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Looking for God, continued

 

    Typically (and thankfully) we are unaware of the work this knob is doing—unaware 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.
    In considering what might be causing this, Newberg and d’Aquili 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.
    “What 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 wouldn’t 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 doesn’t 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.”
    This 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 Newberg’s own sense of faith and religious purpose. Is he hyperaware of his own brain functions when he sits in a temple?
    Surprisingly, Newberg claims that he has not been changed, in any major or overt way, by the research that he’s 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.
    “This 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.”
    But 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?
    “Well,” Newberg answers honestly, neither pompous nor apologetic, not angry, either, at the audacity of the question, “I still don’t know.”
    Are you still looking for that answer, or has science left you with the sense that it will always be impossible to answer that question?
    “I’m still pursuing that question, too,” he says. “I’m not certain that science directly will ever answer the question, but I am, like I said, still in pursuit.”
    Have any of your childhood questions been answered, then?
    “I don’t 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 I’m getting closer.”
    Do you think they will be answered in your lifetime?
    “I hope so. I think so.”
    What will you teach your one-year-old daughter to believe? What questions will you encourage her to ask?
    “Oh,” Newberg says, pausing, rubbing his eyes a little, suddenly looking just the slightest bit tired, which is not at all what the interviewer had in mind.
    “That’s 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 I’ve 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.
    “Because 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.”

Beth Kephart 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.

The idea that our experience of reality—all our experiences, for that matter—are 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 view.
    Imagine, 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 scanner’s computer screen. In a literal sense, the experience of eating the pie is all in your mind, but that doesn’t mean the pie is not real, or that it is not delicious.


Excerpted from Why God Won’t Go Away, by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D’Aquili, 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.

 

 

 

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