Dr. Andrew Newberg is the director of clinical nuclear medicine, director of NeuroPET (neurological positron emission technology) research and an assistant professor in the department of radiology at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. A pioneer in the burgeoning field of neurotheology, the study of the relationship between brain function and religious experiences, he is the author of Why God Won't Go Away. Frederica Saylor of Science & Theology News spoke with Newberg to find out more about the link between mental and existential states.
Can you give me a brief personal history?
Growing up, I was encouraged to ask a lot of questions both about the world in general and about religion. I was always very curious, and I used to go to the library and get out books about the human body and how the particular systems of the body work; it just seemed so fascinating.
Throughout my education, I pursued a Western approach to science, on one hand, but I was beginning to realize that the more questions I asked about how we, as human beings, experience reality, I was proceeding down two paths. One was more of a cognitive neuroscience approach, and the other was a more experiential approach, a contemplation, if you will. That was what ultimately led me to look at different approaches to how we experience reality in both Eastern and Western traditions.
In college, I was a chemistry major, but I had the opportunity to take a number of courses in philosophy and religious studies. Combined with my scientific courses, I was headed down this path of trying to understand the world, how we as human beings perceived that world, and what was happening physiologically and neurophysiologically in our brain when we're having those perceptions.
Were you brought up in a particular religion?
We participated in the main Jewish holidays, and I had training in Hebrew school and being culturally Jewish, but it was never a major part of our lives.
What led you to metaphysics and neurology?
I always wanted to be a physician. I have the idealistic notion that it is a healing profession; and in addition to learning about the unbelievable complexities of our bodies, it ultimately gives you an outlet to help other people and heal them physically, psychologically, spiritually and socially. It's really a wonderful way of being able to combine my most important interests: understanding the body and the mind and ultimately trying to find a way to make people feel better.
Can you define neurotheology?
For me, neurotheology represents an integration of neuroscience with religion. One thing that is so important is that people can be open and accepting of what it means to be religious and spiritual and to the possibility that God exists while to exploring the neuroscientific aspect of these experiences. Neuroscience has been an important route to helping us understand ourselves.
I think the goal of neurotheology, in addition to this sort of approach to understanding who we are, is to find ways in which both science and religion or spirituality can be enhanced by the other rather than diminished or attacked. A lot of people think that our concerns are unrealistic, and they think the whole world can be explained away by science. They think by doing brain scans or some other type of study we're going to prove that religion is just in your brain.
On the other hand, if somebody is very religious and doesn't want anything to do with what science can say about the world, they too lose out on some very important information and perspectives on life and what it means to be human.
I try to be pretty broad in how I define those terms because there can be so many definitions.
On one hand, I think a spiritual experience can be something as simple as looking at a beautiful sunrise and connecting with nature. However, most spiritual experiences have something to do with connecting with ultimate reality. Almost every tradition has some mention of profound mystical states, and I think there are many different ways of accessing these experiences.
One of the things that we typically talk about both phenomenologically and physiologically is that universal quality of a sense of "oneness" an individual has. That can include connectedness to a group, an ideology, God or an ultimate reality. It can be such a deep connection that the actual self itself goes away, and the person who has an experience of this sort is unified completely with whatever it is that they are trying to connect with.
What have you learned from studying neurotheology?
This field provides a lot of important information for different kinds of understanding, including a deeper understanding of neuroscience and how the human mind works. When we talk about meditative practices and different types of spiritual experience, we're talking about some of the most complex and compelling experiences a person can have.
On the practical and scientific level, there have been a lot of studies about the relationship between religion, spirituality and health demonstrating a positive impact of spirituality on mental health.
These studies can help explain how changes in the brain tie into changes in immune functions, pulmonary function, blood pressure and heart rate. Conversely, it is also going to be very valuable to have this information to understand how religion and spirituality can have a negative impact.
What impact does your research have on religion?
This kind of research will help us better understand where theological principles come out.
For example, do we think of God as the ultimate cause of the universe because of how our brain functions? Understanding the brain and how we initiate actions and initiate thoughts may have some bearing on how we understand our own free will, our conceptions about causality of the world and whether or not we exist in the world the way in which we believe we do.
I am very interested in how we as human beings experience reality. As human beings, we are really trapped in our brain. Everything is put into it, everything we know and feel and experience comes to us through the functions of the brain. There is no real way we can go outside of our brains to see exactly what is out there. The question then becomes, how do we relate the workings of the brain to our understanding of reality?
