Newsweek Cover: 'God & the Brain: How We're Wired for Spirituality'

New Field of 'Neurotheology' Links Brain Activity to Spiritual,

Mystical Experiences, Contemplation



Apr 29, 2001, 01:00 ET from Newsweek

    NEW YORK, April 29 /PRNewswire/ -- A new field of scientific research is
 showing how the human brain responds to -- and may create -- religious
 experiences and intimations of the divine. A slew of new books, scientific
 publications and the establishment of research centers in "neurotheology" are
 trying to identify what seems to be the brain's spirituality circuit, and to
 explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move believers and
 nonbelievers alike, Newsweek reports in its cover package in the May 7 issue
 (on newsstands Monday April 30).
     (Photo:  http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20010429/HSSU001 )
     All the new research shares a passion for uncovering the neurological
 underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences and for discovering what
 happens in our brains when we sense that we have encountered a reality
 different from the reality of an every-day experience, writes Senior Editor
 Sharon Begley. In neurotheology, the study of the neurobiology of religion and
 spirituality, psychologists and neurologists try to pinpoint which regions of
 the brain turn on, and which turn off, during experiences that seem to exist
 outside time and space. The studies try to identify the brain circuits that
 surge with activity when we think we have encountered the divine, and when we
 feel transported by intense prayer, an uplifting ritual or sacred music.
     Brain imaging techniques have enabled scientists to prove that spiritual
 contemplation or a religious experience affects brain activity. What they
 found is that as expected, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the seat of
 attention, lit up, and what surprised them was the quieting of activity. A
 bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of
 the brain, went dark. This region, nicknamed the "orientation association
 area," processes information about space and time, and the orientation of the
 body in space. It determines where the body ends and the rest of the world
 begins.
     But, the bottom line, says Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of
 Pennsylvania, a radiology specialist, is that "there is no way to determine
 whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experience mean
 that the brain is causing those experiences ... or is instead perceiving a
 spiritual reality." In other words, as Begley writes, "it is likely that they
 [scientists] will never resolve the greatest question of all -- namely,
 whether our brain wiring creates God, or whether God created our brain wiring.
 Which you believe is, in the end, a matter of faith."
     In a companion essay, Religion Editor Kenneth L. Woodward warns that the
 problem with neurotheology is that it confuses spiritual experiences with
 religion. "The most that neurobiologists can do is correlate certain
 experiences with certain brain activity. To suggest that the brain is the only
 source of our experiences would be reductionist," he argues.
 
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               http://www.Newsweek.MSNBC.com. Click "Pressroom.")
 
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SOURCE Newsweek
    NEW YORK, April 29 /PRNewswire/ -- A new field of scientific research is
 showing how the human brain responds to -- and may create -- religious
 experiences and intimations of the divine. A slew of new books, scientific
 publications and the establishment of research centers in "neurotheology" are
 trying to identify what seems to be the brain's spirituality circuit, and to
 explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move believers and
 nonbelievers alike, Newsweek reports in its cover package in the May 7 issue
 (on newsstands Monday April 30).
     (Photo:  http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20010429/HSSU001 )
     All the new research shares a passion for uncovering the neurological
 underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences and for discovering what
 happens in our brains when we sense that we have encountered a reality
 different from the reality of an every-day experience, writes Senior Editor
 Sharon Begley. In neurotheology, the study of the neurobiology of religion and
 spirituality, psychologists and neurologists try to pinpoint which regions of
 the brain turn on, and which turn off, during experiences that seem to exist
 outside time and space. The studies try to identify the brain circuits that
 surge with activity when we think we have encountered the divine, and when we
 feel transported by intense prayer, an uplifting ritual or sacred music.
     Brain imaging techniques have enabled scientists to prove that spiritual
 contemplation or a religious experience affects brain activity. What they
 found is that as expected, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the seat of
 attention, lit up, and what surprised them was the quieting of activity. A
 bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of
 the brain, went dark. This region, nicknamed the "orientation association
 area," processes information about space and time, and the orientation of the
 body in space. It determines where the body ends and the rest of the world
 begins.
     But, the bottom line, says Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of
 Pennsylvania, a radiology specialist, is that "there is no way to determine
 whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experience mean
 that the brain is causing those experiences ... or is instead perceiving a
 spiritual reality." In other words, as Begley writes, "it is likely that they
 [scientists] will never resolve the greatest question of all -- namely,
 whether our brain wiring creates God, or whether God created our brain wiring.
 Which you believe is, in the end, a matter of faith."
     In a companion essay, Religion Editor Kenneth L. Woodward warns that the
 problem with neurotheology is that it confuses spiritual experiences with
 religion. "The most that neurobiologists can do is correlate certain
 experiences with certain brain activity. To suggest that the brain is the only
 source of our experiences would be reductionist," he argues.
 
                        (Read Newsweek news releases at
               http://www.Newsweek.MSNBC.com. Click "Pressroom.")
 
                     MAKE YOUR OPINION COUNT -- Click Here
                http://tbutton.prnewswire.com/prn/11690X34866464
 
 SOURCE  Newsweek