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Human Brain and Crossing beyond Self
Mar 1, 2011

People everywhere seem to have an innate need to reach out to the ultimate, to connect with some larger reality beyond themselves. Might there be something in the structure of the brain to give clues as to the interaction of spirit, body and mind? These are some of the questions raised by 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 Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of 5 books on this topic: Principles of Neurotheology, Why We Believe What We Believe, How God Changes Your Brain, Why God Won’t Go Away, and The Mystical Mind. He is considered a pioneer in the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences.

Dr. Newberg’s research utilizes the many recent advances in brain imaging to comprehend the nature of human consciousness and to determine how we, as humans, understand reality and interact with it. His studies now focus primarily on how brain function is associated with various mental states, and in particular, the relationship between brain function and religious experiences.

Matter&Beyond: What aspect of religions interests you personally?

I think the part of religion and spirituality that really interests me the most is its focus on that which is ultimate. Teilhard de Chardin used to tell that religion is related to questions of the ultimate. And that’s something that I guess I’ve always been focused on in my own thinking, trying to understand the ultimate questions about the Universe, about reality, about how we as human beings can interact with that reality and understand that reality, and I think that to me religions have always tried to find those answers.

M&B: You obtain brain scans of people while praying and meditating. What is the focus of those studies?

I think one of the parts of religion that has become very interesting to me is the profound experiences that people can actually have, particularly the mystical experiences where people really feel like they get outside of themselves and they begin to see the world in a whole different way. These transformative mystical kinds of experiences, depending on how you define them, those to me are the most interesting experiences in many ways and certainly worthy of looking at from lots of different perspectives.

M&B: But each religion brings its own perspective. Are you looking for commonalities, do you accept varieties, what is your take on the diversity of such answers?

I don’t always agree with those specific answers, but to me there’s always that pursuit of trying to find the answers of how we understand reality. And I think that is so ultimately, and while this doesn’t always come out in the practice of religions, there is that goal of having human beings attain a higher level of existence, becoming a better person, becoming something more than what we are and feeling more connected with our world than we normally do.

M&B: Certainly, world religions bring thousands of years of accumulated resources and historical notes about those intense spiritual experiences to the table. When you look at them, what are the common elements that catch your eyes?

When we look at the spiritual literature we see when people have had mystical experiences, we frequently see a description in which people feel that they get beyond the self, they get beyond their own ego problems like selfishness, their way of looking at the world from their own self perspective, and they look at the world in a whole different way. They look at the world in a much more holistic way, in a very interconnected way, they have a deeper understanding of what that world is all about, so from a subjective experience, people have the description where they really can get beyond the ego, get beyond the self, and see the world in a very different way. Now the question is, are they really doing that? And that’s something that is certainly open for debate both philosophically as well as spiritually.

M&B: These experiences and what they mean theologically as well as philosophically were debated for centuries. But with the advances of technology, now science has something to say about that too. The study of moment to moment reactions of the brain, that’s what you are doing, was not possible fifteen years ago.

We try to bring the science along with us so that we can then use the science in that new perspective as well and understand the world in a deeper way from both sides. That to me is really where we’re ultimately headed, and hopefully the research that I do and some of the other individuals around the world who are looking at these questions; this is what I hope the world’s going to lead to.

M&B: Let’s go to particular experiences. What would be an example for an intense spiritual state?

In the work that I have been doing over the last decade, I’ve spoken a lot about a state called absolute unitary being where everything is just undifferentiated oneness. Now, theoretically and from a philosophical perspective, that should be a very similar state regardless of how one ultimately gets to it, whether one comes from an eastern or western tradition, if you are in a completely undifferentiated state of oneness, then there really can’t be other perspectives on that. On the other hand, one still has to try to make some sense out of that so that after somebody has that experience, do they then interpret it through the lens of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, what have you, and then try to make some sense out of that.

M&B: About the spiritual states that you are talking about, there’s intense fulfillment related to those states. Sometimes people get the feeling that they reached the ultimate reality, all there is and all there was and all there will ever be. And in history there are some figures who claim that they became like God.

