SCIENCE

BORN TO BELIEVE

A scientist lights up the brain areas involved in religious practice

BRIAN BETHUNE December 11 2006
SCIENCE

BORN TO BELIEVE

A scientist lights up the brain areas involved in religious practice

BRIAN BETHUNE December 11 2006

BORN TO BELIEVE

SCIENCE

A scientist lights up the brain areas involved in religious practice

BRIAN BETHUNE

The first thing Andy Newberg wants to make very, very clear is that while reality—from God all the way down to that table leg you just stubbed your toe on— may very well exist out there somewhere, you are never going to know it, at least not directly. Humans like to think they are guided by solid facts, but Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist—and professor of religious studies—points out that all those so-called facts are actually beliefs. The 100 billion neurons in our brains take in an unending stream of information—say, the lines, shapes and contours that have activated cells in our eyes—and create a vivid 3-D image of a room with chairs and tables that allows us to navigate without crashing into anything. We are born to believe, Newberg says, because we really don’t have any choice.

For Newberg, that thought puts higherorder beliefs—in love or God or liberty—on a more or less equal footing with more mundane ones like “table legs can hurt.” In his groundbreaking book Why We Believe What We Believe (Simon & Schuster), Newberg details his conviction that studying belief is “the single most important quest” in neuroscience. His Holy Grail is religious belief, given its profound influence over history and the fact that our brains “privilege” it. “Spiritual realities, spiritual visions,” he explains, “are reported by those who experience them as more real than real—not at all like a dream, which we recognize as an inferior reality when we wake. All we have to go on is what feels real to people: perception in the brain is all there is, and that forces us, scientists, to take it seriously.”

His tool is brain scans. Scientists cannot— yet—see belief, but imaging techniques can trace its path, the lit-up neural experience of belief. In the case of his subjects, Newberg can follow something akin to the experience of God: your brain on religion. He has scanned Buddhist monks focusing on a sacred object, Franciscan nuns in silent prayer, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and an atheist who meditates by concentrating on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrait of God.

While his subjects meditated or prayed or spoke in unknown languages, Newberg would inject a radioactive tracer into their bloodstreams; in the brain it left a residue that a camera could capture, revealing which areas were in use. The scans revealed a fascinating mosaic of distinctions and similarities. The Catholics, predictably, showed considerable activity in the brain’s language centre (because prayer focuses on words); the meditators, Buddhist and atheist, utilized the brain’s visual processing area more. The Pentecostals did not show any language centre activity, raising the intriguing probability that the foreign tongues originate elsewhere in the brain.

Both monks and nuns showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a central role in focusing sustained attention. But the meditating atheist did not exhibit the same, instead achieving his transcendental state by concentrating on breathing.

Newberg suspects that his subject, by meditating on an image of God without believing in him, created a cognitive dissonance that prevented his frontal lobes from fully engaging. The Pentecostals, who altered their consciousnesses by swaying and singing, also showed no additional prefrontal activity.

Everyone who prayed or meditated decreased the activity in their parietal lobes— the brain area that gives us our 3-D sense of our surroundings. All of them thereby entered a state of timelessness and spacelessness. They lost themselves within the experience,

and gained something else. For the Catholics, that was the presence of God; for the Buddhists, inner peace; for the atheist, a sense of the oneness of things. The Pentecostals alone showed no decrease, naturally enough—their aim was not to lose themselves in the divine, but to communicate with it.

Most fascinating of all for Newberg, every subject experienced increased activity in the thalami, the two bulb-shaped areas (one in each hemisphere) that regulate the flow of incoming sensory information to many parts of the brain. During focused prayer or meditation, even as the parietal lobes decreased their activity, the thalami increased theirs, allowing Newberg’s subjects to be fully conscious of the very different sense of reality they were experiencing. Even the Pentecostals, who otherwise took such different paths—spiritual and neural—to their ecstasy, exhibited activity in the same areas, leading the neuroscientist to postulate that the thalami play a key role in all religious belief. “For all we know,” says Newberg, “the thalami could be responding to incoming stimuli from an unrecognized source, which some people might call God.” Or, he adds, they could be reacting to the unusual activity elsewhere in the brain brought on by prayer.

Newberg’s neutrality is, in fact, as scrupulous as a nun’s conscience, the neuroscientist and the religious studies prof seemingly in perfect balance. In part that’s merely prudent in the charged climate of America’s culture wars. “I don’t interpret,” he insists. “I show what the scans show and let others say what the scans mean. The religious find comfort in the intersection of biology and spirituality, while the atheists see a trick of the brain.” But it’s not all political caution: Newberg himself is genuinely on the fence, always conscious that perception is the only reality we can know. At least for now. “I think in the end there may be a way to ‘prove’ reality,” he says. “But it will require us to follow both paths, the scientific and the spiritual.” M