Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

by Andrew B. Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, Vince Rause
Why have we humans always longed to connect with something larger than ourselves? Even today, in the most technologically and scientifically enlightened age in world history, God's numbers have never been better. More than 70 percent of Americans claim to believe in God. In spite of declarations of His death, why won't God go away?

Researchers Newberg and d'Aquili


Why have we humans always longed to connect with something larger than ourselves? Even today, in the most technologically and scientifically enlightened age in world history, God's numbers have never been better. More than 70 percent of Americans claim to believe in God. In spite of declarations of His death, why won't God go away?

Researchers Newberg and d'Aquili prove that the religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the human brain. Using high-tech imaging techniques to peer into the brains of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns at prayer, the authors observed and photographed a chain of distinct neurological events that interprets transcendent religious experience as solidly and tangibly real. Their daring and original work won widespread acclaim and established them as pioneers in the new field of neurotheology, and emerging discipline dedicated to understanding the complex relationship between spirituality and the brain.

Why God Won't Go Away is the first popular presentation of their landmark work. It is a fascinating exploration of the science of the brain and its wiring for God that will appeal to readers of popular science such as Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works, and Julian Jaynes's classic The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

About the Authors:
Andrew Newberg, M.D. is a neuroscientist and Assistant Professor in the Nuclear Medicine Department at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He lives in Philadelphia.

Eugene d'Aquili, D.D., Ph.D., who died in August, 1998, was for 20 years a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Vince Rause is a writer and journalist for The New York Times Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Discovery Channel Online.

Editorial Reviews

A sophisticated entry among the books about science and religion, this report on the neurological basis for spiritual experience is based on research using the latest brain-imaging techniques.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The collaborative efforts of science writer Rause, radiologist Newberg and psychiatrist d'Aquili (Newberg's late colleague at the University of Pennsylvania) result in a murky and overspiritualized remix of what should be a compelling scientific investigation into the neurology of mystical experience. The book's best material is its summary of Newberg and d'Aquili's research using advanced imaging technologies to study brain activity during "peak" meditative states, which not only suggests a characteristic radiological profile but also uncovers some specific correlations between brain function and subjective religious experience. For example, in subjects who reported a feeling of infinite perspective and self-transcendence during meditation, the researchers identified decreased activity in the brain's "object association areas" where perceptions of the boundary between self and other are normally processed. The authors conclude that these experiences are the result of normal, healthy neurophysiology, not to be dismissed as pathological or random events a point that believers and practitioners will doubtless appreciate. But the broader questions these results suggest questions about the origins and significance of human religious behavior lead the researchers quite out of their depth into a speculative rehash of Joseph Campbell, comparative religion and sociobiology. This culminates in a confused and confusing discussion of what it means to accept that religious experience is "neurologically real" or that spirituality "does us good." (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
By showing that something really does happen in the brain during meditation and prayer, University of Pennsylvania scientists Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili helped found a new discipline: neurotheology. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Science meets religion meets good writing. Over a century ago, Nietzsche declared that God was dead, but He just doesn't seem to go away. Why, ask coauthors Newberg and d'Aquili (The Mystical Mind, not reviewed), do human beings continue to quest for the divine? Not satisfied with the usual sociological arguments, they turn to biology and find an answer in the human brain: Spiritual experiences, like prayer and meditation, are "associated . . . with a series of observable neurological events." Teaming up with journalist Rause, the doctors examine the issues in prose clear enough so that even the most science-phobic reader will feel at ease. Before laying out their case for the connections between religion and science, the authors walk their audience through some introductory material: what the cerebral cortex is, how neurons work, how human beings turn raw information into perceptions that make sense to us; what the limbic system, hypothalamus, and hippocampus actually do. (Occasionally, those explanations get a little too cutesy, as when the authors call the hippocampus "the diplomat" or label the amygdala "the watchdog.") Ritual, as cultural history attests, is virtually universal, and when rituals work, they help the brain "adjust its cognitive and emotional perceptions" in a way that religious folks call an encounter between human and divine. The authors use science to try and explain religion, not explain it away. They do not conclude that mystical experiences are baloney simply because the brain has something to do with them. It's no accident that the human brain is wired to help folks get religion, the authors insist, but an evolutionary advantage:religiouspeople tend to have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and better overall health than unbelievers. Nietzsche and other modern prophets predicted the end of religion, but that's unlikely to happen unless the human brain changes. An intriguing study for skeptics and believers alike.

