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Applying neurotheology to mental health, religion and science
Bambi Francisco Roizen interviews Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist. He is director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a board certified doctor in internal medicine and nuclear medicine. He is the author of 10 books, including Why God Won't Go Away, and hundreds of articles on neuropsychiatric disorders and neuroscience and religion. An oft-cited study conducted by Newberg is the functional brain imaging of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns in prayer. His work has been incorporated into a a new Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.
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Some takeaways [edited for clarity].
-- Neurotheology is the study of the relationship between the brain and man's spiritual and religious self. Newberg's work is not to prove that God exists nor to reduce religion to a brain function. Rather his study is to show that irrespective of what a person believes, the brain shows that the concepts of religion and God are visible.
-- Newberg became interested in neurotheology, a neologism, since he was always curious about the nature of the human condition. He then started doing brain imaging studies on Parkinsons and Alzheimer's while also becoming curious about the nature of religious beliefs from a biological perspective. The proverbial light bulb went off and he decided to apply brain imaging to someone practicing prayer and meditation.
-- There's similarities in the brain when people have religious experiences and schizophrenia or epilepsy. It's still very hard to objectively make a distinction between religious experiences and pathology. The one thing we can't do is believe those people who have religious experiences are delusional, as the book "The God Delusion" suggests. A lot of people have intense religious experiences, but it doesn't mean they have some pathology. We have to be careful overpathologizing these experiences. But it's hard to even have parameters. If we say anyone who's heard the voice of God is hallucinating that makes anyone who hears the voice of God as having a pathology. Maybe one day we'll better understand who is having a religious experience vs an abnormal one.
-- How has technology advanced to make objective distinctions? Neurotheology challenges science because we're trying to get a hold of something that is subjective. The whole field of psychology is based on subjective experience. If you say you're depressed, it's a subjective experience. I can ask questions, but we don't really know. From a technological perspective, we've been advancing imaging and MRI scans. There have been hundreds of studies done in the past two decades. Scientists are looking at how these experiences impact PTSD, depression and anxiety. It's showing to be very effective. Also there's been a renaissance around psychedelics. This drug affects neurotransmitter receptors. There's also stimulating the brain via transcranial magnetic stimulation, which can turn on and off different parts of the brain.
-- Just because we can stimulate an experience in the brain doesn't mean it's artificial. Looked at another way, the brain is experiencing a world at a different and possibly more realistically level. "I wear glasses. The world is blurry. But when I put them on, the world is clear." Psychedelics can help us perceive the world clearer just like when people have religious experiences, they have a clearer picture of reality.
-- The core elements of mystical experiences are: 1) absolute unitary state (feeling of oneness) 2) feeling of intensity (love, power) 3) clarity (understanding the world better) 4) surrender (something is happening to the person) 5) transformational (motivated to change).
-- What's happening to the brain during prayer? There's different types of prayer, but for prayer where you're repeating certain phrases, you're engaging the language areas of the brain. If you feel the love of God, you're releasing oxytocin, which is the hormone that connects you to someone. Also those connections to God or a community may create joy and that releases serotonin and dopamine. We did a study of people who went on a spiritual retreat and their brain scan showed more dopamine.
-- What happens during sacrificial rallies or protests that go wrong? We have not done studies. But rituals are rituals are akin to morally-neutral technology. Rituals can be used for great good because they connect you to a group or an idea. Where it becomes problematic is what you feel connected to and how it makes you feel about things that you’re not connected to. If the group you're not connected to says they're right and you're wrong, your brain wants to be right. So in war, there's rituals to dehumanize the other side to make it easier to kill them.
-- What's happening in the brain for protesters that create intergroup aggression, they're stimulating ares of the brain - amygdala, and hypothalamus (which release stress hormones cortisol and turns on autonomic system - the fight or flight response) - that get them angry. Now they're not protesting, they're throwing things. Hopefully, neurotheology can help us understand how we can redirect people and create the larger group when Democrats come together with Republicans or Christians and Muslims.
-- In our very polarized world, does neurotheology give any clues as to how people can get along? Each one of us is inside of our brain looking out. We’re extremely finite and flawed and our brain makes mistakes. “Why we believe what we believe” lays out the cognitive and sensory mistakes we make. Our brain makes a lot of mistakes inside an infinite universe with an incredible finite and flawed brain, it’s remarkable that we even think we have any clue about what reality is. Part of this is to take a big step back and recognize that we don’t have a great hold of our ideas. And while that’s an anxiety-provoking state to be in, ultimately we have to be humbled by it.
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