for God, continued
(and thankfully) we are unaware of the work this knob is doingunaware
that it is furiously and seamlessly sorting the billions of nerve impulses
coming at it from all parts of our body so as to keep us oriented in the
world. The posterior superior parietal lobe is a hectic, hyper-efficient,
warp-speed kind of place, countless times busier than any New York subway
station at rush hour, and in the normal state of mind, SPECT scans reveal
it to be furiously active, characterized by bright zones of yellows
and reds. But scans taken of meditating subjects like Robert show the
area to be not red or yellow but cool blue and green, colors that, according
to Newberg, indicate a sharp reduction in activity level.
considering what might be causing this, Newberg and dAquili alighted
on an intriguing possibility: that the orientation association area had
stopped receiving the incoming flow of sensory information, that that
information had, in fact, been blocked.
would happen if the OAA had no information upon which to work? they write.
Would it continue to search for the limits of the self? With no information
flowing in from the senses, the OAA wouldnt be able to find any boundaries.
What would the brain make of that? Would the orientation area interpret
its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world
to mean that such a distinction doesnt exist? In that case, the brain
would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately
interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception
would feel utterly and unquestionably real.
is exactly how Robert and generations of mystics before him have described
their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments. One wonders what
all this probing into the brain and the rituals that excite it has done
to Newbergs own sense of faith and religious purpose. Is he hyperaware
of his own brain functions when he sits in a temple?
Newberg claims that he has not been changed, in any major or overt way,
by the research that hes doing. He is still a Reform Jew attending synagogue
on the important holidays. He is still intrigued by Eastern practices
of meditation. What has changed, he says, is his level of appreciation
for the aliveness of his own mind. What has deepened is his respect for
the way the brain receives reality.
question reminds me of a brain imaging study in which concert pianists
and normal controls were scanned while listening to music, Newberg says.
The pianists activated the left side of their brain because they understood
the music from a technical perspective. The controls activated the right
side of their brain because they were simply listening to enjoy it. Both
groups get great pleasure out of the music even though one understands
the more technical aspects regarding pitch, tone, rhythm, etc. I guess
I feel the same way, which is that understanding the biology only seems
to enhance the experience for me because I realize how remarkable it is
to actually be able to have the experience in the first place.
what conclusion has the man who has watched the mind transcend in laboratory
studies drawn about the force, if there is one, beyond himself? Does Newberg,
at the end of the day, believe there is a God who designed a brain capable
of receiving and perceiving Him?
Newberg answers honestly, neither pompous nor apologetic, not angry, either,
at the audacity of the question, I still dont know.
you still looking for that answer, or has science left you with the sense
that it will always be impossible to answer that question?
still pursuing that question, too, he says. Im not certain that science
directly will ever answer the question, but I am, like I said, still in
any of your childhood questions been answered, then?
dont think any of my childhood questions have been answered fully. Newberg
smiles, his eyes still sparkling after close to two hours of conversation,
explanation, journalistic grilling. But Im getting closer.
you think they will be answered in your lifetime?
hope so. I think so.
will you teach your one-year-old daughter to believe? What questions will
you encourage her to ask?
Newberg says, pausing, rubbing his eyes a little, suddenly looking just
the slightest bit tired, which is not at all what the interviewer had
a very difficult question. That one is really hard. He stops, looks into
the vague middle distance, shakes his head, then begins. It is my belief
that every person has to find out what makes the most sense for him or
her. I would raise my child with the traditions I am familiar with and
used to because those are the traditions I know work best for me. But
I would certainly encourage her to ask questions, to pursue her own path.
If she found that the path Ive suggested to her works well for her, that
would be great. But if she wants to pursue something else, I would be
open to that, too.
I think, in the end, that we all have to believe in something. Even if
you are an atheist you have to believe in the world being here. You always
have to take something on faith, you always do. And for many that faith
is called God.
is the award-winning writer of A Slant of Sun and Into the
Tangle of Friendship. She is at work on a new book about El Salvador.
that our experience of realityall our experiences, for that matterare
only secondhand depictions of what may or may not be objectively
real, raises some profound questions about the most basic truths
of human existence and the neurological nature of spiritual experience.
For example, our experiment with Tibetan meditators and Franciscan
nuns showed that the events they considered spiritual were, in fact,
associated with observable neurological activity. In a reductionist
sense, this could support the argument that religious experience
is only imagined neurologically, that God is physically all in
your mind. But a full understanding of the way in which the brain
and mind assemble and experience reality suggests a very different
for instance, that you are the subject of a brain imaging study.
As part of this study, you have been asked to eat a generous slice
of homemade apple pie. As you enjoy the pie, the brain scans capture
images of the neurological activity in the various processing areas
of the brain where input from your senses is being turned into specific
neural perceptions that add up to the experience of eating the pie:
olfactory areas register the delightful aroma of apples and cinnamon,
visual areas perceive the sight of the golden brown crust, centers
of touch perceive the complex mix of crunchy and gooey textures,
and the rich, sweet, satisfying flavors are processed in the areas
responsible for taste. The SPECT brain scan would show all this
activity in the same way that it revealed the brain activity of
the Buddhists and the nuns, as blotches of bright colors on the
scanners computer screen. In a literal sense, the experience of
eating the pie is all in your mind, but that doesnt mean the pie
is not real, or that it is not delicious.
from Why God Wont Go Away, by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene
DAquili, M.D., Ph.D., and Vince Rause. Copyright 2001 by Andrew
Newberg, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, a
division of Random House, Inc.