God on the Brain

An odd rhythmic chant rings through the stark white radiology lab at the University of Pennsylvania:  Satadadaya, satadadaya, satamobosa, satadababababosah. The cantillating woman seems oblivious to the intravenous needle in her arm infusing her with a radioactive substance to map her brain.

As her chant continues, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D., positions her in a SPECT machine. The imaging device rotates around her head taking “snapshots,” showing which parts of her brain are most active and which are relatively quiescent while she is immersed in her religious rapture.

Newberg’s specialty is neurotheology (the study of religion and the brain). The author of “Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth,” Newberg is also the co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

His volunteer today is a Pentecostal Christian who “speaks in tongues.” Technically called glossolalia, the sounds she makes bear no relation to any language. But the woman believes that this seeming gibberish is evidence of the Holy Spirit taking possession of her body, speaking to her and through her.

Although not a believer himself, as Newberg charts the physical changes in the brains of people in religiously induced altered states, he’s developed a respect for the phenomenon of religious experience.  As incoherent and, frankly, odd as it all might seem to the observer, to the experiencer, Newberg says, “it’s more real than a table or a chair.”

And there is something real going on in the brain, even if it’s not necessarily what the experiencer believes it to be. In several studies, he’s found that the sensation that people have of “being outside themselves” or taken over by another force corresponds to the deactivation of parts of the brain that govern motivation and the sense of selfhood.

In addition to his glossolalia studies, Newberg has mapped the brains of Buddhists in meditation and Catholic nuns in prayer. Though the practices are outwardly very different, he’s found similarities in the brain’s response to the altered states. Consciousness, in each instance, is influencing what happens in the physical brain—though most of us were taught that it can only be vice-versa. But then, no one has yet come up with a good explanation of exactly what consciousness is.

And it’s made Newberg wonder: What if consciousness is the basic stuff of existence? What if “the whole universe, instead of being material, is consciousness?”

As “out there” as that might sound, Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, suggested much the same.

“I always argue that science and religion are the two most powerful forces we have,” says Newberg. “Because of that, I think they both require a lot of effort in trying to understand, and seeing where they may be right, and where they may be wrong.”

 

 

 

“I always argue that science and religion are the two most powerful forces we have,” says Newberg. “Because of that, I think they both require a lot of effort in trying to understand, and seeing where they may be right, and where they may be wrong.”