Neurotheology: The Experience of Getting Outside of Your Brain
Neurotheology is a way of trying to understand the subjective nature of the mind.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine. Andrew has been asking questions about reality, truth, and God since he was very young, and he has long been fascinated by the human mind and its complex workings. While a medical student, he met Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, who was studying religious experiences. Combining their interests with Andrew’s background in neuroscience and brain imaging, they were able to break new theoretical and empirical ground on the relationship between the brain and religion.
Andrew’s research now largely focuses on how brain function is associated with various mental states—in particular, religious and mystical experiences. His research has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states, as well as surveys of people's spiritual experiences and attitudes. He has also evaluated the relationship between religious or spiritual phenomena and health, and the effect of meditation on memory. He believes that it is important to keep science rigorous and religion religious. Andrew has also used neuroimaging research projects to study aging and dementia, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Dr. Newberg has published over 100 research articles, essays and book chapters, and is the co-author of the best selling books, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine, 2001) and How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Ballantine, 2009). He has presented his research throughout the world in both scientific and public forums. He appeared on Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC's World News Tonight, National Public Radio, London Talk Radio and over fifteen nationally syndicated radio programs. His work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other newspapers and magazines.
His newest work is How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation.
To me one of the most interesting aspects of the spiritual experiences that we've studied is that if people get deep enough into the practice they feel as if they have kind of gotten outside of their brain.
They feel as if their consciousness or their mind or their soul, depending on how you define it, is somewhere beyond simply the mechanistic functions of the human brain. Now the brain scan can show the areas of the brain that seem to be active when they have the experience, but that seems to be a limit as to what science can tell us about human consciousness.
That's why to me the idea of neurotheology is a way of not just looking at the science, but also trying to understand the subjective nature of the mind, of consciousness. Those experiences are extremely important for us to look at and to look at systematically in terms of how they're perceived and also what and how they may be related to biology.
It certainly may be the case that our brain doesn't create consciousness, but somehow receives it. From the Buddhist and Hindu perspective that falls very much in line with the belief system that there is really a universal consciousness that we're a part of, that we tap into. On the other hand the more western tradition is that there isn't this ethereal area out there, that there isn't consciousness around. It's all just what's inside of our brain and I hope that this research may lead us to a better conclusion to better understand that.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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