Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I speak with Dr. Andrew Newberg. Dr. Andrew Newberg is director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Newberg has published over 100 research articles, essays, and book chapters, and is the coauthor of the bestselling books Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and The Biology of Belief and How God Changes your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. With Sound True, Dr. Newberg has created a three-session audio program called God and the Brain: The Physiology of Spiritual Experience, where he shares his groundbreaking research into the fascinating links between faith, neurobiology, and the mysteries of the psyche.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Andrew and I spoke about some of the new major discoveries in the emerging field of neurotheology. We also talked about studies that have been done with people who are both meditators and people who have been engaged in prayer, and what has been discovered about the changes in the brain that occur during meditation and prayer. We also looked at the question, "What happens when we die?" and what neurotheology has to say about this question. And finally we looked at the link between the brain, spirituality, and our health, and the role that faith plays in changing our brain and changing the quality of our life. Here's my conversation with Dr. Andrew Newberg.
Andrew, you work in a field called "neurotheology," and to begin, right here at the beginning, help us understand what this new field is.
Andrew Newberg: Well, I think most broadly, the concept of neurotheology refers to a field of study where we are trying to look at the intersection between the human brain and our various religious and spiritual ideas and practices and experiences. Personally, for me, for the term to work as a field of study, I try to define both the neuro side and theology side more broadly. So for me, the neuro side refers not only to neuroscience, but to psychology and to health to anthropology and to all the different ways that we can get at how our mind, how our brain actually works for us.
On the theology side—theology is, of course, a specific discipline, and I certainly think we can engage that discipline, which is the deductive that derives from a particular religious tradition. But it also, for me, to make neurotheology to work, includes religious practices like meditation and prayer, different religious spiritual experiences, mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and so forth, and even some of the different healing and prayer practices that people can do. So it really engages all the different varieties of religious and spiritual experiences and practices that people can have, as well as theology itself.
TS: And did this field of study formally come into existence with the introduction of functional MRI equipment? Is that when this field was birthed?
AN: Well, I think the field certainly took off [with] the ability to image the brain, the working brain, while the person is alive and doing a practice like prayer or meditation. That certainly had a huge impact on the field. But actually, origins to some degree even go back thousands of years. If you go back to Buddhist and Hindu writings, you can see a lot of interest in the relationship between the human mind and our psyche and our consciousness and our spiritual cells. Even in the Western traditions and the Bible, even though it doesn't specifically engage in what's going on in the brain, there's this notion about how humans behave and how we function as human beings that has something to do with how we're ultimately religious or spiritual as beings as well.
But some of the early work by my late colleague Eugene d'Aquili and several other scholars probably began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. People were doing some studies looking at the electrical activity of the brain using electroencephalography (EEG) when people engaged in practices like transcendental meditation. My colleague Eugene d'Aquili looked at some of the animal studies and other human studies that helped us learn about what was going on in the brain, and developed some of the initial hypothesis as to what was then going on when we felt something religious or something spiritual.
So the beginnings were probably a little bit before the time that we actually had the ability to image the brain, but certainly in the last 10-15 years since we've had the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (FRMI), positron emission tomography—all these different ways of looking at the functional changes in the brain in a variety of different states. That has really just been very, very important for advancing this field and being able to really test some of those early hypotheses and then to develop further models and further hypotheses based on the results.
TS: For somebody like me who's new to the world of neurotheology, can you orient me to the main discoveries that have taken place in the last decade that are the most important things that really everybody in this field could agree on?
AN: Well, I think that the most important discoveries occur along several different lines of research. Perhaps the most relevant one that we were just talking about: some of the imaging studies that have been done looking at practices like meditation, like prayer, and other types of spiritual states. And I think probably the way most of these studies have played is people engage in some kind of practice. They will do a meditation practice, for example, or a prayer practice, and they'll do this practice while their brain is being scanned so we can actually see the functional changes that are going on in the brain when they engage in this practice.
What I think most of the data have been showing, if we start to call all of the different research studies that are now in existence, we find several broad categories of results that I think many different people would agree on. I think perhaps one of the most important is that there doesn't seem to be one single spot in the brain that seems to be related to our religious or spiritual activities. But when we look at these practices, when we look at when people engage in their religious activities, we see many different parts of the brain being active. There's a whole network of structures that seem to get involved, parts of the brain that help us with our emotions, parts of the brain that help us with our thought processes, with language. We can talk about all of these in more detail in a few moments.
But there are many different parts of the brain that become involved in these kinds of religious and spiritual phenomena, which to me make a lot of sense, because if you actually hear people describe those experiences, people use many different kinds of descriptors. So sometimes a religious experience is an emotional experience. Sometimes it's a very positive one and sometimes it's a very negative one. Sometimes people think about something. Sometimes people think about the causality of God or the ability of God to have some impact in the world. And sometimes it may be a behavior that somebody does, a feeling of forgiveness that engages other parts of our brain.
So what most of our research studies have shown is that there is a network of structures that become active when people engage in religious or spiritual activities or practices that tie very much into the actual subjective nature of what those experiences are. So that is one part of the findings.
