Medical alumnus and faculty member Dr. Andrew Newberg probes deep inside the brain in a quest to understand faith.

By Beth Kephart | Illustration by Phung Huynh
Excerpt | God and Apple Pie


Andrew Newberg M’93 was the boy from suburban Philadelphia, who wanted to know—and was encouraged to ask—about all those things that disturb our dreams and inspire our poets. Why are we here? How do we understand the world and its many realities? How does the body work? And the brain? What goes on in there? 
   “I think I recognized, pretty early on, that if we are going to understand how we come to know the world, we are going to have to understand how the brain works,” says Newberg, now director of clinical nuclear medicine and neuroPET research and an assistant professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, as he looks back on the childhood that shaped him. And so he wondered and he read, thought about his own Jewish tradition, went off to college and kept on reading, expanded his repertoire to Hinduism and Buddhism, to philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Heidegger.
   By the time he reached Penn’s medical school in 1988, Newberg was a confirmed questioner and an admitted idealist—a man who hoped to help others through medicine, a man still hot on the trail of life’s most fundamental conundrums.
   A bit more than a decade later, Newberg is coauthor of Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief, an exhilaratingly well-written and philosophically sophisticated work of science and religion, which was published in April. Hopes are high for the book, with a healthy first-run printing of 35,000 American editions—an Italian translation is already in the works, too—and a dozen-city author tour by Newberg.
Why God Won’t Go Away courts comparisons with the work of such popular scientist-writers as Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eiseley, and Daniel Schacter. Newberg has the knack for making hard things easy. He asks the kinds of questions that are compelling to a culture increasingly drawn to questions of spirituality and health and their interconnection. He is self-effacing and gentlemanly—nice, to boot. His formative enthusiasm and innate curiosity are ever present, ever apparent on a face that is still boyish, still full of spark.
   It was in 1991, while he was still in medical school, that Newberg met Dr. Eugene d’Aquili M’66 G’81, the man who would help him both broaden and deepen the intellectual journey he’d been taking on his own since childhood. A psychiatrist in private practice as well as a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Penn, d’Aquili was also a widely respected polymath with a master’s degree in anthropology from the University in addition to his medical degree. His passion and obsession lay in understanding ritual and spiritual experience, and since the mid-1970s, he’d been using all the theoretical tools at his disposal to get at the heart of the matter. 
   A collaboration of sorts was born. Every week or so the two would get 
together for lunch or dinner and talk. d’Aquili would give Newberg the material he’d written—one book called Biogenetic Structuralism, another called Spectrum of Ritual, a proliferation of articles for Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science—and Newberg would read, synthesize, offer questions and ideas. “It was sort of a strange kind of research,” Newberg says, smiling, his modesty disarming. “We’d have a meal together. We’d talk. We’d write a paper on our conversation.” 
   At the same time, Newberg was working in Penn’s nuclear-medicine department, learning how to take scans of the heart, the liver, the kidney, and other body parts—and studying the power of brain imaging. It wasn’t long before he recognized that the empirical brain imaging work he was doing in the nuclear-medicine department could be a marvelous adjunct to the theoretical models he and d’Aquili had been developing to depict how the brain works during spiritual experiences. Blending the two approaches gave their work a new edge, a distinctive and original component.
  “There were already a lot of studies showing that the prefrontal cortex is activated when people are focusing,” Newberg explains. “So Gene and I said, ‘Okay, during meditation, people are focusing their attention and, therefore, they are probably, at least in part, activating their prefrontal cortex during that time.’ But we also believe that the brain is more complicated than that, that religious experiences can’t be isolated to a single area. Religious experience involves a lot of different aspects of our thoughts, our emotions, our cognitions, and neuroimaging helps us look at what is happening.”

Why God Won’t Go Away, which provides, among other things, an in-depth look at just what happens to the brain during a religious experience, is the popularized version of The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, a dense thicket of a book Newberg and d’Aquili completed in 1998, just prior to d’Aquili’s sudden death from a massive heart attack. It was Newberg’s idea to reach out to a lay audience with a far more accessible book—and his great good fortune to find Vince Rause, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, whose background in brain sciences, enthusiasm for the material, and talent with the English language are profoundly reflected in the final product.

Why God Won’t Go Away reads more like a story than it does a distillation of research. It wanders into cultural, sociological, philosophical, and (in the final pages) political realms that feel daring and—though Newberg insists that he hopes the book won’t stir too much ire—innately controversial. The book begins by introducing readers to Robert, one of the 11 research subjects Newberg has studied using neuroimaging tools. Robert is a devout Buddhist, an accomplished practitioner of Tibetan meditation who is, as the book opens, “about to begin another meditative voyage inward.”
   As always, his goal is to quiet the constant chatter of the conscious mind and lose himself in the deeper, simpler reality within. It’s a journey he’s made a thousand times before, but this time, as he drifts off into that inner spiritual reality—as the material world around him recedes like a fading dream—he remains tethered to the physical here and now by a length of common twine. That twine, we soon learn, is what Robert will tug on once he has reached the “transcendent peak” of spiritual intensity.

