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Do people really believe in God or are they just responding to a chemical reaction occurring in their brains? EDWARD HELMORE reports on the scientific study of spiritual activity.
Observer News Service. NZ Herald 6 May 98
NEW YORK - Scientists testing the theory that faith is all in the mind have scanned the brains of meditating Buddhist monks and will soon turn their attention to Franciscan nuns. 'Me question with which they are wrestled - did God create our minds or did our minds create God? - has troubled mankind from ancient times but is now being subjected to neurological analysis in experiments across America. The study of nine 'highly experienced' Tibetan Buddhist meditators, carried out at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that during deep spiritual contemplation some parts of the brain become more active and others less so - in short, the qualities traditionally associated with the human soul are lodged in the human head. The debate now is: "Does religion require a soul? Does science allow one?" The University of California at San Diego recently held a symposium on the question, and next month in Poland a conference, organised by the Vatican will also consider the implications of brain research on conventional religious thinking. Such events have been stimulated by an upsurge in scientific interest in spirituality. It has come at a time when the largest percentage of Americans in a decade say they never doubt the existence of God, value daily prayer and believe in divine miracles. A leading study has been conducted over the past seven years by Andrew Newberg, a neurobiologist at Pennsylvania University, and his associate, Eugene d'Aquili. They have tried to construct a model of what happens in the brain during spiritual experiences, peering into the minds of the meditating monks using what is known as single positron emission computed tomography (Spect). In the experiments Newberg invited Tibetan Buddhists to his laboratory and set them up with their rugs, cushions and prayer wheels. Before they began to meditate, an intravenous tube was inserted so that a radioactive isotope could be irdected as they were resting and again - after they pulled on a string in a prearranged signal - as they reached a peak meditative state. The isotope remained in the brain long enough so that once the meditation was over the subjects could be put under the rotating triple-head Spect camera (similar to that used in hospital scans) and photographed to reveal images of their brain activity. The study found that different parts of the brain can block input into other parts. 'You can block out the input into the area that is giving you an orientation of space and time," Newberg says. "It is still trying to give that orientation but it no longer has any input on which to work. The theory is that this gives you a sense of no space and no time." A part of the brain near the core, understood to govern both arousal and quiescence, is thought to play a role in experiences of active bliss akin to mystical trances or the act of speaking in tongues described by born-again Pentecostal Christians.
In this state, part of the brain, is believed simultaneously to generate a sense of calmness and alertness contributing to the religious experience of being "wholly other." At San Diego's Centre for Brain and Cognition, V. S. Rarnachandran has taken a more clinical approach. A pioneer in experimental neurology, he studies patients with epilepsy, brain lesions, strokes or head injuries as a way of uncovering the architecture of the mind. By testing patients who suffer seizures from temporal lobe epilepsy, his team found intriguing hints of "dedicated neural machinery" affecting how intensely someone may respond to spiritual or mystical experiences. Such epileptics display an unusual obsession with religious matters and, during seizures, report overwhelming feelings of union with the universe. The researchers found these people also have a heightened but completely involuntary neural response to religious language. "Something has happened in their temporal lobes that heightened their response to religious terms and icons" Ramachandran said. "There may be a selective enhancement of emotions conducive to religious experience." But theologians - and indeed the scientists themselves - caution against any effort to reduce spirituality and, by extension, religious belief, to chemical reactions in the brain. John Haught, a theologian at the Georgetown University Centre for the Study of Science and Religion, said the research confirmed that most spiritual experiences are deeply connected, to brain processes. "However, most theologians are able to distinguish between life and mind having a clearly definable chemical basis and the phenomenon of life and mind that most of us don't believe can be reduced to chemistry." Newberg and d'Aquili also warned that too much should not be read into their findings. To suggest that the objective experience of God was reduceable to neurochemical flux might be like making the same claim for the objective reality of the Sun, the Earth and the air. Jumping to such conclusions, they say, "might be a serious misinterpretation of the true nature of these mystical experiences.
Indeed, research may show that some people are predisposed to religious experience and others are deaf to the call. "If we understand how the brain works, we may find reasons why certain people are more prone to religion," says Newberg. The answer, if there is one, would require a long study, possibly scanning the brains of separated twins and seeing which developed spiritually over time. But even if scientists can explain spirituality in biochentical terms, it is unlikely to quell the debate over what those experiences mean or whether they signal the existence of a God. Ultimately, there may be one of two conclusions to draw,: the brain is set up to generate the concepts of religion, or the brain is set up by God because God wants us to have those experiences. Newberg says: "Neuroscience can't answer that."