How Our Brains are Wired for Belief
Key West, Florida
Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in May 2008 for the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.
Recent advances in neuroscience and brain-imaging technology have offered researchers a look into the physiology of religious experiences. In observing Buddhist monks as they meditate, Franciscan nuns as they pray and Pentecostals as they speak in tongues, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that measurable brain activity matches up with the religious experiences described by worshippers. The social, political and religious implications of these and other findings are just beginning to permeate the broader culture, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has been tracking new developments in the field.
What does brain science add to age-old debates about the existence of God and the value of religion? Can political parties and religious groups use scientific insights to influence the beliefs of others? Are scientists as a group becoming more open to ideas of religion and spirituality? The Pew Forum invited Dr. Newberg and Mr. Brooks to raise these questions and share their insights with the journalists gathered in Key West.
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Navigate this transcript:
Q&A discussion topics:
Brain responses to “flip-flopping”
Does science reject the soul?
Is religious Darwinism valid?
Does neuroscience confirm religious belief?
What causes religious or political transformations?
Brain physiology in party politics
Is scientific materialism really in decline?
Should society prevent the spread of harmful beliefs?
Do unconscious drives negate free will?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Andrew Newberg is one of the leading neuroscientists in the country, at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. He has also written several books on why a belief in God persists. He is also now the second person in the history of these events to wear a tie. (Laughter.)
After we hear from Dr. Newberg, we’ll hear from David Brooks. But I give you now Andrew Newberg. Thank you, Doctor, for coming.
ANDREW NEWBERG: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. When I was first asked to talk, and obviously I was very excited about coming down here and sharing the work we’ve been doing, I said to Michael, “Can I bring some slides?” He paused for a minute, I don’t know –
CROMARTIE: It was me?
NEWBERG: I think so. (Chuckles.) It was funny because I was reflecting back to when I was first making some presentations on this stuff about eight years ago. We were coming out with some of our first data, and I was asked to give a presentation to our radiology department at Penn. I was in my office getting things together, and one of my colleagues came in and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m getting myself together for the talk.” He said “Are you using slides?” I said yes, I was going to use slides, and he said, “We’re all radiologists; you have to put a picture on every slide because that’s how we respond, everything is visual to us.” (Laughter.) So I realized the importance of that. Some of the images would be very difficult to explain to you without actually being able to see them.
This topic is obviously a huge area just ripe with so many different questions and ideas and thoughts. So I’m going to try to give you an overview of some of the work that’s been done, some of the areas we’re headed toward, and also try to tie it into the topics of this overall conference. That was also one of the things I struggled with. It’s great to think about what’s going on in the brain, it’s really interesting to say how does the brain help us when we’re becoming religious or political or whatever. But I wanted to try to tie that in as much as I could vis-à-vis some of the discussions taking place at the Key West conference, so I want to start off with just a couple of relevant comments. I’ll try to keep this in line with the rest of my presentation, but obviously, I heard a lot of conversation about Reverend Wright‘s ideas and this whole idea of the theology of the black church, the theology of liberation. This is the quote from Reverend Wright, “It is a theology of transformation, and it is ultimately a theology of reconciliation.”
Of course, I look at this not so much from a political perspective but from the perspective of what does all this mean? Where does our sense of liberation come from, if we’re going to talk about that? How do we know if we are free, and if we are, how do we know when we are and when we aren’t? If we’re talking about transformation, how do we change ourselves? And if we’re talking about reconciliation, we’re talking about how do we reconcile ourselves with other people. How do we forgive other people?
Again, I take it one step further from a neuroscience perspective and ask, how does the brain tell us when we are free? What goes on within us that the brain says to us “Yes, you’re okay, you can do whatever you want to do,” or “No, this is not okay?” How does our brain actually change or transform? This is a critical issue if we’re going to change the views of a voter, if we’re going to change a person’s religion. If one of these things happens to a person, something’s got to be changing in the brain as well. So how do we look at that? How do we understand that? How do we understand what the brain can do?
I wrote, with my colleague, a paper on forgiveness and revenge several years ago, about what would be the neuropsychological correlates of that. It becomes very interesting: how we think about ourselves, how we have a construction of ourselves, and how that self relates to other individuals, and how we reconcile when somebody has injured or harmed us. This is part of how I can tie in some of the topics I’ll be covering with some of the topics that have been more broadly discussed here at Key West.
Keeping in line with the Reverend Wright issue, this was another quote that came from him. I’m sure most of you have seen this, but let me just read this: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America; that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human; God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God, and she is supreme.”
The first question I want to ask all of you, from a neuroscience perspective, is how does this make you feel? What is your response, and what’s going on inside of you as you begin to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, because there are a number of different responses that can take place. Obviously, as a lot of us have discussed, it can invoke anger and fear in you, and that’s something we tend to attribute to the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system, and we’ll talk about this a little bit later.
Does it invoke thoughts in which you want to rationalize and try to understand where is this coming from, and ask what does it mean, and how does this affect us on a political landscape, in which case the abstract areas of your brain – your temporal lobes and your parietal lobes – would start to work. Does this invoke some empathy and compassion in you, a desire to understand where this is coming from in terms of history-a lot of people have looked at compassion as originating in parts of the frontal lobes. So again, it’s not just looking at this from a particular political perspective, but what you can say about how it affects each one of us physiologically?
We were talking about this at lunch: There have been some studies that have looked at political perspectives, trying to understand what happens in the brain of people who are Republicans and the brains of people who are Democrats. We talked about some of this, and I’d just highlight a couple of interesting studies. One was an fMRI study, which is a magnetic resonance imaging that looks at blood flow and activity in the brain, and it showed that people who scored higher on liberalism tended to be associated with stronger what they called conflict-related anterior cingulate activity. Now, what that means is, you have a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate, which helps you mediate when things are in conflict with the way you already believe.
The researchers then interpreted this, and we can go into all the questions about how should we interpret these studies. People who had greater liberalism seemed to do better or were more sensitive to altering some habitual response pattern, implying that they were more open to change, more open to other ideas, more open to conflict, than people who scored lower on liberalism. Does that mean something about people who consider themselves to be liberals versus conservatives, Republicans versus Democrats?
Of course all people, regardless of what their particular perspectives are, when they’re viewing their own candidate, that has a different effect in their brain than when they are viewing a candidate from the opposite party. When you’re looking at somebody from the opposite party, or thinking about them, it tends to activate the amygdala, the limbic areas, again, that tend to trigger more of an emotional response, whereas when you’re looking at people who are concordant with your views and beliefs, that tends to activate some of the areas of the frontal lobe and also that anterior cingulate that helps you mediate your conflict-resolution powers.
This is just a broad overview. I threw this in to put this into a little bit of perspective, but what does this mean in terms of why should we do this? Sometimes when I give a presentation such as this, I feel it’s valid to try to justify exactly why this research is important. I think it is important on a number of different levels. In particular, it helps us to deepen our understanding of who we are as human beings, how the human mind works, and how the human person works. It helps us understand not only how it affects us, but also how we might be able to mediate those effects and alter those effects over time. So this helps us understand a deeper relationship between religion and spirituality, and its effects on individuals as well as on society.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this whole area is more philosophical, more theological, and thinking about what does this mean in terms of how we believe in religion, and the religious beliefs that people hold. Does this tell us something about those beliefs and experiences? When somebody has the experience of being in God’s presence, and we can get a brain scan of that, what does that mean, what does that say, and how can we interpret that either for religion, against religion, or in some other alternative perspective of simply just trying to understand it better?
Now, beliefs themselves have a tremendous power over us, and I look at this all the time in the context of the placebo effect. This is very relevant to the healthcare professions I work with, how people believe things are going to happen, what their beliefs are about their health and the things they need to do – it’s critical. Unfortunately, I think the healthcare system severely overlooks how beliefs have power over what happens to somebody. I’m sure probably all of you know somebody who’s dealt with a severe medical problem, maybe cancer or heart disease. We have always noted, at least anecdotally, that when people have that spirit and drive to get better, they seem to have a much higher likelihood of doing that, whereas those who are ready to give up tend not to do that well. That also goes to the importance of how beliefs affect our whole body, not just the brain itself.
Certainly all of you are well aware of the importance of beliefs in the context of the media, and how we can be influenced by various forces and stimuli and ideas that come into us, in terms of how they are presented, and visually presented, and what is being said. All of this has an impact on our culture and our political and moral beliefs. Of course, we can also look at religious and spiritual beliefs, which is what I will try to focus my talk on throughout the day here.
I always try to come at this from a philosophical perspective. Why do we believe anything at all?
From a neuroscience perspective, if this slide here is supposed to represent everything that exists, everything out there in reality, then somewhere within that is each one of us, and each one of our brains, floating around, so to speak, trying to take in a huge amount of information. It is an infinite universe for all intents and purposes. We are able to be subjected to only a very, very small amount of that information. Obviously there is tons of stuff going on in Key West right now, but we are only able to perceive and understand what is going on around us right now in this room.
Now, unfortunately, an even smaller amount of that information is ultimately put into your consciousness. I’m sure all of you have given presentations before and probably way-back-when, you were taught how to give presentations. One of the most important things everybody always says is figure out what your take-home points are. Why? Because if you talk to somebody for 45 minutes, they are going to remember maybe three or four things. It is a depressing thought if you are giving a presentation to people, but that is the way it is, that our brain’s consciousness can only hold onto that very small amount of information. So when we talk about Obama’s speeches or anybody’s speeches, what do we really remember? That is the nice thing nowadays about the Internet: We have the transcript. We can go back and look at each specific thing. But even with that, when we actually go back and recollect what was said and how it affected us, we are usually talking about a very small amount of information that we actually hold onto.
So our brain is trying to put together a construction of our reality, a perspective on that reality, which we rely on heavily for our survival, for figuring out how to behave and how to act and how to vote. But again, the brain is filling in a lot of gaps and helping us think certain things that may or may not really be there. That is the benefit of having the transcripts these days because you might say, “That is what this guy said.” Then you go back to the transcript, and you say, “I guess he really didn’t say it that way, or it was taken out of context.” We have seen that being talked about a lot these days.
So what are beliefs? Again, I apologize, but I always come at this from a scientific perspective. I am defining beliefs biologically and psychologically as any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true. The reasons I define beliefs in this way are several-fold. One is that we can begin to look at the various components that make up our beliefs. We can talk about our perceptions. We can talk about our cognitive processes. We can talk about how our emotions affect our beliefs. And we can also look at how they ultimately affect us. Are we aware of the beliefs we hold? Or are they unconscious? And which ones are unconscious and which ones are conscious?
Several interesting studies have shown that when you show faces of a person of a different race to people, it activates the amygdala, the area that lights up when something of motivational importance happens to us. But if you show pictures of people of a different race that are people they know, and maybe it is a famous person or a friend, then the amygdala doesn’t light up. So they tend to have this ability to culturally, cognitively overcome what might be their initial response. That becomes important because now they go out into the world and respond to things. There may be certain unconscious approaches they take to the world, or certain unconscious beliefs they hold, that may have a deep impact on what they do, and how they behave, and how they think, and how they vote.
We can look at all these different forces on our beliefs. We can look at our perceptual processes, our cognitive processes, the emotions we have, the social interactions we have, to see how beliefs are so heavily influenced. One of the take-home points I always hope to get across is that as much as we hold onto our own beliefs very strongly – and I think it is appropriate for us to do so – we also have to keep in mind they are far more tenuous than we often like to believe.
Let me go through some of these processes in a bit more detail. Let’s talk about our perceptions. The brain is out there, as I said, trying to interpret all of this information. It is trying to take in a huge amount of information and make some coherent picture of the world for us. But, unfortunately, the brain makes lots of mistakes along the way. The most important problem with that is it doesn’t bother to tell us when it does make a mistake. We just go along happily as if we really understand everything going on around us even though the brain is really misperceiving things very drastically.
I have here a couple of visual illusions, and some of you may have seen them before, but I’ll just show you a couple of my favorites. One of them is this one.
Hopefully you see these lines appear to be curved. They seem to be expanding, like a little bubble coming toward you. Now, I spent a good half hour on this with a ruler. Every one of these lines is exactly parallel or perpendicular. They are all straight lines. And even though I know this, and even though I am telling you this right now, there is no way you can make your brain see this other than the way it does. So clearly your brain is shaping the way you see the world and doing it in a way that is inaccurate. Yet it is telling you that you are seeing it correctly. There is no way to convince yourself otherwise.
This one is a movement illusion. Everybody likes this one. This is a three-dimensional mask that looks as if it is coming toward you. But as you focus on it, you realize you are looking at the interior part. So it is going away from you. Yet sometimes, it seems to come toward you. It is not until it turns all the way around that you are able to perceive it the right way. So again, if our world is moving past us at much greater speeds than this, and this last illusion was stable, you can imagine how much we mishear and misinterpret. If we are listening to a speech, if we are thinking about an idea, if a friend is telling us something, how well are we really doing at gathering that information out there? How easy is it for us to be manipulated in terms of the beliefs we hold?
Now we move over to the cognitive functions of the brain. I had a conversation with somebody about this earlier. We were talking about the relationship between the heart and the head when we make decisions. Of course we use cognitive processes to make decisions and help us decide things about the beliefs we should hold. We use various parts of our brain to do that. So when we think about the environment, when we think about the abortion issue, as we were talking about earlier, what cognitive processes do we bring to bear on this? Do we bring causal functions? Maybe we think, “What is causing global warming to occur?” Obviously nowadays we have a fairly strong sense as to what that is, but for a long time, there was a lot of debate. What was causing it – is it our activities? Is it our carbon dioxide? Is it coming from something else? And what is this ultimately going to cause? To some extent, we don’t really know that. We don’t know how much resiliency there is in the earth’s environment.
