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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Neuroscience is Not Just for Buddhists: Reflections on the Physiology of Belief

Mega-pundit David Brooks has been talking a lot about neuroscience and religion lately. His column, “The Neural Buddhists,” was on the New York Times‘ “Most Emailed” list, and at this month’s Faith Angle conference in Key West — where the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe invites the nation’s elite journalists to talk religion twice a year — Brooks, along with Andrew Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania radiologist who has done some fascinating research in the field, spoke on “How Our Brains Are Wired for Belief.”

The headline from Brooks is that there is an “incredible revolution” going on right now in brain science, and and that the cultural, social and religious implications of these findings are just beginning to trickle into the culture. He says:

To me, it’s a bit like the revolution of psychology or psychiatry that Freud started, except for this time I think it’s correct. What interests me is that when Freud happened, it had this tremendous effect on the culture at large, on the way people thought about human nature and politics. The New Republic in the 1950s had a weekly Freud column, where a Freudian analyst would write a column about politics from a Freudian perspective – so, “The Soviet Union was particularly anal this week,” or something. (Laughter.) Freudianism literally had that effect, and I’m convinced – and I think it’s already happening – that this tremendous revolution in neuroscience and related fields is going to have the same effect on culture and the way we think about human nature and religion and everything else.

In some sort of cosmic confirmation of Brook’s assertion that neuroscientific insights are spreading through our culture, a novel I picked up casually over the weekend — The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers — turns out to be all about neuroscience, as an aging brain expert investigates the case of a young Nebraska man who, after a devastating car accident, is no longer able to recognize his beloved sister. Brooks is also working on a book that discusses the implications of brain science, How Success Happens, (not due out until 2010). The connection? Brooks says he started out to write about social mobility, which lead to questions about learning, which lead to the brain itself. (As he puts it at the Pew event, he got into the topic “half ass-backward” — try saying that on The News Hour.)

Anyways, while Brooks is calling attention to the science, Andrew Newberg is actually doing the science, and at the Key West panel, he shared some of his very interesting findings. He described how he studied the brain physiology of three separate groups: meditating Tibetan Buddhists, praying Franciscan nuns and Pentecostals who were speaking in tongues. Newberg and his team used SPECT scans, which look at blood flow in different parts of the brain and result in colorful pictures showing what the brain looks like in meditation or prayer. (You can see the slides here.)

So what did he find? When the Tibetans meditated, activity in the part of the brain that orients us in space — the parietal lobes — goes down. At the same time, activity in the frontal lobes, which are involved in us paying attention, goes up. Explains Newberg:

When people engage in these practices in a very deep way, they do two things. First, you are focusing on something, usually it is a sacred object or an image or something like that, but, second, you also screen out irrelevant information. As you do this, more and more information that normally goes to the orienting parts of your brain doesn’t go there. So it keeps trying to give you a sense of your self, an orientation of that self in the world, but it no longer has the information upon which to do that. … We think this is part of what is associated with somebody losing that sense of self. They feel at one with God, at one with their spiritual mantra, whatever it is they are looking at.

In the Franciscan nuns, who were practicing the centering prayer, the result was similar: activity in the “orienting part” of the brain went down. In the Pentecostals who were speaking in tongues, activity in the frontal lobes, which are involved in attention and every-day personal functioning, went down. Newberg explains:

This actually makes a lot of sense because in contrast to the meditators and nuns, who are focusing on doing something, the way the Pentecostals describe speaking in tongues is they are not focusing on doing it; they let it happen. They just let their own will go away and allow this whole thing to take place. They don’t feel like they’re in control of this process. And the findings on the scan at least support the phenomenological experience they have.

What do the pretty pictures mean?

Newberg presented a few other snippets of scientific findings, and the rest of the session was taken up with intense speculation on what all of this means. Does it show that the “God feeling” is simply a brain function, rooted in chemically driven neurons? Is meditation or prayer a way of tricking the brain into feeling transcendence? Newberg is rather faith-friendly himself, and quite circumspect as a scientist: His most frequent answer was, “We don’t know, but that would be a good question to study.”

Newberg’s findings sparked a different set of questions in me. For one thing, it got me interested in how different methods of prayer or worship affect the brain differently. Religion reporter-and-blogger Kimberly Winston, for example, reflected on the effect of prayer beads on the brain — a great question. In one part of the Key West discussion, Rebecca Sinderbrand of CNN asked Newberg about people who convert from one belief system to another: Is there something about their brains that makes them particularly open to such radical change? Newberg replies that, of course, science can’t say right now, but that scientists do know that such change happens “through something rhythmic and persistent that affects people on multiple sensory levels.”

Those words had me thinking about the Muslim practice of praying five times a day. What is the brain physiology behind this system of prayer? Obviously there is some wisdom in having to pray multiple times a day — certainly one imagines this creates and reinforces the set of neural pathways leading to awareness of God, humility, etc. And of course the Muslim prayer involves both mind and body, since it requires reciting certain prayers and scripture passages while moving the body in a set of prescribed positions. Does this mean the “orienting” parietal lobe remains active, keeping believers rooted in the physical world even as they contemplate and worship God?

