Thursday, June 19, 2008

Searching for God in the Brain

In 1664, Dr. Olaf van Schuler, protagonist of the first story in the book that bears his name, sliced open the heads of pigs, goats, and cows hoping to find the seat of the immortal soul. The soul resided in the brain, he believed, though he did not know exactly where. He poked and probed; he decided upon the pituitary gland.

Today, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania continue to search for the impact of higher forces on the brain. Injecting Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns, and Pentecostals with radioactive isotopes and then scanning their brains, Dr. Newberg, a professor of radiology and psychiatry, hopes to identify how faith is manifest in brain activity.

According to the St. Petersberg Times:

The frontal lobes got especially busy. They're the part of the brain he calls the "attention area." The meditators had clearly tapped their frontal lobes to focus on their task.

He also saw the thalamus kick in. That's a pea-sized piece of the brain atop the brain stem that, among other things, sends sensory information to the frontal cortex, where much of our heavy thinking happens. Whatever was happening in meditation, the thalamus was making it feel very real.

The surprise was elsewhere, in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us orient ourselves in relation to things around us. Newberg discovered that the nuns and Buddhists had actually shut down that part of the brain, suspending their senses of space and time. It was then that they entered the peak of their transcendent experiences — altered states of "timelessness and spacelessness."

Does this mean that religious experience is "all in your head?" Dr. Newberg comments on this in the Global Spiral:

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 the 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.

Newberg's next book, How God Changes Your Brain, comes out in March.