That raises all kinds of questions. How much should we assume we can understand about the cause and effect of what we are doing today? Can we start to think about the evaluation of opposites? This is something our brain loves to do. We don’t really like the gray areas in the world. We like to be Republican or Democrat. We like to be right or wrong, moral or immoral. As I’m sure all of you are aware, that isn’t the way the world is. But our brain likes us to slot things one way or another. So we tend to construct our beliefs around these different cognitive processes of our brain, and it helps us find proofs for those beliefs. It also helps us to maintain our beliefs. So if we happen to be a Democrat, then when we look at the various issues and information that come down the road, we evaluate them from the perspective of the belief system we start out with, and we start to use our rational, logical processes to argue for the information that is supportive of our beliefs or against the information that might go against our beliefs.
All of this comes into play when we talk about our memory and how our memory remembers what we think and feel. Most studies have shown how drastically inadequate our memory is, as much as we like to think it is reminding us exactly about whatever happened to us back then and how it affected us. We certainly see the problems when memory goes wrong. These areas of the brain all seem to be involved in these processes.
We talk about the parietal lobe, which is very involved in abstract reasoning and quantization. Parts of the parietal lobe are involved in helping us orient our self in the world and establishing a relationship between our self and the rest of the world. The temporal lobe, which is along the side of the brain; the cortex areas help us to understand language; and the inner parts of the temporal lobe are where our limbic system is – I’ll talk about that in just a second – that helps us with understanding our emotional responses to whatever stimuli are out there in the world.
The frontal lobe helps us with our behaviors and executive functions, the functions of deciding what we need to do: what we’re going to do tomorrow, keeping our schedule, keeping our checkbook, and so forth, while also mediating our emotional responses. There is a push-pull between our frontal lobe and limbic system that can get out of whack sometimes. If we get overly emotional, our frontal lobes shut down, and if we become over-logical, our emotional areas shut down. There is a lot of push and pull that goes on in these different parts of the brain.
Emotions are also important for placing value on beliefs. So it’s not just that we feel we should do something for the environment, it’s not just that we feel we should be a Republican or a Democrat, but we start to imbue those choices with emotions. We feel strongly about the ways in which we believe, and of course this can help us form beliefs. When you’re listening to a speech by somebody you agree with, it probably makes you feel emotionally good. And if you’re listening to a speech of somebody you don’t like, it makes you feel emotionally bad, and then you’re much less likely to remember the bad speech, or you’re much more likely to reject that because of the emotional responses it puts into you.
The downside of our emotions can be in how they help us defend our beliefs. There has been a lot of research looking at when people start to feel combative and antagonistic toward people who disagree with them. This can be how we start to see religious conflicts occur throughout the world: It is not just that people disagree with each other, but that they get emotional about it. They start to feel hatred. They start to feel anger, and that can foment all kinds of antagonism, and ultimately lead to violence, which is obviously a big problem for how we deal with the differences in our beliefs.
The emotional areas of the brain are in part of the brain called the limbic system, which is embedded in the more interior parts of the brain.
Here is that amygdala I was talking about, which tends to light up whenever something of motivational importance happens to us. The hippocampus, which is right behind that, helps to regulate our beliefs, but also helps to regulate our emotions and write into our memories the ideas that come about from emotionally salient events. That is why we all remember exactly what was happening to us on September 11, 2001, but very few of you probably remember what happened on September 10, unless it had some emotional value to you like a birthday or an anniversary or something important happening in your life. You went through the day, but you don’t remember anything that happened that day. You do remember a lot of what happened on September 11.
As we were talking earlier today, the social milieu we are in becomes very important in influencing our beliefs. We are continuously influenced by those around us. This goes all the way back to when we are a child and the influence of our parents helps us form our initial beliefs, which write into our brain at a very early age the beliefs we carry with us throughout our lives. That is why it is difficult to change your religious beliefs. It is difficult to even change your political beliefs as time goes on. If you look at the large population, very few people ultimately do change their beliefs in any very dramatic way because those are written very deeply into our brain at very early ages. But ultimately, as we do grow up, we can be influenced, and we can change those beliefs, and that is part of what we have to look at: exactly how and why this happens.
So how do these beliefs form physiologically, and what does this tell us about religious and spiritual ideas, and why religion and spirituality are so ingrained in so many individuals and have been in every culture and every time? There are a couple of statements I like to use. One is that neurons that fire together, wire together. There is physiological support for that, that the more you use a particular pathway of neurons, the more strongly they become connected to each other. There are chemical messengers and other support neurons that do that. Think very simplistically back to how you remember that one plus two equals three. When you were a kid in school, you said, “One plus two equals three, one plus two equals three,” and ultimately that pathway got written down. The pathway “One plus two equals four” got eliminated from the brain. It did exist at one point, but you got rid of it. We prune back a lot of the neural connections we have as a child, so we ultimately go forward in our lives with a set of parameters through which we look at the world.
The other idea about neurons is the old use-it-or-lose-it concept, that when you stop thinking about certain things, when you stop focusing on something, then those connections go away. We all probably took courses in college we remembered a lot of at the time, but if we are not doing it anymore, then we don’t remember it anymore. I took a great course in Russian history: It was wonderful, and I learned all kinds of stuff about the history of Russia and all the czars, but I would be lucky if I could name two or three czars for you right now. But if you ask me about the neurotransmitters in the brain and the different receptor subtypes, I could do a pretty good job recalling that because I use that every single day.
How do we begin to invoke that? The practices and rituals that exist within both religious and non-religious groups become a strong and powerful way to write these ideas into our brain. Again, go back to the idea that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you focus on a particular idea, whether it is political or religious or athletic, the more that gets written down into your brain and the more that becomes your reality. So that is why when you go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque, and they repeat the same stories, and you celebrate the same holidays that reinforce that, you do the prayers, and you say these things over and over again, those are the neural connections that get stimulated and strengthened. That is a strong part of why religion and spirituality make use of various practices valuable for writing those beliefs strongly into who you are.
Let me present some of the data from the studies we have done. We have looked at a number of different religious and spiritual practices over the last decade or so. I am just going to present a couple of snippets from that.
These are a type of scan called a SPECT scan, which stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography. The SPECT scans look at blood flow in the brain. We capture a picture of a person’s brain when they are at rest or when they are in some kind of comparison state, and then when they are engaged in the practice, a practice like meditation, for example.
This is actually a slice through the brain. You are slicing through the brain, popping the top of the head off, and looking at what areas of the brain are the most active. The red areas are more active than what you see in the yellow, and then ultimately in the purple and the black areas. In this part of the brain called the frontal lobes, which I have labeled as an “attention area,” because it helps focus our attention, we see a lot more of this red activity while the person is actively engaged in meditation than when the person is in the baseline state.
In the normal waking state, which was the baseline state, there is still a fair amount of activity in the frontal lobes because you have to be ready to attend to whatever is going on around you. But it is activated that much more when the person does this particular practice. I mentioned earlier the parietal lobe, which often functions as the orienting part of the brain. We have argued in some of our hypotheses that when people engage in these practices in a very deep way, they do two things. First, you are focusing on something, usually it is a sacred object or an image or something like that, but, second, you also screen out irrelevant information. As you do this, more and more information that normally goes to the orienting parts of your brain doesn’t go there. So it keeps trying to give you a sense of your self, an orientation of that self in the world, but it no longer has the information upon which to do that.
And if you look at the orientation area, it goes dramatically down in its activity during the meditation practice. It is mostly yellow and just a little bit of red, compared to what you see in the normal waking state. So this area of the brain becomes much less active. We think this is part of what is associated with somebody losing that sense of self. They feel at one with God, at one with their spiritual mantra, whatever it is they are looking at. This was a group of Tibetan Buddhist meditators.
We also looked Franciscan nuns in prayer. We saw some interesting similarities and differences. The nuns were doing a prayer called centering prayer, which is kind of meditation. They were focusing on a particular phrase or prayer. It is much more verbally based, I guess, than the meditation of the Tibetans. Again, one of the similarities we saw was a fair amount of increase in this red activity in the frontal lobes. So they activated their frontal lobes as they were focusing on this particular prayer or phrase from the Bible.
They also activated the IPL or parietal lobe area. There is a much bigger glob of red in the prayer scan than what you see in the baseline scan. This is part of that verbal conceptual area in the temporal lobes, in the parietal lobes, that helps us think about abstract ideas and language. We didn’t see this in the Buddhist meditators, who had a more visual practice.
But we did see a similarity of decreases of activity in this orienting part of the brain; again, it’s all more yellow with just a little bit of red, compared to what we saw in the original baseline state.
One of the more recent studies we did, which was very interesting, was a study of Pentecostals speaking in tongues. This was a much more exciting study for me because when you’re looking at people who are meditating or in deep prayer, they’re just sitting there and all the exciting stuff is going on inside, whereas when people are speaking in tongues all the exciting part is on the outside. Since I had never seen it before, I was actually pretty terrified as to what would happen. (Laughter.) Part of it is I have to know when to give the people this injection of radioactive material – we can talk about some of the details of this later on. (Laughter.) They don’t know that I’m doing it, so I had to know when to do it.
We had to come up with a different baseline because obviously if I showed you a person’s scan while he or she was simply resting quietly, versus up and about and dancing and singing in tongues, of course you would see all kinds of changes in the brain.
So the comparison state here was doing gospel-singing worship. They were up and about, dancing around, singing in English, compared to up and about, dancing around, singing but singing in tongues. One of the most interesting findings we saw in this particular study – These are four slices of the brain while they were singing, so these are just different levels through the brain –
CROMARTIE: It’s the same brain, right?
NEWBERG: It’s the same brain.
The next slide is going to be the same person, now speaking in tongues. If you look in the frontal lobe area, where the arrows are pointing, as I toggle back and forth, you can see there’s a lot less activity in the frontal lobes when the person is speaking in tongues. So when they started to speak in tongues, and we see this in all the people we studied, their frontal lobe activity goes down.
This actually makes a lot of sense because in contrast to the meditators and nuns, who are focusing on doing something, the way the Pentecostals describe speaking in tongues is they are not focusing on doing it; they let it happen. They just let their own will go away and allow this whole thing to take place. They don’t feel like they’re in control of this process. And the findings on the scan at least support the phenomenological experience they have.
I’m sure we’ll get into a lot of interesting philosophical discussions on, “What is the reality here?” Obviously, for the Pentecostals speaking in tongues, they say this is God or the Holy Spirit who is speaking through them. What one might argue in that context is, “Your brain shuts down so you can allow the Holy Spirit to speak through you; this is how it works.” On the other hand, if you don’t believe speaking in tongues is really a spiritual event, then you might say, “Perhaps there’s some other part of the brain that is taking over, that is causing this thing to happen. It’s not the normal parts of the brain doing it, but it’s some other part of the brain.”
At this point we don’t have that answer and this is, again, the big epistemological question about how we understand what reality is, how we begin to think about our beliefs about reality and what we can say, ultimately, about what these scans mean in the context of what’s really going on. But I think there’s still some very valuable information in at least understanding what’s going on inside the person who is having this particular experience.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: (Off mike) – basal ganglia?
NEWBERG: I’m sorry, I’m trying to keep things tight for time. The basal ganglia are involved in behavior and also emotional responses. What you see in this case is a lot of asymmetry in the basal ganglia. One side is much more active than the other during the singing exercise, but during speaking in tongues, the activity on that side goes down and there’s a much more symmetric activity. What this means I don’t know for sure, but the implication, of course, is that it has something to do with the emotional content and how the person is responding to this experience. But other than saying something broadly about that, it’s very difficult for me to say.
Just to finish up this particular slide, the other thing we have found in almost all our subjects is the thalamus becomes much more active; you can see it’s much brighter during speaking in tongues. It was also much brighter in activity during prayer and meditation. The thalamus is a big relay in the brain; it allows all of our sensory information to come up to our brain. Because of that, I think, it makes sense that these are very active states for people, and, therefore, we see the thalamus reflecting that. In fact, the only practice where we saw a decrease in the thalamus, which I’m not going to present here today, was transcendental meditation, but that’s really much more of a relaxation process, at least for the individuals who were doing it for us. So I think that may explain why that was a little different.
One thing that’s very critical whenever you come across a study about these practices is what exactly is the practice and what exactly is the person doing, because there are many circumstances where people say “Yes, I do centering prayer,” or “I do Tibetan Buddhist meditation,” and there are lots of different subtypes within that. It becomes really important to know exactly what that particular approach is and how it is being studied.
So let me just wrap up in the next couple of slides here. Obviously, part of what I’m supposed to talk about is why there is such a persistence of religion. Part of why I went through this process is to say all of us have beliefs. Everything we think or feel, whether it’s political, spiritual or scientific, is a belief; it’s a way in which our brain is helping us make some sense out of the world, and it is doing the best it can. So if we’re talking about religion as affecting our brain and our beliefs, we have to acknowledge that it must have some pretty profound effect on our brain if it is going to be something that has such a profound effect on us as people.
I have argued in the past that the brain’s role in our overall life is to help us make some sense out of the world, and in so doing, to help maintain us. That’s how it helps us to survive. We have to know not to cross the street when there’s a red light, and what’s okay to eat, and what’s not okay to eat. It helps to make sure we do all the right things in the world.
It also helps us transcend ourselves, and by that I don’t necessarily mean a religious transcendence, although that may be the ultimate expression of this, but we always grow and develop over time. There is this continual struggle, if you will, between wanting to maintain the status quo within ourselves and also knowing that we need to adapt and change as we go through our life, and our brain is capable of doing both. It holds onto beliefs very strongly to helps us figure out what we need to do in our world, but it can also change over time. All of us are still the same person we were when we were three years old, but we’ve learned a lot, and we’ve changed a lot over time. As we’ve gone through our lives, our brain has changed with us to adapt and help us survive.
Let me pause for a second and ask what we talk about when we’re talking about people who are not religious. What is it about atheists that is different? Are they different, or are they the same? There is some evidence to suggest there are differences. Some of you may have read a book called The God Gene. It was an interesting study that showed there was a significant, although relatively mild, correlation between a gene that coded for what’s called the VMAT-2 receptor, which has to do with serotonin and dopamine, two very important neurotransmitters in the brain, and feelings of self-transcendence. The fact that there’s a correlation between the neurotransmitters and some feeling that’s related to spirituality is interesting. Maybe there is something physiologically to this.