I think another part of the findings, which is also very relevant and very practical, is how do religious and spiritual practices affect us as people? This gets a little bit away from the brain stuff, per se, but tells us a little bit more about, if we meditate or if we pray, what happens in the brain, what happens to us as human beings. Does it help to improve our psychological well-being, our mental health, our memory, our physical health, and our physiology? There's a lot of research now which is pointing to the fact that, by and large, religious and spiritual practices like meditation and prayer tend to be very beneficial for us as people. [They tend] to be beneficial to lower our levels of anxiety and lower our levels of depression, improve our blood pressure and heart rate, and perhaps even increase or augment the functions of our immune system and our hormonal systems. So these practices are not just going on in the brain itself, but have deep reverberations throughout how our entire body works. It's not just the brain but it's the brain and the body as they are connected to each other.
So those are two of the more practical aspects of this type of research, and I think on the most esoteric side, where this research is beginning to go (or at least I certainly hope it is) is the notion that we can actually utilize this information to tell us something about what it means to be spiritual, what it means to be religious. So there is some information that we are not learning about what spirituality is all about, what religiousness is all about and how that has an impact on us as human beings. I mean, ultimately I hope that we'll be able to use this information even more to help us with specific philosophical and theological ideas, but I think that's still a little bit down the road.
TS: So I was completely with you on your first two findings from neurotheology—that there's a network of different parts of the brain that are active and that this is beneficial for our health. I'm not sure I followed you on the third: how does spirituality impact our greater world view, our greater way of being?
AN: Well, yes. This is really talking a little bit more about how our mind, our brain actually engages in religious or spiritual practices. So if we're now going to say, let's think about a theological problem that we're trying to resolve—the nature of morality, for example. There are research studies now that tell us about what goes on in the brain when we try to resolve a moral question. There is information in our brain scan studies that tell us something about where our perceived freewill comes from. And this kind of information can actually now be brought into the philosophical or the theological realm to try to help us decide how we can engage in those questions, those philosophical questions, by now also bringing in this physiological information.
So it doesn't take away, so to speak, the philosophical aspects of these arguments. Certainly the great thinkers—Kant and Descartes and so forth—throughout history have argued about questions of, let's say freewill, but now we can bring in information from the biological sciences that may inform and enrich this discussion. So it is certainly a direction that I have tried to take this research, which is to try to understand different concepts like causality, morality, phenomenology, the nature of existence, the nature of reality. That even though these are often philosophical questions, we now have an ability to bring in a whole other level of information that comes from the neurosciences that helps us and tells us something about how we engage in those questions, what the nature of those questions are, why we think about them in certain ways, how we come to certain conclusions.
I think that there is a lot of information there that really can be helpful for us to be able to engage in those questions in a deeper and richer way than we've ever done before, because we're now integrating what we can know philosophically with what we can know scientifically. I don't know if that clarifies that a little bit more?
TS: It helped me somewhat, yes. I think I have a sense of the field of inquiry that you're talking about. What I'm curious about is in all of these studies of how the brain is operating when somebody is meditating or praying or having a spiritual experience, does this tell us anything about what's actually happening in reality—about whether or not God exists or doesn't exist? Or spiritual realities exist or don't exist? Or do we just see what's happening in the brain when somebody is praying or meditating?
AN: Well, I think in the immediate moment, the data that we have really points to what's happening in our brain when we have the experience. I don't think we have gotten to the study yet that is able to us document 100 percent that this is what reality is, or that is what reality is, or God exists or God doesn't exist. And this has been a fundamental argument that I've been trying to make. When we did our scans, for example, of a Franciscan nun in prayer trying to communicate with God, what our scan shows is what happens in her brain when she does the prayer, when she has that interaction with God. But it doesn't tell us, as you were asking, whether or not the reality of that experience is generated by the brain or that the brain is simply receiving the information, or receiving God even, as a way of looking at the world and understanding the world in a very profound way.
Now, that doesn't mean that we can't ever get there. Part of what our research has shown us is that since every different type of experience of reality is manifested by some change in the brain's function, it tells us that our brain is always processing reality and is always trying to come to some perspective on whatever that reality is. Unfortunately, there is never a way for any of us to fundamentally jump outside of our brain and say, "OK, this is what I'm thinking on the inside and this is what is out there on the outside. I know that I'm accurate."
But what I think this research also points us to, at least philosophically in a direction, is that because of how the brain is always processing our reality, the only way that we can actually try to measure that reality in some way or another is by the perception of it being real. I know that sounds a little circular, but that may be the best that we can do. Something feels real to us and that's part of why we think it's real, because it feels real to us.
This is something that I've been posing to my students and colleagues for a long time. You know, why do we feel a table is real, for example? What are the qualities of that table and what are the qualities of that experience that define it as "real" for us? The reason why I think this issue is important, ultimately, is that if we really have a problem with getting outside of the brain, what kinds of experiences do human beings have where they actually describe that they get outside of their brain? Well, it turns out that the only experiences, at least that I'm familiar with, are mystical experiences, which often have a spiritual connotation to them where a person says, "I did get beyond my brain. I got beyond my consciousness. I got beyond my ego self and I now saw reality in a very different way."
