[asa] Brain scans of religious experiences - "The big exception is Pentecostals"

From: John Walley <john_walley@yahoo.com>
Date: Fri Nov 20 2009 - 19:38:49 EST

This is from a Pew Forum event attended by Francis Collins.

I find this excerpt fascinting.

"Whether you’re a nun or a Buddhist monk or even a Sufi, basically the same types of brain activity occur. It’s like one is taking Google Maps and the other is taking MapQuest, and neurologically they get to the same place, this undifferentiated state, using the same neural network.  The big exception is Pentecostals, which I just love."
I am curious if anyone has any comments on this?
Event Transcript
Religion and Science: Conflict or Harmony?
Monday, May 4, 2009


MICHAEL GERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: As I have talked to Andy Newberg about this and visited his lab and other things, Andy has a much tougher time than Francis does and I do with specific religious commitments, not for a metaphysical reason but for an epistemological reason. The brain research indicates that human beings have a tremendous desire for certainty, a kind of artificial certainty that comes from the brain. And it makes him very skeptical of specific religious affirmations, not because they’re impossible but because they’re culturally conditioned. We’re wired for certainty.
So the question doesn’t become questioning the existence of God but questioning our own certainties, given the predisposition of the brain and whether truth in these matters is accessible because of the way we’re wired. I’m interested in what your reaction to that argument is and maybe Francis’ too in this case. The reality is people in various cultures believe that their tradition is absolutely true, and it seems to be related to the brain. How does that affect the nature of belief and our confidence in our beliefs?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: I actually found Andy’s research theologically the most disturbing for me, personally, because everyone has a belief system. They have a way to make sense of the world. If you’re spiritual, you often do it through some type of religion or not, Judaism or whatever. If I can just tell you what Andy found when he looked at different types of religious people doing their religious practices, whether it was Franciscan nuns or Tibetan Buddhist monks –
CROMARTIE: Barbara, tell them who Andrew Newberg is.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Oh, I’m sorry. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has basically been running people through brain scans to see what happens when they engage in religious practices.
CROMARTIE: We had him here. If you go to pewforum.org, you can see the dialogue we had with Dr. Newberg.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: What he has found is that generally much of religious practice looks the same in the brain. So whether you’re a Sikh chanting or whether you’re a Carmelite nun or a Franciscan nun –
CROMARTIE: Pentecostal.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, actually that is a big exception. I’ll tell you about that. Whether you’re a nun or a Buddhist monk or even a Sufi, basically the same types of brain activity occur. It’s like one is taking Google Maps and the other is taking MapQuest, and neurologically they get to the same place, this undifferentiated state, using the same neural network.
The big exception is Pentecostals, which I just love. In nuns and monks and all of that, the frontal lobes activate, increase in activity, which shows that they’re concentrating. It’s the executive area of the brain. And the parietal lobe, which orients you in time and space, it goes dark, so that they don’t have a sense of where their body ends and the universe begins. So there is a sense of merging with Christ or merging with the universe.
These things happen with Buddhist monks and nuns and all that – Sikhs – except when you get to the Pentecostals, and actually the reverse is true. Their frontal lobes shut down – which is not good news for the home team – but their frontal lobes shut down and their parietal lobes activate. So it’s like they are not in control of this process of speaking in tongues. But they maintain a relationship in a sense of their own boundaries, and they maintain this relationship, they believe, with Jesus.
So at any rate, I found – especially the first part – very, very disturbing from a theological point of view. And his interpretation of this is, it’s all the same stuff. Spirituality is spirituality is spirituality. It’s just a matter of how you interpret it at the end of the line. So the nuns will see it as a union with Jesus, and a monk will see it as connecting with the ground of being. I guess I find that a little bit – just from a personal point of view, that’s, on the one hand, hard to take.
On the other hand, I think it demands a little bit of humility because it seems to me that it’s hard for a religion to claim truth, absolute truth, when basically the same thing might be going on in the brain during different types of spiritual experiences, and they essentially connect in the same way. So at any rate, I guess the short answer to your question is I find that from a theological point of view difficult. I also find it a source of humility on my part. It has forced me to be humble about my own truth claims or the truth claims that I seem to adhere to.


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Received on Fri Nov 20 19:39:20 2009

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