In our studies, we found – going back to the thalamus that we talked about earlier – that people who were long-term practitioners and meditators tended to have a lot more asymmetry: One side of their thalamus was much more active than the other, compared to the normal population of people who are not long-term meditators. I don’t know what that means per se, but it seems to suggest that the ways in which we process information about the world might be fundamentally different.
One of the questions we have to ask is, if you are a non-believer or an atheist, is that the result of a lack of having such experiences, or are you having these experiences and then ultimately rejecting them? One of the examples we talked about in our last book was a woman who had a near-death experience. She described it as the full-blown near-death experience, with the light and all this kind of stuff, but said, “That was my brain dying.” That was her interpretation of it, whereas other people have that experience, and they say, “That was me transcending into the next realm; that was my spiritual experience, and it was transformative; it changed who I was.”
CROMARTIE: What’s the name of that book?
NEWBERG: My book? Why We Believe What We Believe.
CROMARTIE: I’m just into promoting everyone’s book, so I wanted to make sure we get that on the table.
NEWBERG: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it. (Chuckles.)
So how does this work? Why is it that God doesn’t go away? I think religion and spirituality, when we look at these in very broad terms, help us in the same ways that the brain tries to help us, in terms of maintaining ourselves and transcending ourselves. When you look at the vast amount of literature and data that has been collected, we find religion often is extremely supportive of our behaviors: It helps us in terms of our mental health, our ability to cope with various issues and problems, and therefore it tends to be pretty good at helping us maintain ourselves.
It also happens to be pretty good at providing a system by which we transcend ourselves. When you look at most religions, there are a number of points along the way, as you go from birth to adolescence and marriage and ultimately old age, there are approaches and processes in place that enable you to transcend yourself from one moment to the next. The ultimate expression of this self-transcendence may be that we all can achieve some greater being: We can do something a little bit better; we can become better than we are, and transcend ourselves in that way.
So my argument has been that both science and religion become very important in this whole dialogue and that we need to understand the perspectives of what both contribute to this discussion to try to better understand the totality of our universe and the ways in which we make sense of that universe through our belief systems.
Where do we go from here? We have a lot of new data we are working on, and one of the thoughts I’ve come up with recently is can we create something similar to the human genome – perhaps we can call it the religionome – with which we can begin to look at all of the different beliefs and practices and traditions and try to evaluate and understand them not just from a spiritual perspective or a subjective perspective, but from physiological and biological and social and cultural perspectives as well. This could be an important thing to do now; I don’t think we’ve ever been able to do it before because we just didn’t have the methodologies.
Part of that, I think, is to do longitudinal studies. At the moment, we’re doing a lot of cross-sectional analyses, where we just take people today and study them. But we’re trying now to look at the effects of doing these practices over the long haul. What happens if I started all of you today on a meditation program? Where would your brain be in two weeks, in eight weeks, in six months, a year, 10 years; what would happen? Would all of you be transformed? Would some of you be transformed, and if so, would you be transformed in the same way or different ways? We can look at whether or not this ultimately has health benefits as well as more global, societal benefits.
We’ve also done some very interesting – or at least, I hope there’s going to be some really interesting work – with an online survey of people’s spiritual experiences, where we’re getting both demographic information about who they are, their gender, age, ethnic background, religious background, and information about the spiritual experiences they have had. So we get narratives, and we also get evaluations about how open they are to other people’s beliefs, how they respond to other people’s beliefs, and I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of data. A lot of this is going to come out in some of our next work. But I just want to point out how many different ways we can try to better understand how God, ultimately, and how religion changes your brain in the long haul.
There are some interesting questions we can ask about this. My colleagues and I have started to ask people what God looks like. We asked them to draw a picture of God. If I asked all of you right now to sit down and draw a picture of God, what would you draw? When we asked an eight-year-old, she drew this,
which is remarkably similar to a 35-year-old gentleman, who – (Laughter) – did that:
A great article that came out in the Journal of the American Medical Association argued that if you look at the outline in the Sistine Chapel painting, doesn’t it look remarkably like the human brain? The author even argued that this is the brain stem, and then here is the frontal lobe reaching out to Adam, who’s over there.
This was done by a college student, and you can see sometimes people are very literal about how they think about God, and sometimes it becomes a very abstract concept. One of the things we’re doing now is culling through about 200 or 300 different pictures of God to see what people are drawing and how it relates to their religious and spiritual ideas. A lot of times people think fundamentalists are very concrete in their ways of thinking about God, and that they tend to think of the old man in the clouds and all that. But as it turns out, that’s not always the case, and people get very, very abstract in the ways they think about this concept.
We can also talk about: What does God feel like to you? If you experience God’s presence, what is it like? Is it an emotional thing, is it a sensory thing? What is God’s personality? We certainly know a lot about God’s personality from the Bible; there is the wrathful, vengeful God, but there’s also a forgiving God, and there are many different attributes we give to God. I think it is particularly interesting, then, to see how that relates to who we are, what are our personalities, what are our ways of thinking about ourselves and the world, and how do we then imbue that in our ideas about God? Are there certain limitations our brain puts on us, in terms of our ability to think about what God is all about?
I would argue the brain ultimately is a believing machine; it has to be. It’s trying to make some sense out of the world, and it puts together a perspective on our world, fills in a lot of gaps, doesn’t bother to let us know about it, and yet somehow we use that information to go through our lives as if we know what’s going on. So beliefs ultimately affect everything we do, they affect every part of our lives. And as we go through our lives, everything that happens, every person we talk to, affects the way we ultimately believe. So beliefs are the essence of our being, and in a continuing effort to understand our world we will always have spiritual and religious ideas. We will have ideas about the ultimacy of the universe and the ultimacy of who we are and how we relate to that universe. I think as long as that continues to happen, as long as our brain continues to function in the ways that it does, that these ideas of religion and spirituality and God are not going to go away.
Here are a couple of websites if any of you are interested. We have a Center for Spirituality and the Mind that we’ve started at Penn, which is helping us consolidate a lot of the research. If any of you are interested in that survey I was mentioning you can go to the website, neurotheology.net. I’ll be happy to end it there.
CROMARTIE: You all know David well, not only through his columns but his books, Bobos in Paradise, and On Paradise Drive. David has a new book coming out called How Success Happens. Part of the research on that book, and I’ll let David tell us how much, is rooted in brain chemistry and brain research. That’s why we thought it would be great to have David respond to Professor Newberg. David?
DAVID BROOKS: Thank you, Michael. I didn’t bring any slides but since Andrew had some slides with brain anatomy, I thought I’d actually perform brain surgery – (Laughter) – on Michael’s brain, sort of pick it apart. And I forgot to bring my bottle opener, if anybody – (Laughter).
I got into this half ass-backwards. As some of you have noticed, I’m not a brain surgeon, although it doesn’t really seem that hard – (Laughter) – but I started writing about social mobility and that brought me to learning, and that brought me to this. So for about five or six years I’ve been reading a fair number of books, although obviously I’m not an expert, and I’ll get many scientific things wrong if I wander into that field.
When I was at college, I became a boxing manager for a friend of mine who entered the Golden Gloves, and we decided we’d do boxing the University of Chicago way; we wouldn’t actually practice, we’d just read books about boxing. (Laughter.) So I was his manager, and he was the Kosher Killer, and through a series of unfortunate events, we entered the Golden Gloves boxing tournament, and he got passes because people forfeited or got sick or didn’t show up – (Laughter) – so we made it to the Chicago semifinals. We walk in the locker room, and he was a heavyweight surrounded by huge Polish and African-American guys. It was good match; it lasted 92 seconds. (Laughter.) So it’s through this process of reading rather than doing that I’ve entered this field.
Once you get into it, it is fascinating. It is an addictive field. One of the best ways that’s been used to explain how complicated the brain is, is to imagine taking the Rose Bowl, filling it to the brim with spaghetti, and then shrinking it down to three pounds, and that’s roughly the complexity of this thing. I always think about that when I see those brain scan pictures. But once you get into the fMRI pictures, the other kinds of pictures, you get these amazing reactions, which I think teach us something.
I’ve done several brain scans of my friends. E.J. Dionne, whom many of you know, has a Floridian lobe in his brain; if you mention the Florida election returns from 2000, it literally explodes. (Laughter.) Michael’s brain actually stopped adapting after he was the Philadelphia 76ers mascot, which is true, he was. I mention that at every single event. (Laughter.) So his brain still thinks he’s covered with fur. (Laughter.) My friend Reihan here – Reihan and I worked together for several years – if you look at his brain, you get a video of the Iron Man festival. And Hillary Clinton has no limbic system, but she has testicular fortitude. (Laughter.)
But I think the bottom line is there is this incredible revolution going on in brain research. To me, it’s a bit like the revolution of psychology or psychiatry that Freud started, except for this time I think it’s correct. What interests me is that when Freud happened, it had this tremendous effect on the culture at large, on the way people thought about human nature and politics. The New Republic in the 1950s had a weekly Freud column, where a Freudian analyst would write a column about politics from a Freudian perspective – so, “The Soviet Union was particularly anal this week,” or something. (Laughter.) Freudianism literally had that effect, and I’m convinced – and I think it’s already happening – that this tremendous revolution in neuroscience and related fields is going to have the same effect on culture and the way we think about human nature and religion and everything else.
That’s what I’m going to talk about; not so much the science, but what I think are some of the themes driving the science that will spill out and are spilling out into the general culture. The bottom line of it all is we are now discovering the tremendous power of the unconscious, of the levels of cognition we’re not consciously aware of, that shape our thoughts. If you look at behavioral economics, if you look at neuroscience, if you look at psychology, if you look at field after field, in theology, in literary criticism, people are taking this template of unconscious cognitive processes and applying it to how we think.
I’m going to tell this story vis-à-vis religion. In my book, I really don’t focus on religion, but you can’t help reading this field without seeing religious thinking. I’m going to tell it as a narrative, which is a bit of a simplification, but not a total simplification. I just think it’s an easier way to think about how people in this field are affecting the way we think about religion and spirituality.
In 2000 Tom Wolfe published an essay called “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” which criticized some of the hyper-materialism at the core of some of this, especially, I think, as it was years ago. This was the argument that there is no place for the human soul, not in Andrew’s work but in general. There’s no place for the human soul; we’re all just a bunch of material parts that determine who we are. There are diseases or brain conditions, I think there’s one called TLE, which leads to the spiritual hallucinations. There’s a guy who developed a magnetic helmet that he puts around people’s heads, and it’s supposed to lead to more spiritual states.
There are neuropeptides, chemicals in the brain that can utterly transform who you are and how you think. One of the most famous is oxytocin, which is this little thing that, if you inject it into prairie voles, you get adulterous prairie voles who suddenly become monogamous. Oxytocin is released after sex, it’s released while mothers are nursing, and it changes the way people behave. One of the most famous people in the annals of brain research is Phineas Gage – do you guys know who Phineas Gage was? He was this guy who was working on a railroad, and a rail spike went up through his brain. Before the accident he was a nice, normal, responsible guy; after the accident, he was a jerk and self-destructive. And so this –
NEWBERG: True story. He lived, and cognitively he was fine.
BROOKS: Right, but I guess you’d say his discipline eroded or –
BROOKS: So in some sense the material act of the spike going through his head changed what some would say was his soul and his moral nature.
The second thing that has eroded the sense that we’re religious or spiritual creatures is the sector of this community that doesn’t believe in free will. I was at UCLA a couple weeks ago, and I asked a scientist what he did research on. He said, “I do research on why we think we possess free will.” (Laughter.) And I said, “Is there any doubt about whether we actually maybe do possess free will?” He said, “No, nobody believes that; it’s why we confabulate the illusion of free will,” and that’s what he was studying. He’s part of a section of neuroscientists – but not a small section – who have dismissed the idea of free will. But I think there’s no question this research, taken as a whole, diminishes free will because so much of what happens, happens below the level of awareness.
Third is the reaction against the idea of the blank slate and the idea that we had no genetic programming. There was, especially years ago, and among some people, this hardcore belief that we’re all genetic programming, or we’re largely genetic programming, and that we’re just bigger versions of ants, and that a lot of what’s happening has been driven by our genes and that the relationship between a mother and a child has no effect on how that child grows up. There’s a book called The Nurture Assumption, which carried that argument to its extreme, and very serious people like Stephen Pinker buy a lot of that.
This was the hardcore materialist impulse, which is an element of this research. But my perception – again, I’m telling this chronologically – is that over the last some number of years, this hardcore materialism has eroded, and the field is getting wetter, if you want to put it that way. It’s getting mushier. It’s getting more open to spirituality. I think there are a whole series of things that have happened, ideas that come out of the field that are permeating the culture, which leave room for spirituality and also explain it.
One is the plasticity of the brain, the incredible adaptiveness, the fire-together, wire-together idea that we’re not hardcore driven by material things, that we’re wired to adapt to environment and that the nature-nurture distinction is a bogus one, and that therefore, this plasticity makes it a less material, less predetermined organ.
Second, again, is the power of the unconscious, the power of things that happen below reason and rational awareness. Jonathan Haidt, who teaches at the University of Virginia – well, let me start with another University of Virginia guy named Timothy Wilson, who wrote a book called Strangers to Ourselves. He has a statistic in that book that every moment, the human mind can take in roughly 11 million pieces of information, of which we can be consciously aware of only about 40. All the rest is coming in there and being processed, but we’re just not consciously aware of it.
Jonathan Haidt, who’s his colleague at Virginia, says think of the brain as a boy riding an elephant. The boy is the conscious part of the mind, the elephant is everything else. The boy is not stronger than the elephant, and if the boy can’t control the elephant, the creature in total is going to have a screwed-up life, but if they work together through a series of habits, then they can lead a successful life. But it is the relative strength between the little boy on top of the elephant and all the cognitive processes below the level of awareness that is the elephant.
