The Neurology of Spiritual Experience

The Neurology of Spiritual Experience

The science of spirituality has become something of a hot topic in the past few decades. Some of this may be because the absolutist rational materialism that dominated much of the twentieth century has given way to something slightly more flexible. But mostly, it is because we finally have the advanced imaging technology — fMRI and SPECT scans and the like — to actually peer inside the brain and find out what is going on during so-called spiritual experience. No one has peered deeper than the Director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Andrew Newberg. During his career, Newberg examined the brains of Tibetan monks during peak meditation, Franciscan nuns during ecstatic prayer, Evangelicals in the throes of glossolalia — all with an eye towards understanding how brain function produces mystical experience. His books include How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist and Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

h+ talked to him about what he’s learned…

h+: You’ve written five books now about the science behind spiritual experience — how has your view of religion evolved along the way?

ANDREW NEWBERG: I actually don’t know if it’s changed that much. I started out trying to answer some big questions about the nature of reality. I’ve certainly developed a deeper respect for the immense variety of spiritual experiences and for the nature of belief — but at the core I’m still trying to answer those questions.

h+: What are those questions?

AN: The most basic question is what is the fundamental nature of reality and how do we come to experience it. The problem is that we have a block between how we perceive the world and how the world really is. We’re trapped by our brain, by our inability to get beyond our thinking and perception. Now, in my research, I’ve found people who have profound spiritual experiences often describe those as being beyond objectivity and subjectivity. A great many people describe mystical experiences as “more fundamentally real” than everything else they experience. Well, what does that mean? I think it means that in trying to answer this question we need to take into account both the science and the spirituality, that we can’t just dismiss the latter because it makes us uncomfortable as scientists. And this has led to other questions — like why are there all these different religions? Which one is right, which is wrong? Do they have different effects? Do they all do the same thing? And what can any of this tell us about what is actually real?

The Neurology of Spiritual Experienceh+: In Why God Won’t Go Away, you detail an explanation for what Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy — that feeling of unity or oneness with everything. How does that work?

AN: During spiritual experience there’s a lot going on in the brain and some of that takes place in the parietal lobes — the part of our brain that’s responsible for creating our sense of self. This is the part of the brain that manages the distinction between self and the other. Certain meditative practices appear to block information to this area, which turns off our ability to make that distinction. Once we can no longer draw a line and say this is where the self ends and this is where the rest of the world begins, the brain concludes, it has to conclude, that at this moment you are one with everything.

h+: In your new book, How God Changes Your Brain, you argue that religious fundamentalism can actually be good for you. How do you figure?

AN: It really depends on the nature of the belief. Fundamentalism, per se, isn’t bad or good. It all depends on the nature of one’s beliefs. We’ve found that if one’s beliefs are positive and loving and compassionate that can have a very profound effect on one’s health and happiness. But the opposite is true. If you believe in a punishing god, or if that fundamentalism preaches hate and anger — then the effects are going to be bad. Anxiety levels will go up, a stress response can occur, and like any stressor, if that continues for long enough, it’s going to impact health outcomes in a negative way. The real point is that what we believe has a very direct effect on the quality of our lives and we need to remember that.

h+: In your new book you also talk about eight ways to train the brain for better living — what are those ways and what are the results?

AN: Some of our ideas aren’t anything you wouldn’t hear from a motivational speaker — like keep focused on positive concepts. It’s better if you can try to focus on the feelings behind the words, but we’ve also found that the brain automatically makes connections between words like love and joy and compassion and the underlying emotion and this alone has positive benefit. We’ve found that some form of meditative/contemplative practice — anything that creates a state of quiet alertness — is also hugely beneficial. One of our ideas, that’s a little outside the norm, is that yawning — doing it consciously — can wake the brain up. This may happen because air taken in during a yawn cools the brain, but yawning seems also to be some kind of social signal so it wakes up the part of the brain that handles our social networks and this too can have a positive benefit.

The Neurology of Spiritual Experience

h+: You’re the only neuroscientist to study speaking in tongues. What did you discover?

AN: The most interesting thing we discovered is that unlike almost every other spiritual practice we studied so far, glossolalia is associated with decreased activity in the frontal lobes. This is the exact opposite of meditation. The frontal lobes help focus the mind, but people who experience speaking-in-tongues talk about giving themselves up to the experience, surrendering to it, and that’s what we’re seeing in the brain as well.

h+: In your earlier book, Why You Believe What You Believe, you look at the underpinnings of, well, belief. So how do you explain it?

