God On The Brain

Does neuroscience hold the answers to life’s biggest questions?

By Alicia Puglionesi
(Eisenberg Literary Journalism Fellowship, Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, 2007-2008)

It's a frigid afternoon in February, and I am sitting in a pastel-tiled examination room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, watching a light snowfall through the slats of the Venetian blinds. A slow drip of radioactive tracer enters my body through a catheter in my right arm. The radioactivity, as Hannah the research assistant keeps assuring me, is roughly equivalent to the amount of environmental radiation that I absorb in a normal year - small change from her perspective, but the battery of forms I signed have left me feeling uncomfortable. While I eye the resuscitation kit perched on a nearby countertop, the tracer bonds with the oxygen in my blood and travels to my organs. Since more blood flows to areas of higher activity, those areas receive the largest dose of tracer material. Then nuclear decay kicks in: the tracer is an isotope of iodine, which will break down inside my body and emit gamma rays; more decaying iodine means a stronger signal. Five minutes later, when I enter the hospital's single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanner, the machine will capture these rays and use them to calculate levels of activity for every voxel in my brain, rendering this data into a vivid color portrait. I try to think of it as sitting for a portrait in the age of neuroscience.

The payoff for me is a nice picture of my grey matter, but they don't let you use a six-hundred million dollar machine just for kicks. This is a serious research environment; I arrived expecting to do my share for the advancement of science, as did the "oneness meditation" guru with whom I am sharing an examination room. Cheryl looks to be in her mid-fifties, a tall, refined woman in charcoal slacks, with a black jacket draped over her shoulders. The experiment consists of Cheryl standing with her hands on my head for five minutes, performing some kind of silent benediction. The only sounds are the ambient ocean noises playing at high volume on the Sony alarm clock in the corner and the faint crackling of the hospital's P.A. system. The researchers have instructed me to clear my mind and remain open to whatever spiritual vibes might come my way from Cheryl, but between the sloshing of simulated waves and Cheryl's shifting grip on my skull, this proves unusually difficult.

The purpose of our experiment is to determine whether Cheryl's silent prayer has any effect on my brain function - essentially, if she can tap some kind of free-floating spiritual force and beam it in my direction. At first I have a hard time taking this proposal seriously, especially in light of the ocean noises. However, after a few minutes of sitting in the dark with Cheryl's hands on my head, I begin to consciously resist spiritual thoughts. Normally I'm a good kid - I read the entire question and follow directions carefully and believe in the spirit of the law as well as the letter - but it is nearly impossible to keep my mind neutral as it is tested for a phenomenon in which I strongly disbelieve. I'm just not into supernatural forces, miracles, or faith healing. The longer Cheryl meditates, the more apprehensive I become that something will register on the scan, and the more my mental gears grind in resistance to the prospect - both out of disregard for supernatural voodoo stuff, and out of fear that my brain might be providing evidence against what my conscious mind believes.

"Supernatural voodoo stuff" is not, of course, the technical term for the phenomenon in question. If you want to get published in the next issue of Neuroscience, you'd best call it "cerebral activity associated with spiritual practice." If you're Andrew Newberg, you can call it straight-up spirituality, because you're not interested in beating around the bush. Dr. Andrew Newberg is a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital whose has made it his life's work to explore spirituality using neuroimaging tools. Long before I took my turn in his SPECT scanner, Newberg had scanned Tibetan Buddhist monks deep in meditation, Franciscan nuns praying the rosary, and Pentecostals speaking in tongues. He writes popular accounts of his findings with titles like The Mystical Mind and Why God Won't Go Away. Newberg unapologetically melds neuroscience with his own brand of spirituality - a practice that has earned him harsh criticism in the research community and big headlines in the popular press.

A slim man in a lab coat and wire-rimmed spectacles, Newberg isn't the kind of person you would peg as a trippy New Age seeker - only his longish mop of curly hair hints at a free spirit beneath the buttoned-down demeanor. There are two framed oil paintings on the walls of Newberg's narrow office in the Radiology Department at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. "Once I got bashed in an article for having this tiny windowless office with absolutely horrible landscape paintings," he mentioned when asked about the décor. "Of course, I painted them. I learned from that guy on TV." Newberg has spent the past decade defining and rising to the forefront of a new area of neuroscience. Dubbed neurotheology, it sits at the messy intersection of modern technology and old time religion, spirituality, and faith. "Neurotheology studies the relationship between brain, religion, and spiritual experiences," says Newberg. "Religion is often dismissed out of hand. We feel that it's important to take a more serious look at the intersection. It's more complex than simply writing faith off as a delusion." Newberg claims to have demonstrated that "transcendent" or "unitary" experiences can result from "the proper neurological functioning of sound, healthy minds." If he is correct, then God is not a delusion, and religion is not an opiate, in terms of their concrete manifestations in the brain. . The question of what they are, however, remains very much up for grabs.

