Between Spirituality and the Brain
investigate the link between the human mind and spirituality.
Believers from every tradition and around the world have reported
similar sensations of religious experience - a feeling of completeness,
absence of self, or oneness with the universe, feelings of peace,
freedom from fear, ecstatic joy, visions of a Supreme Being.
the aid of new technology that allows them to watch the brain
in action, a group of scientists sometimes described as
"neurotheologists" have tried to explain how such experiences
occur and perhaps even why.
are certain [brain] patterns that can be generated experimentally
that will generate the sense presence and the feeling of God-like
experiences," says professor of Neuroscience Michael Persinger
of Ontario's Laurentia University. "The patterns we use are complex
but they imitate what the brain does normally."
originally set out to explore the nature of creativity and sense
of self. But his research into patterns of brain activity led
him to delve into the nature of mystical experiences as well.
do this Persinger puts his subjects in a quiet room, depriving
them of light and sound, so that the nerve cells typically involved
in seeing and hearing are not stimulated. Then he applies a magnetic
field pattern over the right hemisphere of the brain.
was asked if his work leads him to conclude that "God," or the
experience of God, is solely the creation of brain-wave activity.
point of view is, 'Let's measure it.' Let's keep an open mind
and realize maybe there is no God; maybe there might be," says
Persinger. "We're not going to answer it by arguments we're
going to answer it by measurement and understanding the areas
of the brain that generate the experience and the patterns that
experimentally produce it in the laboratory."
Mind, Body and Belief
To others who have thought deeply about religion, that is a
conclusion that far outstrips the evidence a scientific
leap of faith, if you will.
"They have isolated one small aspect of religious experience
and they are identifying that with the whole of religion," says
John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University.
Religion "is not all meditative bliss. It also involves moments
when you feel abandoned by God," says Haught. "It involves commitments
and suffering and struggle.
Religion is visiting widows
and orphans; it is symbolism and myth and story and much richer
Persinger says he is less concerned with trying to prove or
disprove the existence of God than with understanding and documenting
the experience. However, in his view, "if we have to draw conclusions
now, based upon the data, the answer would be more on the fact
that there is no deity."
He is clear about an underlying motivation of his work
a fear that unscrupulous people might use techniques to provoke
a spiritual experience to control people.
But Persinger also acknowledges a more positive possibility:
"If you look at the spontaneous cases of people who have God experiences
and conversions, their health improves," he says. "So if we can
understand the patterns of activity that generate this experience,
we may also be able to understand how to have the brain
and hence the body cure itself."
What Prayer Does
That search for the mind-body connection also motivates the
work of other researchers, such as Professor Andrew Newberg at
the University of Pennsylvania.
"Whether there is a God or not in some senses isn't as relevant
to the kind of research we're doing so much as understanding why
those feelings and experiences are important to us as human beings,"
Newberg observed the brains of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan
nuns as they engaged in deep prayer and mediation by injecting
radioactive dye, or "tracer" as the subject entered a deep meditative
state, then photographing the results with a high tech imaging
camera. He found that "when people meditate they have significantly
increased activity in the frontal area the attention area
of the brain and decreased activity in that orientation
part of the brain."
Many of these changes occur whether people are praying (focusing
on oneness with a deity) or meditating (focusing on oneness with
the universe). But there are differences, in that prayer activates
the "language center" in the brain, while the "visual center"
is engaged by meditation.
Either way, Newberg finds that the sense of "unity," or "oneness"
experienced by his subjects is a real, biological event. And he
acknowledges the limits of his own work: He currently lacks a
means to measure the neurological events associated with other
religious practices such as caring for the poor or ecstatic
"Our work really points to the fact that these are very complex
kinds of feelings and experiences that affect us on many different
levels," says Newberg. "There is no one simple way of looking
at these kinds of questions."
Science and the Afterlife
Across the country, at the University of Arizona, professor
of Neurology and Psychiatry Gary Schwartz would probably say:
"Amen" to that.
Perhaps the most controversial of the group of researchers dedicated
to studying the "God spot" in the brain, Schwartz explores the
question of whether consciousness survives death with the help
of mediums (people who demonstrate unusual accuracy in describing
intimate attributes of the dead to those who knew them well).
His experiments compare the brain waves and heart rates of both
the medium and the person for whom he or she is trying to contact
"One of the fundamental questions is, 'How does a medium receive
this kind of information?'" he explains. "To what extent are they
using specific regions of the brain which are purportedly associated
with other kinds of mystical or religious experiences?"
Schwartz says his research "is actually a window or a doorway,
if you will, to a much larger spiritual reality which integrates
ancient wisdom with contemporary science."
He concludes that the human brain is wired to receive signals
from what he calls a "Grand Organizing Design," or G.O.D.
"Survival of conscience tells us that consciousness does not
require a brain, that our memories, our intentions, our intelligence,
our dreams? all of that can exist outside of the physical body,"
says Schwartz. "Now, by the way, that's the same idea that we
have about God that something that is "invisible," that
is "bigger than all of us," which we cannot see, can have intellect,
creativity, intention, memory and can influence the universe."
The Quest for Larger Things
Like the other researchers interviewed for Nightline
, Schwartz suggests that his work has taken him on a personal
spiritual journey, requiring him to ask himself hard questions
about science, faith, and reason. And Schwartz says that rather
than diminishing faith, inquiries like his should enlarge the
world's understanding of it.
On that point, he and theologian John Haught agree.
"Faith is the sense of being grasped by this higher dimension,
or more comprehensive, or deeper reality," says Haught. "If we
could come up with clear proof or an absolutely mathematically
lucid proof or verification of deity, then that would not be deity
it would be something smaller than us.
Nightline producer Joe O'Connor contributed to this
Resources on Spirituality (relation to Palliative Care)
Reference Source 104