FaithWorld

How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome 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?

meditation-scan-2That 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.

God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheaderNeurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

martha-head-shot1After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

Shock cover-up charges about slain French monks in Algeria

monks-graveThe 1996 murder of seven French Catholic monks in Algeria, called the Martyrs of Atlas because of the Atlas mountains where their monastery was located, was not the work of Islamist militants as officially stated at the time, according to testimony by a retired French general to an inquiry into the killings. (Photo: Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin — with red sash — visits monks’ graces, 20 Feb 2007/Larbi Louafi)

In fact, he told a closed-door inquiry in Paris, Algerian troops in a helicopter inadvertently gunned down the Trappists when they strafed an isolated camp they believed belonged to the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that was battling the Algerian state at the time. When they landed to inspect the scene, the troops found the bullet-ridden bodies of the monks who had been kidnapped two months beforehand. Algeria then concocted the story that the Islamists had slit the monks’ throats to hide their fatal blunder.

The inquiry also heard from a Trappist who went to Algeria to identify the bodies. He said he had to insist on having the sealed coffins opened so he could identify the bodies. When his wish was finally granted, he found the coffins contained only the men’s heads and was urged by the French embassy not to divulge this. He told the inquiry he suspected the bodies were disposed of to hide the evidence they had been gunned down.

Biden visit to Kosovo monastery splits Serbian Orthodox Church

biden-in-kosovo-1DECANI, Kosovo – A visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to one of the best known monasteries in Kosovo has again revealed a deep split in the church. A veteran of Balkan complexities from his U.S. Senate activism against Serbian aggression during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Biden visited the 14th century Decani monastery on Thursday afternoon to highlight the importance protecting the Serbian minority in Kosovo. (Photo: Fr. Janjic with U.S. Vice President Biden at Decani monastery, 21 May 2009/Adam Tanner)

Father Sava Janjic, sometimes called Decani’s “cyber monk” because of his embrace of the Internet, warmly welcomed the vice president, who had first visited there in 2001. “This is his second visit to this monastery which is one of the most important Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo,” Fr. Sava told Reuters in fluent English. “We sincerely believe his visit will help the preservation of Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo and generally help the position of the Serbian people in Kosovo.”

However, the diocese overseeing Kosovo, which the church considers the cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy, issued a strong statement condemning the visit. “The U.S. vice president is visiting Kosovo as an independent state, to confirm forceful secession of Serbia’s territory and its hand over to Albanian terrorist who were not punished for numerous crimes against Serbian people, Serbian property and Serbian cultural and religious heritage,” the diocese said in a statement. “Does Joseph Biden want to confirm with his gesture that Decani is an American base in Kosovo, the same as Camp Bondsteel?”

from Photographers' Blog:

Monks of the Namo Monastery – Audio slideshow

Click here or on the image above to view an audio slideshow from the Namo Monastery.