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Bridging faith and reason | A series of occasional stories

A scientist's brain scans produce a photo album of the soul

The doctor asks the nun to begin her centering prayer. It's a Catholic method of prayer, goes back to the 14th century, a form of deep meditation. The nun sits straight, in silence. She closes her eyes and focuses on a sacred word, or small prayer. She "rests in God."

A catheter dangles from her arm. After 45 minutes, the doctor injects her with a radioactive tracer. He lets her pray 10 more minutes as the tracer in her bloodstream wends its way through her brain.

Then he leads the nun into his lab, has her lie down, and scans her brain. He's using a process called single photon emission computed tomography, or SPECT. It's a common technique in nuclear medicine, used to photograph the brains of patients suffering anything from seizures to brain trauma to heart disease to Alzheimer's.

The nun isn't sick. She's "on God."

She's a person of faith donating the use of her brain to a scientist — Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania. Amid today's ideological struggles between people of faith and science, that kind of collaboration sounds heretical.

But Newberg is among a small group of doctors and scientists on a different track. They do not find science and faith incompatible. They are using sophisticated technology to hunt down and map the soul.

Newberg, a professor of radiology and psychiatry, is not religious. He's Jewish by birth, but Judaism isn't a big part of his life. If a dying patient asked him to pray beside him, he'd do it. But he wouldn't lead the prayer. When his 8-year-old daughter asks him about God, he answers her with a question: "What do you think?"

But he has searched for spirituality in the brain for almost 20 years. He has probed the brains of praying nuns, meditating Buddhist monks, and Pentecostals as they speak in tongues. He has written three books: Why God Won't Go Away, The Mystical Mind, and his most recent, Why We Believe What We Believe. He has another book coming out next year.

Scientific exploration of spirituality has quietly prospered outside the red zone of Darwinism, creationism, embryonic stem cell research and abortion. Newberg is a noncombatant. "The actual battle is overblown," he says from his lab in Philadelphia. "It focuses on extremists. It leads people to think scientists believe religion is a bunch of crap.''

In Why We Believe, Newberg suggests the human brain can't function without beliefs, without a search for meaning.

"In spite of our lapses of memory, our inconsistencies of logic, and the inherent shortcomings of consciousness, humans have done a pretty good job at surviving. For better or worse, we reinvent the world every day, searching for the ultimate reality we call truth, enlightenment, or God."

• • •

Besides, he wanted to know what's going on in there.

In the early '90s, Newberg had fallen under the mentorship of psychiatrist Eugene d'Aquili, an early pioneer in the effects of religious and mystical experiences on the brain.

Newberg was then a student at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. He was completing an extra year of research in nuclear medicine. But he had always been interested in psychiatry and brain research. D'Aquili's work looked especially novel, esoteric.

He made a pitch to d'Aquili: Why not test your theories in the brain scan lab, using human guinea pigs? Why not photograph brains during religious experiences?

They found willing volunteers among three disparate groups: Tibetan Buddhist monks, cloistered nuns and Pentecostals who speak in tongues.

Starting with the monks and nuns, they shot them up with radioactive isotopes and zapped them with the SPECT machine.

If the brain houses such things as souls, they did locate them:

Everywhere.

• • •

Looking for belief in the brain is like looking for God in the universe, Newberg writes. "God is everywhere and nowhere, depending on whom you ask, and the same holds true for beliefs: They seem to be everywhere and nowhere in the brain, again depending on whom you ask."

But as Newberg combed through his brain scans of nuns and monks, some hot spots were obvious. The frontal lobes got especially busy. They're the part of the brain he calls the "attention area." The meditators had clearly tapped their frontal lobes to focus on their task.

He also saw the thalamus kick in. That's a pea-sized piece of the brain atop the brain stem that, among other things, sends sensory information to the frontal cortex, where much of our heavy thinking happens. Whatever was happening in meditation, the thalamus was making it feel very real.

The surprise was elsewhere, in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us orient ourselves in relation to things around us. Newberg discovered that the nuns and Buddhists had actually shut down that part of the brain, suspending their senses of space and time. It was then that they entered the peak of their transcendent experiences — altered states of "timelessness and spacelessness."

Why the brain does it, no one knows.

But it's not by accident.

• • •

Newberg is still looking. His next book, How God Changes Your Brain, comes out in March. It includes an online survey of people's different religious experiences.

He concluded Why We Believe by saying we may never know all of why we believe. "It is the questions that give us meaning, that drive us forward and fill us with transcendent awe."

All the scientist really knows is what he tells his 8-year-old daughter when she invents another new notion of God, of faith, of truth.

"Isn't that interesting?"

This story is one of a series looking at how people reconcile science, reason and faith in their lives. John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

A scientist's brain scans produce a photo album of the soul 06/14/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2008 12:23pm]

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