Now, again, you can ask question, "Well, did they really do that?" I don't know. But I think that part of where all this research goes is trying to understand the nature of those experiences to see whether or not we can learn something about those experiences that may help us understand that, yes, they really do! They really do actually correlate with something which is more fundamentally real, as the person actually experiences it.
So obviously, the nature of reality is extremely complex, and whether we will ever be able to truly get there or not, I don't know. But I think that by combining what we can understand about reality subjectively, consciously, within ourselves with what we can also learn about it from a neuroscientific perspective, may provide us this kind of multidisciplinary integrated way that hasn't really been tried before. Whether that will get us the answer, I don't know. But at least, to me, it's a new way of looking at these questions that hasn't really fully been tried and maybe it will get us at least closer than we've ever been before.
TS: So, following up on what you're saying, when somebody is having some type of mystical experience, and they experientially feel like they are outside of their mind, you're able to see what's happening in their brain at that point in time. So wouldn't it be fair to say that that's just a myth that they are outside of their mind?
AN: Well, there's a couple of issues with that. You know, one of the biggest problems of course is when somebody has that experience, theoretically, there's no way for us to then actually tap them on the shoulder and say, "Are you outside of your body yet? You are? OK, great." Because if you've done that, then you've brought them back into their bodies, so to speak. You know, you've brought their experience back into their body. So one of the problems that all our imaging studies have—and this is true universally of cognitive neuroscience—is, how do we know what the person is really experiencing at the moment that we are looking at what is going on in the brain?
But again, even if we felt comfortable enough that we could say, "Yes, this person had an experience of going beyond their brain and these are the changes that we see within their brain," we still have a problem in terms of the directional arrow of causality. Did the brain change in such a way that made them feel like they got outside of their brain? Or did they literally get outside of their brain and the change that we see is what's happening in the brain when the person does that?
And of course, again, at the moment, we have no way of being able to differentiate those two. But I suppose I'm a "never say never" kind of person, so it's certainly possible that at some point, we will come up with a kind of study that integrates the subjective experience of the person as definitively as possible with the biological substrate of that experience. [That will] tell us something at least about whether or not we can differentiate about something going truly beyond our biology or not.
Maybe we can explain a lot of the experience with our biology, but then there is some piece that we still can't get to. And maybe that will tell us that there is something that is a little bit beyond what we are biologically. Or maybe we will be able to someday find out that every aspect of that experience can be completely explained by what's going on in the brain, and therefore there is, at least, nothing beyond the brain in terms of consciousness or anything like that. But whether or not that will be the case? I don't know.
TS: Is your intuition really that this is just an unanswered question right now? Or do you have a sense that with time, a certain set of answers are going to be revealed about whether or not everything can be traced to brain activity or not?
AN: I think that there is an opportunity to be able to get there. I'm an optimistic kind of guy. I tend to think that there's always a way if we're careful enough to get to some kind of answer like that. But I think if there is going to be an answer—and this is why I've been so involved in the whole field of neurotheology—that it can't be purely from the neuroscience side.
Purely as a neuroscientist, you are an observer of an event. And then you're stuck with the same problem that we talked about a few minutes ago that you can't get outside of your own brain to look at this particular phenomenon. So part of this process, I think, is for the scholar or researcher to engage in that kind of experience as well. There needs to be some way of trying to get at the experience of reality [itself], and perhaps the mystical experience of that reality, as someone who is trying to answer these questions, as well as looking at what's going on neurobiologically. And maybe even combining them within the person themselves.
I've sometimes thought about a study like that, where if you took somebody who was meditating and was able to attain that kind of a state and then they were also at the same time perhaps meditating on the brain function of that state—you know, something like that. There's got to be some sort of reflexive analysis where the person is looking at themselves in some way but also integrating the phenomenological component of the experience with the biological component. I think somewhere in there is where that kind of an answer may lie.
And again, whether or not that will be the case, I don't know. There are certainly lots of issues and difficulties with trying to get there. But I would love to continue to pursue the possibility of that kind of study and really try to get at something [that] is more multidisciplinary than just simply the neuroscience of the mystical experience or the mystical experience of science, but some kind of way of integrating the two of them. And that's what I think the strength of neurotheology is ultimately about.
TS: So that means that we're going to have to study meditating scientists like you?
AN: We might. [Laughs] I think that's part of the process. But I think there is certainly so much that can be learned. There are so many things for us to question. There's the need to look at the deepest and most proficient meditators. It's necessary to just look at the average person and how they experience reality and make sense of reality.There is [also] the need to take a good look at science and what science can say about reality and where its limitations are. Are there certain inherent inabilities that science may have? And certainly, we know that there are certain limitations, like the incomplete theorem or Heisenberg's uncertainty principal, that are kind of issues that physics and philosophy have to contend with. So we need to continue to look at all of the different limitations and abilities of science, of religious and spiritual ideas and mystical states and meditation practices, and see where each of them can contribute to the ability to get at those fundamental questions.
