If religious experiences can be seen on a brain scan or made more likely by a variation in a particular gene, what does that tell us about God and faith? It depends on who you ask.
Phil Jackson was raised in the 1960s and 70s with what he calls a "pretty typical male upbringing in Chicago: type A, aggressive, and goal-oriented." As an adult who had embraced these values, he was working in sales and taking medication for anxiety and depression. Then, in the late 1990s, he became interested in centering prayer, a form of Christian meditation that often involves focusing on a particular meaningful phrase. He now practices it twice a day for 20 minutes at a time, and he leads a weekly group at his parish, Mary, Seat of Wisdom in Park Ridge, Illinois.
"It really has changed my life," Jackson says now. "It has been the most powerful force in my life." He describes himself, convincingly, as peaceful, present, and empathetic. He is no longer on any kind of medication for mental health. "It pervades everything," he says. "Some of it is very clear. Some of it, I don't know if I can put my finger on why I'm different, but I know I am, and I know things don't push my buttons like they used to."
Millions of people throughout history have been convinced that prayer has changed their lives. Indeed, a traditional theological story about Jackson's transformation might be that God has intervened to release him from the chains of depression and other ills. But in recent years, scientists have offered a competing--or perhaps complementary-explanation for experiences like his: By exercising certain "muscles" in his brain over time, Jackson changed himself by physically changing his brain.
"The more a person engages in a practice like doing the rosary, or saying prayers, the stronger those areas of the brain become," says Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Like many of his peers, Newberg is interested in what belief looks like in the brain.
In one experiment, he used brain imaging technology to scan three Franciscan nuns while they performed centering prayer. His initial sample size was small, but his results were promising: The nuns reported a "loss of the usual sense of space," and the scans showed higher blood flow to the frontal lobes. In other words, their spiritual lives had a physiological component.
Brain scientists in recent years have triumphantly pinned aspects of the human experience, including love, lust, fear, compassion, and criminality, to certain genes or specific regions of the brain. But many of these scientists, as it happens, have been relatively uninterested in questions of the brain and spirituality. "People spend more time praying and meditating than they do having sex," points out Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist and geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis. Historically, however, it's fair to say there has been more scientific interest in sex than in belief.
But these days there seems to be a new openness to studying the brain and spirituality. The last decade in particular has brought a steady stream of research locating aspects of spirituality in the brain. Various scientists have claimed to have discovered a "God spot," a "God gene," or a "God circuit."
By the 1990s, some thinkers who were interested in the intersection between brain science and spirituality were beginning to use the term "neurotheology" to describe this kind of work. Coined by Aldous Huxley in his 1962 novel Island, the term was initially eschewed by many mainstream scientists--as was much of the early research itself. But the word is now coming into wider use, just as the subject area itself is becoming fodder for serious science. Newberg wrote his 2010 book, Principles of Neurotheology (Ashgate), intending to bring the field--and the practice itself--into wider respectability. …