April 11, 2001 -- Read the daily paper or watch the local TV news and a seemingly endless parade of chaotic, violent events unfolds: school shootings, terrorism, murder, child abuse. Many people make sense of these seemingly senseless events through a belief in a Supreme Being and faith that their God won't desert them in a time of need. This faith may be well placed, according to a Philadelphia-based radiologist -- well placed in the brain, that is.
In Why God Won't Go Away, released April 1 by Ballantine Books, co-author Andrew B. Newberg, MD, explains his theory that the human brain is hard-wired for religion. Just as the mind has the capacity for analytical thought, abstract mathematical reasoning, and invention of highly sophisticated technology, it also has the capacity -- and the built-in design -- to experience God.
Scientific study of how the brain works can't tell us if there is a God, he tells WebMD, but it can tell us about how human beings understand God.
"Our work -- neurotheology -- has a reverence for both science and religion," he says."
In a study to be published this month in Psychiatry Research and Neuroimaging, Newberg and a team of fellow researchers describe their study of the brain activity of eight Tibetan Buddhists in the throes of a peak meditative experience.
"We used meditation as a model ... for prayer and other types of intense religious experience," says Newberg, assistant professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Using a special X-ray procedure called SPECT, the scientists were able to see increased activity in the brain during meditation. Brain areas important in focused concentration were especially active.
Even more astounding was altered activity in a brain region that normally orients us and tells us where our bodies are in space. The different pattern of brain activity in this particular brain region may explain why meditators feel transported out of the physical world and into a spiritual realm that seems no less real.
"As the boundaries between self and physical surroundings go away, the meditator feels at one with something larger, whether a religious community, the world as a whole, or ultimately, God," Newberg says.
The brain activity patterns in the meditating Buddhists were similar to those in the praying Franciscan nuns, another religious group studied by Newberg. Hymns, chants, ritual dancing, and sacred rites may also intensify focus, block out external stimuli, and provide a pathway to mystical experience, even in nonbelievers.
"Too much meditation can over-drive brain areas and drop us into another universe for a while," says Laurence O. McKinney, director of the American Institute for Mindfulness in Arlington, Mass.
Analyzing the brain states of spiritual practices started in the 1960s when researchers from the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., first went to India to record the brain waves of yogis, McKinney says. He claims his group first coined the term 'neurotheology' in the 1980s, and then published the book Neurotheology in 1994.
"Explanations change every time we get a new [way to measure brain function], but eternal truths and eternal questions still remain," McKinney tells WebMD.
One of these new measurement techniques, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has partially confirmed Newberg's findings.
In a study published last year in NeuroReport, investigators at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston used MRI to examine the brains of five experienced meditators and found increased activity in the regions involved in concentration and excitability.
"Additional brain regions involved in memory were also ... activated during meditation," Jeffery A. Dusek, PhD, associate director for clinical research at the Mind/Body Medical Institute, tells WebMD. Future plans for Dusek's team are to re-evaluate these findings in a three-year study funded by the Atlanta-based CDC.
Still, some experts advise against reading too much into Newberg's findings.
"Anything we do or feel, from a simple activity like moving a finger to the deepest passion like love or rage, has its own characteristic pattern of brain activity," says Pietro Pietrini, MD, PhD, who has used SPECT scanning to study brain activity in different emotional states -- for example, in healthy subjects imagining acts of aggression.
"This is a fascinating field that needs to be entered with extreme caution and a rigorous scientific approach," says Pietrini, a professor of clinical biochemistry and psychiatry at the University of Pisa in Italy.
"There is a complex interrelationship between mind, body, and spirit," Michael E. McCullough, PhD, tells WebMD. "Those behaviors and experiences designed to put people in touch with the transcendent may give them a survival advantage."
In an analysis of 42 different clinical studies, McCullough found that religious involvement was associated with lower death rate, even after accounting for obvious health advantages such as less alcohol and tobacco use and more social support.
Could active religious faith prevent illness or forestall death? "It's too soon to tell," says McCullough, associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"Understanding how the brain works can go a long way toward understanding the impact of religion, both physically and spiritually," says Newberg. With religious experiences such as meditation or prayer, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and changes in hormone levels may improve the function of the immune system, he explains.
Brain activity studies show that meditation is not just a passive experience but that increased excitability at peak meditation seems to confirm the "active bliss" reported by Newberg's study subjects.
"They feel profoundly calm, yet highly alert and intensely aware," Newberg says. "Spiritual experiences are more real to them than everyday reality like walking down the street. And they're not frightening, disorganized, or disorienting like drug-induced states or hallucinations seen in mental illness."
"We're looking at philosophy and religion in a more scientific way," says Pietrini, says. "Science has no way to prove or disprove a Creator, but finding unique patterns of brain activity corresponding to religious experiences is entirely compatible with religious beliefs."
Though skeptics may argue that God lives only in the mind of the faithful, Newberg suggests that the opposite conclusion is equally valid: "If there is a God, it makes perfect sense that He would create a way for us to communicate with Him."
"If truth were told, nearly all the nonbelievers would love a reason to believe," McKinney says. "Newberg believes he's done a good job providing some reasons, and for those who follow his path, I wish them well."