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Random House Publishing Group
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6.40(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.09(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
A Photograph of God? An introduction to the Biology of Belief

In a small, dark room at the lab of a large university hospital, a young man named Robert lights candles and a stick of jasmine incense; he then settles to the floor and folds his legs easily into the lotus position. A devout Buddhist and accomplished practitioner of Tibetan meditation, Robert is about to begin another meditative voyage inward. As always, his goal is to quiet the constant chatter of the conscious mind and lose himself in the deeper, simpler reality within. It’s a journey he’s made a thousand times before, but this time, as he drifts off into that inner spiritual reality-as the material world around him recedes like a fading dream-he remains tethered to the physical here and now by a length of common cotton twine.

One end of that twine lies in a loose coil at Robert’s side. The other end runs beneath a closed laboratory door and into an adjoining room, where I sit, beside my friend and longtime research partner Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, with the twine wrapped around my finger. Gene and I are waiting for Robert to tug on the twine, which will be our signal that his meditative state is approaching its transcendent peak. It is this peak moment of spiritual intensity that interests us.

For years, Gene and I have been studying the relationship between religious experience and brain function, and we hope that by monitoring Robert’s brain activity at the most intense and mystical moments of his meditation, we might shed some light on the mysterious connection between human consciousness and the persistent and peculiarly human longing to connectwith something larger than ourselves.

In earlier conversations, Robert has struggled to describe for us how he feels as his meditation progresses toward this spiritual peak. First, he says, his conscious mind quiets, allowing a deeper, simpler part of himself to emerge. Robert believes that this inner self is the truest part of who he is, the part that never changes. For Robert, this inner self is not a metaphor or an attitude; it is literal, constant, and real. It is what remains when worries, fears, desires, and all other preoccupations of the conscious mind are stripped away. He considers this inner self the very essence of his being. If pressed, he might even call it his soul.

Whatever Robert calls this deeper consciousness, he claims that when it emerges during those moments of meditation when he is most completely absorbed in looking inward, he suddenly understands that his inner self is not an isolated entity, but that he is inextricably connected to all of creation. Yet when he tries to put this intensely personal insight into words he finds falling back on familiar cliches that have been employed for centuries to express the elusive nature of spiritual experience. “There’s a sense of timelessness and infinity,” he might say. “It feels like I am part of everyone and everything in existence.”

To the traditional scientific mind, of course, these terms are useless. Science concerns itself with that which can be weighed, counted, calculated, and measured-anything that can’t be verified by objective observation simply can’t be called scientific. Although individual scientists might be personally intrigued by Robert’s experience, as professionals they’d likely dismiss his comments as too personal and speculative to signify anything concrete in the physical world.

Years of research, however, have led Gene and me to believe that experiences like Robert’s are real, and can be measured and verified by solid science. That’s exactly why I’m huddling, beside Gene, in this cramped examination room, holding kite string between my fingers: I’m waiting for Robert’s moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture.

We wait one hour, while Robert meditates. Then I feel a gentle jerk on the twine. This is my cue to inject a radioactive material into a long intravenous line that also runs into Robert’s room, and into a vein into his left arm. We wait a few moments more for Robert to end his meditation, then we whisk him off to a room in the hospital’s Nuclear Medicine Department, where a massive, state-of-the-art SPECT camera awaits. In moments, Robert is reclining on a metal table, the camera’s three large crystal heads orbiting his skull with a precise, robotic whir.

The SPECT camera (the acronym stands for single photon emission computed tomography) is a high-tech imaging tool that detects radioactive emissions. The SPECT camera scans inside Robert’s head by detecting the location of the radioactive tracer we injected when Robert tugged on the string. Because the tracer is carried by blood flow, and because this particular tracer locks almost immediately into brain cells and remains there for hours, the SPECT scans of Robert’s head will give us an accurate freeze-frame of blood flow patterns in Robert’s brain just moments after injection-at the point of his meditative climax.

Increased blood flow to a given part of the brain correlates with heightened activity in that particular area, and vice-versa. Since we have a good idea of the specific functions that are performed by various brain regions, we expect the SPECT images to tell us a lot about what Robert’s brain was doing during the peak moments of his meditation.

We aren’t disappointed. The finished scan images show unusual activity in a small lump of gray matter nestled in the top rear section of the brain. The proper name of this highly specialized bundle of neurons is the posterior superior parietal lobe, but for the purposes of this book, Gene and I have dubbed it the orientation association area, of OAA.