The third thing that has wetted up the field is the forced-on modesty. People in this field, like the rest of us, do not come by modesty naturally, but as the field has developed, so many unconscious biases have been exposed, so much of the tenuousness Andrew talked about has been revealed, there is so much we get wrong; we are misled so easily that it’s hard to think the brain is a simple mechanical thing or that thinking is a mechanical thing. It’s tenuous, and it grows out of this mystery of emergence rather than being mechanical, and so that’s another thing I think has wetted up the field.
The fourth thing is the power of emotion. The Doctor Spock idea from Star Trek, that reason and emotion are two different things, is completely wrong. Emotion is what we use to assign value to things, and without emotion you can’t make decisions. Antonio Damasio is a researcher at the University of Southern California who had a patient named Elliott. Elliott was like Gage, although Elliott’s still alive: He was living a perfectly normal life, he suffered a stroke, and it robbed him of the ability to feel or process emotion.
He could look at photos of the most horrific things and know he was supposed to feel something, but was incapable of feeling those things. His life deteriorated similarly to Gage’s; he could not focus his attention enough to get any piece of work done. He divorced his wife, he married someone who was completely inappropriate, he invested horribly, he then divorced the second woman, and his life was utterly destroyed because he lost the ability to process emotion. And when you lose that ability, you lose the ability to value, to ask, “What do I want, what don’t I want?” And so his life became chaotic.
Another of Damasio’s patients was a guy who had also suffered the inability to process emotion, and they had a meeting one time. At the end, Damasio said to him, “When do you want to come back?” And the guy said, “I could come back Monday or Tuesday.” Damasio said, “Well, which day would you prefer?” And the guy spent the next 25 minutes describing the pluses and minuses of Monday and the pluses and minuses of Tuesday. He could describe the pluses and minuses, but he was incapable of reaching a decision because he couldn’t assign value. Damasio and his colleagues gathered around this guy, as those 25 minutes stretched on, and they said they wanted to beat him up – (Laughter) – because he just could not reach a decision. But they were fascinated by it. Finally, Damasio said, “What about Tuesday?” And the guy said, “Fine.” (Laughter.) Because he had lost the ability to process emotion, he couldn’t process decisions.
Fifth, the incredible power of love and attachment. Andrew mentioned the importance of emotion and memory, the incredible power of love and attachment in forming memories, in forming how neurons wire together. It is the dominant thing that affects our lives, which is never appreciated when we talk about education, especially in Washington. I always say if you went into a congressional committee and talked about love, they would look at you like you were Oprah. But the fact is if you are going to be serious about education and all sorts of mental processes, you are not talking about the real stuff if you are not talking about the emotional engagement.
The sixth process that has wetted up the field and made it more open to spirituality is the evidence of these elevated states, which Andrew has described.
The seventh is the documented evidence of moral judgment. Haidt, the guy from the University of Virginia, has done some research on that. He argues moral judgment has grown out of the very primordial emotions of disgust, starting with food and then elevating up, and that disgust is something you can actually see and look at in the brain.
The eighth are these moments of self-transcendence. One of the things that surprised me as I started reading about the field is that people in the field really take meditation seriously. I always thought, “That is a bunch of New Age stuff. Who takes that seriously?” But people in the field actually do. So what you have had over these years is hardcore scientific research, guys in labs taking the process of spirituality and religion quite seriously and seeing actual physical evidence of it. That said, if you read the literature, there is, as in much of the scientific community, in some quarters, a fanatically militant atheism, the idea that anybody who believes in God must be completely stupid. That is in the field, especially among the geneticists, in my experience. (Chuckles.)
What I have tried to describe is the hardcore materialism Tom Wolfe worried about, then all these findings, which lead you to think in more spiritual ways, and then finally the question is, does that mean the science is going to support people who are religious? Is it going to lead to a much more religious society as the ideas permeate? The answer here is not that simple, in part because the people who do the work still work within a Darwinian framework, that things survive because they succeed in Darwinian terms, and religions that succeed must serve some evolutionary purpose. That Darwinian framework keeps it different from religious thinking.
Second, there still is a mundane mindset in this research. There is not much room for the majesty of art. They are analyzing people who are stuck in little machines in labs, and it doesn’t inspire you. So there is a whole inspiring level of human existence that doesn’t exist in the research.
Third, and this is a challenge for a lot of religious people, there is a firm conviction – and I think with tons of evidence – that there is no distinction between the spiritual aspect of life and the physical body. If you have some dualistic notion that the soul is separate from the body, this research destroys that.
Finally, and I think this is where the whole field of research will lead us as a society, it recognizes the power and reality of spiritual processes. But I would say in general, the literature treats any specific belief system as completely arbitrary. It knows that we have these beliefs. It knows that the mind is really good at making up stories. Some people in Jerusalem a few thousand years ago made up one story, another guy made up another story, there are still other stories. But it treats all of these stories as completely the same and arbitrary.
I think if you read the research, you will see there is no reason to think one religion is any different or any better than the other. Where the research winds up ultimately is, frankly, at Buddhism, the idea that the self is this dynamic process. There is some generic spirituality that may or may not be tethered to a higher being, and importantly, to the idea that we are social creatures. There is no such thing as one individual brain. Our brains are all merged together in a series of ultimate feedback loops. So I think when you look at this research, which is going to have this effect on society as everybody else pigeons off it, it won’t lead to what Tom Wolfe feared. It won’t lead to the idea that we are just material creatures and atheism is the answer. It will lead to soft-core Buddhists. (Laughter.) Thank you.
CROMARTIE: Thank you, David.
KATHLEEN PARKER, WASHINGTON POST WRITER’S GROUP: My amygdala is so highly aroused at this moment – (Laughter) – that I’m not sure I can formulate a question. (Laughter.)
BROOKS: Quick. We’ll put you in the scanner down the street. (Laughter.)
PARKER: It seemed like a good question at the time. (Chuckles.) Way over my head, so to speak. First a comment and then a question for Dr. Newberg. The comment is, what would happen if we all started meditating, and how would that look? I can only give you anecdotal evidence here, but I tried this a few years ago, and I became so at one with my world and so mellow that my editor asked me to stop. (Laughter.) So it would probably be the end of this conference for starters.
But I wanted to get back to the question of beliefs, and you were talking about how much comfort we find in people who share our beliefs, and then how threatened we are when we meet people who believe otherwise. But at the same time, we are fairly contemptuous of people when their beliefs become fluid, when they become, in the political world, flip-floppers. So I am wondering if your scans show any evidence to suggest why that is. It would seem counterintuitive. It seems like we should admire people who are willing to reconsider things and adjust and adapt their beliefs to our own. But instead, we don’t like that much.
PARKER: And is that tied to trust? Is that something that has manifestations within one of those lobes you were pointing to?
NEWBERG: It is a great question. I’ll probably speculate more than I will be able to refer to hard science. On one hand, I think all of our brains are in this constant battle, whether it is between conscious and unconscious or a definitive answer versus vagueness and uncertainty or selfishness versus unselfishness. Our brains like both to some degree, but ultimately, I think we probably lean a little bit more strongly toward something we can grasp and that is clear to us. Whenever we have things that are uncertain – I think the problem with flip-flopping is not so much that we don’t respect the possibilities, I think we are okay when people say, “I am really thinking hard about this, and I’m not sure.”
PARKER: But even if they come back to our side.
PARKER: Even if they are changing their mind –
NEWBERG: Because I don’t know where they are. I think what happens, whether you want to phrase it in terms of trust or lack of certainty, is that when you don’t know exactly where somebody stands, that is very problematic for us because we don’t know which way they really think and which way they really feel, and do they really agree with us?
Then we get into the whole issue of when people start to go against our ways of thinking. One of the problems is, as I always like to say, when somebody disagrees with you, your brain has two options. One is that you are wrong and that the other person is right. And that is typically a position the brain doesn’t want to be in because that means we don’t understand the world as well as we had thought we did. So the far easier option is to think, “They are wrong, and we are right.” And if they are wrong, and they keep trying to convince us that they are right, then they are being duplicitous and insincere and maybe just plain evil. If we see somebody go away from us, and then we see them start to come back – now we really aren’t sure. Are they deceiving us? Or are they really being honest?
That triggers those alarms because we like the consistency of a particular approach. It is very hard on our brain when we lose consistency. The only data I have that may address your particular question is that in this last book, we talk about the scan results we did. We had atheists come in to our lab, and we asked them to meditate on God. Their frontal lobes in different directions. It was almost like you were seeing cognitive dissonance, like they were trying to focus on something they really didn’t want to focus on. That creates problems for us. The parts of our brain that want to help us to focus on something and grab something have trouble with it. That sets off the emotional alarms, and then we start to reject it, so –
It would be very interesting to see how people respond when they are looking at individuals. There are several interesting brain-imaging studies where you get people to play games where if you cooperate, you get a certain response. If you don’t cooperate, you can really screw the other person, which may be really good for you, but then you could actually lose if they don’t cooperate with you. You could probably set something up where you try to find how people respond when somebody does not always respond in a consistent way and whether or not that becomes more problematic than people who you know are going to be for you or against you. I haven’t seen any studies of that, but that would be really interesting.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty
BROOKS: The most famous writer on this is, again, Antonio Damasio. He wrote a book called Descartes’ Error. I think his work is pretty widely accepted that – Another way to put it is, as William James said – let’s see if I get this right – we don’t fear the bear and then run away in the woods, we run away in the woods and then fear the bear, that our physical response to fear precedes the emotion of fear. If you are driving and you nearly get in an accident, you slam on the brakes, and then you’re sitting in your car, and then the wave of emotion hits you. I think that would be the general way it would be described.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: I’m curious, Andy, is everyone universal on this issue because that is a materialistic, reductionist view –
NEWBERG: It destroys the idea that the soul is separate from the body.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right. Is it your understanding that pretty much all mainstream scientists believe that? Also, would it be true to say that pretty much all scientists believe there is nothing more than this material world? We are getting into the issue of otherness, God, all of that. But has science made a – I mean, is there disagreement?
NEWBERG: I think there is a fair amount of disagreement. Some of the Gallup polls – I’m not sure if it is Gallup, but I have seen a few polls of scientists at various times. Certainly relative to the general public, there are a lot more scientists who look at the world from a pretty materialistic perspective. That being said, I think there are still a lot of scientists who aren’t – who are struggling with this. In fact, you mentioned genetics, and we just had Francis Collins talk at Penn.
I’m sure most of you know who he is, but he is the head of the Human Genome Project. He has pretty much gone completely to the religious perspective, understanding the genome as a way of proving God’s existence. Now, he has probably gone a little bit more extreme than most others, but there are a lot of people, I think, who the more we investigate – and whether it is through biology, or physics, especially as you get up across some of these boundary questions about consciousness and the origins of the universe and all that, it becomes a much more philosophical issue. While they may not necessarily go over to a religious understanding, I think they tend to feel they can’t exclude the possibility that there is this other dimension. The point is well taken that there are a lot of scientists and a lot of non-scientists who believe, almost, in what we talk about, like scientism, that it is just the material world, and science is going to answer everything that we need to know about it.
But there also are, I think, a growing number of people who are acutely aware of the problems with that. While they may not necessarily be willing to go over to the religious side, they are at least somewhat open to the possible perspective –
NEWBERG: To the mystery and to exploring it. I think that it is growing. If you go back 15 or 20 years, then I think a huge number – I don’t know if we could have even done this research 10 or 15 years ago – but there has been growth. One other aspect I think has led to this is the healthcare side, because when you interview cancer patients and hospice patients, and you find out how important religion is in their lives. All of these biomedical scientists who can’t do anything else for the patient have realized how important that spiritual side is for helping them at least heal or cope with themselves in the face of this end-of-life catastrophe. So it is very important.
BROOKS: I just wanted to add one other very important moment in the intellectual history of this gigantic consciousness debate. Scientists have no clue how to explain how the mind emerges from matter. There are gigantic conferences, thousands of books, and it is humbling. Some of them think, “Oh, we will get there eventually.” But I think it has been a humbling process because people have no clue. And for some of the militant atheists, the people who believe in God have the straightforward narrative of how mind emerges from matter – God did this; it’s a very simple story – and they have no story. So I think it has been a humbling experience, which, again, has opened more room for spirituality.
NEWBERG: To me, one of the most important questions I always want to look at, and part of why I got into all of this, is this issue – We are talking about beliefs. We are saying the brain is processing all this information. So that means whatever we think about the world is basically an interpretation. Given that, how do we know if what we think in here is commensurate with what is out there? If you think about it, the only way to prove that from a scientific or philosophical perspective is to somehow get outside of your brain and look and say, “This is what I think inside, this is what is out there. And this is what matches up or doesn’t match up.”
Again, when you look to the consciousness debate, the big problem is there is no way to do that, or at least that we can tell from a scientific perspective. But what is fascinating is that when people enter into these mystical states, they say they are outside of themselves. They have that oneness. They feel intimately connected with the universe, and their self, their ego self, their biological self is not really there, so to speak. Now, for those of us who haven’t had those experiences, which includes me, I don’t know what that means. And I certainly don’t know if that means they are really able to do that. But I think if this is the only place where anybody has ever described that, we really have to study this because it may be the only way to answer those big questions. At least that has been my feeling: that it may be the only way we can tap into what reality actually is, and whether what we experience is what really is out there.
The other thing that comes along with those experiences, which always blows my mind and makes the hairs on the back of my neck always stand up, is that their experience of reality, when they have that experience, is greater than our experience of reality right now. The best way I can explain that is to say when you have a dream, and no matter how real that dream feels, you wake up, and what is the first thing you say? “Oh, it was a dream,” which automatically relegates it to an inferior level of reality. When people have a mystical experience, they do the same thing, except instead of the dream being the not-so-real, it is this reality that seems unreal. And of course this reality is where science is. So what do you do with that? It is a real problem.
EVE CONANT, NEWSWEEK: I have a Jeremiah Wright question. (Laughter.)
NEWBERG: I don’t know him myself. (Chuckles.) You want me to scan his brain?
