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The Neuroscience of Religious Experiences: Andrew Newberg LIVE on Big Think

Megan: Welcome to Big Think Live. Our guest today is Andrew Newberg, a pioneer inthe neuro-scientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, also known as neuro-theology and author of the books "Principles of Neuro-theology and how God ChangesYour Brain". We're delighted to have him here to talk with us today about the science ofreligious experiences. Andrew, welcome to the program.

Newberg: Thank you for having me on your program.

Megan: So can you start by explaining for us what exactly is neuro-theology? Whatare the big questions that you're attempting to explain and understand through neuro-theology?

Newberg: Well for me neuro-theology is really the study of the relationship between religious and spiritual practices, experiences and phenomena and the human brain. That's the simple answer. For me, for neuro-theology to work as a concept I like the define and neuro and the theology side very broadly, so the neuro side includes the brain, but also includes psychology, behavior, all the different aspects that make up who we are as people, including our health. From the theology side it'snot just theology itself, but it's religious ideas, experiences, practices like meditation and prayer with the ultimate goal of kind of trying to bring these two disparate approaches or ideas together. Is there a way that we can use science to help inform us about religion and spirituality and are there ways that religion and spirituality help to inform us about science?

So to me neuro-theology is a very multidisciplinary integrated kind ofconcept, which gives us a lot of options to look at going into the future.

Megan: Great, so would you say you're addressing an inadequacy in contemporary science, that there is some hole that neuro-theology is filling?

Newberg: Well I think on one hand it's taking from what we already arebeginning to learn in the field of cognitive neurosciences, which has started to look at alldifferent kinds of aspects of human thoughts and behaviors, including things like loveand morality and so forth, so I think it makes sense that perhaps the most importantand powerful element of human history, which has been religion and spirituality issomething that we should also look at. So in that regard I think that it's taking from whatwe already have, but pushing it much further, but I also do think that one of the thingsthat is lacking in science sometimes is the ability to understand more thoroughly thesubjective nature of human experiences and also the metaphysical concepts that come up in the context of philosophy and spirituality and religion. I think neuro-theology can help to bridge that gap and that's something that traditional science tends not to do. Traditional science tends to be in the material world, in the physical world. I think for me neuro-theology is something that may ably be able to bridge both and inform us about both the very practical and the very esoteric. 

Megan: And so to that end you have the sort of surprising and rare distinctionof having studies Francis Skinnons [ph] Tibetan monks, Pentecostal speaking intongues in your lab. So can you tell us a little bit about what happened in those moments?

Newberg: Well we have done a lot of studies. Over 100 individuals havecome in doing different kinds of practices, different religious and spiritual practices, prayer, meditation and as you mentioned, speaking in tongues and what we use are avariety of different imaging techniques that get at the activity levels in the brain. Most of the techniques that we use including something call functional magnetic resonance imaging or FMRI or SPECT imaging which stands for single photon emission computedtomography. Both look at changes in blood flow in the brain and in general the brainworks in a very nice way that the more active a particular part is the more blood flow itgets. So we scan people while they are in prayer, in meditation and then we comparethat to some baseline state and what we've generally seen are all kinds of changes going on in the brain, which seem to depend in large part on what that person is experiencing and what they're doing.

Many of the practices like meditation and prayer involve the person focusing their attention, focusing on an object, a sacred idea, an image and when you focus your brain on anything you activate a part of the brain called the frontal lobe, which is rightbehind the forehead and that's exactly what we saw in our scans, that the frontal lobes in a lot of these practices where you're concentrating on something actually increases and another area of the brain that we've also been interested in is the parietal lobe and this is located in the back part of the brain. This normally takes our sensory information and tries to create for us a sense of ourselves, a sense of how we relate to the world and space. In these practices a lot of times people lose their sense of self and they lose their sense of space around them. What we have been finding in the scans is that there is an actual decrease of activity, a decrease of blood flow and hence activity in the this parietal lobe, in this orientation part of the brain, which we think is associated with that experience where if you decrease the area that's trying to give a sense of self you lose your sense of self.

So we're starting to see also where the similarities and differences are. For example, you mentioned the Buddhist mediators and the nuns. The Buddhist meditators were doing a visualization technique. They were visualizing a sacred object in their mind and they activate the visual areas of the brain, whereas, the nuns were actually doing a kind of prayer, which is a verbal based practice and therefore, they activate some of the language centers of the brain. So we're starting to see where the similarities are, where the differences are and it's giving us a much fuller idea about how all of these different practices affect us an individuals and of course you also mentioned the speaking in tongues, which in this particular case actually looked very different than those other practices because in speaking in tongues for those who aren't familiar with it it's an experience where a very religious person starts producing language that—or at least a vocalization I should which sounds like language, but really isn’t and for them it's a very deep spiritual experience.