Newberg and SPECT camera: Revealing the mind’s “machinery of transcendence.” Photo by Candace diCarlo

When Newberg feels that tug he injects Robert with a radioactive material, waits for Robert’s meditation to end, then wheels him down the hall to where a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera is waiting to take pictures of Robert’s brain. The purpose? “We hope that by monitoring Robert’s brain activity at the most intense and mystical moments of his meditation, we might shed some light on the mysterious connections between human consciousness and the persistent and peculiarly human longing to connect with something larger than ourselves.”
Why God Won’t Go Away pivots around the hypothesis that biology, as the authors put it, “compels the spiritual urge.” It takes readers through the biology of belief and the machinery and architecture of the brain; hearkens back to Joseph Campbell with a discussion about the human compulsion to fabricate and carry forward myths; explores myriad facets of a wide variety of rituals; and muses over the many mysteries of reality and our perception of it. The book asks, in other words, the more grown-up version of the questions Newberg started asking as a five-year-old child in an intellectually nurturing home: Are human beings biologically compelled to make myths? What is the neurological secret behind the power of ritual? Are the transcendent visions and insights of the great religious mystics based on mental or emotional delusions, or are they the result of coherent sensory perceptions shaped by the proper neurological functioning of sound, healthy minds? Could evolutionary factors such as sexuality and mating have influenced the development of religious ecstasy?
    Heady questions, certainly, but in his loose white lab coat and with his open, infectious laugh, Newberg conveys the impression, most of all, that he is having a whole lot of fun. “I love this stuff,” he says at several points. “I love talking about it, love thinking about it, love working on it.” He’ll treat the interviewer as if she’s been provocative, asked something original, though she’s sure that he’s heard these questions countless times before. He’ll wade patiently through challenges, however subtle or overt. He’ll ask out loud if he’s answered the question thoroughly, then look for a metaphor or an analogy that will better do the trick. What Newberg will not do, however, is consent to any notion that his work is reductionistic, a claim that has been made, in some quarters, in the past.
    “People sometimes come up and say to me, ‘What you are really saying is that spiritual experiences are nothing but brain function,’” Newberg recounts. “What I say to them, and what you have to remember, is that all of our experiences are in some way associated with functions of the brain, and that the only possible way to perceive any fragment of any reality is through our brains—but this is not an entirely reductionistic perspective, and in our work, and in this book, we do in fact have a lot of sympathy for the spiritual side.” 
    A careful reading of Why God Won’t Go Away suggests that this is true. The authors, we come to understand, have not set out to prove or disprove God, to reason ecstasy away, to diminish the inexplicable power of connecting to or being with something greater than one’s self. One gets the sense, rather, that the authors are as wide-eyed about spiritualism as their readers may be, as entranced by its possibilities as by its gears and lubricants.
    “We believe that all mystical experiences, from the mildest to the most intense, have their biological roots in the mind’s machinery of transcendence,” they write at one point. “To say this in a slightly more provocative way, if the brain were not assembled as it is, we would not be able to experience a higher reality, even if it did exist.” The authors go on to show that evolution alone cannot explain this so-called machinery of transcendence, leaving the question wide open for the reader to decide: Did a Higher Being design the brain so that it would be capable of perceiving and receiving the Higher Being? Or did the brain merely evolve on its own into a marvel of neurons, neural networks, and splashes of electrochemical energy that calculate out, under certain circumstances, into a feeling of transcendence?
    Will Why God Won’t Go Away electrify readers? Discourage? Inspire? Alienate? Calm? Appease? Will it spark debate or merely fill a void? Newberg is hoping, most of all, that the book will enlighten, that it will integrate science and spirituality for readers, that it will strengthen the platform upon which readers might draw conclusions—on their own—about matters of soul and destiny. Spiritual readers will, he hopes, gain new appreciation for the science of the brain. Scientists will be encouraged to consider spirituality as one more essential access path toward understanding our multilayered reality.
    “I think it is helpful for a person to understand the neuroscience of their brain,” Newberg says. “I think it enhances one’s knowledge about the religious practices one participates in, it makes spirituality that much more real. I want to give readers the language with which to speak about the spiritual experiences they might be having, to talk about them in a more scientific way. That doesn’t mean that some of the findings here might not destroy someone’s religious perspective, but that certainly has not been my purpose.”
    So what does happen to the brain when it is in the thrall of a transcendent experience? The scan of Robert’s brain (as well as the brains of seven other Tibetan meditators and three Franciscan nuns at prayer) pointed to unusual activity in a small knob of gray matter known as the posterior superior parietal lobe, an area the authors also refer to as the orientation association area, or OAA. The known purpose of this knob is to orient the individual in physical space, a job it performs by drawing, in the words of the authors, “a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.”