How has your research been received?
Most of the research I have been involved in has generally been received fairly well. We try to be very respectful about religion and very rigorous about science because some of the other studies that have been incorporated into this field have been conducted by people who are very materialistic and want to get rid of the notion of God and religion and show that God is nothing more than something in our brains.
On the other side, you have people who are very fundamentalist in terms of their religious beliefs and really don't want to have anybody talking about what religion and spirituality is about from a scientific perspective. Those are the two groups that may have the most problems with this field.
But I think most people are realizing that we are trying to be careful about it, and we do it in a careful way both scientifically and religiously. They understand that we actually have some very important and very interesting information that can be beneficial to everyone, regardless of their own perspective.
Can you discuss some of the major discoveries and advances of this field?
One of the first major advances was to elaborate very specifically about the different structures of the brain involved in different types of meditative and spiritual practices. It helped establish that one can develop a fairly comprehensive and complex model of what is going on during these experiences.
That being said, most of the early work was based on certain studies that were done primarily on the electrical activities of the brain in people who were practicing meditation or prayer as early as the 1970s. In the 1990s, with the advent of modern, high-tech brain imaging equipment and utilizing techniques like positive-emission topography and magnetic imaging, studies have looked at the individual parts of the brain that are involved in these practices.
I don't know if there is a roadblock, but there are certainly are a number of important methodological issues that this kind of research has to address. Because of that, this field also has the potential to really advance science with some of the complexities involved in these types of studies.
The biggest issue that needs to be overcome is tying in the physiological measurements that we make with the actual phenomenology of experience. In a meditation study, you can't just tap the person on the shoulder and say, "Where are you right now because your brain is doing some strange things?" because when you do, it ends the practice.
Another problem is, how do you measure and compare the experiences of different people? You could have a meditation study with the Dalai Lama as one subject and a guy who has been meditating for two years as the other subject. The person who has been meditating for two years may tell you that, on a scale of one to 10, his last experience was a nine, and the Dalai Lama may tell you that his experience was a three. But the Dalai Lama's three could be a 26 for the other guy. How do you know what the person is actually subjectively feeling? And how do you then correlate those between the different types of practices and experiences people have? The subjective nature of the experience is one of the most problematic issues. The others are just more straight-up scientific issues like how do we take measurements of the brain?
Most scientific studies today involve control groups, so how does one compare a meditation group to a control group because the meditation group theoretically has to be trained in meditation and the control group cannot be trained in meditation? That itself is a kind of bias. Ideally, you would like to have a sort of practice that everyone can do right the first time, and then some people do it and some people do something different. But most of these practices require a person to be trained, which affects who can do certain studies.
Can you tell me a little bit about the title of your book, Why God Won't Go Away?
The title was actually part of a paper that Dr. Eugene D'Aquili and I published a few years before the book came out. We wanted to impress upon people that we could explore religion and spirituality from the philosophical or theological, as well as the scientific, perspective. We realized that the underlying psychological components, such as the spiritual experiences, seem to really be built upon the basic structure or function of the brain. And if that's the case, then as long as the brain is the way it is, the concepts of religion and God and spirituality are going to be with us for a very long time. We used "God" to imply a general recognition of some kind of divine reality, whether Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, even though Eastern religions have a different kind of conception of the two than Western religions. But the notion is that society has some conception of an ultimate reality and an ultimate being that is built into our human experiences and is part of you physiologically as well as your cognitive and social perspective.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a couple of different projects.
One of my main interests right now is the more specific changes that go on in the brain in terms of neurotransmitters and different chemicals in the brain like dopamine and serotonin, and how are they affected by spiritual practices?
I am also interested in the long-term consequences of meditation for an individual. Are these practices measurable both in terms of the person's psychological and physical well-being as well as their physiological changes?
I have also been interested in analyzing different aspects of religion and spirituality like the neuropsychological correlation of forgiveness.
What is your hope for the future of the field?
I certainly hope that this is a field that contributes to our overall understanding of who we are as human beings. I do hope that the ultimate outcome will be a better integration of science-and-religion in general and that we will better understand human spirituality and religiousness - how those very important elements of who we are affect us.
I think that while science provides a lot of important information about the world, spiritual experiences can also provide important information about the world; and unless we find a way of linking it together, we will never truly be able to see what is really real and explain some of these philosophical questions.
The wonderful thing is that it is really an emerging field and there are so many different aspects that we can think about. Hopefully, as science moves forward, we'll unlock a lot of new questions