TS: You know, I think related to this whole conversation, for me, is the big spiritual and philosophical question of "What happens when we die?" I know that you've done quite a bit of research into near-death experiences. So I'm curious to know more about that. But also, what has this pointed to in terms of the potential for consciousness to exist after death or not, in your work?
AN: Well, I guess as with the other big questions, we're still trying to ultimately figure that out. There are some studies that are going on now where people have begun to see whether or not we can really document whether or not a person is able to—[if] their specific consciousness is able to extend beyond the brain itself. Theoretically, that is something that could be testable. You know, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will be, or that the study is designed in a way that will work as accurately as possible.
We do have an opportunity to potentially look at what we know anecdotally of people's reports of looking at the scene of their death, of going down the hall and seeing somebody else and try to truly verify those kinds of abilities, those kinds of experiences. It ties into, a little bit, some of the other fields of studies looking at consciousness and whether consciousness can affect other objects at a distance, such as random number generators or different biological systems. And even if there is a very small change, that may have dramatic consequences in terms of how we understand the nature of the human brain and mind, and may really ready us for a paradigm shift in terms of understanding the human brain and the human mind.
So, yes, I think that some of the near-death experiences, where we have all these descriptions of what these experiences are and what people are doing, we can try to get at, as much as possible, whether or not the ability to extend beyond the brain or mind in that state of death or near-death is something that can really happen. Now, of course, the types of studies that I have done with imaging, it becomes much harder to study the brain in death, because we never know when that is going to happen. It does create more of a conundrum from a scientific perspective to look at the biology of the experience.
But that doesn't mean that we can't try to evaluate it in some way or another and try to learn something about the nature of that experience in a deep a way as possible. But whether we will get, again, to that fundamental question of, "OK, does the near-death experience simply represent the brain dying, or does it really represent the brain transcending itself into our next realm of existence?" that is something that we, at the moment, are unable to tell.
TS: When you get the answer to that, if I give you my phone number, will you just like send me a text message or something?!
AN: [Laughs] I'd be happy to let you know if I ever figure that out! I hear that they don't have good reception there. [Laughs] We have trouble getting a good signal sometimes.
TS: You know, we started by talking about meditation and prayer, and we've kind of lumped them together. I want to bring our conversation down to more of a pragmatic level in terms of, here's a person who really wants to improve their brain functioning, improve their brain health. You've talked a little bit about this link between our spiritual experience and our health as being part of what we know for sure in terms of the field of neurotheology. So what's the most beneficial practice for me to do? Are you just lumping meditation and prayer together? Are there other practices?
AN: Well, that's an interesting question, and also one that at least the research hasn't been able to tell us about. As you're referring to, there are many different kinds of meditation practices, perhaps thousands of different kinds of practices. No one has really done the larger-scale evaluation of which meditation is right for the right person with certain specific issues that they are dealing with. We do know that there are some meditation practices that have been widely studied and they seem to be generally very effective.
For example, mindfulness meditation has been very widely studied, and has been shown to be effective in reducing levels of anxiety and depression in people. People have studied transcendental meditation and several other forms of meditation. We studied a type of practice called Kirtan Kriya, which derives from the kundalini yoga tradition, and that was shown to help improve memory. But we don't know for sure whether one or the other practices ultimately are better for a particular individual or for a particular goal.
To some degree, the short answer is that each person has to kind of be an experiment in and of themselves at the moment, and try to find a practice that matches their goals, their ideals, and the ways in which they approach life, and then find something that really has meaning for them. And if they do that, the ability to kind of consciously relax oneself, to lower their levels of stress, regardless of the practice. Regardless of whether it's a meditation practice or prayer, if a person is able to engage that practice and to do that practice regularly and feel a very positive effect from it, then that is probably the best practice for them at the moment. Again, there might be other practices that might be even better, but we don't know that for sure.
So on one hand, we can look to specific studies and we can say, "Well, mindfulness meditation has been shown to do this, this, and this," but we don't know about whether other practices would be better or worse because there just hasn't been enough comparison. This is something that I have as a larger goal to be able to start to do, which is really to be able to cull data from many, even thousands of people who have done a variety of different practices and see which have seemed to work best for women versus men, for older versus younger.
I think, though, that the elements of a practice that are important are something that we can say a little something about. So for example, if there are practices that help us to focus our mind—and these are often meditation practices where you are concentrating on an object, for example, those tend to help the brain concentrate. They tend to help the brain work more efficiently [and] to focus our attention. Therefore, they might be beneficial for people who feel that they are not able to organize their world well or whatever. That type of attention-focusing practice might be beneficial.
Most of the practices do help to lower levels of stress, but you would certainly want to be involved in a practice where you felt like it was helping to lower your levels of stress and helping you to cope better with whatever issues [you are] dealing with. And I think that to some degree, maybe the most important element of all of these practices—and it kind of goes back to what I was saying a minute ago—is to find something that really has meaning for you as a person.