When we looked at their brain scans instead of the frontal lobes going up the frontal lobes actually went down, but that actually makes sense in the context of what they are describing is happening to them because they don't feel that they're purposely making it. They feel that they are being basically overcome by the experience. They're allowing something to happen and basically they're shutting down their concentrative, their willful attention, so that they can allowthis particular experience to happen and the brain scan at least supports what they're describing is happening.

Now for them it's the spirit of God which is moving through them. I can't prove that or disprove that on the basis of a brain scan, but I can see the changes that are going on in the brain while they're engaged in this very, very powerful and very deep spiritual practice for them. 

Megan: Would you say that the brain is wired for these religious experiences or wired to believe in God?

Newberg: Well it certainly looks like the way the brain is put together makes it very easy for human beings to have religious and spiritual experiences. When we talk about the frontal lobes and parietal lobes and other areas of the brain like our emotional centers all of them are able to work together when people have these very powerful experiences. So it certainly seems like the apparatus is there for us to have these experiences and for us to engage them fairly easily and in that regard I would say yes, we are wired for these kinds of experiences. Of course again there is kind of the bigger question I well even if we are wired how did that wiring get there and is it there because of evolutionary forces that where religion and spirituality wind up being very adaptive for us as human beings and that's why it ultimately got into our brain or you take the religious explanation of course it makes sense that we would have a brain that is capable of perceiving God and connecting with God because it would be kind of fundamentally silly to have the disconnect where God is up there and we're down here and we have no way of ever having any kind of communication with God. It would make sense that we would have a brain that is able to do that.

So regardless of how it gets in there it does look like the brain is set up in such a way that enables these experiences to happen very easily and that's part of why I think you look throughout history religious and spiritual ideas have been there even since the dawn of civilization and pretty much have been the most powerful force drivinghuman history other than science and technology. 

Megan: That's a great point and it brings me to another question. Is there a chance that people throughout history like Joan of Arc or some of the saints were experiencing something very real to them and were not crazy or fundamentalists as they're often portrayed today?

Newberg: Well that's to me is always kind of the real big question that comes out of all this research, which is what do we make of the changes that we see inthe brain? Does it mean that the experiences are merely caused by the brain, in which case if we talk about people who have unusual religious experiences, you mentioned Joan of Arc, we think about the possibility that her brain was doing something abnormal. Maybe it had seizures or schizophrenia or something like that or do we look at religious and spiritual experiences, even the very what appear to be unusual ones as being real phenomena in some way or another? In that case then maybe the brain is simply reacting to the world around them, maybe even reacting to God. That allows them to have that experience.

When I teach this course on this very topic I really like to challenge my students about what is reality and what is normal and because if you define normal as somebody who hears voices then automatically you define anyone who has an image or the impression that they've heard God's voice as being crazy, but that's simply be definition and that may not necessarily be the case because there could be many circumstances where you have a very normal person who has a normal kind ofexperience. Maybe a normal person has an abnormal kind of experience, but I think again to me one of the real complexities is how do we know what's normal and how do we know what's not normal? How do we know what's real and how do we know what's not real?

When we look at brain scans for example if somebody imagines a particular object like a car or a looks at a car they tend to activate the same basic areas of the brain, so on the basis of a brain scan it's very difficult for us to really be able to say that the nun who experienced being in God's presence was really in God's presence or it was merely her brain perceiving it. All the brain scan does is tell us what she was doing when she had that experience and that's where I think neuro-theology begins to come in as a way of starting to look at these very complex philosophical questions in a little bit—from a different perspective. It doesn't take only the religious perspective and it doesn't take only the scientific perspective, but it's trying to find a way of bringing that together so that we can maybe get a little bit closer to the question that you asked. Where is the real reality and how do we truly understand the nature of these experiences?

Megan: Right. And so you were hinting I think at the fact that some of these things that we see when we're looking at people who are having religious experiences or meditating are also present in people who would consider themselves entirely secularor atheist. So I'm wondering if you could talk about some of those experiences in everyday secular life that might activate the brain in similar ways.

Newberg: Well one of the things that I think comes out of the research that we've done and I've certainly made this argument as well is that to me it would
make sense that there is a continuum of experiences and when we talk about the ability to concentrate. When people are engaged in very deep meditation practices, especially for spiritual purposes their ability to concentrate is unbelievable. When we talk about the loss of the sense of self and the sense of everything kind of connecting together and we talk about the parietal lobe that's very, very intense in people who have a spiritual experience, but as you alluded to we may expect to see these kinds of processes in a continuum across almost all the things that people experience in life and I'm sure almost everyone out there has at one point or another looked at a beautiful sunset and felt something. Maybe they felt connected to God, maybe they felt connected to the world, maybe they were just amazed at the beautiful aesthetic scenery around them and they felt something. So they felt something emotional. They felt connected to something and in that regard it's part of that continuum. Maybe on a slightly deeper level a lot of people have probably engaged in creative practices, painting, music, athletes when they're quote, unquote, in the zone. I mean all these different kinds of things are experiences that people have where they tend to lose their self a little bit and we think that what's going on are similar kinds of changes to what people feel when theyengage in a spiritual practice like meditation or prayer, but there is a continuum, but it is interesting because I certainly have had people who say that their spirituality is painting for example.

