Neurotheology: Bridging the Divide between Science and Faith

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How does our brain perceive religion?The team conducted brain scans of the patients and then taught them a specific form of meditation to be practiced for approximately 10 minutes daily. After eight weeks, they ran another set of brain scans and discovered profound differences.

How does our brain perceive religion?Personal accounts and anecdotes of spiritual experiences have become topics of fascination and interest for many years now. Many people describe such events as profound “experiences” or “feelings” that are immeasurable. Some argue that these experiences are just concoctions or infatuations, while others contend that they are real, depending on their personal or religious beliefs. Now, with the advent of state-of-the-art technology, scientists are able to quantify spirituality.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, professor and author at the University of Pennsylvania, is currently conducting studies that track how the human brain processes religion and spirituality. It’s all part of a new field called “neurotheology”, which explores the relationship between the brain and religious experience. According to a recent featured story, Newberg has developed a way to measure the differences of brain activity and imagery during a spiritual experience. He scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists.

“We evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer,” Newberg says.

He and his team then compare that information with the same brains in a state of rest.

“This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices.”

His most recent work Principles of Neurotheology tries to lay the groundwork for a new kind of scientific and theological dialogue.

In one case study, Dr. Newberg worked with elderly individuals that were experiencing memory loss. He conducted brain scans of the patients and then taught them a specific form of meditation to be practiced for approximately 10 minutes daily. After eight weeks, he ran another set of brain scans and discovered profound differences.

His method of scanning is considered relatively novel. Since using a typical MRI would have been too distracting, he used a new technique called Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT). In this method, researchers inject radioactively labeled material into the patient’s arms, which then makes its way to the brain. This method allows researchers to follow the flow and pattern of the blood to the brain at specific time-points using special imaging technology. In essence, it takes a snapshot in time of a brain state. [1]

After the eight weeks of meditation, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things. Remarkably, the new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims, confirming the positive correlation. The frontal lobes of the brain were affected – they were more active after meditation, while the parental lobes had the inverse effect. [2, 3]

“They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent,” Newberg says. “This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.”

What’s interesting is that both atheists and theists are using these types of studies to propagate their beliefs. Atheists are claiming spirituality is just a phenomenon that has biological implications, while theists argue that our biology confirms the “naturalness” of religion. However, when carefully analyzed, the study does not completely support either side. Additionally, the researchers involved in this groundbreaking new field all agree that in order for the field to progress, an open mind is required despite our personal beliefs. Nonetheless, what this study does confirm is that there exists an overlap and relation between the spiritual and biological realms. In other words, these experiments have succeeded in removing spirituality from the realm of fantasy and giving it an empirical form that can be observed and quantified. Where we go from here remains to be seen, but neurotheology promises to be an exciting and informative journey into the “unseen” world.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Ink Paper Mosaic blog. It has been republished here with permission of the author.

[1] A. B. Newberg and A. Alavi, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT): Technique Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, volume 8, pp. 871-880. Oxford: Academic Press. [2] Andrew B. Newberg, Nancy Wintering, Mark R. Waldman, Daniel Amen, Dharma S. Khalsa, Abass Alavi Cerebral blood flow differences between long-term meditators and non-meditators Consciousness and Cognition, In Press, 2010 Elsevier Inc. [3] Andrew B. Newberg, Nancy Wintering, Dharma S. Khalsa, Hannah Roggenkamp and Mark R. Waldman Meditation Effects on Cognitive Function and Cerebral Blood Flow In Subjects with Memory Loss: A Preliminary Study Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 20 (2010) 517–526.
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