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Looking for God, continued

 

Photo by Candace diCarlo
Newberg and SPECT camera: Revealing the mind's "machinery of transcendence."
Photo by Candace diCarlo

    When Newberg feels that tug he injects Robert with a radioactive material, waits for Robert’s meditation to end, then wheels him down the hall to where a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera is waiting to take pictures of Robert’s brain. The purpose? “We hope that by monitoring Robert’s brain activity at the most intense and mystical moments of his meditation, we might shed some light on the mysterious connections between human consciousness and the persistent and peculiarly human longing to connect with something larger than ourselves.”
    Why God Won’t Go Away pivots around the hypothesis that biology, as the authors put it, “compels the spiritual urge.” It takes readers through the biology of belief and the machinery and architecture of the brain; hearkens back to Joseph Campbell with a discussion about the human compulsion to fabricate and carry forward myths; explores myriad facets of a wide variety of rituals; and muses over the many mysteries of reality and our perception of it. The book asks, in other words, the more grown-up version of the questions Newberg started asking as a five-year-old child in an intellectually nurturing home: Are human beings biologically compelled to make myths? What is the neurological secret behind the power of ritual? Are the transcendent visions and insights of the great religious mystics based on mental or emotional delusions, or are they the result of coherent sensory perceptions shaped by the proper neurological functioning of sound, healthy minds? Could evolutionary factors such as sexuality and mating have influenced the development of religious ecstasy?
    Heady questions, certainly, but in his loose white lab coat and with his open, infectious laugh, Newberg conveys the impression, most of all, that he is having a whole lot of fun. “I love this stuff,” he says at several points. “I love talking about it, love thinking about it, love working on it.” He’ll treat the interviewer as if she’s been provocative, asked something original, though she’s sure that he’s heard these questions countless times before. He’ll wade patiently through challenges, however subtle or overt. He’ll ask out loud if he’s answered the question thoroughly, then look for a metaphor or an analogy that will better do the trick. What Newberg will not do, however, is consent to any notion that his work is reductionistic, a claim that has been made, in some quarters, in the past.
    “People sometimes come up and say to me, ‘What you are really saying is that spiritual experiences are nothing but brain function,’” Newberg recounts. “What I say to them, and what you have to remember, is that all of our experiences are in some way associated with functions of the brain, and that the only possible way to perceive any fragment of any reality is through our brains—but this is not an entirely reductionistic perspective, and in our work, and in this book, we do in fact have a lot of sympathy for the spiritual side.”
    A careful reading of Why God Won’t Go Away suggests that this is true. The authors, we come to understand, have not set out to prove or disprove God, to reason ecstasy away, to diminish the inexplicable power of connecting to or being with something greater than one’s self. One gets the sense, rather, that the authors are as wide-eyed about spiritualism as their readers may be, as entranced by its possibilities as by its gears and lubricants.
    “We believe that all mystical experiences, from the mildest to the most intense, have their biological roots in the mind’s machinery of transcendence,” they write at one point. “To say this in a slightly more provocative way, if the brain were not assembled as it is, we would not be able to experience a higher reality, even if it did exist.” The authors go on to show that evolution alone cannot explain this so-called machinery of transcendence, leaving the question wide open for the reader to decide: Did a Higher Being design the brain so that it would be capable of perceiving and receiving the Higher Being? Or did the brain merely evolve on its own into a marvel of neurons, neural networks, and splashes of electrochemical energy that calculate out, under certain circumstances, into a feeling of transcendence?
    Will Why God Won’t Go Away electrify readers? Discourage? Inspire? Alienate? Calm? Appease? Will it spark debate or merely fill a void? Newberg is hoping, most of all, that the book will enlighten, that it will integrate science and spirituality for readers, that it will strengthen the platform upon which readers might draw conclusions—on their own—about matters of soul and destiny. Spiritual readers will, he hopes, gain new appreciation for the science of the brain. Scientists will be encouraged to consider spirituality as one more essential access path toward understanding our multilayered reality.
    “I think it is helpful for a person to understand the neuroscience of their brain,” Newberg says. “I think it enhances one’s knowledge about the religious practices one participates in, it makes spirituality that much more real. I want to give readers the language with which to speak about the spiritual experiences they might be having, to talk about them in a more scientific way. That doesn’t mean that some of the findings here might not destroy someone’s religious perspective, but that certainly has not been my purpose.”
    So what does happen to the brain when it is in the thrall of a transcendent experience? The scan of Robert’s brain (as well as the brains of seven other Tibetan meditators and three Franciscan nuns at prayer) pointed to unusual activity in a small knob of gray matter known as the posterior superior parietal lobe, an area the authors also refer to as the orientation association area, or OAA. The known purpose of this knob is to orient the individual in physical space, a job it performs by drawing, in the words of the authors, “a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.”

 

 

 

 

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