How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain
Some book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.
That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.
The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?
That brings up another interesting aspect. While he is clearly favourable to faith and spirituality, Newberg remains a scientist eager to study the religious feelings he calls “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.” He studiously avoids promoting any one faith or closing the door to atheists who might be reading the text. The tone is upbeat, the approach inclusive and the conclusion optimistic. There’s a touch of Eastern mysticism, too, with sections on how widely practiced meditation could foster compassion and understanding among people and peoples. Thanks to this open-minded approach towards both religion and science, Newberg teaches radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and speaks frequently to church groups or in religious media.
Newberg gave me a few SPECT brain scan images that illustrate the changes he finds in his subjects’ brains. The image above left shows the brain of a Buddhist monk before and during meditation. The increased yellow in the lower right of the right-hand image shows reduced activity in the parietal lobe, the brain area responsible for orientation in space and time. Below right, the image shows a nun before and during prayer, with increased activity in the frontal lobe, the area for concentration and analytical thinking, and in areas linked to language.
Newberg, a cheerful and optimistic man who was brought up in a Reform Jewish family and says he is still exploring his own beliefs, told me his next book will be an academic work on neurotheology. He stresses that the field is in its infancy and its brain scanning methods are still “incredibly crude. We really don’t know which neurons are firing in that little three-millimeter space” captured in fMRI scans. “If we can ultimately say something epistemologically interesting, then that’s great,” he told me. “But it’s going to take me a long time before I get to saying something like that.”
UPDATE: After some failed attempts at editing this, here is a video clip of Newberg explaining his views during our interview:
What do you think about “neurotheology”? Do you think brain scans and neuroscience can tell us anything significant about religion?