Therefore, if it's a meditation practice that is very secular, or a prayer practice that has a lot to do with your own spiritual or religious tradition, the more you can wrap your brain around it, the more you want to do it. And the more you feel good about doing it, the more it makes you feel positive and converts whatever negative emotions you have [into] positive emotions, that's going to be a practice that's going to be very good for you. If you find that you are engaged with a practice that winds up making you feel anxious or stress or confused or whatever, then that is not going to be the right practice, regardless of how many studies have shown that it can be good.
So I think that's kind of where we are at the moment. We can't really say that this one particular practice is the right practice for a particular person. People are going to have to try different things, test the waters, try to find practices that mirror their ways of looking at the world, help them with the issues that they are facing. And that is probably going to be the most successful practice.
I think the other take-away from this is also that if you try a practice and it doesn't work well for you, that doesn't mean that meditation in general doesn't work well. It just may mean that particular practice isn't so good. Some people are just not good at sitting quietly. They need a practice where they can be moving around. Maybe they need to do a yoga practice or a tai chi practice. Other people are very comfortable just lying still and they don't want to be moving around. You know, you have to really take stock as to who you are as a person and what your goals are, and then try to match that up as best as possible with a particular practice.
TS: Now, I have a two-part question here, and you're the kind of person who can answer it—the kind of person we'll be studying in the future. You've looked at what's happening in the brain from the outside. You're looking at some kind of print-out or some kind of screen, so you see when somebody is meditating or praying what is actually happening. So I'd love to know what that looks like.
And the second part, the part that you can answer, is: do you now have a sense of what it feels like inside your brain when you're doing an effective practice? Like, "Oh, I can sense that this practice is working for me because there's some kind of somatic feel to it. I can feel this part of my brain in a slightly different way," or something?
AN: So, well, with regards to your first question, the physiology that we are observing—it does depend on the exact type of meditation practice. But to take a common form, which is where a person will focus their mind on a particular thing or object, typically what we see happening in the brain is that as you begin to focus your attention, you activate the part of your brain called the frontal lobe, which is just behind your forehead. This is a part of the brain that begins to light up with activity whenever you focus your mind on anything.
So when you focus your mind on an object, whether that is just a candle or whether it's a spiritual object like a cross, your frontal lobes turn on. And the frontal lobes—going back to the overall health benefit—are involved in helping to modulate our emotional responses, and also help us to focus our attention better. If you kind of exercise your frontal lobes by doing the meditation practice, then your brain, in general, is going to be able to respond better to tasks that require our ability to focus attention.
As the person continues to meditate, then they are going to affect other changes in the brain. For practices that have an impact on our emotional system, you're going to see changes in what's called the limbic system. It's a more central part of the brain that houses most of our emotional centers. These are the emotional centers of very positive emotions as well as very negative emotions. By engaging in a practice like meditation or prayer, you begin to alter the activity levels. If your activity levels are very high, then you might wind up suppressing them. On the other hand, if you're engaged in a prayer practice where you feel this huge rush of energy, then you might actually increase the activity in those particular areas of the brain.
Another area that we have been particularly interested in over the years has been an area of the brain called the parietal lobe—this is located towards the back part of the brain. And this normally takes our sensory information and helps us to create a sense of our self, an orientation of our self with regards to the world and helps us to connect to that world.
One of the common experiences that people have is a loss of the sense of self, and the loss of the sense of space and time. And what our data at least suggests is that this kind of subject change is associated with a decrease of activity in this parietal lobe. Which, to me, makes sense, because [when] you lose your sense of self and your sense of space and time, it's associated with a loss of activity in the areas of our brain that normally help us create our sense of self and our sense of space and time.
So those are some of the major changes that we find. But again, depending on the experience and practice, we might see different changes in the brain. If it's a visualization practice, we may see changes in the visual system of the brain. If it's a prayer practice, we might see changes in the verbal areas of the brain because it's language that they are doing. It's a very complex set of processes that begin to occur in the brain, and this is how we're beginning to unravel the incredible complexity and richness of what these practices and experiences ultimately do for us as human beings.
Now as far as your question about how does—
TS: Your subjective experience, yes.
AN: Now, are you speaking about me, personally? Or are you talking about people in general?
TS: I'd be curious about both.
AN: Well, I think for people in general, to some degree, when a person really gets into that meditation practice, the feeling that—there are a couple of things that people will feel. One is that they may feel actual physiological changes in their body. They may feel their heart beating fast or beating slow or they may feel their breathing rate go higher or slower. In most cases, it's slower. So you might feel a deep, profound sense of relaxation. And that is one of the kinds of experiences that people often will describe during their practice of meditation or prayer.
The other thing, which I guess is sort of related to this, is sometimes people often feel a kind of flow experience where the whole process is almost happening automatically. They really lose their own sense of self, their own sense of willfulness in the process. It just starts happening almost automatically. So if you really feel like you're kind of losing yourself—you know, you're in the zone, as an athlete might say, or flow experiences have described—that to me is the kind of experience that, at least on a relatively simplistic level, a meditator may strive for.