The primary job of the OAA is to orient the individual in physical space-it keeps track of which end is up, helps us judge angles and distances, and allows us to negotiate safely the dangerous physical landscape around us. To perform this crucial function, it must first generate a clear, consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. In simpler terms, it must draw 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.

It may seem strange that the brain requires a specialized mechanism to keep tabs on this you/not-you dichotomy; from the vantage point of normal consciousness, the distinction seems ridiculously clear. But that’s only because the OAA does its job so seamlessly and so well. In fact, people who suffer injuries to the orientation area have great difficulty maneuvering in physical space. When they approach their beds, for example, their brains are so baffled by the constantly shifting calculus of angles, depths, and distances that the simple task of lying down becomes an impossible challenge. Without the orientation area’s help in keeping track of the body’s shifting coordinates, they cannot locate themselves in space mentally or physically, so they miss the bed entirely and fall to the floor; or they manage to get their body onto the mattress, but when they try to recline they can only huddle awkwardly against the wall.

In normal circumstances, however, the OAA helps create such a distinct, accurate sense of our physical orientation to the world that we hardly need to give the matter any thought at all. To do its job so well, the orientation area depends on a constant stream of nerve impulses from each of the body’s senses. The OAA sorts and processes these impulses virtually instantaneously during every moment of our lives. It manages a staggering workload at capacities and speeds that would stress the circuits of a dozen super computers.

So, not surprisingly, the baseline SPECT scans of Robert’s brain taken before his meditation, while he was in a normal state of mind, show many areas of Robert’s brain, including the orientation area, to be centers of furious neurological activity. This activity appears on the scans in vibrant bursts of brilliant reds and yellows.

The scans taken at the peak of Robert’s meditative state, however, show the orientation area to be bathed in dark blotches of cool greens and blues-colors that indicate a sharp reduction in activity levels.

This finding intrigued us. We know that the orientation area never rests, so what could account for this unusual drop in activity levels in this small section of the brain?

As we pondered the question, a fascinating possibility emerged: What if the orientation area was working as hard as ever, but the incoming flow of sensory information had somehow been blocked? That would explain the drop in brain activity in the region. More compellingly, it would also mean that the OAA had been temporarily “blinded,” deprived of the information it needed to do its job properly.

What would happen if the OAA had no information upon which to work? we wondered. 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 Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments. In the words of Hindu Upanishads

As the river flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting that they were ever separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into

Robert was one of eight Tibetan meditators who participated in our imaging study. Each was subjected to the same routine, and in virtually every case, the SPECT scans showed a similar slowing of activity in the orientation area, occurring during the peak moments of meditation.

What People are saying about this

Herbert Benson
A wonderful assessment of the brain and its activity when God is experienced. This should be fascinating to all who are interested in the relationship between humans and God.
— (Herbert Benson, M.D., President, Mind/Body Medical Institute and Author of The Relaxation Response and Timeless Healing)
G. Ronald Murphy
This work is of tremendous importance in advancing the relationship of science and religion. Few investigators have been able to match the authors' research on the neurological basis of religious experience or their theological analysis and evaluation of this experience. Why God Won't Go Away shows that the mind necessarily includes spiritual and religious experiences.
— (Father G. Ronald Murphy, SJ, Professor, Georgetown University)
Larry Dossey
A thrilling exploration of the intersection of modern brain science and religious experience by one of the leading researchers in the field….Newberg's reverential attitude toward the great unknowns is reminiscent of Einstein.
— (Larry Dossey, M.D., Author of Reinventing Medicine and Healing Words)
Mona Lisa Schulz
This is one of the most exciting books I have read in my entire career in neuropsychiatry and intution! Why God Won't Go Away shows how one key area in our brain biologically wires us to be connected to each other, the universe, and God. Truly brilliant.
— (Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D., Author of Awakening Intuition)

Meet the Author

Andrew B. Newberg, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology in the Division of Nuclear Medicine and an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has spent more than six years studying brain physiology and function, with focus on the neurology of religious and mystical experiences. The co-author, with Dr. Eugene d'Aquili, of The Mystical Mind, Dr. Newberg has presented his work at scientific and religious conferences around the world.

Eugene d'Aquili, M.D., Ph.D., was a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania for twenty years. His numerous books include Biogenetic Structuralism; Brain, Symbol and Experience; and The Mystical Mind. Dr. d'Aquili died in August 1998, before the completion of this book.

Vince Rause is a freelance writer and journalist whose stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications. He is a regular contributor to the Discovery Channel Online.

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