The evidence for this theory, though incomplete, is promising: when a Franciscan nun, or a Buddhist monk, or even a serious layperson engages in meditative prayer, a similar pattern of activation occurs in their brain which looks different from the activity of people suffering from mental disorders like schizophrenia or temporal lobe epilepsy. These "pathological explanations" have been popularized in recent years by V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Diego whose studies show an association between epileptic seizures and "deeply moving religious experiences."

Newberg, however, thinks that pathological explanations are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to spirituality. His studies focus on two critical brain regions: The prefrontal cortex, which Newberg calls the "attention area" due to its role in focusing the brain on a specific task, and the posterior superior parietal lobe, a small region towards the back of the head which Newberg calls the "orientation association area," or OAA, responsible for orienting the individual in physical space. The OAA delineates boundaries between the body and its surroundings, giving us a sense of separate "selfness." Newberg theorizes that when activity in the OAA is depressed, people experience a diminished perception of individuality. During intense meditation or prayer, the brain combines decreased activity in the OAA with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, leading to the feelings of unity, transcendence, and peace that form the essence of so many religious traditions. "The mystical experiences of our subjects," Newberg writes in Why God Won't Go Away, "were not the result of emotional mistakes or simple wishful thinking, but were instead associated with a series of observable neurological events."

From this basis in brain mechanics, Newberg goes on to project an entire neural history of religion, tying his discoveries to the human tendency for mythmaking and faith in the face of the unknown. He proposes that focused, repetitive rituals such as meditation and prayer essentially shut down the OAA while maintaining intense activity in the prefrontal cortex, enabling us to "…transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves" - what Newberg terms "Absolute Unitary Being," or AUB. "Unitary states generated by the neurobiology of ritual," he explains, "are usually interpreted as a personal experience of the closeness of God."


Many a brave soul has attempted to navigate the treacherous strait between science and religion, but they usually go there to stake a claim for one side or the other in a centuries-old metaphysical turf war. From Pope Urban VIII (ex-pal and eventual prosecutor of Galileo) to Francis Collins (a former director of the Human Genome Project whose book is called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief), people who care deeply about science have endeavored to contort it in ways that buttress their faith. Conversely, the mainstream scientific community tends to dismiss faith "out of hand" for fear of these lurking apologetics. Newberg, however, sees no need for old grudges to interfere with new discoveries. He's not blissfully ignorant about the historical tension between science and faith - he only seems that way because the fight doesn't interest him. Whether this approach opens up new horizons for science or merely sells issues of Science magazine, many researchers have jumped on board in recent years, expanding the field of neurotheology to include investigations into the evolutionary origins of belief, its basis in normal and abnormal neural phenomena, and experimentation with induced spiritual experiences.

Lying in the SPECT scanner in HUP's radiology department, I am at a geographical center of the cosmic science-and faith collision that is neurotheology. Over the past ten years, a wealth of research foundations, symposia, and conferences devoted to neuroscience generally and to neurotheology in particular have sprouted up in Southeastern Pennsylvania. From respected standbys like the Center for Research in Cognitive Neuroscience to fringe organizations like the Center for Unlimited Love, anyone who can get their hands on a brain scanner and some funding is eager to jump into the fray. Dr. Newberg, for instance, is the founder and Principle Investigator at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, a research group which happens to be headquartered in his windowless office at HUP.

The CSM is, like many cutting-edge research collaboratives, primarily virtual. There is no central laboratory full of fizzling beakers and whirring machinery; its research fellows are spread across academic disciplines from psychology to bioethics to religious studies, and not all of them rely on state-of-the-art scanning equipment like Newberg. CSM projects range from an online survey about spiritual experiences ("How close do you feel to God? Do you agree or disagree with this statement: 'God dwells within you'?"), to an analysis of yoga as treatment for depression. But the big money is riding on brain scans: now that scientists can go straight to the source and watch the brain in action, behavioral studies are losing their allure. It's hard to beat the glamour of those Technicolor brain images splashed across the Times Science section or the weekly newsmagazines, under boldface headlines like, "This is your brain on God" or, "Is the Brain Wired for Faith?" For a public steeped in the gospel of scientific progress, yet drawn irresistibly to the faith of their parents and grandparents, this is compelling stuff.