It’s interesting because except for Sufi influences, the usual practice of Islam is not focused on transcendental, mind-over-matter spiritual states in the same way that Buddhist or Yogic practices are. I remember visiting Muslim friends in Indonesia who had a custom-built house with a small prayer area right in the middle of the central foyer. I was surprised: This was no quiet, cozy nook for sacred reflection. My friend explained why he wanted the prayer area right in the living space: Because prayer is about concentrating on God in the midst of life, even busy, noisy life. By consciously involving the body in prayer, then, does the Muslim prayer deemphasize the “lost in God” sensation that might be more present in Buddhist meditation or other practices?

I can imagine any number of fascinating questions about how particular religious practices — say, lighting candles and drinking wine on shabbos — affect the brain. Interestingly, many of the journalists at the Key West event seemed to feel that Newberg’s findings undermined religious belief. Will Saletan of Slate asked how everyday believers would possibly be able to accept that Jesus was “just in their heads.” I was puzzled by this: Certainly, you can argue that life is only material — we are no more than neurons and particles — but believers believe. As Newberg noted, if you learn about the brain physiology of love, for example, that such-and-such part of your brain is activated when you see a picture of your child, does that lessen the reality of your child or the love you feel for him/her?

For me, then, the neuroscience is neutral on the ultimate questions — Is there a God? etc — but it could reveal so much about how different religious practices affect us. I imagine that each religion has emphasized and perfected one or two particular “pathways” in its styles of prayer and worship: Believers could learn a lot by seeing what other religions do well. I find it also puzzling, then, that Brooks asserts neuroscience leads to “soft-core Buddhism.” He says:

The [neuroscience] literature treats any specific belief system as completely arbitrary. It knows that we have these beliefs. It knows that the mind is really good at making up stories. Some people in Jerusalem a few thousand years ago made up one story, another guy made up another story, there are still other stories. But it treats all of these stories as completely the same and arbitrary. I think if you read the research, you will see there is no reason to think one religion is any different or any better than the other. Where the research winds up ultimately is, frankly, at Buddhism, the idea that the self is this dynamic process. There is some generic spirituality that may or may not be tethered to a higher being.

First question: Why is Buddhism so often considered so generic and belief-free? Western Buddhists will always tell you that you can believe in your own religion and still be a Buddhist or practice Buddhism, but is that really true? For one thing, Buddhism, like Christianity or Islam, begins with a particular set of historically based facts that must be accepted or rejected: That the Buddha existed, that he attained Enlightenment, that the Four Noble Truths are true, that the Eight-fold path will lead to enlightenment, etc., etc. So how is Buddhism a universal spirituality? I find it as rooted in culture and history as any other religion.

Second, saying that neuroscience shows belief of any flavor has the same affect on the brain does not then negate individual, specific beliefs. Yes, maybe God — or our brains — don’t care what we believe in, but that still leaves us with the necessity of believing. You could marry anyone, but you actually marry just one person. You could believe anything, but you end up believing just one thing. So I’m not sure why Brooks brings Buddhism into this. My guess is he likes to be contrarian and provocative, since that assertion about Buddhism undermines his own Jewish commitments. I’d like to hear how his personal beliefs and practices have been affected by all he’s learned about neuroscience.

But I will take Brooks at his word that the revolutions in neuroscience are going to shake us up at a profound level. Bring it on!

There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. two quick points

    1) the neurologists are focusing on one extreme case of religious phenomena; the dimension of mystical experience. this isn’t modal, that is, most buddhists aren’t meditating constantly.

    2) speaking of, most talk about buddhism is filtered through western perceptions which began in the 19th century without any ethnographic work on how asian buddhists actually practice their religion.

  2. Actually, Brooks is incorrect in aserting that “the self is this dynamic process” is a Buddhist view. Buddhism points to no-self — nirvana, extinction of self-other duality. “Make me one with everything” is what he should have used for a Buddhist summum. Buddhism has beliefs (can you say reincarnation?), but people practice it differently, and it has been adopted and adapted by the cultures where it has spread, including the West, in much the same way that Christianity and Islam look different in different countries even while there is a distinctive core of beliefs and practices. Within Asia itself are different Buddhisms — so it depends on your point of reference, no? I would not look to Brooks for an understanding of Buddhism, but you can ask me questions, Andrea. :-) Your colleague Marcia, author, Come and Sit: A Week Inside Meditation Centers

  3. Another excellent article, Andrea!

    It may one day be possible for neuroscience (or at least David Brooks!) to prove that Jesus is “all in our heads”. But that raises the obvious question of “Why is Jesus all in our heads?” Which is to say, why do our brains seem to be wired for transcendence? What useful purpose could this possibly serve? In evolutionary terms, how does this seemingly random idiosyncrasy serve humanity’s prime directive, which is the survival and dissemination of our species?

    I doubt that we’ll have any clear answer to those questions anytime soon, if ever. It may be that our desire for transcendence has no purpose whatsoever — at least, not in *this* life!

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