AN: The brain is trapped within itself. So we never really know what is really going on out there. But to live we need to make all sorts of assumptions about the nature of reality just to govern behavior. The assumptions themselves arise from our perceptions, our cognitive processes, our emotions and our social interactions. They all mingle within the brain to become the beliefs we’ll use to navigate through our lives and our world. We desperately need these beliefs to survive, but they are actually very tenuous and often built out of inaccurate or incomplete information. We really need to take a deeper look at this, at all of the beliefs we hold — beliefs about religion, morality, politics, social interactions — and determine where they come from and how limited they actually are.

h+: You’ve looked deeply into the relationship between health and religion. What have you learned?

The brain is trapped within itself. So we never really know what is really going on out there.

AN: That there’s a strong association on many levels. Not that this should be too surprising. There’s now a whole body of work that shows that some forms of spiritual practice can have powerful health effects. There are studies that show religious people have less depression, lower levels of anxiety, better health outcomes, lower disease risk — the list goes on. The real problem is teasing apart the data. We know that social interaction — which you get from going to temple or church — can impact one’s health. We also know that if you go to a church that tells you not to drink or smoke or have multiple sexual partners, obviously, if you follow those dictates, that’s going to also impact one’s health. Others have found the same thing is true for prayer and meditation. And then there’s the power of the beliefs themselves. So the real question is which of these things is having the biggest impact. But even before we get to that answer — which may be a ways off — we already know that religion has huge health consequences and those should really be taken into account when we think about things like national health care. After all, many people turn to religion to help cope with a variety of health and life problems.

h+: You’ve also worked on the neuroscience of forgiveness. How does that work and how does that — in lieu of the turn-the-other cheek-isms in so many religions — effect our spirituality?

AN: It seems like forgiveness comes into play in the context of self and how the self relates to the world. We make the argument that in order to forgive someone else you first have to retool your notion of self to one that starts to see the damage done (by whatever action caused this need for forgiveness) as part of a new self. Essentially you need to reinvent yourself whenever you forgive, to create a new version that can transcend the older, now damaged, one.

h+: What has all this work taught you about human consciousness?

AN: It’s taught me that our normal sense of consciousness is a limitation. And if we want to truly understand consciousness we’re going to need to somehow get outside of it to answer any of the real big questions. How to do this is the question, but I definitely believe we’re going to have to find a way if we really want these answers.

Steven Kotler is the author of West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, The Angle Quickest for Flight and the forthcoming A Small, Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue, Animal Altruism and the Meaning of Life.

Comparison of brain baseline to prayer

The images were obtained during an ongoing study of the neurophysiologic correlates of meditation.

Briefly, we have been studying highly-experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators using a brain imaging technology called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). SPECT imaging allows us to image the brain and determine which areas are active by measuring blood flow. The more blood flow an area has, the more active it is. The images show the results from a baseline scan (i.e. at rest) on the left and during a “peak” of meditation on the right. Two sets of images were taken, showing slightly different parts of the brain. The first image shows decreased activity in the parietal lobe (lower right shows up as yellow rather than the red on the left image) during meditation. This area of the brain is responsible for giving us a sense of our orientation in space and time. We hypothesized that blocking all sensory and cognitive input into this area during meditation is associated with the sense of no space and no time that is so often described in meditation. The second image shows that the front part of the brain, which is usually involved in focusing attention and concentration, is more active during meditation (increased red activity). This makes sense since meditation requires a high degree of concentration. We also found that the more activity increased in the frontal lobe, the more activity decreased in the parietal lobe.

The first set of images (Prayer1) demonstrates increased activity in the frontal lobes (same as Buddhists) but increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe (the language area). This latter finding makes sense because the nuns are doing a verbally-based practice (prayer) rather than visualization (Buddhists). The second set of images (Prayer2) shows that the nuns, like the Buddhists, also decreased the activity in the orientation area (superior parietal lobes). A more thorough description of the results from this study can be found in the books by Andrew Newberg entitled, How God Changes Your Brain (Ballantine, 2009); Why We Believe What We Believe (Free Press, 2006); and Why God Won’t Go Away (Ballantine, 2001).