CONANT: Similar to what we asked Michael Gerson, though, obviously for a supporter of Obama, seeing what Wright is saying repeatedly would be, as was mentioned before, an attack on the amygdala. With the press repeating it and with him repeating it, you are getting the use-it-or-lose-it problem with neurons and molecular messengers. So from a neurological point of view, what in terms of outreach and faith outreach and general message, what could the Obama campaign do to lessen that blow to the amygdalas of all of Obama’s supporters?
NEWBERG: Right. It is a very relevant question. I have to think about this. What we do seem to see in how the brain works, and some of the research nowadays is looking at these mirror neurons in the brain, and how we reflect what other people are thinking and feeling. So if I got up right now and started spewing out a lot of negative angry talk about whatever, it would get a lot of you riled up.
CROMARTIE: Especially the moderator.
NEWBERG: Especially the moderator. (Chuckles.) So to some degree, part it is the repetition of a different perspective – That is how all campaign ads go. You keep harping on the negative of the opposing candidate and hopefully the positive of your candidate. Again, it works in both ways because when you bring up a negative about somebody, our brain automatically associates the negative with that person, whether or not it has any basis in reality or not, and it is harder to shake that.
From the Obama campaign perspective, what they would need to do is, one, try to somehow diffuse the emotional content of what is going on. In other words, if people are getting riled up, if people are experiencing that amygdala response, then you have to head toward a calming of emotions, a more measured response, and that would hopefully suppress some of the things people are thinking. But then you also have the ideological issue of how do you deal with that particular – One of the questions that came up to me, which I think has to be dealt with in some way, is if Wright has been talking to Obama for 20 years, what has that done to Obama’s brain? How has that affected his neurons and so forth? (Laughter.) Even though he doesn’t talk like that, it goes back to what is in the unconscious.
Now, it is unfair to hold somebody accountable for their unconscious. But on the other hand, what do you do with that? I think some of that stuff needs to be addressed. I think that is part of what we all unconsciously think about. How does he get this out of his system, so to speak?
BROOKS: There is an incipient little Jeremiah Wright sitting in the brain.
NEWBERG: Yeah, right, exactly. (Laughter.)
BROOKS: Maybe if we activated the Manchurian candidates. (Laughter.)
JONATHAN MARTIN, THE POLITICO: This is kind of off-topic, but David mentioned it earlier, and I wanted to follow up before I forgot it. Could you expound on your view about McCain being a “pre-Christian” candidate?
BROOKS: (Chuckles.) Well, this is a little off-topic, but I’ll just do it in –
MARTIN: But you’re right here, and we have you here so –
BROOKS: I think McCain has an extremely acute moral sensitivity, but it is aroused by a sense of dishonor. It grows through his military experience, but comes out of a stoic approach of honor, loyalty and a code of excellence that, when violated, unwraps the universe and must be attacked. He once took me gambling at a casino, and he taught me how to shoot craps. I did very well, because he told me where to put the chips, until we got to the moment where we were going to cash in our winnings. And because he is incapable of waiting in line, he made me leave the casino with $500 worth of chips I couldn’t cash in.
But I asked him as we were walking –
CROMARTIE: This is on the record, right? (Laughter.)
BROOKS: For part of it, there was a New Yorker reporter there, too. So I feel that could be on the record.
But I asked him, “This is not going to be friendly with a lot of social conservatives.” And we had a little discussion about how he sees morality. He doesn’t think a little craps is going to violate his honor. I do think that is a pretty traditional stoic belief in self-control. I think that is what motivates him. Can I say one thing about the last exchange here –
CROMARTIE: Yes, please.
BROOKS: – while I have the microphone, and I won’t blame you if you don’t give it back to me. One of the things I worry about is getting the sense that there is this beastly side of human nature, which is the emotional side, and then the cool, reasonable side. And that is not true. Emotions are involved in the cool, reasonable side. I say that because there was an extremely stupid book by a guy named Drew Westen that came out last year called The Political Brain.
CHRIS LEHMANN, CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY: I reviewed it.
BROOKS: (Chuckles.) One of the things he said was Republicans are really good at emotion; Democrats are too rational and too reasonable. He had a bunch of scripts John Kerry should have used to attack George Bush. In two cases, the script involved Kerry at a debate saying, “Bush, you are a drunk. When you were drunk, you could have run over our kids. You’re a drunk, you’re a drunk, you’re a drunk.” (Laughter.) And he thinks that would have aroused the American people and their amygdalas would have kicked in, and they would have all voted Democratic. But that is a misreading – (Laughter) – of how emotion works. And so I don’t know –
NEWBERG: It is certainly very complicated.
MIKE ALLEN, THE POLITICO: Professor Newberg, you are a fantastic presenter. Thank you very much.
NEWBERG: Thank you.
ALLEN: We were entranced by the part where you were talking about speaking in tongues. I was interested in what you said about pausing to inject the radioactive –
NEWBERG: You want me to explain that better? (Chuckles.)
ALLEN: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the methodology. Second, I wonder if you could tell us, as specifically as you can, what you concluded happens physically when people are speaking in tongues. And I’m going to ask a quick question of David.
Do you mind just briefly elaborating on the point you made when you were talking about Darwinism, about religions that survive? I thought that was fascinating.
NEWBERG: One of the interesting things about methodologies is we talk a lot about several different ways of studying the brain. I mentioned SPECT imaging, which is what we use for a number of our studies. There is functional MRI. There is PET imaging. There are several other types. And they all have their advantages and disadvantages, especially in the context of studying religious phenomena. An fMRI is a great technique for doing a lot of stuff, but you have to be in the scanner while you are doing whatever it is you are doing. So it would be very hard to have somebody dancing in an MRI scanner. It is not feasible. You are lying on your back, first of all, and two, you can’t –
BROOKS: There is not a lot of room in there.
NEWBERG: If you move at all, you really mess things up.
BROOKS: It could work for an Episcopalian. (Laughter.)
NEWBERG: It could work for an Episcopalian. (Laughter.) Wait, let me write that down. But it actually would be good for meditation, for example, where you are lying still. In fact, I just read an article by a person who was studying sitting meditation in an MRI. In the first thing I thought was, “I think it is a lousy paper because how can you do sitting meditation in an MRI?”
But anyway, with the speaking in tongues: When we use SPECT imaging, we start off the study by putting a small IV catheter is somebody’s arm. This is before they do anything. Then we run a long line that comes from this catheter. The idea is that when you infuse a material – We wind up infusing a small amount of a radioactive material into them, which is what allows our camera to pick up the pictures. This material follows some part of the brain’s physiology. In this case, it follows blood flow. At the moment you give the injection, after a minute or two, it circulates in the body, gets up into the brain, and for all intents and purposes, gets locked into the brain.
For example, if I were to inject somebody here right now, and then we finished and I flew you up to Philadelphia, and I put you in the scanner, it would tell me what your brain was doing right now. So it is a very elegant method for getting a snapshot of a particular state. Because you already have the IV set up ahead of time, when I actually inject the material, you don’t feel it. In fact, we have them with music, and we have them with their eyes closed. For a number of our studies, I’m not even in the room with the person. I can just be outside of the room, or I can come in behind them. I don’t disturb them, don’t affect them. I just give the material, then they keep doing what they are doing for the next 10, 15 minutes, and then we bring them back into the scanner. But it tells you what they were doing at that moment of that particular practice: meditation, prayer, or speaking in tongues. So it works very nicely to capture a particular moment.
Then when we looked at the scans – to the second part of your question – we saw a lot of different things going on. To me, one of the most important – Going back to the fact that the frontal lobes go down: Normally they are active when we are purposely making speech, when we are purposely in control of our behaviors. So the fact that it was lower during the speaking in tongues, I think, is consistent with their subjective description of what happens. This sound, this vocalization coming out of them is not under their control, per se. They just allow themselves to have this thing happen, and then blam, out it comes.
That is consistent with their experience. It is a very emotional experience, which I think has something to do with some of the changes we saw. Barbara mentioned the basal ganglia, which are part of our emotional responses, so the limbic system changed to some degree. Also, the thalamus got very active, suggesting it is a pretty active state for them. Of course, when you see them afterwards, and they’re exhausted, you can understand why that has such an impact on them.
In all the studies I do, I primarily focus on what are the physiological changes and are they associated with what the person is describing? To just pick up on what David said, part of what has separated us somewhat from others who are more atheistic is my ultimate conclusion that it’s not the brain that’s creating the experience. That may be the case. But it also may be the case that this is the way God interacts with us.
There’s no way to tell just on the basis of the brain scan what exactly is the reality of the experience. I think it enables us to explore that. I think it may provide more information for that. But we have a long way to go before we can say something more definitive.
BROOKS: The one thing that strikes me reading all this is how there is an entire Darwinian mindset, which carries the obvious theory of evolution with it. But it also carries a whole approach to human nature and human life. It’s based on the assumption that we are deeply shaped by the past and that what happened in the Pleistocene Era 10,000 years ago profoundly shapes the way we behave today. We’ve got little Pleistocene men and women trapped inside us just because so much of human history was based on that.
One of the things that leads to this, just in general parlance, is a clear concept that there is human nature. There is a universal human nature that can get pretty specific. This is something that would have been regarded, I think, as outrageous even 20 to 30 years ago. It was politically incorrect to say there is this immutable human nature.
But there are scientists who have now gone around and counted how many traits have existed in all human cultures at all times. I think I saw one list of 311 things. People all have the same reactions to emotions. They all smile the same way. Blind babies smile even though they’ve never seen smiling. There are all these things that have been handed down through the ages through this Darwinian process.
But the Darwinian mindset also says that everything that exists must exist for a reason. It must serve some purpose. That itself is a moral belief. So what exists must be good in some way. They haven’t done the male nipple yet, but I’m sure they have a reason. (Laughter.)
But the other moral precept in this is a very measured view of human nature. We’re not exactly next to the gods. The human mind – especially the human mind – is this jerry-rigged creature with very old things and a few new things built on top of it. It’s a very imperfect little organ. And so, it leads to a very problematic human condition because nature has this old stuff; it doesn’t need to invent something new and efficient; it just piles the new stuff on top of the old stuff.
That carries over into the social belief that every religion that exists must have served some purpose. So you have these theories of spiritual selection, that there were all these thousands of religions, and the ones that died off must have done so because they were ineffective, and the ones that survived, like Islam or Judaism or Christianity, must serve a purpose. They must be superior.
I’m not sure that’s actually testable. But that’s taken on faith because of the power of the Darwinian mindset.
NEWBERG: Can I just add something to that real fast? For my own personal approach to this, we did used to talk a lot more about the evolutionary basis of religion. As I’ve heard more and more of those arguments, I find they become less and less tenable because there’s – People say, “Religion came into play because it was a way of dealing with the environment. It was a way of bringing people together.” And to some extent, that’s true. But I think it becomes very hard to perceive how we evolved with that ahead-of-time in mind. It becomes a much harder argument to make.
One of the things I think, though, about the major religions is that while they may not necessarily – I agree with David that they may not necessarily have been the best one or whatever. But they must have something in them that resonates with large numbers of people.
There is something about many different aspects of our society. You look at music. There are thousands of different kinds of music. But everybody seems to like Mozart. Everybody likes the Beatles or something like that. There are very few people those types of music don’t affect. So there’s something special about those types that seem to resonate with people. Now, whether they had some preordained or greater philosophical meaning or not, I have no idea. But there is something about what’s here now that seems to resonate a lot with the way people think and with the way our brain works.
BROOKS: But is there a large section of humanity that is not religious? Are there any societies that don’t have religion?
NEWBERG: Well, certainly, when you get into Europe.
BROOKS: I meant historically.
NEWBERG: It’s existed in some form or another in many different cultures. One thing that will be interesting to see is where the differences are, whether or not it really becomes cultural or not. I think we were talking about this at lunch. But one thing that has to be asked – and this comes back to what was talked about in the first session today – is how do you define these issues? The fact that most people in – let’s say – Germany or England say they’re atheist, does that mean they have no spiritual sense, that they have no feelings of being connected to our environment, connected to our world, or whatever? I don’t know. We may need to better define those terms.
WILL SALETAN, SLATE: I want to pick up again on David’s point about the Darwinist explanation of religion and try to pull together some of the science and the politics of this. When I hear this analysis of religion, first of all, it makes tremendous sense to me because I’m a Buddhist type. It’s fine. It fits the science, right? It fits my belief system. It’s great for me.
It doesn’t fit some other people’s ideas about religion. I’m not sure how many of those people there are and how they’re going to swallow this stuff. The case I’m thinking of is actually a different Obama thing, not Jeremiah Wright but the comment about bitterness. There were many things that grated people about it. But I think one of them was the idea that religion was somehow derivative or epiphenomenal or an opiate of the – There were many things about it, but the idea that it wasn’t quite real.
And then, Obama, in trying to explain it, says, “Oh no, religion is very important to people. It helps them to -.” It’s like he was still doing a functional analysis of religion. So my question is, is the reality of religion as a psychological phenomenon, even if it’s universal, even if it’s grounded in human nature – How many people who consider themselves religious in this country and the world generally are going to be able to reconcile this way of talking and thinking about religion with their belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that that is the ultimate reality? Whether I exist is not – it’s not like Jesus is something in my head. He’s the real thing and I could be here or not.
NEWBERG: I think it depends a lot on the perspective of both the scientist who is doing whatever study is coming out and then the people themselves who are looking at it. I agree with what David said earlier, that part of the problem right now is that a lot of people who are studying – You mentioned the guy who made the helmet that induces religious experiences and so forth. He’s a very fairly staunch atheist. I think when you have somebody who says, “Here is the brain scan when somebody is meditating or praying or whatever. It’s all in your head, and there is no God,” that’s not going to be met very well by people from a lot of different faiths.
I’ve tended to try to take – and hopefully have done so successfully – a different perspective, which is to say that regardless of whether you believe in God or not, we’re here to ask, how is this affecting you? When I have talked to people who are fairly fundamentalist in their religious beliefs, they don’t really – I haven’t come across people having too much trouble with what we’ve been saying, because all we’re saying is that if you pray or if you have a belief in God or whatever, this is what happens inside of you.