Now, obviously for those people who are engaged in these practices as part of their spiritual paths, they may be looking for much more profound kinds of experiences. Mystical experiences, for example. The problem with those, of course, is that one still never really knows when those will happen. But I think for the average person who is trying to engage with a meditation program, those are the kinds of experiences that they are looking for: a feeling of relaxation and calmness, a lower level of stress, and this feeling that the practice becomes kind of automatic. As that begins to happen, this is the kind of experience that you ultimately will reap some benefits from, especially in terms of lowering levels of anxiety or depression. And this is also part of why religious and spiritual experiences and practices like prayer—we've studied and reported other types of practices like speaking in tongues—all of these practices have a very profound affect on our health and well-being, and we can start to document those.
In our most recent book, called How God Changes Your Brain, [we] talk a lot about these very positive, beneficial effects of these kinds of practices and how they actually help to improve your memory functions, lower your levels of stress and anxiety, augment your immune function, which overall improve your sense of well-being. And I think, that's what most people are trying to go for.
Now, again, if somebody is really engaged in a meditation or prayer practice as part of their spiritual and religious pursuits, now we're talking about something a little bit different, because you're talking about trying to get to an experience that changes the way you understand the world and the way in which you make meaning about the world and understand the absolute nature of reality. And that is obviously a more profound experience, but that's something that is usually for people who are engaging that more deeply.
TS: I think part of where I was driving at with asking you personally, and this is what I'm trying to get at, is: is it possible to actually feel into the brain itself? When you talk about the parietal lobe or the frontal lobe, can you actually feel that from the inside?
AN: I personally have never felt that. [Laughs] You know, I don't think most people would define it that way or describe it that way. Since we're inside the brain as we do our things, we don't tend to feel the brain. And actually, in an odd sort of way, and I don't know if this answers your question, the brain itself does not have sensory reception. Most brain surgery is done with the person conscious so that they can continue to speak to the person. That helps them actually evaluate which parts of the brain that they are fooling around with in the surgery so that they don't damage language or other different functional processes in the brain.
But there are people who will say—certainly when you talk about, for example, the different chakras. That may be something that's kind of similar [to the] experience that you're talking about, where people can rest within certain chakras within their body and how they feel or think about that particular experience. But I don't know if anybody has ever been able to tell me that they feel their front lobes working.
TS: I got you. Well, that's my first goofy question. Now I'm going to follow it with a second goofy question which is: (just bear with me please Dr. Newberg) Someone that I know was mentioning that there are experiments going on with something that he called "God helmets," where you could put a helmet on your head and it would stimulate the parts of the brain—electrically stimulate those parts of the brain or magnetically stimulate them—that are being lit up when someone engages in meditation or prayer. And you know, wouldn't this be simpler? I could wake up in the morning and put on my pink God helmet and go to work and skip my meditation practice. What do you think about that?
AN: Well, I think it's very interesting on several different levels. One is that it does teach us something about the parts of the brain that seem to be involved in these kinds of experiences. So if we know that by sending in an electrical stimulus to parts of the temporal lobe, which is part of where that limbic system is, we can induce different types of emotional experiences or different types of experiences of a sensed presence or an experience that is spiritual-like. That tells us something about that part of the brain and its relationship to those types of experiences. So it's a piece of the larger puzzle of trying to understand what the brain is doing during these different kinds of experiences.
On the other hand, the other question that you are kind of asking about, which we frequently kind of deal with, is whether artificially stimulating these—I'll put "artificial" in quotes for the moment—experiences is a good thing or not. And part of my answer to that question is that to some degree, people have been stimulating these experiences since the beginning of time. I mean this is, in many ways, what meditation does. Meditation is not perhaps a natural thing to do with your brain, but by doing it and doing it repeatedly, you can induce a very, very powerful experience.
So is that any better or worse than putting a helmet on? Obviously it might be simpler to put the helmet on if it turns out to really be able to really do what the claims are. But assuming that it is, then that may be a very unique way to try to stimulate that kind of an experience.
Another very relevant example are different drug-induced experiences. And people, again, for thousands of years, have used different substances to help induce spiritual states. Now, on one hand they are "artificial," because the person would not have that state without taking that substance. But on the other hand, for the person doing that and engaged in that practice, for example the shaman who takes those mushrooms, that is not an artificial experience in the sense that it is a false experience. For them, it is the window, if you will, into the spiritual realm for that person or that person's mind.
So whether you put a helmet on, whether you meditate, whether you take a drug, whether you use near-death states or whatever, all of these are different types of states that affect the brain in certain ways, and also seem to be associated with very profound experiences. So it seems to be that we want to explore all the different ways in which different types of religious and spiritual states can be stimulated. That helps us understand the nature of those states and understand the biology of those states as well.
