The Spiritual Brain

leadNeurotheology is the study of the brain and how it interacts with religion. It is a field that tries to use science to explain religion and why so many flock to it. Dr. Andrew Newberg recently released a book on the subject, titled, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought. In it he says that “everyone philosophizes” because we all speculate about what is going on in our lives, like a conflict with a coworker or even the purpose of living and being on this planet. It can be exciting to philosophize and come up with ideas about being or even having mystical experiences. Newberg explains in his book that our everyday concerns and our big spiritual questions are essentially the same neurological process. He also found that thinking about these big questions of a spiritual nature can increase both our mental and physical health.

Newberg is really one of the first people to every delve into looking at religion, faith, and spirituality, scientifically. He is a pioneer of neurotheology. He started his research in 1990 by scanning peoples brains while they meditate. He chose this spiritual practice for the ease of monitoring it. He expanded his research to scanning the brains of Buddhists, nuns, atheists, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and Brazilians practicing psychography (interpreting messages from the dead through handwriting.) The action in the brain really depended on what kind of practice was happening. If there was prayer or meditation involved the frontal lobes (the area of attention, modulating behavior, and expressing language) were activated. For practice that included surrendering will in a sense, like speaking in tongues, the frontal lobe activity decreases and activity is higher in the thalamus, which is responsible for controlling the incoming sensory information for many parts of our brains. This indicates that when speaking in tongues, the speech does not come from the same place as normal speech patters. This information has served as proof for believers and non-believers look for neurological explanation. Newberg is careful to consider both sides and writes of the field that “an ardent atheist, who refuses to accept any aspect of religion as possibly correct or useful, or a devout religious person, who refuse to accept science as providing any value regarding knowledge of the world, would most likely not be considered a neurotheologian.”