for God, continued
and SPECT camera: Revealing the mind's "machinery of transcendence."
Photo by Candace diCarlo
Newberg feels that tug he injects Robert with a radioactive material,
waits for Roberts 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 Roberts brain. The purpose? We hope that by monitoring
Roberts 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 Wont
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?
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. Hell
treat the interviewer as if shes been provocative, asked something original,
though shes sure that hes heard these questions countless times before.
Hell wade patiently through challenges, however subtle or overt. Hell
ask out loud if hes 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.
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 brainsbut
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 Wont 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 ones 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 minds 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
Wont 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 conclusionson their ownabout 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
I think it is
helpful for a person to understand the neuroscience of their brain, Newberg
says. I think it enhances ones 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
doesnt mean that some of the findings here might not destroy someones
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 Roberts 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.