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Meet a Doctor Who Thinks Spirituality Isn’t Just All in Your Head

Can science study what you are doing when you pray? Andrew Newberg does and he says the effects are real

In a recent podcast at Mind Matters News (“Neurotheology and the brain,”#164), neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviewed neurologist Andrew Newberg on what brain imaging can tell us about spirituality. Dr. Newberg has published a number of books on the topic, including How God Changes Your Brain (2009) and Why God Won’t Go Away (2008)

Newberg began by clarifying that he is not trying to explain away anything. He is just trying to understand it.

Andrew Newberg: First of all, for me, it is what I like to refer to as a two-way street. It is not just science looking at religion, it is not religion looking at science.

It is both of them really looking at each other to help us understand who we are as human beings. Recognizing that there’s a biological part of ourselves, the brain and our body and so forth. There’s a spiritual part of ourselves, which can be, more specifically religious, but can also incorporate other spiritual activities. And of course, there’s also a psychological and a social part, which are ultimately all wrapped up in these different dimensions of who we are…

Andrew Newberg

Neurotheology is that it if it’s going to work, at least for me as a term, I’d like to define both sides of that very broadly, so that the neuro side is not just neuroscience or neuroimaging but it can include psychology, it can include anthropology. It can include medical aspects…

So again, for me, the theology side has to include… various practices like meditation and prayer, other types of spiritual practices and experiences. And also, really trying to look at this from a very global perspective. So we’re looking at many different traditions. And we can certainly talk about this in a little bit more detail later, but we’ve done brain scan studies, for example, of lots of different practices from almost every different tradition…So to me, it’s an extraordinarily rich field of work, a very multidisciplinary field that gives us, I think a very exciting opportunity to find ways of bringing religion and science together, which I think is important. And again, I think to me, the ultimate ideal is helping us to understand who we are as human beings.

Michael Egnor: In terms of brain scanning, what methods do you use to study the brain?

Andrew Newberg: Well, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to use a whole array of different techniques… And so that does involve injecting different types of radioactive tracers to look at different physiological processes in the brain or in the body. And we have done that with two main types of imaging, one called SPECT (single-photon emission computer tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography). Pretty similar in terms of how they work, that we inject this radioactive tracer. Maybe it follows blood flow or metabolism or some aspect of the brain’s function.

And we inject that, sometimes while people are engaged in a particular practice like meditation or prayer, sometimes a before and after. We did an interesting study of people going through a spiritual retreat program. And then we take a picture of the brain. We see where this material went. And it tells us something about the activity levels of the brain during different kinds of states. So we might look at somebody while they’re in prayer and compare that to a meditation state, or compare that to a resting state or something like that.

And the other main imaging tool that I’ve been fortunate to use is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which basically uses a big magnet to be able to look at, again, different physiological processes like blood flow or neuronal activity. And there too, we have looked at different practices while people are meditating or just the effect of doing those meditation practices in terms of things like anxiety or depression and so forth. And sometimes that has more of a therapeutic bent to it.

But one of the interesting advantages… or disadvantages of these techniques. With the MRI, you really have to be in the scanner while you’re doing the practice. And sometimes that’s very doable. People can do a prayer practice or certain meditation practices lying very still in the scanner itself. But other practices are much more difficult to do that. For example, we did a really fascinating study of people speaking in tongues, where they’re making these different vocalizations and they’re moving around and so forth.

So by injecting them with this little radioactive tracer while they’re doing that practice, we can then scan them a period of time after they’re done when they can lie still. But it captures a snapshot. It captures what their brain was doing at the moment that they were doing the practice. And again, then we can say, okay, well, this is what we see going on in the brain when they’re speaking in tongues, when they are saying a prayer or whatever.

And so those have been the main tools. And other people have used things like EEG (electroencephalography) to look at electrical changes in the brain. So people are using a whole bunch of different arrays. And really, it’s been a growing field of work to look at these practices from a variety of different vantage points using the technologies that we currently have.

Michael Egnor: How does this add to our understanding of spirituality? How does the use of functional MRI imaging, and SPECT imaging, and EEG, what does that contribute to our knowledge of religion beyond what we know from the great texts from theologians, all those things?