When one talks about the highest levels of mystical states and mystical experiences, it’s always very difficult to know how to respond to people who say that they have had them. On one hand they are, or should be at least, totally indescribable to the human mind and the human brain. On the other hand, when one has any kind of experience that’s a natural tendency that one wants to do is try to explain it and express it to other people. It really creates a conflict for the person who has that experience. Most of the people I have spoken to who have had mystical experiences of one form or another generally acknowledge that while “here’s the description that I’ll give you, but it’s really very far from what that experience was all about,” and I think that’s part of the humility that comes along with those experiences of realizing in many ways that experience was so much bigger than anything that that person really can get a hold of and understand and describe, and we sort of stand before those experiences and say “Wow, this is just something which is so much bigger than me and so much bigger than the world in many ways as I understand it, that there’s just no way for me to really understand it in its totality.”

M&B: What is your scientific goal in studying these intense experiences of oneness?

I think one of the interesting things from a research perspective is to ask “are these experiences the same, are they different, are the people different, is it the interpretation of those experiences that is different”? And that is something that we don’t really know yet. I guess it depends a little bit on the kind of experience that a person has, so I think that the question is, is that experience really the same for all those individual people? Is it not quite the same? Or if people think they did get that experience but feel something a little differently, could they have gotten to another state, another mystical state that isn’t exactly there and hopefully by the study of the biology as well as the phenomenology of these experiences, we might be able to understand them that much more and understand when they’re similar, when they’re different and how people ultimately interpret those experiences to be similar or different.

M&B: On the other side there are everyday religious experiences which are not so intense however more common.

Of course, intense experiences are not the only kinds of religious experiences, and for many people religion and spirituality is a way of life. And I think that it’s equally important for us to understand what that means for a person, so that they don’t necessarily have to have a mystical experience to have a deep understanding of what their religion or what their spiritual tradition actually means to them. And I think we need to look at both. What are the similarities and what are differences.

M&B: In religions there are some rituals related to spiritual states.

A lot of the research that I’ve been pursuing over the last decade or so have looked not just at religion, but at the specific rituals that people take part in that helps you induce various types of experiences and states. One of the things that we can look at when we look at rituals is that there is a very wide variety of rituals and they can have an impact on us in lots of different ways. To that end, a lot of rituals include visual stimulation, hearing or auditory stimulation, different types of body movements and so forth. Some can be very rhythmic, some can be very frenzied, and some can be very slow and methodical. And each of these different aspects of ritual can have a different kind of impact on us as a person, the things that we feel, the experiences that we have, and how they ultimately relate to whatever concepts that those rituals are looking at and helping us to understand in a deeper way.

M&B: What would be the resulting experience after a slow ritual?

So when we look at some of the slow rituals, for example, the ones that may be like a glory and chant which is a very slow rhythmic kind of music, or a very slow physical kind of process where a person may just be doing some kind of bowing or prostration, in a rhythmic way, those are the kinds of practices that can result in very deep feelings of calmness, acquiescence, and they may feel the sense of oceanic blissfulness. We can look also at the biology of that, the different parts of the brain and body that respond to that, so when we talk about slow rituals, we’re usually talking about what’s called the parasympathetic system in the body, or what I sometimes refer to as the quiescent system in body that helps the body relax, it helps the body rejuvenate its energy stores, for example, and this ultimately plays out in the brain because these experiences are associated with emotions such as contentment, happiness, joy, and blissfulness, and we can start to see all the different changes about how the practice itself starts, how it ultimately is played out in the behaviors and the rituals that the person takes part in, and then what happens in the brain in response to the kinds of experiences that they ultimately can have.

M&B: Are there any differences between man and women in terms of spiritual experience?

When we talk about different genders and the kinds of experiences that people have, on one level we certainly have some brain data that suggests that there is a difference between men and women’s brains and how they work, although they’re fairly subtle differences. When we talk about religious and spiritual experiences, obviously both genders can have very profound and compelling kinds of experiences, and to a certain extent when one looks at the literature, they are not fundamentally distinct kinds of experiences, there is probably a different kind of emphasis and we might see that women might focus a little bit more on the emotional aspects, more on the holistic aspects, but that’s a very subtle distinction and in the brain imaging studies that we’ve done as an example, again there are some very minor subtle differences between men and women, but in general, most of the changes that we’ve seen in one gender, we also see in the other. It might be to a slightly different degree in a few different structures, but in general, what we tend to see, especially as you get to the more profound and compelling kinds of experiences, is that there are a lot of similarities between men and women.