So for them it becomes a very intense experience. It's just that practices like meditation and prayer where the person can very systematically maintain a state are probably more likely to result in the most powerful kinds of experience that people have, but spirituality in and of itself is an interesting issue. One of the things I talk about in The Principles of Neuro-theology is how do we even define spirituality and we can define it scientifically. We can define it religiously, but people define it in lots of different ways and for some it is looking at a sunset. For some it's painting and for some it'sreligion.

It would be very interesting for us to then be able to develop studies that could help us understand are they really the same kinds of experiences or are they fundamentally different and that's something that we're still looking into. 

Megan: So we can we train the brain in your experience to achieve states like that, like flow, creativity, excellence in athletics, that adrenaline that you feel and also to become better at meditating?

Newberg: Well the studies are starting to show that, that in fact we can change the brain. In our book How God Changes Your Brain one of the central studies that we looked at was to take older individuals who actually had some memory loss and we trained them in a very specific kind of practice called curtinkrea [ph], which is a 12 minute a day practice and you basically just repeat some phrases over and over again, so it's a very simple practice. Anybody can do it. People can go online and find ways of doing it. It's very simple. When they did it for just 12 minutes a day over an 8 week period we scanned them before and after and we found very dramatic changes in their brain. We actually found that their frontal lobes were more active, not even—not only
while they were meditating, but actually while they were at rest.

So it implies that there was an actual fundamental change in the way in which their brain functioned as a result of doing a very simple practice for just 12 minutes a day. Similarly another very central structure in the brain called the thalamus, which takes a lot of our sensory information and brings that sensory information up to the rest of the brain as well as helps the different parts of the brain communicate with each other. Some people have actually suggested that the thalamus is the seat of consciousness. That was also dramatically changed by doing this practice. So to me the question is if these people who have never really done a practice before can affect this kind of a change in a very short period of time doing a very simple practice you can imagine what's happening in the nun's brain who is engaged in prayer hours and hoursa day for 50 years how that's changing her frontal lobe, her thalamus, all the other areas of the brain to change the way in which they look at reality even.

So we can train our brain. We can change the way it works and for example in the study that I was just mentioning that we did they actually improved memory, improved their ability to focus attention. It's like doing anything. The more you practice it, the more you do the more your brain continues to build into that particular approach to doing things. The more the neuro connections strengthen that support that idea, support that practice and if meditation is a kind of general strengthening of the brain then theoretically the affects would go over and spill over into many other domains of cognition. So it might not just help you to remember, but it might help you if you're getting lost when you're driving a car to find your way. It might help you be more focused when you're playing tennis or golf. It may help you to work better when you're at your job, so I mean these are some of the things now that we're starting to look at, but we can literally see changes in the brain as a result of doing these practices.

Megan: That's fascinating and I think also really empowering. Thank you. So the last question that we're going to end with today is a little speculative. We're wondering what you think about the brain and the mind possibly existing independentlyof each other as separate entities and whether consciousness might exist outside the brain.

Newberg: Well to me one of the most interesting aspects of the spiritual experiences that we've studied is that people if they get deep enough into the practice do feel as if they have kind of gotten outside of their brain. They feel as if they're 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 it can't necessarily answer that actual question. So at that point when we talked about the limitations of science a little while ago that seems to be a limit as to what science can tell us about human consciousness. That's why to me the idea of neuro-theology as 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.

So in my view it's certainly a possibility. 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. Maybe we can do some brain scans to better understand when people have the experience of being outside of their brain. Maybe we can design studies and actually there are some studies right now where people are looking at whether individuals can somehow get inside of their brain.

So there is a tremendous amount that we can begin to look at and study. There is great ways of trying to link it with the biology between the biology and the spiritual consciousness aspect of ourselves as human beings and to me there is just—this is to me why neuro-theology is such an exciting field because we have so much to look forward to and so many things to think about and to look at and for me the key is to be open to all the possibilities and that to me is also one of the real cruxes of neuro-theology, the idea that we need to have a passion for inquiry and we need to not limit ourselves to just what we know in science today, just what we know from a religious or spiritual perspective, but how do we start to look at all of these questions and how do we start to integrate them in a way that might get us a little bit closer to the big answers.

Megan: That's awesome. Thank you so much for being with us today Andrew. We invite our Big Think audience to check out Andrew Newberg's latest book How God Changes Your Brain. Please check back to to watch additional video clips from our conversation with David and to find out about future live interviews withour experts. Thanks for watching.

Interviewed by Megan Erickson

Edited / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd

This interview was originally broadcast live on on May 3, 2012. Newberg is a pioneer in the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, or neurotheology. Here he discusses his research on what happens in the brain during religious ecstasy and answers a few questions from viewers.

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Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

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Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

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This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

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Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

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Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

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As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.