Andrew Newberg:It provides an added perspective that perhaps we just haven’t had the ability to look at before. But in no way, shape, or form does it eliminate or get rid of what those great theologians and what people through the millennia have had in terms of their experiences and the beliefs that they hold. So on one hand, if somebody is a deeply religious individual, that’s what’s important. And so in that context, being able to say that their parietal lobe did something or their frontal lobe did something doesn’t really change what’s going on in terms of their own beliefs.

It’s like saying, if… we’re trying to study love, it doesn’t mean that if we understand what areas of the brain are involved, that people should stop falling in love. It just gives us this new insight into a little bit about how it works and how these beliefs and these experiences have an effect on us. And in that context, I think there is some real value. It does provide some knowledge about how being a religious or spiritual individual or doing a spiritual practice may actually have an impact, not only on the spiritual part of who they are, but on the biological part and the psychological part as well…

Michael Egnor: Certainly, from what I know of your work, I’m very impressed. I think it’s a fascinating topic. And I think you’re doing wonderful work. There is a critique of neuroscience, particularly cognitive neuroscience, that has been given by philosopher Roger Scruton, who described neuroscience as in an extraordinarily succinct, but I think accurate way when he said that, “Neuroscience is a vast collection of answers with no memory of the questions.” …

Do you either have, or have you acquired any particular metaphysical perspective on the relationship between the mind and the brain? Is your work showing you a materialist perspective, an idealist perspective, a dualist perspective? Has that entered into your work? …

Andrew Newberg: I would say, to answer your bigger question, when it comes to those metaphysical questions, I think that from my own personal perspective … one, I think we have to be extremely careful about how we interpret results of any scientific study. And so I think it’s always important to be open to the materialist perspective, open to the supernatural perspective, and open to ways of perhaps trying to find an integrated approach that finds ways of linking them together, whatever that means. …

But I do think we have to be really careful. And if you’ll indulge me for a second, I mean, one of my favorite little stories is about the study that we did of a group of Franciscan nuns. And it was a very small study. And the nun had come in … one of the nuns had come in and we did her brain scans. And I showed her what was going on in her brain when she was doing a kind of prayer called centering prayer, versus when she was just at rest. And after I showed her all the changes that went on in her brain, she thanked me so much. She thought it was so wonderful to be able to see. She said, “Thank you, Dr. Newberg, for showing me how the prayer practice really validates my ability to connect with God and how it has an impact on me and my brain and my body.” And she was really just so appreciative. And I said, “You’re welcome.” And off she went and I felt very good that I had helped to make this nun happy.

And then after we published our study, I had a call from the head of the local atheist society. And I said, somewhat sheepishly, “Hello.” And, “How are you doing?”

And they said, “I just wanted to thank you so much for doing this study and proving that God is nothing more than a manifestation of your brain’s function. And that religions are just … we can just reduce all religion to the brain.” And I said, “Well, you’re welcome.” And off he went and he was happy. And somewhere in the yin yang of the universe, there was … I thought it’s amazing that one study can make a nun and an atheist happy at the same time…

But it underlies the point, I think, which is that the beliefs and the biases … and we talk about this And so I still think that, while we may not necessarily be able to truly answer the metaphysical questions … certainly, we’re not going to do that just by doing a brain scan. Maybe by bringing all of these different elements together, we might get a little bit closer than we ever have before. But I don’t know.

Next: If you meditate, does it make a difference whether you believe in God?

You may also wish to read: Tibetan monks can change their metabolism. Far from disproving it, science has documented it. For decades, a default assumption would be that claims that meditating monks in the Buddhist tradition could greatly raise their temperature or slow their metabolism were assumed to be exaggerations that would yield to a scientific explanation. The scientific explanation turned out to be that they can do exactly that.

Show Notes

  • 00:08 | Introducing Andrew Newberg
  • 05:17 | Methods to Study the Brain
  • 08:31 | The Current Understanding of Spirituality and the Brain
  • 15:19 | The Relationship Between the Mind and the Brain
  • 20:04 | A Nun and an Atheist Study the Brain

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Meet a Doctor Who Thinks Spirituality Isn’t Just All in Your Head