But I think you’re absolutely right, the problem – and I have this discussion with my colleagues – is the causal relationship. Is it causing it, and religion is just derivative, or is religion this other thing, and we’re just trying to do our best to understand it and to provide a new perspective? I think if you take that view, then people of a lot of different religions don’t have too much trouble with it. But if you take the other view that religion becomes derivative of our biology, then people will take exception to it.
I think it’s a very important point because too often people – I mean, when you listen to me talk about all these brain scans, it starts to sound reductionistic. And I don’t think it has to be. But a lot of people do take it that way.
BROOKS: There’s a guy named Malcolm Jeeves who writes about this constantly, who I recommend.
CROMARTIE: The psychiatrist.
BROOKS: One could easily say what Andrew is describing is the mechanism God uses. I mean, we have a mechanism for going up and getting a bar mitzvah. It’s your arms and legs. So that’s the physical mechanism. But God is responsible for it. So a lot of it doesn’t necessarily conflict with religious belief.
I think the specific themes that come out of the research do make a lot of things more problematic for secular people, and the permanent nature of men and women being different is one of the ways this, as E.O. Wilson has found, crashes into a lot of popular belief. I think the diminution of free will is going to be a fundamental problem.
On the other hand, I think the incredible emphasis on emotion and love is going to be something a lot of people will welcome and find solace in and support for, some fundamental religious ways of looking at the world. But I don’t think it determines one way or the other. You can just say God created this process.
NEWBERG: If we do brain scans of everybody thinking about their loved one – I can show you that your amygdale lights up when you love your spouse or your child or whatever – that doesn’t change your relationship. That doesn’t change the fact that you love them or anything like that. In fact, you might just say, “So that’s how it affects me so deeply.” But it wouldn’t change your feelings about it. And I think most people who are religious – who I’ve talked to at least – tend to look at it that way.
But the other thing that sometimes comes up is this sense of artificiality. People say, “What happens if you find out that you can take a drug, and it creates a spiritual experience? It’s artificial.” But if you look at shamanic cultures that have utilized various psychopharmacological substances, when they take that, they know they need that drug for that experience, but it makes the experience that much more real for them. That’s how they get into the spiritual realm. It doesn’t negate the spiritual realm; it is just the vehicle, so to speak, by which it happens.
REBECCA SINDERBRAND, CNN: I’m noting the absence of the tie. I don’t know if this signals a new phase of the discussion. (Laughter.)
NEWBERG: This is the mystical portion of the show.
SINDERBRAND: My question comes back to what we were talking about at lunch, about people who radically change their world view in some fundamental way: people who go from liberal to conservative, people who go from agnostic to religious, or from one religion to another religion. If you have that shift in your baseline reality in how you view the world, you seem to hold those beliefs more strongly. Everyone observes that. We were saying it’s tough to see the process that takes place, because one of the things about surprising shifts is they’re a surprise. You never know when they’re going to happen.
But in terms of the people afterwards, those people who you’ve interviewed, is there some common thread that runs through, some physiological – people who might be more inclined to be able to make those breaks? And also, just taking that to its practical conclusion – If you’re a political party or a religion, and you’re looking for the people who are most likely to want to shift, is there a message that is more likely to reach people whose minds are open in that way?
NEWBERG: Wow, some good questions. Part of my answer to most of them is going to be, I don’t know for sure. But what I can say about the transformative aspect is people are starting to try to study that. There were actually several projects done in the past couple years – I don’t even think the data is out yet – trying to explore the spiritual transformation that occurs in people. Most of them have not been physiological; they’ve been more subjective. As you mentioned, they seem to create very powerful permanent changes for people. They change the way they think about themselves, about the world, about relationships, about everything.
In some of the surveys we’ve done of people’s own experiences, they tend to describe them as incredibly real. They describe them as having a greater sense of being interconnected with the world or with God. So there are certain subjective features that seem to be universal. But no one, to my knowledge, has done the physiological work you’re talking about.
I’m hoping we’re going to get some funding for a study to explore something called the Ignatian retreat, which is a 30-day retreat borne out of the Jesuit tradition, which often creates a spiritual transformation. Now, it’s a little different than what you’re talking about because you’re talking about going from left to right or right to left as opposed to going from being Christian to being really Christian, which still could be – (Laughter).
But nonetheless, just to see that process and those changes could be really helpful. Like I said, my general answer to all of your questions is: We really don’t know. And because of that, we also don’t know what will be the most effective ways of inducing that kind of change. But what we do know is that the way in which you engender that effect is through something rhythmic and persistent that affects people on multiple sensory levels.
But why it ultimately clicks in for that one individual and why that’s the case, it’s never completely certain. I think we have a lot to learn about it. So that’s a good question for future studies.
ANA MARIE COX, TIME: I have a few questions about the first part, Andy. You may have covered this in your fascinating presentation, and I would just like more clarity on it. I’m wondering if all beliefs look alike, physiologically or scientifically. We can believe a lot of different things, like I believe this table is here; I believe the Iraq war was unjustified; I believe I love my husband. But do they look the same when they’re challenged?
Related to that, you suggested there’s something qualitatively different about a religious brain and an atheist brain. And relating back to the idea that all beliefs, if they do look alike: Is it the strength of belief that makes a difference? And if there’s anything to this idea sometimes put forward by the Christian right that secular humanism and Darwinism are in themselves a kind of religion?
Then I have two question for David.Did your U of C friend suffer brain injury in his Golden Gloves boxing match?
BROOKS: Not in that instance. (Laughter.)
COX: Okay, good. I was worried.
It would be interesting to scan my brain during David’s talk because I found myself having a strong negative reaction to your conclusion. This is getting back to what Barbara was talking about, when you were saying that in this field, scientists believe religion has to have a purpose and that all religions are arbitrary. Maybe it’s because, for me, being a liberal Democrat, I find those kinds of things get said about pointy-headed liberal intellectuals, and I find them to be stereotypes. So I just want to observe my own strong reaction and maybe Andy can comment on that or inject me or something.
NEWBERG: Sure, I’d be happy to.
COX: (Chuckles.) Then, I did have a real question about that, which is what specific writers or anecdotes or surveys do you have to back up this rather sweeping generalization? Then also, what’s so bad about soft-core Buddhism?
BROOKS: Did I say there was anything bad about it?
NEWBERG: The first question you asked was about all beliefs being similar. On one level, everything we think probably involves a slightly different neural connection. In fact, they’ve done some interesting studies where if you look at a picture of a particular person, like a famous person, they find a certain set of neurons fire when you see – I’ll keep it in the political realm. If you look at a picture of Hillary Clinton, there’s a certain set of neurons that will fire when you look at her. That will be different than the set of neurons that fires when you look at Obama.
Some people are now trying to reliably assess what the brain patterns of activity are for a whole bunch of different things people are thinking, to the extent that you might actually be able to predict what they’re looking at or what they’re thinking about based on what their brain pattern is. And obviously, because our brain science is fairly inexact at this point, we really can’t look at a whole – When I show you that area, that swath of the brain that has increased in red, there could be millions of neurons in there. We don’t know if it’s one, two, 20, or all million of them that are active. So people are trying to look at that particular question.
I have seen a study where they did try to compare people saying, “I believe in God” versus “I believe Toyota makes cars.” They find they are activating general areas of the brain that are fairly similar. That is the part where we seem to be headed. So yes, there is going to be an individual neuron for each thing. But the general aspects of how we formulate our beliefs, I think, are relatively similar.
I’ll go onto your last question. I would agree that science, Darwinism, all of that, are beliefs. They are ways in which we try to understand our world. Science is obviously wonderful at helping us to figure out our physical world. But it is based on certain beliefs about how the world works and how we can observe the world and how statistics work and how we should create designs of studies and things like that. It’s based on a different approach to understanding that world than religion is, perhaps. But I think fundamentally, they are all still beliefs.
The question I always get asked is when somebody like Richard Dawkins says, “Why do people believe in God when there isn’t any evidence that God exists?” Well, he’s talking about a particular kind of evidence. And yes, maybe there isn’t scientific evidence for it. But if you go to a church or a synagogue, I always say, you’ll find people who have tons of evidence that God exists in their lives. It may not be evidence he is willing to accept, but nonetheless it’s still evidence. So I do think everything we think about the world ultimately comes down to belief.
I think the strength of the belief is also a very important factor, which I don’t think has really been looked at yet. But it may have some important implications for how and why we hold the beliefs we do. It goes back to the transformational question, too. Are you more likely to get a transformation if you have somebody who has strong beliefs or somebody who is on the fence? It tends to be, I think, people who have really strong beliefs one way who then flip very strongly to believe the other way. But I think all of these are very important questions for us to look at in the future.
BROOKS: I not only have answers to your question; I have a theory about your question. (Laughter.) My theory is I carry the label “conservative,” and the label “conservative” sets off certain neural patterns in your head that make you think that, as a conservative, I have reasonably strict spiritual beliefs or traditional religious beliefs, and therefore would be hostile to Buddhism – (Laughter) – and would be hostile to pointy-headed intellectuals who think the differences between religion are arbitrary. All I would say is don’t over-generalize. (Laughter.)
UNIDENTIFIED: (Off mike) – using the Drew Westen method here.
BROOKS: Am I? (Chuckles.) We can talk about that.
When you look at the body of the research I was trying to describe, one of the things that impresses a lot of the scientists is the commonality among the different religions. They are trained to think about human nature because they are trained to look at things they can measure. And when they look at individual brains they find, despite what Jeremiah Wright said, that they’re basically the same, they work basically the same, and the differences emerge gradually, in that standard storyline, from 10,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago, and that when you look at all the different religions, they have incredible numbers of commonalities. I would invite you to read E.O. Wilson; Consilience is a great book on this, and Jonah Lehrer’s is another very good book on this.
COX: So did I completely misunderstand you in that last part of your presentation where it seemed to me you were a little bit wistful about this change in science?
BROOKS: Wistful in a –
COX: Saying that there is no room for the soul. When you were describing what these scientists believe, it seemed you were not necessarily casting it in a neutral light. Let’s put it that way.
BROOKS: Hmm. I would say I was hostile to the militant materialism in the first third of my little talk. I was welcoming of the greater room for spirituality in the second third of my talk, and then I was genuinely agnostic about -I was just trying to predict where I think these findings will – what sort of influence they’ll have on the culture, and I’m generally agnostic on whether that’s good or bad.
NEWBERG: One of the things I hope will come out of a more rigorous approach to these issues will be addressing that kind of question. I had often thought there would be a great deal of commonality we would see in the scans. And to some extent, on the scan level, we do see that. In this survey we’ve been acquiring information on, we’re actually getting just the opposite. When we ask people about their religious and spiritual beliefs it’s all over the place, and I think that part of the issue is how we define our terms, even how we ask questions.
If you give people an open-ended question, saying, “Tell us about your experience,” you get a much broader variety of responses. In fact, very few people describe their experience as giving them a greater sense of unity and interconnectedness and oneness, for example. But when we asked the question, “Did you feel more connected?” over 80 percent of the people said yes, but very few people used that in their description of the actual thing. So again, you get into all these interesting methodological questions about how you ask your questions.
Of course, the big problem with science is that, as scientists, we love to group things. It’s much easier for us to say, “Let me have all of you do the same exact thing, and I’m going to pool all of your data together, and I’m going to find out what’s statistically significant,” instead of saying, how did you do that; how did this person do that, how did that person do that, and what’s different, what’s similar. I think, partially, we have to wait for the science to catch up with our ability to understand the individual. We’re not as good with that as we are with looking at the whole group.
BROOKS: Have you noticed differences among denominations or different religions in the way people respond to these various surveys?
NEWBERG: We’re starting to look at that, and there are differences, because we’re asking people what their current religion is, what their original religion is, and then we go into a whole bunch of different scales and questions. There are differences; some of them are a bit more intuitive, in terms of how people view God, people’s openness to certain issues. Some differences are a little less intuitive. So the short answer is we’re still working on it, but that data does exist. As it comes down the road, I’ll be happy to share it with you.
LAUREN GREEN, FOX NEWS: I thought it was interesting, Andrew, when you were talking about is it different if somebody believes in this or somebody believes in that? It’s interesting if somebody believes in God, or they have the same response to a great Toyota or something like that. But when a plane is going down, people don’t say, “Oh Toyota.” They say, “Oh God.” And I think that’s –
UNIDENTIFIED: Or, “If only Toyota had built this plane.” (Laughter.)
GREEN: I’m just saying the gut-level reaction is to reach out to something that can save you rather than take an intellectual approach to it.
I wanted to ask you, though, about belief systems. One of the things I’ve heard Dr. Tim Keller and others talk about is that it’s not an option of, “If you believe.” The option is what you believe in. Do you find your data supports that, that people will believe in something rather than nothing because there’s really no option for it?
NEWBERG: I do think people will ultimately believe in something. To some degree we have no choice but to do that. We have to try to make some sense out of whatever we want to make sense of in the world. Therefore, to believe in absolutely nothing would be almost untenable, I think.
GREEN: (Off mike) – are your experiences more powerful than the religion you are taught? One of the things we see is this disconnect between what their faith says they should believe in and how they actually live their lives, which is why you’ve got a high percentage of Catholics who are pro-abortion. Let’s take the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood, where intellectually you know this is wrong, but practically you’re still engaging in it. So what happens in the brain when your experiences override your religious beliefs?
NEWBERG: I think that’s where beliefs get tricky in terms of how we understand them. That’s where some of David’s work in looking at the unconscious mind and these other forces – There may be physiological things going on that we simply are unable to control or are unable to control well.
When you look at the priesthood – In fact, I was going to add that as one of my slides, because there is some evidence about the physiological underpinnings of pedophilia: When they scan them, they have higher levels of activity in some of these emotional areas of the brain and also some of the sexual areas of the brain. So part of what you can ask is: If you have somebody who has got a normal functioning frontal lobe but their emotions or sexual drives are much higher, perhaps they simply can’t control it?