But it still doesn't get us to the ultimate reality aspect of that experience. The analogy that I always like to use—[like using] drugs or the helmet that you were talking about—is I wear glasses. So when I wake up in the morning, the world is a very fuzzy place. I put my glasses on and the world becomes clear. Now, the world didn't change. My perception of the world changed. So who is to say that the way that our brain functions normally looks at the world in a certain way—which, you know, has a certain fuzziness to it. And if you electrically stimulate the brain to augment its function, or you activate certain neurotransmitters by giving a drug or you practice meditation which stimulates the brain, that now it's like putting glasses on the brain. Now the brain sees the world in a much clearer way than it did before. The world, again, hasn't changed either way, but we are now perceiving it in a more fundamental way and in a more real way.
So we don't know, simply because we can stimulate—even if we can stimulate an experience, through a helmet, drugs or meditation—whether or not that ability to stimulate the experience means that it is a false experience. And in my view, in many ways, those experiences are just as real, and of course, people frequently describe them as being even more real than our everyday reality experiences.
It turns out that the specific research that you're talking about is a little controversial, because this helmet and the ability to send in these electromagnetic waves doesn't really produce, at least, all of the varieties of experiences that people can have. There was another study done that was designed to replicate it and wasn't able to replicate it very well. So there is still some controversy as to whether or not that particular idea of using a helmet to stimulate these experiences really works. Theoretically it should be something that could be possible, and certainly some of the interesting early work that was done in people that were undergoing brain surgery where they literally electrically—they touched an electrode to certain parts of the brain and stimulated some very profound experiences for people. We know that that can happen. I just don't know for sure that it could happen with a modified motorcycle helmet that's omitting radio waves.
TS: You know, I think the question that comes up from me—besides the fact that I want to be on the waiting list for one of the first pink God helmets when they are available—is: if we say that these experiences are just as real—whether it's through meditation or drugs or electro-stimulation—as the experience itself, is there, though, something different about the enduring change that might come in the person's being? Their ability to integrate, to have some stabilized way of living in a different way that might be different, from a neurobiological perspective? Meaning, is there some sort of witness in the brain that's available during a meditation practice that wouldn't be there, let's say, in a drug experience? Something like that?
AN: Yes. You know, some of the research that we've been doing has started to point to that, so there's not enough data yet that can really fully answer your question. But what we've done in looking at, for example, long-term meditators verses non-meditators, we find that there is a difference in the way their brain works in comparison to a non-meditator.
When we have studied people where we started them out on a meditation program, we find that their brain literally changes over time and corresponds in changes in their emotional state or their cognitive state. So I think the short answer is that there is definitely a change that occurs when people are having these profound experiences. And certainly, subjectively or phenomenologically, we see this in a very big way in their lives. When somebody has a near-death experience, or when somebody has a mystical experience, in that moment in which they have that experience, they undergo a pretty complete transformation of how they look at themselves, how they look at the world, about how they look at their relationships and their jobs and so forth.
So there's no question that subjectively these profound states really have an impact on the person. And we're starting now to see that there are these long-term changes that occur in the brain. And again, the study that we did looking at Kirtan Kriya meditation, which is a 12-minute-a-day meditation that we had older individuals do—and we reported this in our book How God Changes Your Brain,—[we found] that there were profound changes in the different parts of their brain that helped them to function in terms of their memory, in terms of how they perceive reality. And what I kept saying to myself and to people who come across this data is, "Look at the changes you're seeing by simply doing a practice for 12 minutes a day, and now extrapolate that to someone who is doing a meditation program for years of their lives—hours a day, for example." You can really see how profoundly the brain can be changed by these practices and these kinds of experiences.
But what's also interesting is [looking at] studies that have been done looking at momentary experiences, like a near-death experience. There was an interesting experience that was done looking at the drug psilocybin that showed that [it] caused very transformative experiences within people. Not a surprise, but it's amazing how the brain can rearrange itself in such a small period of time. Whereas normally we think about meditation as being this very profound change but it takes many, many years to do it.
So we're still learning about how this change occurs. How it can change quickly. How it can change over time. But nonetheless, we are clearly starting to see those kinds of more profound changes and we just need to learn more about it. We need more studies to really help us to figure that out.
TS: Is there any research, though, that shows that one of these methods—whether it's drugs or meditation or electro-stimulation or anything else—that there is more lasting change with one approach verses another?
AN: I have not seen any data that would support that. You know, it seems like when people have very, very intense experiences—whether they are drug-induced, whether they are mystical experiences spontaneously occurring or mystical experiences from meditation practices—that all of them can potentially result in long-term changes that really can last a person's lifetime. But they're not real common, so if somebody just decides that, "Hey, I want to do a meditation program," or "I'm going to join my yoga class and do some practices," and something like that, that's probably not where it's going to happen.
But when people do have a near-death experience or a very, very unusual drug-induced state or some kind of extreme experience during a meditation or prayer or deep spiritual practice, almost all of them can potentially result in a very long-term effect on a person. And I don't think there's enough data yet to tell us that one kind of way of doing it is better or worse than the other. It may come down to your earlier question about which practice should people do. You know, some people might be more affected by one thing than another and at this point, we don't know. So the good news for me, as the researcher at least, is that there is a lot of stuff for us to still look for and to try to learn. But the downside is that we still don't know a whole lot.
