the spiritual brain

dr.andrew newberg's quest for proof

Dr. Andrew Newberg is, as he laughingly puts it, "stuck" between spirituality and science. Since the publication of his book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, the University of Pennsylvania professor has lectured to priests about science, and to scientists about priests. He's got fans and critics on both sides of the science-religion debate, and is able to speak easily to both sides because he himself is not even sure what he believes. For the thirty-five years of his young life, he has been weighing his options, open both to the spirituality of his reform Jewish family and the wonder of science that drew him into academia. His openness to the possibilities of both science and spirituality has put him among an increasing number of thinking minds who are bringing these disparate worlds closer together.

Grand existential questions aside, Newberg does have solid beliefs, the strongest at the moment being his belief that he has discovered something of huge proportions: the biological reasons why human beings are predisposed towards religious thought, why our brains "will themselves towards God." He also believes in his method, which incorporates a respect for what science can tell us about the world coupled with an understanding that "it cannot get you all the way there." Ten years ago, this balanced attitude led Newberg to a working relationship with a certain Eugene d'Aquili, a like-minded anthropologist who had been looking at the brain activity of people participating in ritual. The two men began to think about how they could obtain quantifiable data relating to spiritual experience. Their answer was to take pictures of the brains of Tibetan Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns deep in the throes of spiritual ecstasy.

Newberg and d'Aquili (who passed away in 1998) asked Buddhists and nuns to leave their personal sanctuaries and meditate in a dark room at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Those who agreed sat in a room lit with a few candles, a kite string tied to their finger, an intravenous tube stuck in their arm. They would begin to meditate or pray. After about an hour or so, when a transcendent peak moment was occurring, the subjects would tug on the string. Tied to the other end was Dr. Newberg, sitting in an adjacent room. This was the cue for Newberg to administer radioactive liquid through the intravenous tube. Moments later, the praying subject, radioactive liquid coursing through their brain, would be jetted to the university's Nuclear Medicine Department and photographed by a massive radioactivity-detecting camera.

Newberg and d'Aquili pored over the images looking for patterns. The researchers were not interested in the radioactivity per se, but in the neurological activity indicated by the radioactivity's movement. Buddhist after nun after Buddhist, consistent results were found. First, but not surprisingly, the area of the brain associated with concentration, the Attention Association Area (AAA), showed increased activity in the praying subjects when compared to non-prayers. But the finding that caused the greatest excitement was that neurological information to the Orientation Association Area (OAA), was greatly reduced or "deafferented." The OAA, located at the top rear section of the brain, is the part responsible for orienting the body in physical space. One way that it does this is to clearly define the limits of an individual's body it distinguishes the "you" from "not you." If this area were to have no sensory information with which to do its job, logic followed that the individual would not be able to determine where he or she ended and where the rest of the world began.

Newberg and d'Aquili thought this loss of the sense of the physical self sounded a lot like what they had read in accounts of mystics' union with the Divine, not to mention the testimony of their meditating subjects' feelings of "oneness" with the universe. Newberg and d'Aquili believed they had discovered the physical root of the ego, and how their laboratory subjects were shutting it down.

Gord Allen is a freelance writer, electronic musician and DJ who lives in Toronto. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Why Gord Won't Go Away.

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