Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


`We believe that the human brain has been genetically wired to encourage religious beliefs.'

--Andrew Newberg

Those who deeply and regularly pray report that when praying they feel at one with the universe, unafraid of death and in awe of the Mystery they connect with. Scientists have connected some of these people to instruments that peer into the enchanted loom that is their brain, tracing the weaving, flashing shuttles of their neural connections. They seek understanding of the physical dynamics beneath those beatific experiences. They are probing the biology of religion.

Studies have been conducted by scientists in Canada, Britain and the United States. A key researcher in the United States is Andrew Newberg, a physician and fellow of the Division of Nuclear Medicine at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, in Philadelphia. Newberg worked closely with Eugene d'Aquili, a professor of psychiatry at the hospital, who died in 1998. D'Aquili began doing neurological studies of religion more than 25 years ago. Newberg began his association with d'Aquili 10 years ago.

Their research suggests that religion is intimately interwoven with human biology, that the brain's structure, in fact, compels the spiritual urge and that the brain has the capacity to make spiritual experience real. They use the term neurotheology. Their findings suggest religion and spirituality had an evolutionary function.

D'Aquili and Newberg first published their research and findings in scientific journals, then in a book titled The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, published in 1999 by Fortress Press, a Lutheran publisher. Their new book, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, was released by Ballantine Books on April 3. This new book is a more popular reworking and update of their research.

In their empirical work, these researchers constructed a model of what happens in the brain during significant spiritual experiences by peering into the gray matter of praying Franciscan nuns and meditating Tibetan monks using what is known as single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT). Conclusions based on their laboratory findings and on what is already known about brain function reveal surprising insights into the biological basis of spirituality.

Activation studies using image-scanning techniques have given us a detailed picture of functions of the individual structures of the brain, according to Newberg. We know which areas of the brain are associated with the five senses, which are activated by motor behaviors, from jogging to making high-fives. Scientists watch various parts of the brain turn on and off as subjects do algebra, write verse or feel a cramp. More information comes from studying patients with injuries or tumors in various areas.

Neurobiological research, though, has largely bypassed religious experiences and beliefs except that done by a handful of scientists.

Until the 1970s, religious experience and activity were believed to be purely cultural phenomena, a product of social conditioning, and not in any way biological. Little effort was made to investigate the physiological aspects of, say, ritual or chant. Thanks to the work of d'Aquili, Newberg and their colleagues, the biological side is becoming an important component in the study of human religious experience.

"Spiritual experiences are the inevitable outcome of brain wiring," said Newberg. "We believe that the human brain has been genetically wired to encourage religious beliefs."

The two scientists have identified areas of the brain that work together to provide the network that underlies religious activities like prayer, meditation or ritual. They have found evidence that, for example, liturgy has an evolutionary survival value (see "The roots of liturgy", page 16). The capacity for mystical experience, they theorize, is a byproduct of sexual development in the human. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.