TS: So there's just one more subject that I want to make sure we have a chance to touch on, which is that I know that you write about faith—what it is and how faith interacts with our brain. And I wonder if you can talk a bit about that?
AN: Well, I think faith, to me, has two components to it. On its broadest level, what we're talking about when we talk about faith is a person who has faith and an optimistic belief about the world and about how the world is going to unfold for them and how their life is going to unfold. What most research has shown is that people who do have faith that the world is going to be a good place, and that things are going to work out for themselves, those are the people who tend to do better in life. They tend to be healthier.
You know, obviously, you can't extrapolate that to each individual, but when you look at people on a population level, those people have the most faith in the world and in the things working out for them, those are the ones that are going to do the best. And in part they do the best because, perhaps, they have the lowest levels of stress. And in part they do the best because they're the most actively involved in whatever it is that they are doing in their life. They engage it fully, and that ultimately is going to be beneficial for them.
Certainly, when you're talking about health issues and health crises, people who have faith that they are going to get over their cancer or deal with a particular problem are more likely to be compliant with their treatments and ultimately, their mind. You know, we're learning more and more about the placebo effect as such a powerful mediator of our health, and we should all try our best to take advantage of it. The more that we think that we are going to do well, and the more that we think that we are going to be successful, and the more that we think that we're going to be healthy, the more likely we are to do that. It's not a guarantee, but [it's] more likely we [will] do that.
Of course, the other component of faith—which is the other area that we talked about from the beginning of neurotheology—is the faith in something spiritual. And that too contributes to that overall sense of well-being and a positive way of looking at themselves and how the person connects to the world. It provides them a sense of meaning, a sense of understanding, a sense of calmness, and a notion that the world, because they understand that, is going to unfold for them in a positive way. And therefore, the more all of us have faith, the better off, ultimately, we'll do for ourselves. And that's something that there is sufficient data to support.
How it ultimately plays out in the brain, we don't fully know yet. But yes, having faith is perhaps, in many ways, one of the most important things that all of us can try to enrich within ourselves and encourage within ourselves and with others. The more we do that, like I said, the better off we ultimately will be, and hopefully the better off all of us will be, including as a society and as a planet.
TS: Well, just as a final question about this topic of faith. It's not something that you can make up. You can't say to yourself, "You know, I'll be healthier if I have strong faith, so I'm going to increase my faith because it's good for my health." I mean, you can't make yourself have faith. It's something some people seem to have it. A lot of people don't. So how would you address that person who, for whatever reason, maybe they want to have more faith in possibility, in the goodness of the universe, but they don't?
AN: Right. Well, you know, there's a couple things with that. To some degree, each of us has the ability to have faith. And as with all skills, if you want to call it that, or all aspects of us as human beings, there is a bit of a bell curve. Some people, as you mention, do have a lot of faith, and some people are a lot more pessimistic about things. But what the research is also starting to show, especially in the fields of positive psychology, is that by purposefully engaging in it, we can actually engender at least as high a level of faith in a particular person as we can.
So that may not necessarily make somebody who is generally pessimistic a truly optimistic person, but it may make them a little less pessimistic. What we do know about how the brain works—there is a cute phrase, that "the neurons that fire together, wire together." And what that means is that the more we concentrate and focus our attention on being positive, being faithful, things that we have gratitude for, things that we think are going to go well, even if we don't always believe it but we say, "You know what? I think things are going OK." Over time that will actually change the way the brain works and it will change the way a particular person views their reality.
So by engaging in practices that help to augment a feeling of faith, a feeling of optimism, a feeling of calmness and well-being—like practices such as meditation and prayer—then any individual can optimize their feelings of faith. And again, it's not going to take someone who has none and suddenly make them one of the most faith-feeling people in the world. But it might be able to nudge them a little bit down that path. We don't know for sure how advantageous it may be for a person, but what the research would suggest is that every little bit helps. So that even for those people who don't typically look at the world very positively, if they begin to concentrate on the world and focus on the world in more positive ways and listen to things that have a more positive view on the world.
You know, if you go on talk radio and you listen to everybody complain about everything that's going on, then you feel negative. You have mirror neurons in the brain that reflect the negativity. Whereas if you listen to somebody who speaks positively—and whether it's a minister or a priest or just an inspiring person or whatever—then those are the feelings and emotions that you will engender within yourself. And so everybody has an opportunity to bring their mind, bring their concentration to ideas and concepts that are more positive and bring us to a more optimistic and faithful way of looking at things. If people being to do that, they will help to optimize those kinds of feelings within themselves. You're right, you can't artificially make that happen. But the more that we continue to focus on those positive ideas, the more the brain literally rewires itself to be more positive, and the person will start to progress down a path towards a greater sense of faith and well-being and hopefully for everyone, that would be enough to help them through.
TS: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Dr. Andrew Newberg.
He's the author of several very popular books as well as a three-session audio learning course with Sounds True called God and the Brain: The Physiology of Spiritual Experience.
Thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge.
AN: Thank you for having me on the program.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.