The kind of science that increases human understanding, however, isn't about sensationalism, and the scientific community renders harsh judgments on those who trade integrity for prime shelf space at Barnes & Noble. When I entered his office for the first time, I was prepared to hammer Newberg on the soft spots in his book: what critic Andrew Fyfe of the Skeptical Inquirer calls "teetering on the edge of scientific irresponsibility" and attempting to "soften the book so as not to scare away religious readers and their wallets." Newberg, however, plunged straight into the big questions driving his work, which he wants to address in both scientific and popular terms. He discussed frankly the sacrifices involved in working with mainstream publishers, alluding to editorial disagreements over the sometimes-mystical tone of his books. He also revealed a philosophical streak that explains his tendency to venture beyond the realm of empirical certainty: in his quest for understanding, he simply sees no out-of-bounds.

"Why is religion a human universal? Why are there different religions? I've been worrying about this stuff since I was a kid," recalls Newberg, who grew up in a moderately Jewish household in the Pennsylvania suburbs. "The traditional Western approach is to posit science and rationality as the only correct way of answering everything." Newberg followed this traditional course as a chemistry student at Haverford College: "You focus on what you can see under the microscope; you can only know what you see and measure. This was exhilarating because science has so many of the answers, but it becomes unsatisfying after a certain point." Looking for answers, Newberg took a class on Eastern philosophy and found that it resonated with his search for meaning beyond the microscope.

Newberg's budding interest in spirituality might have come to nothing without Dr. Eugene d'Aquili, whom he first encountered in 1991 during his last precarious year of grad school. "I knew I wanted to study the brain," Newberg recalls, "but I wasn't sure which approach I wanted to take when I stumbled across the developments going on in nuclear medicine." Fascinated by the potential of imaging technology, he took an extra year to pursue independent research. He reached out to d'Aquili, a prominent psychiatry professor at Penn obsessed with finding the neurological basis of spiritual experience. D'Aquili wanted to study the brains of religious believers, and Andrew Newberg had the machines and the technical know-how to make it happen. They met for a lunch date which would become a weekly ritual, and Newberg found a kindred spirit: a scientist willing to venture into the dangerous waters of spirituality and religion. Newberg and d'Aquili wanted to pool their expertise to formulate a unified theory of spirituality in the brain, encompassing neurological, psychological, and philosophical realms.


After my initial blessing session with Cheryl, Newberg and his assistant, Hannah Roggencamp, lead me to the end of a long hallway where the SPECT scanner lurks, hulking and cumbersome, in a private room equipped with some computer monitors and an air conditioner that runs all winter to keep the machinery from overheating. Once the scanner's rotating cameras are calibrated so as not to lop off my head, Newberg turns down the lights and leaves me to my own devices. "Most people sleep," he offers as he strolls out of the room. For whatever reason, I'm not feeling very relaxed. Half an hour without the internet, a newspaper, or upper body mobility is a very, very long time, and oneness blessing hasn't made a dent in my urge to multitask. The three scanner drums move at an excruciating crawl, hovering so close to my face that I can only look at them cross-eyed; sometimes they look like they're mobile, but the longer I watch the more I doubt that they're moving at all. There is a periodic shuffle of nurses in and out of the scanner room, which doubles as a linen closet. Top 40 hits from the 90s are playing on a loop in my head.

My liberation at the end of the scan comes with a catch: Dr. Newberg and Hannah swoop in, pluck the armrests and undo my head strap, and lead me back to the examination room where I will wait for Cheryl to take her turn in the scanner. Then we will begin Condition 2 of the experiment. Newberg designed the study so that the test subject undergoes one condition in which the oneness blessing is given and one control condition with no blessing. As the guinea pig, I don't know which condition is which, and consequentially spend all of the first condition thinking that the next one will contain the blessing, and all of the second condition thinking that the first one must have contained the blessing. However hard I try, I can't seem to sense of the flow of spiritual energy in the room.

After two blessing sessions and two trips through the scanner, I spend some time trying to figure out Cheryl. Newberg has told me very little about her so as not to bias the experiment, but now that it's over I want to know the story behind this oneness blessing business. I have a feeling that we shared a very personal moment - a spiritual communion sort of thing - but I wasn't in tune enough to appreciate the intensity of her efforts. "The oneness blessing is designed to bring you to a higher level of consciousness," she explains as we sit in the examination room, Newberg and Hannah gathering their equipment in the background. "It's not tied to any religion - it just connects you more strongly to whatever matters in your life." Cheryl flew to from California to Philadelphia for Newberg's experiment, which was in fact initiated by a group associated with notorious self-help guru Tony Robbins. Newberg would later explain that the group had contacted him to propose this study, and even provided most of the funding, in the hope of proving the validity of their methods. On their website, Robbins' organization claims that "the Oneness Blessing initiates a neuro-biological change in the brain" through "an act of energy transfer by touch or by the power of intent." Needless to say, it was wise of Newberg to avoid mentioning Tony Robbins before I went under the scanner.

