What would it be like to peer into the brain of a Buddhist meditating, a Franciscan nun in deep prayer, a Pentecostal devotee speaking in tongues or an atheist contemplating the concept of God?
It sounds like the setup to a clever joke, but it's actually the foundation for research being conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He's one of the founders of a field called neurotheology, which studies the intersection of faith and the brain -- and asks some profound questions that some might consider blasphemous.
Newberg is the author of a new book, "Why We Believe What We Believe," which asks questions such as: How do we know what's real? How do we know if we have an experience of God, that God is really out there, or whether it is nothing more than just what is in the neural inner workings of our brain?
In the book, Newberg analyzes the brain scans of people in deep meditation and others that speak in tongues -- people undergoing what he calls "mystical experiences" -- to try and answer these questions and to trace the impact of faith in the brain.
He first looked at devout Buddhists, comparing their brain activity before, and then during deep meditation.
"When our Buddhist meditators were focusing on this visual, sacred object, a couple of things happened in their brain. One is that they activated their frontal lobe. The frontal lobe, right behind the forehead, is what helps us to focus our attention on whatever we're doing," Newberg said.
At the same time, of the parietal lobe -- the part of the brain that gives us our orientation or sense of self -- Newberg said, "What we had predicted was that if people lose their sense of self, and lose their sense of space and time during a practice, that they would actually be blocking the sensory information that comes into that area, so that it can't do its normal job. So that area goes dark. And that's exactly what we saw in our Buddhist meditators."
Newberg found a similar loss of self with Franciscan nuns, who claim prayer helps them feel at peace and at one with God.
Believers in God might argue this decrease in the sense of self is the gap in the brain where God entered.
The fundamentally nonscientific question this begs is, can this technology help prove or disprove ultimately the existence of God?
"I hope it does. I don't know if it will. But I hope it does," the soft-spoken doctor said with a slight smile on his face.
Newberg's study of Pentecostals speaking in tongues produced a slightly different result.
Donna Morgan, a middle-aged African-American and devout Pentecostal Christian who's been speaking in tongues for many years, speaks openly about her faith and about the centuries-old practice of speaking in tongues.
It's thought by its practitioners to be a gift from God.
"You knew that the presence of God was there. It was just fantastic," said Morgan, who agreed to let Newberg scan her brain.
Newberg introduced a harmless radioactive tracer dye in her bloodstream and first scanned her singing in English.
Then the process was repeated as Morgan began speaking in tongues. It sounded like gibberish -- more like a jazz musician's improvisation or "scat" than a recognizable language.
Remarkably, unlike the meditators and the nuns, Morgan's frontal lobe became dark. In other words, she didn't seem to be focused on her unusual speech at all.