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Illustration by Phung Huynh
Looking for God

Medical alumnus and faculty member
Dr. Andrew Newberg probes deep inside
the brain in a quest to understand faith.

BY BETH KEPHART

 

Andrew Newberg M’93 was the boy from suburban Philadelphia, who wanted to know—and was encouraged to ask—about 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 in there?
   “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 Penn’s medical school in 1988, Newberg was a confirmed questioner and an admitted idealist—a man who hoped to help others through medicine, a man still hot on the trail of life’s most fundamental conundrums.
   A bit more than a decade later, Newberg is coauthor of Why God Won’t 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 editions—an Italian translation is already in the works, too—and a dozen-city author tour by Newberg.
   Why God Won’t 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 gentlemanly—nice, 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 d’Aquili M’66 G’81, the man who would help him both broaden and deepen the intellectual journey he’d been taking on his own since childhood. A psychiatrist in private practice as well as a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Penn, d’Aquili was also a widely respected polymath with a master’s 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, he’d been using all the theoretical tools at his disposal to get at the heart of the matter.
   A collaboration of sorts was born. Every week or so the two would get
together for lunch or dinner and talk. d’Aquili would give Newberg the material he’d written—one book called Biogenetic Structuralism, another called Spectrum of Ritual, a proliferation of articles for Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science—and Newberg would read, synthesize, offer questions and ideas. “It was sort of a strange kind of research,” Newberg says, smiling, his modesty disarming. “We’d have a meal together. We’d talk. We’d write a paper on our conversation.”

   At the same time, Newberg was working in Penn’s nuclear-medicine department, learning how to take scans of the heart, the liver, the kidney, and other body parts—and studying the power of brain imaging. It wasn’t 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 d’Aquili 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 can’t 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 Won’t 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 d’Aquili completed in 1998, just prior to d’Aquili’s sudden death from a massive heart attack. It was Newberg’s idea to reach out to a lay audience with a far more accessible book—and 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 product.
   Why God Won’t 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 and—though Newberg insists that he hopes the book won’t stir too much ire—innately 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. It’s a journey he’s made a thousand times before, but this time, as he drifts off into that inner spiritual reality—as the material world around him recedes like a fading dream—he 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.

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