as 'everything becomes one.' The same terms keep cropping up over and over again,' Newberg told me.

'When we look at the physiology of the brains, the most unitary state is one in which we completely deprive the orientation parts of the brain of information. So, physiologically it should be very similar. And philosophically it should also be similar. If you have a totally undifferentiated experience, it's undifferentiated. It really has to be the same regardless of where you're coming from.'

It doesn't matter if you scale the spiritual peak using Christian centering prayer, Buddhist meditation, or Sikh chanting. The destination is the same.
Newberg's research throws a gauntlet at the foot of my faith. If disparate religions drive the same neural routes to transcendence, can one religion claim that it is true and all others false (or at least deficient)? I had noticed in my reporting that the people who experienced mystical states tended to drop religious labels: if they had been Christian before, they often became 'spiritual but not religious' afterward, or they might incorporate other traditions into their practice of Christianity. One thing they often rejected, however, was an exclusive claim to Truth. This forced me to reconsider Jesus' statement, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.'

Perhaps, I reflected, Jesus' words were more nuanced than a literal reading of the text suggests.

featurehagerty2.jpgPRAYER WITHOUT THINKING
Andrew Newberg is an equal opportunity scientist. He is intrigued by brains in meditative states and in excited ones, which brings us to Pentecostal Christians. Anyone who has stood in a charismatic church and listened to the trilling of tongues (a phenomenon also known as glossolalia) could have told Newberg that these brains are nothing like those of contemplative nuns or Buddhist monks.

The question is, how are they different?

Newberg recruited five women who had spoken in tongues for several years. Since Newberg wanted to detect changes specific to speaking in tongues, he asked each Pentecostal subject to sing Gospel songs as the 'baseline' state, and then to speak in her unknown prayer language as the 'target' spiritual state. As in the other studies, a radioactive tracer was injected into the subject's bloodstream at the (presumed) height of her singing and glossolalia, capturing her brain in musical and then spiritual ecstasy.

Donna Morgan, one of the hospital's nuclear medicine technologists, told Newberg she had a deep interest in observing someone speak in tongues, and volunteered to help. Two minutes into the second session, the subject began uttering incomprehensible words, like a foreign language. She returned to English, then back to tongues. Newberg suddenly noticed Donna Morgan singing and moving around the room, and a few seconds later, she broke into her own prayer language.

'This is incredible,' Newberg whispered to another assistant, and they stared in astonishment as the two women gaily babbled away for the next 15 minutes. Morgan eventually became a subject and coauthor of the journal article describing brain activity while a person speaks in tongues.2

The brain scans suggest why glossolalia is rarely heard at Harvard or Oxford. From a cognitive-processing standpoint, it is rather lowbrow. For when Newberg developed the brain scans and peered at the frontal lobes - the executive part of the brain, which manages the higher thought processes - he stared at the images in disbelief.

'The frontal lobes actually shut down,' Newberg told me. 'This actually made a lot of sense to us on reflection. When you're meditating, you kind of control the process. You focus on something, you attend to something, and you're willfully doing that. In speaking in tongues, the experience is that your will is not in charge of this whole process. These people have surrendered, and whatever happens just happens through them, there's nothing specific that they are in control of.'

'Who is running the show, then?' I asked.

'Well, that's a good question,' Newberg responded neutrally. 'Obviously the spiritual answer is that it's the Spirit of God that is controlling this. From a physiological perspective, one might postulate that there's another part of the brain, a preconscious part of the brain that is causing these changes to occur. And that's why it sounds like language but it's not really language - because it is not tied into the cortical areas that would help you to produce something that is comprehensible. But we just don't know.'

In other words, Saint Paul may have been describing a neurological reality when he wrote to the Romans, 'We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.'3

Newberg spotted another unexpected activity in the Pentecostal brain. In contrast to the brains of the nuns and monks he'd studied, the activity in the parietal lobes (the association area) in the charismatic brains actually increased. While the nuns and monks lost their boundaries and merged into God or the universe, Pentecostals remained keenly aware of themselves as separate from God. It is a relationship, not a union, a finding that other 'neurotheologians' have picked up on as well.4

In short, speaking in tongues is the physiological antithesis to Christian centering prayer. Despite these groups' shared beliefs in Jesus as the Son of God, their spiritual practices have very little in common, both in the brain and outside of it - which is not to pronounce one right and the other wrong, but rather to suggest that there do appear to be many routes to transcendence.

However, what really caught Andy Newberg's attention was an inexplicable quirk he spotted during the resting state of every one of these spiritual virtuosos. It involved the thalamus - a tiny part of the brain that serves as traffic cop, taking in sights, sounds, and other sensory information (except for smell) and routing them to other parts of the brain. Newberg argues that the thalamus, armed with all that rich sensory information, makes the spiritual experiences feel lucid and real.

Here's the twist. In most people, the thalami (there are actually two, one on the right and one on the left) have the same level of activity. They beat along, side by side, like an old married couple. Newberg has analyzed thousands of brain scans and they look pretty much the same. He scanned my brain, for example, and found only an anemic 3 per cent asymmetry.

But in every spiritual virtuoso he studied - the nuns and monks, the Pentecostals and Scott McDermott - one side is more active than the other. Newberg says that in his ten years of reading brain scans like these, he has never come across a similar finding. In fact, this kind of asymmetry was so rare that he decided to search for other such cases in the literature. The only similar cases he found were in people who had neurological damage caused by tumors or seizures.

'I think of it as a spiritual marker,' Newberg told me. He confesses to be mystified about what purpose that asymmetry serves. Nor does he know whether people are born with a lopsided thalamus and the quirk somehow inclines them toward God - or whether their hours of prayer and meditation create the asymmetrical thalamus. But the finding does offer more evidence that spiritual brains are special.

In the scores of interviews I conducted for my book Fingerprints of God, I noticed a predictable chasm between people who had experienced transcendence and those who had not. Both would burn at the stake for their positions. On the one side marches the well-armed, highly trained, battle-tested brigade of scientists who insist that everything is caused by material processes. These scientists - and they have now become the vast majority of the academic community - believe that thoughts, feelings, desires and intentions arise from the interaction of brain chemicals and electricity.

They arrive at this conclusion through observation, using material instruments to measure a material brain. They echo the assertion of Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA with James Watson. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis5 he stated, 'You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.'

On the other side of the debate is a small, underfed, and underarmed guerrilla force lobbing single grenades from the bushes. These scientists insist that cells and molecules do not determine all of human existence. They claim that molecules do not explain love, or willpower, or the occasional glimpse into spiritual dimensions. Significantly, I noticed that scientists who had themselves waded into spiritual waters - through prayer, meditation, or a near-death experience - always fall into the spiritual camp. Their personal experience trumps the assumptions of modern science.

So maybe we do have a mind, consciousness - a soul - that works with the material brain but is independent of it.

The attempt to explain spiritual experience through neurology alone reminds me of a joke I heard recently from a Buddhist monk. A person loses his car keys. It's dark outside, and he's looking right under a streetlamp. Another person comes over and asks, 'What are you doing?'

And the man replies, 'Well, I lost my keys.' And the other fellow says, 'Did you lose them here?' And the man says, 'No, I lost them way over yonder, but this is where the light is.'

Brain activity, chemical reactions, the functions of the various lobes of the brain - this is where the light is for modern-day scientists. Peering at brain scans and EEGs is something they are really good at. And so they keep on doing it, even though there is a possibility that at least part of the explanation lies somewhere else, just beyond their circle of light.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty