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The Biology of Belief

You'd Think a High-Tech Snapshot of God Would Answer a Lot of Questions About the Convergence of Science and Religion. You'd Be Wrong.

July 15, 2001|Vince Rause | Vince Rause helped neuroscientist Andrew Newberg write the book "Why God Won't Go Away" (Balllantine Books)

On a wet, chilly night in early April, the Virgin Mary appeared in the attic of a row house just a few miles from my home. The Virgin manifested herself upon a sliding closet door as an oblong blur of soft golden light, suggesting the shape of a human figure draped in flowing robes. The owner of the house explained to a TV news reporter that the image only appeared at night, when the street lights came on and the casement window facing the street was swung open to just the proper angle. He revealed this information with a quiet reverence, as if it deepened, rather than dispelled, the mystery.

Outside the house, hundreds of people stood in a line that stretched for blocks, waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the miracle in the attic. I watched it all unfold on the television news, and as the camera panned across dozens of hopeful faces, I was preoccupied by two puzzling questions. First: How is it that in the most rationally enlightened society the world has ever known, so many people could be lured out into the drizzly night by such a sorry excuse for an apparition of glory?

Los Angeles Times Friday July 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Magazine--The description of brain-scan images illustrating "The Biology of Belief" in the L.A. Times Magazine on July 15 incorrectly suggested that the scans showed changes in the brain's parietal lobe. They showed changes in the frontal lobes.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 5, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
The description of brain-scan images illustrating Vince Rause's story on "The Biology of Belief" (July 15) incorrectly suggested that the scans showed changes in the brain's parietal lobe. They showed changes in the frontal lobes.

And second: What latent, loopy, restless urge was nagging me to drive right over there and take my place in line?


I'm having lunch with Andrew Newberg, noted neuroscientist, at a hotel restaurant in suburban Philadelphia. Newberg and I have met to discuss his biological theory of religion, which provides a neurological basis for the great human hunger for God.

The theory has created quite a buzz in scientific and theological circles and made Newberg a leading figure in the emerging science of neurotheology, which explores the links between spirituality and the brain. It has also earned him a hefty book deal. That's where I come in. I'm the hired-gun wordsmith whose job it will be to capture Newberg's scientific insights in language that the average reader can comprehend.

I knew going in that it wouldn't be easy, and naively, I'd welcomed the challenge. But now, just halfway through our inaugural lunch, I find myself fighting the spiraling impulse to bolt like a frightened rabbit. Because Newberg, whose scientific credentials are beyond reproach, has just said something I'm not sure I can grasp: that the fabled "higher reality" described by legions of mystics, might, in fact, be real.

"You mean figuratively real . . ." I say, with a troubled squint.

"No," he says. "As real as this table. More real, in fact."

I choose my words carefully. "You're saying that your research proves that this higher reality exists?"

Newberg wags a French fry as a cautionary gesture; he wants to be precise. "I'm saying that the research leads to a point where the possibility of such a reality is not inconsistent with science."

I stare down at my plate, as if revelation lurked in my fajitas. "But you can't measure such a thing, can you? You can't observe it in a scientific way?"

Newberg answers with a knowing grin. As it turns out, he hasn't simply observed such a state, he has managed to take its picture.


Newberg's provocative theory is based on research begun in the early 1970s by the late Eugene d'Aquili, a psychiatrist and anthropologist, and one of neurotheology's founding pioneers. D'Aquili's theory described how brain function could produce a wide range of religious experiences, from the profound mountaintop epiphanies of saints and gurus to the quiet sense of holiness and uplift felt by a believer during prayer.

For 20 years, D'Aquili's theory circulated widely, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that it really gathered steam. That's when he teamed up with Newberg, now 34, a radiologist whose understanding of brain science helped refine D'Aquili's theory. Then, with the help of funding from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research that links science and religion, they began testing that theory using advanced imaging techniques.

In the experiments, Newberg and D'Aquili used a technology called SPECT scanning to map the brains of several Tibetan Buddhists as they immersed themselves in meditative states. Later they did the same with Franciscan nuns who were engaged in deep, contemplative prayer. The scans photographed levels of neural activity in each subject's brain at the moment that person had reached an intense spiritual peak. The Buddhists typically described this moment as a blending into a larger oneness, and a sense of losing the self. The Franciscans described it as a sensation of a deeper, truer self being drawn into unity with God.

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