Typically (and thankfully) we are unaware of the work this knob is doing—unaware that it is furiously and seamlessly sorting the billions of nerve impulses coming at it from all parts of our body so as to keep us oriented in the world. The posterior superior parietal lobe is a hectic, hyper-efficient, warp-speed kind of place, countless times busier than any New York subway station at rush hour, and in the normal state of mind, SPECT scans reveal it to be “furiously” active, characterized by bright zones of yellows and reds. But scans taken of meditating subjects like Robert show the area to be not red or yellow but cool blue and green, colors that, according to Newberg, indicate a sharp reduction in activity level.
    In considering what might be causing this, Newberg and d’Aquili alighted on an intriguing possibility: that the orientation association area had stopped receiving the incoming flow of sensory information, that that information had, in fact, been blocked. 
    “What would happen if the OAA had no information upon which to work?” they write. “Would it continue to search for the limits of the self? With no information flowing in from the senses, the OAA wouldn’t be able to find any boundaries. What would the brain make of that? Would the orientation area interpret its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that such a distinction doesn’t exist? In that case, the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.”
    This is exactly how Robert and generations of mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments. One wonders what all this probing into the brain and the rituals that excite it has done to Newberg’s own sense of faith and religious purpose. Is he hyperaware of his own brain functions when he sits in a temple?
    Surprisingly, Newberg claims that he has not been changed, in any major or overt way, by the research that he’s doing. He is still a Reform Jew attending synagogue on the important holidays. He is still intrigued by Eastern practices of meditation. What has changed, he says, is his level of appreciation for the aliveness of his own mind. What has deepened is his respect for the way the brain receives reality.
    “This question reminds me of a brain imaging study in which concert pianists and normal controls were scanned while listening to music,” Newberg says. “The pianists activated the left side of their brain because they understood the music from a technical perspective. The controls activated the right side of their brain because they were simply listening to enjoy it. Both groups get great pleasure out of the music even though one understands the more technical aspects regarding pitch, tone, rhythm, etc. I guess I feel the same way, which is that understanding the biology only seems to enhance the experience for me because I realize how remarkable it is to actually be able to have the experience in the first place.”
    But what conclusion has the man who has watched the mind transcend in laboratory studies drawn about the force, if there is one, beyond himself? Does Newberg, at the end of the day, believe there is a God who designed a brain capable of receiving and perceiving Him?
    “Well,” Newberg answers honestly, neither pompous nor apologetic, not angry, either, at the audacity of the question, “I still don’t know.”
    Are you still looking for that answer, or has science left you with the sense that it will always be impossible to answer that question?
    “I’m still pursuing that question, too,” he says. “I’m not certain that science directly will ever answer the question, but I am, like I said, still in pursuit.”
    Have any of your childhood questions been answered, then?
    “I don’t think any of my childhood questions have been answered fully.” Newberg smiles, his eyes still sparkling after close to two hours of conversation, explanation, journalistic grilling. “But I’m getting closer.”
    Do you think they will be answered in your lifetime?
    “I hope so. I think so.”
    What will you teach your one-year-old daughter to believe? What questions will you encourage her to ask?
    “Oh,” Newberg says, pausing, rubbing his eyes a little, suddenly looking just the slightest bit tired, which is not at all what the interviewer had in mind.
    “That’s a very difficult question. That one is really hard.” He stops, looks into the vague middle distance, shakes his head, then begins. “It is my belief that every person has to find out what makes the most sense for him or her. I would raise my child with the traditions I am familiar with and used to because those are the traditions I know work best for me. But I would certainly encourage her to ask questions, to pursue her own path. If she found that the path I’ve suggested to her works well for her, that would be great. But if she wants to pursue something else, I would be open to that, too.
    “Because I think, in the end, that we all have to believe in something. Even if you are an atheist you have to believe in the world being here. You always have to take something on faith, you always do. And for many that faith is called God.”


Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of A Slant of Sun and Into the Tangle of Friendship. She is at work on a new book about El Salvador.


EXCERPT

The idea that our experience of reality—all our experiences, for that matter—are only “secondhand” depictions of what may or may not be objectively real, raises some profound questions about the most basic truths of human existence and the neurological nature of spiritual experience. For example, our experiment with Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns showed that the events they considered spiritual were, in fact, associated with observable neurological activity. In a reductionist sense, this could support the argument that religious experience is only imagined neurologically, that God is physically “all in your mind.” But a full understanding of the way in which the brain and mind assemble and experience reality suggests a very different view.
    Imagine, for instance, that you are the subject of a brain imaging study. As part of this study, you have been asked to eat a generous slice of homemade apple pie. As you enjoy the pie, the brain scans capture images of the neurological activity in the various processing areas of the brain where input from your senses is being turned into specific neural perceptions that add up to the experience of eating the pie: olfactory areas register the delightful aroma of apples and cinnamon, visual areas perceive the sight of the golden brown crust, centers of touch perceive the complex mix of crunchy and gooey textures, and the rich, sweet, satisfying flavors are processed in the areas responsible for taste. The SPECT brain scan would show all this activity in the same way that it revealed the brain activity of the Buddhists and the nuns, as blotches of bright colors on the scanner’s computer screen. In a literal sense, the experience of eating the pie is all in your mind, but that doesn’t mean the pie is not real, or that it is not delicious. 


Excerpted from Why God Won’t Go Away, by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D’Aquili, M.D., Ph.D., and Vince Rause. Copyright 2001 by Andrew Newberg, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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