by Phung Huynh
alumnus and faculty member
Dr. Andrew Newberg probes deep inside
the brain in a quest to understand faith.
Newberg M93 was the boy from suburban Philadelphia, who wanted to knowand
was encouraged to askabout all those things that disturb our dreams and
inspire our poets. Why are we here? How do we understand the world and
its many realities? How does the body work? And the brain? What goes on
I think I recognized,
pretty early on, that if we are going to understand how we come to know
the world, we are going to have to understand how the brain works, says
Newberg, now director of clinical nuclear medicine and neuroPET research
and an assistant professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University
of Pennsylvania, as he looks back on the childhood that shaped him. And
so he wondered and he read, thought about his own Jewish tradition, went
off to college and kept on reading, expanded his repertoire to Hinduism
and Buddhism, to philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Heidegger.
By the time he
reached Penns medical school in 1988, Newberg was a confirmed questioner
and an admitted idealista man who hoped to help others through medicine,
a man still hot on the trail of lifes most fundamental conundrums.
A bit more than
a decade later, Newberg is coauthor of Why God Wont Go Away: Brain
Science & the Biology of Belief, an exhilaratingly well-written
and philosophically sophisticated work of science and religion, which
was published in April. Hopes are high for the book, with a healthy first-run
printing of 35,000 American editionsan Italian translation is already
in the works, tooand a dozen-city author tour by Newberg.
Why God Wont
Go Away courts comparisons with the work of such popular scientist-writers
as Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eiseley, and Daniel
Schacter. Newberg has the knack for making hard things easy. He asks the
kinds of questions that are compelling to a culture increasingly drawn
to questions of spirituality and health and their interconnection. He
is self-effacing and gentlemanlynice, to boot. His formative enthusiasm
and innate curiosity are ever present, ever apparent on a face that is
still boyish, still full of spark.
It was in 1991,
while he was still in medical school, that Newberg met Dr. Eugene dAquili
M66 G81, the man who would help him both broaden and deepen the intellectual
journey hed been taking on his own since childhood. A psychiatrist in
private practice as well as a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry
at Penn, dAquili was also a widely respected polymath with a masters
degree in anthropology from the University in addition to his medical
degree. His passion and obsession lay in understanding ritual and spiritual
experience, and since the mid-1970s, hed been using all the theoretical
tools at his disposal to get at the heart of the matter.
of sorts was born. Every week or so the two would get
together for lunch or dinner and talk. dAquili would give Newberg the
material hed writtenone book called Biogenetic Structuralism,
another called Spectrum of Ritual, a proliferation of articles
for Zygon: Journal of Religion and Scienceand Newberg would read,
synthesize, offer questions and ideas. It was sort of a strange kind
of research, Newberg says, smiling, his modesty disarming. Wed have
a meal together. Wed talk. Wed write a paper on our conversation.
At the same time,
Newberg was working in Penns nuclear-medicine department, learning how
to take scans of the heart, the liver, the kidney, and other body partsand
studying the power of brain imaging. It wasnt long before he recognized
that the empirical brain imaging work he was doing in the nuclear-medicine
department could be a marvelous adjunct to the theoretical models he and
dAquili had been developing to depict how the brain works during spiritual
experiences. Blending the two approaches gave their work a new edge, a
distinctive and original component.
There were already
a lot of studies showing that the prefrontal cortex is activated when
people are focusing, Newberg explains. So Gene and I said, Okay, during
meditation, people are focusing their attention and, therefore, they are
probably, at least in part, activating their prefrontal cortex during
that time. But we also believe that the brain is more complicated than
that, that religious experiences cant be isolated to a single area. Religious
experience involves a lot of different aspects of our thoughts, our emotions,
our cognitions, and neuroimaging helps us look at what is happening.
Why God Wont
Go Away, which provides, among other things, an in-depth look at just
what happens to the brain during a religious experience, is the popularized
version of The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience,
a dense thicket of a book Newberg and dAquili completed in 1998, just
prior to dAquilis sudden death from a massive heart attack. It was Newbergs
idea to reach out to a lay audience with a far more accessible bookand
his great good fortune to find Vince Rause, a Pittsburgh-based freelance
writer, whose background in brain sciences, enthusiasm for the material,
and talent with the English language are profoundly reflected in the final
Why God Wont
Go Away reads more like a story than it does a distillation of research.
It wanders into cultural, sociological, philosophical, and (in the final
pages) political realms that feel daring andthough Newberg insists that
he hopes the book wont stir too much ireinnately controversial. The
book begins by introducing readers to Robert, one of the 11 research subjects
Newberg has studied using neuroimaging tools. Robert is a devout Buddhist,
an accomplished practitioner of Tibetan meditation who is, as the book
opens, about to begin another meditative voyage inward.
As always, his
goal is to quiet the constant chatter of the conscious mind and lose himself
in the deeper, simpler reality within. Its a journey hes made a thousand
times before, but this time, as he drifts off into that inner spiritual
realityas the material world around him recedes like a fading dreamhe
remains tethered to the physical here and now by a length of common twine.
That twine, we soon learn, is what Robert will tug on once he has reached
the transcendent peak of spiritual intensity.