Ultimately they still have to figure out some other way of putting all this together into some coherent picture. How can I be a priest and yet still do this other thing? I didn’t have the opportunity to interview any of those people in terms of how they actually compartmentalize and rationalize that. But the brain is notoriously good at being able to compartmentalize and make sense of things the general public, if they looked at it, would say, “How could you possibly do this?” But sometimes, people will respond anyway because they just have no other choice.
GREEN: (Off mike) – progressive? Did they come out of the womb like that, predestined for that kind of behavior, or did something in their experiences determine that?
NEWBERG: I agree with what David said about – I don’t know if you can differentiate nature and nurture a whole lot. Most likely the answer is yes, it’s probably a little of both. There probably is something inherent about the individuals who become criminals and pedophiles that is different from people who don’t. But there may also be other environmental factors that ultimately weigh in as well.
Maybe they’re born with a predisposition but if they grew up in one kind of environment – a very nurturing supportive environment – they would have been okay, but because they grew up in an abusive environment, that tipped them over. Most of the evidence suggests it is a little bit of both. It’s rarely just one way or the other. These are some important questions for us to think about, in terms of how do we look at the discordance of different beliefs?
What we do talk about a lot in our book is how people can be made to be immoral simply by putting them in certain environmental scenarios. We were talking about this at lunch: Stanley Milgram experiments where people were shocking other people simply because a guy with a white coat was saying, “Please shock this person.”
GREEN: (Off mike) – Zimbardo?
NEWBERG: Zimbardo, the prisoner experiments – right, exactly. Here again, normal people go way off the wall simply because they are put into a certain condition. Again, it is environment but it’s also – unfortunately it’s built into all of us. When push comes to shove, we don’t always know how we’ll react. That’s something we have to think about.
,img alt=”Tom Foreman” src=”https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2012/07/foreman12.jpg” />
TOM FOREMAN, “THIS WEEK IN POLITICS,” CNN: You mention that anterior cingulate activity is up among liberals. (Laughter.) I thought I could hear something when I was near some of them. I thought, “Something is going on back there.” Is that something that is generally a more active area in younger people? And does it change with time – because we’ve all heard the old saying: “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart; if you’re not conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a head.” Is this a conscious decision, or are there some people who have a brain type that is predisposed to have activity in that area, and therefore they’re more likely to be liberal or conservative?
CROMARTIE: Or to be religious or irreligious?
NEWBERG: That’s actually something we are trying to look at. The answer I would give you at the moment is that on one hand, yes, I think there probably are people who may be built with higher levels of activity in the anterior cingulate or the frontal lobe, which enables them to look at the world a little differently than others. There’s probably a continuum. I’m sure it’s a continuum.
It goes back to the question about nature or nurture too. If they’re raised in a very open environment that allows them to question a lot of things, then that helps to enhance that function and brings it on into their later life. But if they’re given a very rigid environment, then it might ultimately shut that down to some degree.
FOREMAN: Does that part of the brain in everybody become less active as you get older?
NEWBERG: Yes, exactly. It does. When you look at age-related changes – and we’ve done this from a completely non-religious perspective – but interestingly, almost all functions of the brain start to deteriorate as time goes on, actually from the age – The highest levels of activity in the brain are actually in childhood. That’s when you have your highest levels of metabolism throughout all the different parts of the brain from the ages of about five to 10 or so.
Then in adolescence, things are starting to come down. Most of us are in this long, slow decline. But the frontal lobes, which include the anterior cingulate, are the areas that seem to be affected more as people get older. So it’s a good point.
FOREMAN: A related question: If a liberal were trying to change the mind of a conservative, or a conservative were trying to change the mind of a liberal, could you say, “Here’s the part of the brain involved in locking in on ideas” – If that part of the brain were stimulated by something other than the actual conflict, and it just became busier, would it become more apt to open up to the new idea?
NEWBERG: What we have been thinking about is very similar. It seems like the frontal lobes are very important for helping focus attention on something and then helping the limbic areas to write that into your memory. What we’ve been arguing is that if you diminish the activity in that frontal lobe, you take away your ability to focus on your existing ideas. It might make you more susceptible to something new, some new idea.
That’s why we thought this speaking-in-tongues data was interesting. It also gets back to the transformative question, which we have at least hypothesized, that when you start to meditate or pray, you increase your activity in the frontal lobes like we showed. But if you get to that transformative moment, you might experience a drop of activity in that frontal lobe, and that may be part of what totally transforms your brain into a whole new way of thinking.
A more practical example of how that might work is hypnosis. Some of the studies done on hypnosis show a reduction of activity in the frontal lobe. So you take the frontal lobes offline – your consciousness, your willful holding onto your ideas and beliefs – and it gives you an opportunity to become more open to suggestion.
Now, how you do that outside a hypnosis setting or a meditation setting, I don’t know. But to me, that would be partially how I might try to create a difference in how somebody is thinking: You somehow affect their frontal lobe and take that frontal lobe function offline a little bit.
FOREMAN: A politician might be well served to not directly engage the issue that people are on fire about, but engage on other things to quiet that part of the brain and let them consider the possibilities.
NEWBERG: Yeah, exactly. If you disagreed with the way McCain thinks about the economy, and if he keeps hitting you with how he thinks about the economy, you’re just going to – Your frontal lobes turn on; your amygdala lights up, and you say forget it. Whereas, like you said, if you can get to a whole other perspective on what’s going on or distract you away from that, then it might be easier to start to work that in.
KATHY SLOBOGIN, CNN: David Brooks actually asked the question I was going to ask you, but I wasn’t sure about your answer. You’ve compared the frontal-lobe activity of liberals and conservatives but have you done that same comparison among the religions? Like have you compared Christians to Buddhists or Christians to Muslims? I know you said you’re doing some of this but I wasn’t sure whether you actually had results yet.
NEWBERG: Yeah, we haven’t done that. I’m sorry.
SLOBOGIN: You haven’t done that. Okay, are you interested in doing that?
NEWBERG: Absolutely. That would be very interesting. I shouldn’t say we haven’t done that. We do have scans of different practices and different traditions. So we have the opportunity now to be able to look at that, but we probably need to get more subjects – Ultimately, we need more people in each of those different categories. When I was talking about the religion concept, that would be where I would really love to see us go.
If we could get 10 or 20 people from each tradition, each coming in, getting their baseline brains to see similarities and differences, having them engage in different practices, similarities and differences. I think the information out of that would be incredible.
SLOBOGIN: The other question is: With the increased brain activity you have seen demonstrated in people doing prayers or speaking in tongues, have you also tried to see if you get that same activity from non-religious practices, like putting a child in their lap?
NEWBERG: Almost all the information and ideas we had about the different parts of the brain came from information we knew about other activities. We know that the frontal lobe is activated whenever we focus our attention. So when you’re writing your articles or columns, or when you’re focusing on trying to drive your car down the road, you activate the frontal lobe. That helps you to focus your attention. So it’s not a surprise that bringing your attention onto a spiritual object is also going to activate the frontal lobes.
What I have seen, which seems to be different, is that with religious activity you seem to engage many other parts of the brain you typically don’t see with simply trying to solve a math problem or driving down the street. But just to address your other question about – You were heading toward this issue about a continuum of beliefs. I think there is a continuum of these experiences.
Certainly a great mathematician or physicist who is constantly focusing on a problem, how to solve the motion of the planets or a mathematics problem or something like that, can have those ah-ha moments, those mystical moments that are not religious per se, but in many ways are probably somewhat similar at least subjectively and probably physiologically to what a religious or spiritual person would have.
I do agree though that ultimately, while our religious and spiritual ideas may be built to some degree upon the ways in which the brain already works, again, it seems to activate a much larger area of different structures in the brain. What it does create for the person – whenever they’re having that experience – is experiences of a fundamentally different nature than any other kinds of experiences we have. So it may go beyond purely the biology of what those experiences are. That’s something we don’t know. But even when we talk about the biology itself, it seems to go beyond what our usual level of experience is, and that’s part of it, I think.
ANDREW FERGUSON, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I was interested in some of what David was saying about the philosophical consequences of this. You said that militant atheism or materialism seems to be on the retreat. That hasn’t been my reading of most of this, even in the stuff that’s come out in the last six years or so. You mentioned Damasio and his book Descartes’ Error. The whole point of the book is to prove, as you say, that the soul – indeed the self – doesn’t exist, except for its philosophical construct. That strikes me as being a very materialistic point of view. You mention Pinker, E.O. Wilson. These guys are all on record as saying free will is essentially an illusion, and that to build a case for morality – this is Pinker’s formulation – you have to behave as if we had free will even though science, as he says, tells us we don’t. So where is this retreat of militant atheism?
BROOKS: I guess I differentiate. I think Pinker and Wilson are in one camp, which they are very upfront about; they are atheists. But I think Damasio is more what I think of as the mainstream. This is my impression from the reading. He wrote another book with the word Spinoza in the title, and I’ve forgotten the name of it.
UNIDENTIFIED: (Off mike.)
BROOKS: (Laughter.) – Machiavelli’s error, Aristotle’s Error?
NEWBERG: Was it Looking for Spinoza?
BROOKS:Looking for Spinoza. Where he comes out with Spinoza is what I was caricaturing is the Buddhist sense of vague spirituality. And I don’t know Spinoza well enough. I’ve read the book, but I’ve now forgotten the argument. What I remember of it is it comes out with Spinoza’s sense of this free-floating non-denominational spirituality. My sense, again, is that that’s where the mainstream is.
FERGUSON: (Off mike) – material. It’s an epiphenomenon of a purely material thing.
BROOKS: This is what Barbara and I were talking about in the break. I think he would say, if I’m not mischaracterizing him, that it does emerge somehow from the material processes of the brain. There’s a guy, Douglas Hofstadter, who is an Indiana University mathematician maybe – you quote him in your book. He has this idea that consciousness comes out of the emergent network of these feedback loops. He has this disturbing thing in his new book. Parts of it are incredibly spiritual in the way he talks. His wife died at a very young age, and he talks about her soul living on, but living on because there are echoes of the things she set off in his brain. That’s how he describes that. And then he says we all gradually fade away as those echoes diminish.
FERGUSON: (Off mike.)
BROOKS: Yes, and then there’s a disturbing thing, as I was going to say. He does have this concept, the way he says we think about consciousness and its emergence from networks. He says there is no reason to think consciousness could not emerge from a network of billions of tin cans. So, in that sense, that’s a definition of materialism. I find, in my reading, few who would say you could have consciousness without the tin cans or without the neurons –
FERGUSON: But fundamentally the point where I think most scientists would agree, if they were going to even get dragged into a discussion like this – which I think most of them wouldn’t want to do – is that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. That because we can’t register a soul or a self even, because we can account for all the actions we take without regard to free will, therefore the self and free will don’t exist. There’s no evidence.
BROOKS: I think a lot would say that.
FERGUSON: That’s a metaphysical point, it seems to me, that is built in to this methodology.
BROOKS: A lot would say – and I don’t understand this other position – but a lot would say there’s just non-overlapping magisteria, as they call it. There is the religious world that is over here, and then there’s the scientific world.
FERGUSON: When they say that, they mean one is good and the other one is -(Laughter.)
BROOKS: I hate to be their defender on this.
NEWBERG: I agree on one hand that – I’m not sure atheism per se, or that particular perspective, is weakening a whole lot at the moment. What I think is interesting though is that if you talk to a lot of people who are heavily engaged in the research enterprise of science, there is a heavy recognition of the limitation of what that can do.
When you talk about some of the philosophers and so forth who turn to science as a way of proving things in the world, anybody who has been engaged, especially in biomedical research, knows that to talk about proof is almost impossible. I think it’s something we have to be really cautious about, about how far we can take whatever we learn on an imaging study or some other study about the human consciousness, about the human brain or the human mind. It’s very, very difficult to be able to nail something down with such determinism that people would be able to say, “There is no free will,” or, “There is no God.”
I think that’s what David might have been – I don’t want to speak for him – but that’s what I have noticed at least. There are a lot of pretty high-level scientists these days who are starting to come back and take a look at these issues, and somewhat embarrassedly say, “I hate to say this, but there may be something to it. And I don’t understand it; I don’t understand what this means. But there really could be something to this.”
I’ve heard some really good scientists who were doing some ESP research. You say, “Gosh, I had a graduate student who wanted to do a study, and I let him do it. And it looks like it might be working,” that kind of thing. The more you get a lot of good researchers looking at it, because that’s also part of the problem – We had so much research being done that was not done well. The more you get top-name people – and you were talking about paradigm shifts the other night at dinner – you’re more likely to get that kind of a shift. Obviously, we still need a lot more data to be able to say one way or another, but we’re headed in some interesting directions.
BROOKS: I’ve got this Malcolm Jeeves essay, which I’ll give you. He’s a believer. And he has a whole series of quotations from various scientists. I’ll read one of them, from this from a guy named Christopher Stoski at the University of Montreal: “Obviously the external reality of God can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed by delineating neural correlates of religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences. In other words, the neuro-scientific study of what happens to the brain during these experiences does not tell us anything new about God.” That’s essentially the argument that God uses this mechanism. But that doesn’t really reflect on whether God exists or not.
FERGUSON: (Off mike) – if you ever get a scientist to stand up and actively dispute Pinker or Wilson, who is lionized, when they make these quasi-metaphysical claims about free will. But maybe Jeeves would.
NEWBERG: I think most people in the scientific community – We always hear about the ones who have written the books and who have made the bold statements, but I think there is a much larger mass – I don’t have any real evidence to support this but just from my own experience – who just genuinely don’t know but are really interested in trying to find out.
REIHAN SALAM, THE ATLANTIC: This is a prospective question, and the answer will necessarily be speculative. Some years ago I recall having read about amputees by choice, these folks who believe that their identity is – Like some people born in the bodies of men believe they are women, some people believe, “I’m born in the body of someone with two arms, but in fact I’m a person with only one” – and who have found each other via the Internet and have created guillotines and what-have-you to sever limbs, et cetera.
