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Saturday, February 21, 1998

Scientists studying the effect of religious experiences on the brain

By David O'Reilly / Knight Ridder Newspapers


"The love of God, unutterable and perfect, flows into a pure soul the way light rushes into a transparent object."



"Total deafferentation of the left posterior superior parietal lobe results in the obliteration of the self-other dichotomy at almost the same moment that the deafferentation of the right posterior superior parietal lobe generates a sense of absolute transcendent wholeness."

--Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg


PHILADELPHIA -- Right posterior what? Deafferentation who?

Is it any wonder that religion feels more at home with poetry than science?

In his poem about enlightenment, the Zen poet Kukai speaks of the "singing image of fire." The Christian mystic Angelus Silesius writes of the "pure no-thing, concealed in now and here."

Now, brain research suggests such beatific visions can be described neurologically in terms of eruptive overflows, "reverberating circuits," and blood flows and blockages involving the prefrontal cortex and various lobes of the brain.

Dante it's not. But Eugene d'Aquili, professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Andrew Newberg, a fellow at the hospital's nuclear medicine program, scan brains, not verse.

In a recent talk on "Science and the Soul," Newberg described how their two-year study of the brains of people engaged in Buddhist meditation provides "mounting evidence" that sensations of calm, unity, and transcendence correspond to increased activity in the brain's frontal lobes (behind the forehead) and decreased activity in the parietal lobes at the top-rear of the head.

"We can't say we can see God with these imaging studies," Newberg, 31, said with a laugh recently at his office. "What we can say is: When somebody has religious experiences, this is what it's doing to them."

Newberg, d'Aquili's research associate since 1993, titled his talk, attended by about 160 people, "Why God Won't Go Away." By that, he means an intuition of transcendent reality may be hard-wired into the human mind.

"The idea is that the brain is set up in ways to help us survive," he explained earlier in the week. Religion "offers the reassurance that there is purpose and causal effect in this pretty scary world." Thus, "religious and spiritual experiences are right in line with what the brain is trying to do for us" by helping us to function and make sense of life here on the third rock from the sun.

D'Aquili is a veteran anthropologist of religion and busy clinical therapist. Newberg specializes in brain scans, using radioactive dyes to study which parts of the brain are engaged in the performance of different mental or physical tasks.

The team has measured brain function and cerebral blood flow during Tibetan Buddhist meditation in eight subjects during the last two years.

"It's pretty exciting," said Newberg.

Particulars of their meditation scan study will be published this summer in Zygon, a professional journal devoted to the study of science and religion. But Newberg said that the research supports their earlier work in the neurology of "unitary" mental states induced by religious ritual and meditation.

They propose that the brain's amygdala, which translates sensory impressions into emotions, "generates a sense of religious awe attached to behaviorally Ômarked' ritual gestures such as bows or signs of the cross."

This, they say, builds on research tying hallucinations, out-of-body sensations, and deja vu to activity, or suppression of activity, in parts of the brain.

What intrigues d'Aquili and Newberg is how religious rituals and practices stimulate the two major subsystems of the autonomic systems.

One of these subsystems, the ergotropic system, is the body's fight-or-flight nervous system. In moments of stress, it raises the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, hastens endocrine to the muscles, etc.

The other system, the trophotropic, can be understood as the system of calm. It decreases the heart rate, slows respiration, and regulates cell growth, digestion, relaxation and sleep.

D'Aquili and Newberg propose that certain religious practices can so stimulate the body's calm system or its flight system that activity in the related brain circuit starts to "reverberate," while simultaneously shutting down ever more of the other system. Depending on whether the ritual is fast (as in the spinning dance of Sufi whirling dervishes) or slow, as in Zen meditation, different parts of the brain are activated, perceived by the mind as a higher state of consciousness.

In states of very high activity around one circuit, they say, there can be a "spillover" such that the dormant system activates and goes "on line" simultaneously with the other. Although rare, this dual state can lead to a sense of "tremendous release of energy" that may feel like "oceanic bliss" or absorption into the object of contemplation.

And in extreme cases there can occur a "maximal discharge" of both systems, inducing brain activities perceived by the mind as the "Absolute Unity of Being," or AUB, which they describe as "the abolition of any discrete boundaries between beings, by the absence of a sense of time-flow, and by the elimination of the self-other dichotomy."

They even propose that a mystic in the AUB state will experience either a divine being, such as God, or the cosmic void of Nirvana, depending on whether there has been a predominantly ergotropic or trophotropic involvement.

So, are the great mystic illuminations exalted throughout the ages authentic glimpses into true being and the ultimate reality?

Or are the revelations of enlightenment and beatific vision nothing more than brain's perceiving its own activity?

D'Aquili and Newberg say there is no way of knowing for sure, but they insist in all their published papers that it would be foolish to suppose that religious awe, numinous vision or mystical experience "is reducible to neurochemical flux."

"What's really real? It's a big issue," Newberg conceded last week. He said they hope to address some of these weighty epistemological questions in a book, tentatively titled "Neurotheology," to be published later this year by Fortress Press.

While their data can be interpreted to mean that certain mental states are the result of specific brain activity, that assignment of causality can be "flipped" entirely: Is it not plausible that the changes in brain function are the "result" (not cause) of changes in consciousness?

And because mystics throughout history have been so emphatic that the reality they perceived in their illuminated state was "primary" (that is, more real than ordinary earthly existence), "we have to be careful what we claim," he said.

"Western science says matter is primary, but if you flip it around and look at what the mystics report, you could say that it's ultimately consciousness and awareness that are primary."

And so perhaps science will someday discover what Emily Dickinson asserted more than a century ago.

"The Brain," she wrote, "is just the weight of God."


(c) 1998, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.phillynews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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