M&B: In what way do those mystical experiences transform an individual?

I think, as we look at different kinds of mystical experiences and different kinds of spiritual states, we do see kind of a continuum of these experiences and what myself and what my colleagues have argued for is that when one gets into the real high level of mystical states where that sense of getting beyond the self and the sense of connectedness extends not just to a particular group, but to the entire universe, to all of humanity, to the whole world, than there really is a much deeper level of compassion, a level of realization of where each of us is and the various issues each of us faces knowing that we’re doing the best that we can, but that we’re very limited in that ability, so I think its very correct to say that when people achieve deeper and deeper levels of connection and mystical experiences that they tend to feel deeper levels of compassion and love and humility in the face of other types of belief systems.

M&B: Although you are doing important studies about this topic, there are limitations too. You often talk about the limitations in both the scientific quest and religious understanding.

I think most religious belief systems feel that God is something which is infinite and all powerful and all knowing, and therefore as a human person, it’s very difficult, we’re very limited, and we really can only look at one very small aspect of what God or religion is all about. Therefore, we have to be aware of that limitation and recognize that all of us have limitations. So we’re all, in many ways, doing the best that we can with the belief systems that we have. But we also have to respect, I think, the other belief systems that other people may have because they may be looking at the same thing, but they may just be seeing it a little bit differently.

M&B: Would you give us an example?

I always liked the analogy of having different flies on an elephant, and then you ask each fly to describe an elephant. Well, the fly that is on the trunk is going to say something different than the one that’s on the tail, and different than one that’s on the tusk. And they’re all right, but they’re also all limited in how they’re looking at it. They’re not seeing the whole thing, and I think when we talk about ultimate reality, when we talk about God, these are such huge concepts that I think people really have to be very aware of and careful about the limitations that they are putting on those ideas, on the ideas as they understand them, and also recognize that everybody else is working with very similar kinds of limitations. Hopefully this will give us a little bit more sense of compassion for each other to realize that we’re really all kind of in the same boat, and we’re all kind of dealing with the same problems of trying to understand our world the best that we can.

M&B: There is also the limit of sensory experience.

Certainly, the biology of our brain speaks to that very issue. We miss so much of what comes into the brain, what gets up into our consciousness, and what we are aware of is so small relative to all the other things that are going on around us, that it really is very sobering I think. We think that we see the whole world and that we see it so clearly, and a lot of the research that has been done over the last 10 or 20 years shows that our view of the world is really very limited, and I think when you extent that to religion and spirituality it really makes, at least me, pause and say well maybe we really need to be a little bit more aware of what those limitations are about. On one hand it’s great that we can have a spiritual or religious view about our world, but lets keep it in the understanding of what the limitations that our own mind, our own brain, impose upon that ability to think about that and to act upon it and understand it in the right way.

M&B: To summarize, what would be the role of science and spirituality in understanding the ultimate reality?

On one hand, science offers these wonderful tools to try to get at what is out there. On the other hand, religion and spirituality offer a path towards getting beyond the self. I think we really need to look at those experiences in which the person feels that they get beyond the subjective and objective nature of what the world is all about and look at it from a whole different perspective. However, our sense of religion, spirituality, and God, that is ultimately processed through the functions of the human brain. In that regard, the human brain actually in some ways constricts our ability because the universe and God are very, very big concepts, and we as human beings are very finite and very mortal in terms of how we think about the world. We can’t look at the whole world. We can’t look at the entire universe, and we can’t look at all of God. We can look at a very specific aspect of them. Therefore, the human brain actually constrains how we think about religion, how we think about God, and how we make sense of that.

M&B: So in a sense, we get a glimpse of the unlimited in our limitedness.

We really are trapped within our own mind, we’re trapped within our own consciousness, and we have a long way to go, I think, to be able to get beyond the human brain and in many ways, to have the brain get outside of itself to take a look at and really be able to know what is out there in reality.