But the claim I saw advanced was that this phenomenon was really a social media phenomenon. Perhaps there have been people like this through the ages who have had this sentiment, and yet until they found each other, this belief didn’t actually harden and become something they felt they could act upon.
Similarly, the French government has been very aggressive in combating the proliferation of pro-anorexia websites, thinking that they ought to take an epidemiological approach to the origin and persistence of beliefs about anorexia. Given some of what we’re learning, or rather what we think we’re learning, about the origins and persistence and spread of beliefs, do you think we’re going to see more paternalistic interventions to combat this stuff? Do you think that might be wise, particularly when it comes to something like amputees by choice, anorexia and other things that offend our sensibilities, and where younger people, who are a lot more plastic, might be more susceptible?
NEWBERG: I think we always have to be very cautious about how much we intervene with individual people’s beliefs. But when you do see beliefs that seem to be very destructive, especially to the individual, then I would imagine there would be a greater amount of trying to intervene with that. But again, it becomes difficult. You get into these philosophical conundrums, such as how destructive is a belief for somebody who is doing something to themselves but not doing something to society?
I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question real well. But I would imagine, knowing that the social influences are very strong in that regard, that there would probably be some effort to find ways – At least it would be very worthwhile to understand the dynamics of that process and to see whether or not it can be broken, especially in the context of something really negative happening, either to an individual or to society.
BROOKS: I can’t remember if I read this in your book or another, but somebody described how rewarding it is to be a cutter for people, especially young women.
NEWBERG: That wasn’t my book.
BROOKS: That wasn’t your book?
NEWBERG: I don’t think so.
BROOKS: Oh well, but apparently it does release very pleasurable chemicals, for people in certain circumstances obviously. It is a case where morality is offended by biology.
LEHMANN: I got the sense, David, that you were suggesting toward the end that research may be building to the point where atheism could be seen not as just a cognitive misapprehension of reality but perhaps as maladaptive, which would raise the question of was the last 150 years of scientific research just a mistake, or conclusions arising from that research, and how you would finesse that question.
The other question I had is also for David. The prospect of empirically denying the idea of free will seems to create a tension with the content of many people’s religious beliefs, and for most people who hold certain beliefs fast, it’s pretty critical to them to feel they have chosen that belief. That’s also a question for Andrew: At what point does the methodology seem to derange the content of the beliefs you’re studying?
BROOKS: I’m not sure I would argue that atheism is maladaptive. I’m not sure I buy the idea that belief systems survive or not in a Darwinian fashion. It has to do with the modes of intellectual fashion or I don’t know what. But I don’t think atheism is maladaptive; I don’t think the rise of science has necessarily led to atheism.
LEHMANN: I guess I would put the question to Andrew. Has there ever been a population that has not had a religion? I guess I was teasing that out.
BROOKS: No, I think a spiritual drive to meaning, as they would say, is very deep in human nature. And it could lead to atheism; it could lead to a thousand things. Sometimes a question is just a question. (Laughter.)
But as for free will, my own view is that our free will is there, and our everyday experience confirms it. I believe in our every day experience more than I believe in what a lot of these scientists say. But one of the things that clearly is diminished is the range of that. One of the things – you can come up with a thousand examples of this – are people whose choices have been influenced one way or another for reasons they are not aware of. The most trivial but interesting to me is the fact that people named Dennis are disproportionately likely to be dentists, and people named Lawrence are disproportionately likely to be lawyers, and people named Georgia are disproportionately likely to move to Georgia. Now these are –
BROOKS: Probably both. There is a guy at the University of Buffalo who has made his career proving this. The effect is not huge but it is significant, and it’s been backed up again and again and again. And people tend disproportionately – again slightly but more so than you’d expect – to marry people with similar first initials to their names. There are a whole series of gravitational pulls. And these are some of the most important choices we make: our career, who we marry. The fact that they’re influenced even a little by the sound of a word in ways people are not aware of – that’s just one example. There are literally thousands of these examples.
LEHMANN: (Off mike) – very powerful.
BROOKS: (Chuckles.) My joke is that’s why I’m calling my kid, “President of the United States.” (Laughter.)
But all these subconscious processes do have some influence. I don’t think they rob us, A, of responsibility or B, of the freedom to choose. But one is struck by the number of scientists who do believe that, who really do think that.
NEWBERG: You could name your kid Preston, for president.
I have a couple of things I want to say in respect to that. One of the areas that has fascinated me recently has been the issue of the negative consequences of beliefs and religion, the negative consequences of atheism and so forth. If you look at the studies of religion in the United States recently, we generally find there’s a positive correlation between health, overall outcomes, mortality, better psychological states, less depression and so forth, in people who are more religious, however one defines that, than people who are not.
What a couple people have reflected upon is that it does depend a lot on the social-cultural milieu. So in the United States today, it’s pretty okay to be religious, so if you are religious, you do well. If you were a religious person in the Soviet Union, you didn’t do so well. Your overall mortality was down and your anxiety was up because you were in a different context. There have been some interesting studies where – and I think it wasn’t in the Soviet Union but in one of the Eastern Bloc countries or something like that – they followed some groups of monks and nuns longitudinally and found that under Soviet power they did worse, and then once that was relieved they started to do much better. So there is that interesting issue of how it exists within the context of a greater social influence.
But also in the context of negative aspects – and a couple of you have touched on this – we see this in the healthcare setting, when people who come down with cancer or whatever start to look at God in a very negative way: “I was a good person; why am I now being afflicted by this? Why is God angry at me? Maybe God’s punishing me.” That can have very disastrous effects for people because now they feel being sick is part of what’s supposed to happen to them, and they don’t try to get better, and they don’t try to overcome whatever situation it is.
That becomes important for us to understand when people are dealing with something that might be considered a spiritual conflict for them, that they can’t simply overcome or can’t overcome easily, and that we have to figure out how to help them do that. We need to have the research to work through that. It’s obviously not just purely a biological consequence.
Somebody else also raised – this goes back to the transformative thing – that when people have transformative or mystical experiences, those experiences can’t be contained within a religion; they’re bigger than religion itself, and for many people that’s a wonderful thing. For some people, it’s a horrible thing. You know, they’re embarrassed to talk to their family about this near-death experience they had; they’re embarrassed to talk to their minister or priest about it because they think they’re going to be shunned. People are going to tell them they’re crazy. There’s been that very interesting dichotomy of wanting to have people have this spiritual, almost supernatural experience, and yet at the same time, rejecting it.
The same is true in terms of health itself; there have been some interesting examples where religions tend to shun people with AIDS, sick with various illnesses, but on the other hand there’s the compassionate side that says, “But we have to help these people.” So we see these weird dichotomies. But again, that’s part of what we see in all of us, that we all are confronting these alternative options.
SAM HODGES, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS: Dr. Newberg, I was wondering if you know if anybody’s done brain science research on 12-step programs, and if not, if you can imagine whether that could be done.
NEWBERG: To my knowledge, no, I haven’t seen anybody do that. But obviously, there’s been a lot of research on that, and there are some very intriguing similarities, of course, between the religious elements of them and the more global religious and spiritual concepts people hold.
But there’s some uncertainty in the literature as to whether or not it’s really the spiritual context itself, that belief in the higher power, that is the overriding motivational factor, or whether it’s the social interaction, or the ability to stand up and say, “I am an alcoholic, and I’m trying to deal with it.” We don’t know for sure. Some people have said, “Does the addiction to God, to the higher power, replace the addiction to the substance?” We’re not clear about that, whether it’s just shifting or where and how it actually works. To my knowledge, no one has done the imaging study for it. But it would be very interesting.
Where this could be valuable is that discussion about transformative aspects, because you know that somebody who’s about to enter it has a problem, and you watch them come out on the other end. So maybe it’s something that could be done and be really valuable.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: One quick question and then a follow-up. I’ve asked you this before, and I don’t know if there’s any new research, about finding these asymmetrical thalami. You see what other researchers have looked at, like Richard Davidson who has looked at Buddhist monks and found their brainwave activity is different than normal brains. What I’m wondering is which came first, the asymmetrical thalami that made people tend to be more spiritual, or was it the spiritual practice of these nuns and monks that changed their brains. Do we have any idea?
NEWBERG: At the moment, no. It’s the famous chicken-and-the-egg question, and it goes back to, again, the nature-nurture thing, too. My guess is there’s probably a little bit of both. There’s probably something that predisposes people to be – As somebody mentioned earlier, they’ve tried different meditations and for some, you sit down and get this incredible experience and then for others, they sit there, and they’ve tried a million different kinds, and it still doesn’t work for them.
So I think there is something to the fact that certain people are predisposed to it, but then I think the more they engage it, there’s also that ability to get into it more and more deeply. My example’s always been if everybody in the world started to practice tennis five hours a day, we’d all be pretty darn good tennis players, but there would still be the Roger Federers of the world. To some extent, the more we practice a certain thing, the more likely we are to have those kinds of experiences. So it’s a little bit of both, and that’s probably true both from a spiritual perspective as well as from a biological one.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: (Off mike) – to maybe take a brain scan of people before a really dangerous operation, for example. See what the brains are like, then, if they have a near-death experience you see if their brains are different, or something like that. Or AA programs, you know; take the brain scan when they enter –
NEWBERG: We’re starting to do some of that longitudinal work. We haven’t specifically focused on that, but we’re starting to take people who have never done practices like meditation, scan them ahead of time, study them ahead of time, and then have them go through this practice. If I were here at this conference about six months from now, we would hopefully have a lot of data on what the effects are and what the longitudinal effects are, and it might answer those questions.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: I’m curious about this cognitive process of change because, one, you do talk to people; I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had spontaneous mystical experiences or near-death experiences, or they’ve taken psychedelic drugs and somehow that jump-started their spiritual lives. Then you have other people who may pray on a daily basis, or meditate on a daily basis, and they may get to the same point, but do we have any idea about the cognitive process of changing your brain? We probably understand it with the meditators, but do we have any way to understand what happens with spontaneous stuff?
NEWBERG: At the moment, no. To me, one of the two fairly intriguing possibilities is – It’s very difficult for us to imagine how the brain just completely rewires itself; that would just be impossible based on what we currently know. No, it’s still possible, I guess, but that would be very difficult for us to understand from the perspective of what we know now.
So to me, the options would be that either there are these unconscious or other areas of the brain we’re not fully tapped into, and then that moment happens, and we channel something into a different direction, and we have this whole new way of looking at the world. Or it’s a more subtle shift of many different areas of the brain sliding over a little bit to the left, so to speak, or a little to the right, that the connections were there but now, all of a sudden, because they were highly energized in that particular transformative moment, they now lock in and alter the overall patterns of activity in the brain. But I’m just throwing out some hypotheses. We really have no clear view of that yet because no one’s really studied the difference before and after those experiences.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: (Off mike) – figure that out? A study to do that?
NEWBERG: Like you said, we could study people who are more likely to have such an experience, maybe people who are about to go in for bypass surgery or something like that, where they’re more likely to have a near-death experience, or a specific program that might be transformative and try to see what the differences are. I mentioned the Ignatian retreat; we’re trying to explore that to see whether or not we can observe the physiological changes that go along with the transformative aspects people feel subjectively.
BROOKS: One thing that struck me throughout the past couple hours is that because we’re Americans, we’ve tended to ask about the changes or transformations in individual brains. But one of the incredibly powerful themes running through a lot of this is the interaction between brains, the desire to be with somebody else, the mirror neurons that are copying other people at all times.
Because of our technology, until recently we’ve had trouble observing two people at the same time experiencing the same thing. The technology isolates an individual and studies one brain at a time, in general. But it is always worth reminding ourselves that when we think about why somebody changes their mind or has a spiritual experience, it almost always has to do with some network of connected brains.
NEWBERG: Absolutely. We are at the point where we could theoretically do that and see some potentially dramatic effects.
PARKER: Going back to the liberal versus conservative brain, if liberal activity tends to take place more often in younger brains, and if brains all deteriorate with age – (Laughter) – is what we have considered maturity actually a function of brain deterioration? And companion to that question, has there been any research done on the effect of children on our brains and how they function thereafter? (Chuckles.)
NEWBERG: I think normally children cause sleep deprivation, that is the main thing. As to your first question, I’m not sure. Obviously, there are plenty of young people who are Republicans too, who are conservative, so it’s not just one thing or another. But it’s an interesting question in the context of how the brain is balanced and functions as integrated whole, and what happens to it over time.
I’m not sure if I’m answering your question directly, but we did a paper on spiritual development and how all of us change over the course of our lifetimes. It’s interesting how well that parallels what’s going on in the brain itself. So for example, from the age of about two to about eight or so, that’s the time of the greatest number of connections in our brain; we have the greatest amount of metabolism going on in our brain, and there are many more connections than what we all have now. So it makes sense that that’s the age when lots of weird connections are being made, and you get those weird, creative things going on. In that sense, maybe we all have something to benefit from, at least in terms of the creative impulse of children.
As we get older, things start to be pared back, and we get more concrete in the way we think about things, and we start to bring in our rational elements as well. As you get older some of those areas start to go offline, and you start to lose the frontal lobe activity and some of the abstract abilities, and your ideas start to change a little bit, they start to evolve. Some people talk about as you get much older you might even start to get into more universalizing processes because now you’re having a harder time holding on to any particular concept.
PARKER: (Off mike) – so much fun. (Laughter.)
NEWBERG: The sad but also interesting part is that if you do a brain scan of somebody who’s got very severe dementia, it looks exactly like an infant’s brain. All the higher areas of the brain are not working, and basically you have sensory and vision and all the sub-cortical areas that govern your basic body functions. But you don’t have any of the higher cortical areas.
PARKER: On that note. (Laughter.)
NEWBERG: So hang on to those neurons.
CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. Let’s thank both of our speakers. (Applause.)
This written transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar and accuracy and by Andrea Useem.