I ask Cheryl why she got involved with oneness meditation, suspicious of the cult-like status of Robbins' "Oneness Program." Her answer betrays the kind of emotional need that often precludes discovery of a new spiritual path. "The day before I went to my first meditation session I had my heart broken," she recounts in a soft voice. "I felt worse than I ever had in my life. When I received the blessing, after a few minutes, I felt peaceful and calm." She goes on to describe how she gives the oneness blessing to her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother: "My mom doesn't recognize me anymore, and she gets scared and starts screaming. I can put my hands on her head, and concentrate on the blessing, and it's the only thing that calms her down." Cheryl levels her grey eyes at me as though to emphasize the gravity of an experience that I had dismissed as merely weird. "Being able to support my mom during this stage, to give her peace - it means so much to me. I already know the results of this prayer for myself," she continues, tucking a strand of grey hair behind her ear with a jingling of turquoise bracelets, "regardless of what the study shows. I would love for it to be scientifically proven - that's why I came here - but it won't change what I believe in if it isn't."


It has now been two weeks since my SPECT scan, and I trek back to the hospital take a preliminary look at the results. I can't wait to see some pictures of my brain even if, as I suspect, they fail to demonstrate the transformative power of prayer. Back in his windowless office inside the labyrinthine maze of the Radiology department, Newberg brings up my file on a huge desktop monitor. He emphasizes that none of the official quantitative analysis has been completed: "Typically you want to wait for a research paper to come out," he says, "so I can't say a whole lot until we get this peer reviewed."

The SPECT scanning software creates horizontal slices of the brain about .4 millimeters thick, starting at the base of the spine and moving up from the brain stem and cerebellum through the midbrain, cortex, and into neocortex. Each slice is illuminated with the familiar MRI color scheme: warm tones for high activity and cool tones for low activity. Even without an expert eye, I can tell from a quick look that my brain was humming along quite nicely during the experiment. In fact, humming is an understatement. Splotches of red and orange appear all over the association areas of my cortex, where language processing and higher-level cognition take place. Also, my visual cortex is lit up like a Christmas tree, a bit of a problem since I was supposed to have kept my eyes closed during the blessing. When I forgot the instructions halfway through and accidentally blinked a few times (ok, many times), the iodine tracer caught me in the act. "You've got a lot going on in visual cortex," Newberg remarks in a non-judgmental way. I shrug sheepishly and mumble something about having a vivid imagination.

To determine whether Cheryl's prayer had any tangible effect on my brain, Newberg compares the set of images from condition 1, in which no blessing was administered, to the images from condition 2, when Cheryl was focusing all her mental powers on me. If condition 2 looks different, he says, it had "the potential to be paradigm-shifting." Though he hasn't had a chance to analyze the three previous test subjects closely, a preliminary look showed no marked response to the prayer. Newberg doesn't sound concerned. In good empirical form, he isn't wedded to any particular results, though if he seeks publication the empirical foundations of the study will certainly be called into question. He admits that the study "crosses the line a little bit into parapsychology. It could be a debunking study, or it could be a confirmation study. It's interesting even if there is no clinical effect."

In my case, there is definitely no clinical effect. Between forgetting to keep my eyes closed and being in a state of mental agitation, I had managed to tune out any inklings of the supernatural. It seems to me that anyone who does report a miraculous "healing" by the oneness prayer probably has positive expectations going into the experience - a sort of spiritual placebo effect. Newberg acknowledges this possibility, but seems inclined to keep all his options open rather than taking recourse to the cynical explanation. "There's always a likelihood that a phenomenon like this has too small an effect to show up clinically," he remarks. It's difficult to tell whether Newberg says these things out of respect for his subjects and the sincerity of their belief, or from his own underlying convictions. Foremost, he believes in empirical investigation, but his application of this method to a faith which he may, on an unspoken level, hope to preserve, creates complications and perhaps even impossibilities. As Newberg fiddles with the color scale on the computer, the radical subjectivity of interpreting a brain scan becomes bountifully clear: the grail of empiricism which he seeks may be just as personal and contingent as faith itself.

