Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience

Article excerpt

`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. …

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