The biology of religious experience Neurons: Scientists are trying to measure what happens to the brain during religious meditation and other spiritual experiences.


With a brain scanner, a University of Pennsylvania scientist eavesdrops on the mind of a meditating Buddhist monk, sifting through neurons for evidence of spiritual grace.

Using skin sensors, a researcher at University of California, San Diego, measures the power of holy words by testing how synapses respond to religious texts.

A neuropsychiatrist at New York University assesses the effects of prayer. Another scientist measures brain function among those who report feelings of a union with God and the cosmos.

Marshaling high-speed medical imaging devices, radioactive tracers and new theories of mental activity, these researchers are probing the neurobiology of religious experience in search of a scientific perspective on the divine.

Where in the scientific cosmology of the mind does spiritual activity -- the intangible essence of faith and moral sensibility -- fit? Is there a biochemistry of belief?

"Does religion require a soul? Does science allow one?" asks UC San Diego theologian Michael J. McClymond, who recently organized a symposium to bring together neuroscientists and religious thinkers.

Such questions -- long the province of theologians and philosophers -- arise anew from a remarkable flowering in the study of the biology of behavior. They reflect an upsurge of scientific interest in spirituality at a time when the largest percentage of Americans in a decade say they never doubt the existence of God, say they value daily prayer and believe in divine miracles.

But such experiments also pose an unusual challenge to conventional religious thinking, so much so that the Vatican plans a conference in Poland in June to consider the implications of brain research.

"The issues are huge," says Robert John Russell, director of the Center for Theology and Natural Science in Berkeley, Calif., which is convening its own meeting with the Templeton Foundation of scientists and religious leaders this spring.

New insights into brain function may challenge cherished religious precepts, says Michael A. Arbib, an expert on brain theory at the University of Southern California Center of Neural Engineering. "A lot of what people hold as articles of faith are eroded by neuroscience."

A number of theologians welcome any scientific insights into spiritual practice, be it meditation, prayer, ritual behavior, or inspired visions of a higher plane of being.

But they also warn against any effort to reduce spiritual experience to biochemistry and neurons. Instead, some say, the research is a tangible expression of the mind's own remarkable struggle to know itself.

"If we recognize the brain does all the things that we [traditionally] attributed to the soul, then God must have some way of interacting with human brains," says Nancey Murphy, a philosopher of science and religion at the Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

Consequently, she says, this new wave of research can be seen as an attempt to give "an account of divine action -- one of the most difficult and pressing theological questions now -- how God acts in the brain."

The range of religious and spiritual experience is so vast -- from the intellectual discourse of a Talmudic scholar to the passionate rapture of someone speaking in tongues -- that brain researchers are hard-pressed to frame scientific experiments to address them.

Until recently, there was little interest in underwriting such studies. As a practical matter, moreover, the spirit is an elusive quarry.

"If someone has a spontaneous mystical experience, that is terrific, but it is hard to study in a laboratory," says Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania, who is using single positron emission computed tomography, or SPECT, to peer into minds in meditation.

Newberg and his colleagues chose to investigate the neurobiology of meditation precisely because it is a spiritual state easily duplicated in the laboratory. The study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which is interested in fostering ties between science and religion.

They have scanned the brains of nine Buddhist monks during prolonged meditation, and plan to carry out a similar study of Roman Catholic Franciscan nuns at prayer for comparison.

To photograph the neural activity during meditation, the researchers injected each monk with a faintly radioactive tracer chemical that quickly infuses into brain cells, where it illuminates neural activity for the SPECT camera.

The images reveal distinctive changes in brain activity as the mind settles into a meditative state, Newberg says.

In particular, activity diminishes in those parts of the brain involved in generating a sense of three-dimensional orientation in space. The loss of one's sense of place, in turn, could account for a spiritual feeling of release into a place beyond space and time.

This suggests that an essential element of the religious experience of transcendence may be hard-wired in the brain.

Several experts say, however, that other factors such as upbringing, belief and education could be just as important in influencing the brain's sensitivity to a liturgical practice like meditation.

At UC San Diego's Center for Brain and Cognition, V. S. Ramachandran has taken a more clinical approach.

A pioneer in experimental neurology, he studies patients with epilepsy, brain lesions, strokes or head injuries.

By testing patients who suffer seizures from temporal lobe epilepsy, his team found provocative hints of "dedicated neural machinery" that affects how intensely someone may respond to spiritual or mystical experiences.

As a side effect of their condition, these epileptics display an unusual obsession with religious matters.

During seizures, they reported overwhelming feelings of union with the universe. The researchers discovered that these people also have a heightened -- completely involuntary -- neural response to religious language.

"Something has happened in their temporal lobes that heightened their response to religious terms and icons," Ramachandran says. "There may be a selective enhancement of emotions that are conducive to religious experience."

John Haught, a theologian at the Georgetown University Center for the Study of Science and Religion, says that researchers have to resist the temptation to think that the mind and spirit can be fully specified and fully understood in terms of physical and chemical analysis.

"I admit something has to be there and functioning reliably in order for consciousness and spirituality to come about," he said, but] we can acknowledge the dependency of mind on body without that having to imply that mind is reducible to chemistry."

Yet many leading brain researchers are prepared to claim just that. To them, spirituality is just one of several powerful mental states generated by this unique network of interlaced neurons, synapses and nerve cells.

"Mind has properties -- self-consciousness, wonder, emotion and reason -- that make it seem more than merely material," says Arbib at USC.

"Yet I argue that all of this can be explained eventually by the physical properties of the brain. In 20 years, we will understand what happens in the brain when people have religious experiences."

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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