Faith in the Brain

A UPenn scientist uses brain scans to see the impact of faith on the brain.


May 10, 2007 — -- 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.

Could this validate her claim that God is speaking through her?

"They're not focusing their attention. In fact, if anything, their attention kind of goes out the window, because they feel like they're being taken over, by something else -- in this case by the spirit of God," Newberg said.

Morgan didn't need a scan to be fully convinced.

"At that moment, I know that I'm in the presence of God and that the Holy Ghost is making intercession for me."

However, nonbelievers might look at the same brain scans and say the results are just neurons firing in the brain. Margaret Downey is a devout atheist and president of Atheist Alliance International. She agreed to have her brain scanned by Newberg.

Downey is passionate about her atheism.

"The reason I became an atheist is that all the questions I had about religion -- about God -- were left unanswered, and all the evidence I asked for have never appeared to me," she said.

Downey, who has studied religion since she was a child and read the Bible cover to cover, meditated about the concept of God.

So, is the brain of an atheist different from the brain of a believer?

"We have actually found some evidence that there are differences between people who are very religious or spiritual, and people who are nonreligious," said Newberg.

And Newberg said Downey's brain did seem different in the scan. Her center of focus didn't light up the way it did with nuns and Buddhists. Nor did it go dark like those speaking in tongues, which Newberg said can be interpreted to suggest that nonbelievers are born with different brain circuitry than believers. He believes people are hard-wired to have various types of spiritual and religious experiences.

"The brain certainly plays a part in that. There are certain people who are wired in ways that they are more willing to accept certain types of evidence, certain lines of arguments differently than other people," he said.

Regardless of whether the capacity to believe is built into our brains, it's clear that people's beliefs can change over time. Kenneth Kamler's did. He, like Newberg, is an medical doctor and a man of science.

Kamler, a New York hand surgeon, witnessed an extraordinary event on Mount Everest that changed his views on faith forever.

Local Nepalese Buddhist men, called sherpas, often act as porters and guides to people interest in climbing Mount Everest. On Kamler's first trip up to the highest place on Earth, one sherpa named Pasan was crossing a steep divide on a ladder when he had a terrible accident.

"He fell head first into a crevasse about, about 80 feet down, and he landed head first, and he was sort of wedged down there, refrigerated, in this crevasse for about half an hour before he could be pulled out," Kamler said.

Pasan was unconscious and his health deteriorated quickly -- his blood pressure dropped and his pupils stopped responding to light. Kamler knew his brain was bleeding.

"We were up on a glacier, we were three miles up in the air in below zero temperatures… The prognosis for the sherpa was not good at all," recalled Kamler.

Kamler watched helplessly as Pasan was surely slipping away. But then a group of sherpas in the medical tent made a circle around Pasan and they started to chant. Kamler described it as "a deep, low droning. Kind of a noise that seemed to emanate from within them and it was a, it had a very hypnotic effect."

Other sherpas outside the tent joined in the chanting.

"So it almost seemed as if that sound was emanating from the mountain itself. This kind of quadraphonic, all-surrounding sound coming from, it seemed to me, from within the depths of the mountain … it had a very powerful hypnotic effect on me to the point where I even wasn't even aware that I had changed Pasan's IV bottle until I looked up and saw that there was a new one there, and obviously it was me who changed it," Kamler recounted, his eyes wide.

The chanting continued through the night, and Pasan's pulse grew stronger.

"I very much felt like if the chanting stopped, my patient would die. I felt like he was living through that, that chanting. That was keeping him alive," Kamler continued. "After a while, his pupils started to react again. So he really had turned a corner, and I can't explain that in any medical way."

At dawn, the chanting stopped, and Pasan was able to speak. A helicopter rushed him to a hospital where the sherpa fully recovered.

Did the chanting somehow reverberate in Pasan's head and cause a physical healing? Or was he aware that his friends were praying for him, and did a "placebo effect" heal him?

Both Kamler and Newberg refuse to discount any explanation. Kamler now believes that there are things that happened to Pasan that may be beyond the understanding of medical science, and he's now open to the question of whether faith and prayer played a role in Pasan's recovery.

Both men believe the answers might lie somewhere between faith and science. After all his years of scientific research, Newberg is still unsure about the proof of God's existence.

"I think I still have the same level of uncertainty about God's existence… I think if anything it's probably deepened my appreciation for why people do believe in God and why that is such an important thing."