"These are practices that have a huge amount of meaning for people," he says as we scroll through slice after slice of my digitally-rendered brain. "There are subjective physiological effects that need to be studied in a formal, rigorous way." Newberg presents himself with scrupulous neutrality, perhaps gun-shy from the onslaught of criticism that followed his more speculative contributions. Perhaps it's a testament to the cynicism of the scientific community that his open-mindedness is interpreted as gullibility or lack of rigor; after all, in a postmodern world, the very possibility of empirical fact is regularly called into question. If empiricism is Newberg's grail, it is also the grail of science generally. The fact that everyone from neuroscientists to particle physicists must chase after it reflects a slipperiness perhaps inherent to its central claims about reality and perception. However, as researchers inevitably point out when philosophers step on their toes, subjective accounts of reality will never cure AIDS or help them unravel Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The speculative nature of Newberg's work places him on a continuum between science and philosophy, a position that makes him receptive to both approaches, but also suspect to their respective practitioners.

While I'm in the lab, we take a look at Cheryl's scans as well. Newberg had hoped to find some pattern of activity caused by giving the prayer rather than receiving it, a sort of self-induced psychic alteration. As we scroll through slices of cortex, there are places where the scans from Condition 1 and Condition 2 don't quite match up. "This is similar to what we see in meditation," Newberg explains, pointing to an area towards the front of her brain. "She has more frontal lobe activity during the prayer - right there in the prefrontal cortex. That's an area related to concentration and focused attention, which is basically what she's doing when she gives a blessing."

It's not exactly news to Newberg that meditation produces changes in the brain, and it doesn't require any fancy supernatural forces to explain. "I kind of thought about this as a drug study," Newberg say when asked about the plausibility of the Oneness Program's claims. "They have this treatment, and we want to test if it works. Overall, I don't see a whole lot of effect right now," Newberg concedes. "It's not my job to tell these people that they are wrong or right about their practices, and even if I told them that science disproves it, that wouldn't change what they believe."


As many critics of neurotheology have noted, how and why we believe are two very different questions. It's often hard to tell which one neurotheology thinks it can crack, because the news media, the publishing industry, and the researchers themselves know that people crave the answers to both. Traditionally, the how question belongs to science, and the why to faith, but when the consumers of information demand one-stop shopping, the best way to move a product is to roll everything together into one premium package - one elegant explanation that promises more metaphysical bang for your buck. This is why many authors try to spin neuroscience to back up ideological positions: both the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins and the sometime Christian apologist Francis Collins have used neuroscience to support their views. Couple this with the phenomenon of "neuro-sensationalism" - exaggerated coverage of neuroscience as the magic key to decoding all of human thought and behavior - and the territory of neurotheology becomes fraught with conflicts between genuine science and hype.

Of his own work, Newberg writes, "Skeptics have used my findings to conclude that religious experience was nothing more than a neural confabulation within the brain, and religious practitioners cited my work to confirm that human beings are biologically 'hardwired for God.'" Even this appropriation of his research doesn't seem to bother him, though. Newberg, with his scrupulous neutrality, sees the heated debate between believers and skeptics as more evidence that there is a universal neural system for "making our brains experience certain beliefs as real" - no matter what those beliefs may be. His earlier books are less guarded in their endorsement of spirituality, but time - and criticism from the scientific community - has moderated his views. "When I take a brain scan of someone who says that they were in God's presence, the scan tells me what happens in the brain when they experience being in God's presence; it doesn't tell me if God was or was not actually there." As a self-professed "seeker," Newberg admits that he is intrigued by the possibility of a transcendent reality underpinning everyday life, but in recent years he has backed away from proposing conclusive answers to the "why" questions of human belief. This doesn't mean that he can't keep asking them.

Is there a way for science to test the existence of God, or "ultimate truth," or any metaphysical tenet of human faith? Neuroimaging is, on its surface, an intriguing tool, and some neurotheologists certainly think that they have discovered the "God module" or taken "photographs of God" acting on the brains of believers. Ultimately, however, the reach of neurotheology extends no further than the physical world: colorful MRI and SPECT scans tell us how the brain creates religious experiences, but not where these experiences come from. For many people, these neural mechanics are explanation enough: they are happy to draw a line at the boundaries of science, and find fulfillment in the astounding complexity and elegance of the human brain. For those who want something more to believe in, the ultimate truth of religious faith remains a territory impenetrable by the rays of a SPECT scanner or the magnetic waves of an MRI machine. And for those, like Newberg, who are not content to believe blindly but refuse to settle for a solely material reality, there is only a string of age-old questions and a vague hope that science may one day close the gap between what we believe and what we can measure in a lab.

"If, some day, a study came up that showed that religion is false - or true - if the science is done right and the data is clear, then I'm comfortable with going in that direction," Newberg says at one point during my SPECT study, as I wait in the hospital corridor holding my I.V. pole. "I believe it may be possible some day. But until then, we can't forbid ourselves from thinking about things just because we can't design an experiment to prove them."