What god does to your brain: Neurotheology aims to find out why people have faith
When neuroscientist Andrew Newberg scanned the brain of “Kevin,” a staunch atheist, he realized that his brain operate in a significantly different way, compared with the Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns.
“He had far more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area that controls emotional feelings and mediates attention. Kevin’s brain appeared to be functioning in a highly analytical way, even when he was in a resting state.” says Newberg.
When people speak in tongues, they’re gone, they’re in a completely altered state. But most of the time they’re normal people like us
“When people speak in tongues, they’re gone, they’re in a completely altered state. But most of the time they’re normal people like us, with jobs and children – they don’t show any sign of being delusional,” says Newberg. “Scans of their brains – when they’re ’possessed’ – show very different results to scans of Buddhist monks or Carmelite nuns in prayer or meditation. There you see increased frontal lobe activity in the areas concerned with concentration, but the speakers in tongues had decreased activity in the same area, which would give them the sensation that someone else was ’running the show’.”
I, too, am an atheist. And what about me? Julia (Telegraph reporter) asked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a harder time letting go of frontal lobe activity, so you tend to observe and take a more critical eye of events, while other people’s brains allow them to simply surrender to events around them.”
Newberg is director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine, in Philadelphia, and co-author of, among other books, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought. He is a leading neurotheologist, pioneering a new and highly controversial science that investigates whether – as many sceptics have long suspected – God didn’t create us, but we created God.
During brain scans of those involved in various types of meditation and prayer, Newberg noticed increased activity in the limbic system, which regulates emotion. He also noted decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for orienting oneself in space and time.
“When this happens, you lose your sense of self,” he says. “You have a notion of a great interconnectedness of things. It could be a sense where the self dissolves into nothingness, or dissolves into God or the universe.”
Such “mystical,” self-blurring experiences are central to almost all religions – from the unio mystica experienced by Carmelite nuns during prayer, when they claim their soul has mingled with the godhead, to Buddhists striving for unity with the universe through focusing on sacred objects. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry.
“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” Newberg says. This would explain why some type of religion exists in every culture, arguably making spirituality one of the defining characteristics of our species.
Depending on your religious views, such discoveries are either deeply fascinating or profoundly disturbing. Throughout history, spirituality has been viewed as something outside science, just as the soul is separate from the body; both ineffable essences, transcending the materialist universe.
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