Friday, December 05, 2008

Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg

Sharp Brains has posted an excellent interview with Andrew Newberg. I find Newberg's work pretty interesting, but he also has his critics (see below). I also add a little of my own thoughts.

Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg

Dr. Andrew Newberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at theAndrew Newberg University of Pennsylvania. He has published a variety of neuroimaging studies related to aging and dementia. He has also researched the neurophysiological correlates of meditation, prayer, and how brain function is associated with mystical and religious experiences.

Dr. Newberg, thank you for being with us today. Can you please explain the source of your interests at the intersection of brain research and spirituality?

Since I was a kid, I had a keen interest in spiritual practice. I always wondered how spirituality and religion affect us, and over time I came to appreciate how science can help us explore and understand the world around us, including why we humans care about spiritual practices. This, of course, led me to be particularly interested in brain research.

During medical school I was particularly attracted by the problem of consciousness. I was fortunate to meet researcher Dr. Eugene D'Aquili in the early 1990s, who had been doing much research on religious practices effect on brain since the 1970s. Through him I came to see that brain imaging can provide a fascinating window into the brain.

Can we define religion and spirituality -which sound to me as very different brain processes-, and why learning about them may be helpful from a purely secular, scientific point of view?

Good point, definitions matter, since different people may be searching for God in different ways. I view being religious as participating in organized rituals and shared beliefs, such as going to church. Being spiritual, on the other hand, is more of an individual practice, whether we call it meditation, or relaxation, or prayer, aimed at expanding the self, developing a sense of oneness with the universe.

Go read the whole interview.

Here are some criticism of Newberg's work.

From Science & Spirit:

[A]ccording to Sacred Heart University philosophy and religious studies professor Richard Grigg, Newberg may have unwittingly reduced the religious experience to a mere function of neurons and neurotransmitters— something entirely self-contained in the brain.

“Newberg’s work is reductive in a way he does not realize or acknowledge,” Grigg told a crowded neurotheology session at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Kansas City, Missouri, last October.

In their well-known book Why God Won’t Go Away, Newberg and co-author Dr. Eugene d’Aquili observe that prayerful meditation is correlated with a quieting of activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe.

Numerous brain scans of meditating subjects show blood flow decreases in “that part of the brain Newberg claims is responsible for providing us with our sense of orientation,” Grigg explained. It is during this parietal lobe calming that Newberg suggests the meditator is experiencing oneness with the sacred and a loss of the hard boundaries of the self.

“But I see a big gap in his findings,” Grigg said in an interview after his presentation. “Newberg may be observing a person losing their internal sense of self, but he provides absolutely no neurological evidence that the self opened up by meditation makes real contact with an external something that transcends it.”

The brain, Grigg said, is a biased observer that cannot always provide a rational sense of the external world. Observing the brains of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns at prayer— as Newberg did—may or may not provide insight into any real religious experience.

Michael Shermer reviews Newberg's book, Why God Won't Go Away:

Yes, say the authors, who believe they have “uncovered solid evidence that the mystical experiences of our subjects — the altered states of mind they described as the absorption of the self into something larger — were not the result of emotional mistakes or simple wishful thinking, but were associated instead with a series of observable neurological events … ” It is an odd distinction to make, which the authors do throughout the book. “A skeptic might suggest that a biological origin to all spiritual longings and experiences, including the universal human yearning to connect with something divine, could be explained as a delusion caused by the chemical misfirings of a bundle of nerve cells.”

Indeed, I am one such skeptic, but I fail to see the difference (outside a minor linguistic distinction) between a delusion and a decrease in OAA activity. Delusion is simply a description of what happens when the OAA shuts down and the brain loses the ability to distinguish self from non-self. It’s still all in the brain. Unless, of course, you believe that these neurologically triggered mystical experiences actually serve as a conduit to a real spiritual world where God (or what the authors call “Absolute Unitary Being”) resides. That is, in fact, what they believe: “ … our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.” Thankfully they are honest enough to admit that this conclusion “is a terrifically unscientific idea” and that to accept it “we must second-guess all our assumptions about material reality.” In the final chapters they do just that.

Overall, I'm sympathetic to Newberg's cause, and at the same time I loathe the idea that subjective experience will be dismissed by science as a bunch of neuronal activity. Mystical, spiritual, meditative experiences can never be reduced to physical processes for those who have experienced them, so I see no issue with what he is doing.

And as far as people like Shermer are concerned, spiritual experiences can never be extinguished with facts, the objective cannot refute the subjective for most people.

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