The Biology of Belief

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?

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.

When they studied the scans, Newberg and D'Aquili's attention was drawn to a chunk of the brain's parietal lobe they called the orientation association area. The area is responsible for defining the limits of the physical self, and for generating the perceptions of space in which that self can be oriented. In simpler terms, it draws the line between the self and the rest of existence. This is a task of staggering complexity, which requires a constant stream of neural information flowing in from the senses. What the scans revealed, however, was that at peak moments of prayer and meditation, the flow of neural impulses to the parietal lobe was dramatically reduced.

This was exactly the result the two men expected, and based on their knowledge of brain function, they knew what its effects would be: the orientation area, deprived of the information it needed to draw the line between the self and the world, would generate a sense of a limitless awareness melting into infinite space.

What Newberg and D'Aquili had captured, it seemed, were snapshots of the brain approaching a state of mystical transcendence, which every known religion has described, in various terms, as the most profound of all spiritual experiences. The Buddhists call it "oneness." It is the "mystical union" with God described by Catholic saints. For Hindus, it is the joining of the soul with the Ultimate, known as Brahman-Atman, and for Islamic mystics it is reflected in the concepts of annihilation and revival ('fana and baqa), which lead, through spiritual surrender, to an intimate union with Allah,

These are rare and profound experiences, of course, requiring an almost total blackout of the orientation area. But Newberg and D'Aquili understood that lower degrees of blockage could also produce a range of milder and more ordinary spiritual experiences: as when believers "lose themselves" in prayer, for example, or when members of a congregation feel an absorbing sense of unity during a moving service.

But according to the SPECT scans, what all these feelings have in common, from the epic to the mundane, is that they are rooted not in mere emotion, or wishful thinking, but in the genetically arranged wiring of the brain.

"That's why God won't go away," Newberg tells me. "That's why religion thrives in an age of technology and reason." You can't simply think God out of existence, he says, because religious feelings don't rise from thought, but from experience. They are born in a moment of mystical union, which, as far as the brain is concerned, would feel as richly and solidly real as any perception of "ordinary" physical reality.

I don't need a divinity degree to understand the provocative implications of Newberg's theory. To be absolutely clear of the road that lies ahead, I pose the question that would become an organizing focus of the book. "Does this mean that God is just a perception generated by the brain, or has the brain been wired to experience the reality of God?"

Newberg lowers his turkey sandwich. "The best and most rational answer I can give you," he answers, "is yes."

*

The path that led to my unlikely collaboration with Newberg began years before we met, when I'd just turned 45 and was living the life of a lucky man. I was married to the very woman I wanted. I was doing the work I'd always dreamed I would do. I had a wonderful daughter, lots of close friends and a large extended family who had furnished me, since day one, with abundant emotional richness and a rock-solid sense of my place in the world. I was aware of my good fortune, and thankful for it, and never dreamed the scales of fate could tip the other way.

But tip they did, and with a vengeance. In a few short years, I lost my grandmother, four uncles and an aunt. My mother died after a long and quietly courageous battle with cancer. My brother Joe, the emotional rock of my own immediate family, succumbed, at age 66, to heart and kidney failure. My brother Tony, a wise-cracking, world-traveling neighborhood raconteur, suffered a series of devastating strokes that forced him, at the age of 63, to live bedridden in a nursing home.

Each of these losses took a personal toll, but the cumulative effect of all the grief is what ultimately sent me reeling. I knew that many of my relatives were comforted by religion. I envied their talent for humbling themselves, and their power to simply believe. Out of respect for them, I tried to find some solace in prayer, but my prayers did not come easily. They had no grace, and no authority. The words felt all wrong in my mouth.

One night, as I lay in bed with the empty, hostile cosmos pressing down, a thought popped into my head: I am angry at a God I don't believe in.

I knew that didn't make sense. As I lay there in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I thought of myself as a kid, sitting in the candlelit fog of the tiny gothic chapel in my old Italian neighborhood, swept up heart and soul into the irresistible theater of the Mass. Rosary beads would slip through my fingers, I could taste incense on my tongue, I beat my breast when the bells jangled and the priest cried Kyrie eleison, and my bones would quiver with the booming rumble of the ancient Latin chants.

I could viscerally remember these experiences of church, but when I tried to recall the experience of faith--what it felt like to really believe--the emotions wouldn't rise to the surface. I remember believing all the stories. At least, I trusted the authority of the people who told me they were true. I was taken by the loving heart of Jesus. I pictured a just, friendly God on his throne. And I was cheered by the promise of heaven. But I can't remember that any of it felt real.

What was real for me was the terrible secret holiness that seemed to gather in all the darkest corners and dance in the swaying shadows on the walls. It was in the faces of the statues of the saints, with their gazes raised to heaven and their eyes wild with God. It was in the candlelight and the music and the groan of the old wooden kneelers when we'd all hunker down to pray. It was in the ritualistic bows and gestures of the priest, but it was bigger than the statues, bigger than the priest, bigger, even, than God. It was the energy, the mojo, that propped up all the theater and gave the show its juice.

It was huge, it was mystery, it was spooky and sacred. More than anything, it was a sense of something auspicious and impending. I was certain that at any moment it would explode into the daylight, like a whale rising up from the deep, and change our lives for good.

It never did. They closed that old church when I was in high school. Later, I left for college and learned to live in a rational world, where mysteries are simply problems waiting to be solved. I forgot all about holy things lurking in the shadows. I thought of myself as a clear-headed guy, a rational type, someone who had outgrown childish superstition. But my taste for the mysterious hadn't died, it had simply morphed into a cynical fascination with unexplained phenomena and the amusingly bizarre. High on my list of favorites: bleeding statues, gory stigmatics, "verified" demonic possessions. I was also a fan of all miraculous apparitions of Jesus or Our Lady, whether they appeared as dampness on the side of a Wal-Mart, oil stains on a driveway or as a blob of golden light on a sliding closet door.

I couldn't get enough. I told myself my interest was in satire, that it was all a campy goof. But I can't deny that beneath the wiseass humor was a sense of loss and sadness, and maybe even a fluttering vestige of hope.

With middle age encroaching and the universe baring its teeth, hope was what I needed. But I didn't know where to turn. I had fallen into a spiritual no man's land--too rational to find comfort in religion, but too Catholic, in spite of myself, to embrace the brittle cynicism of my rationalistic friends. Believe everything, or believe nothing . . . these were the options?

I wasn't looking for some storybook promise; I wasn't looking for promises at all. I would have settled for an interesting loophole or two, some metaphysical wiggle room to take the dreary edge off the flatness and finality of death. All I wanted was to leave the door open just a crack to the possibility of mystery and wonder. But I wasn't a little boy anymore. I expected the world to make sense. And when I imagined looking through that open door, I saw confusion instead of wonder; just an unhappy haze of unanswered, and unanswerable, questions.

At some point in those restless months I got a call from my agent. She was working with a research scientist who wanted to write a book about religion and the brain. The way she put it, he had captured images of the brain in the process of experiencing God. She was asking me if I knew any writers who might be interested.

"Yeah," I said. "Me."

*

A month later I met Andy Newberg in Philadelphia, and despite those rocky moments during our introductory lunch, we decided our collaboration just might work. Newberg's mind went places he could only send me postcards from, but I liked his intellectual passion and his reverence for the spiritual depths he was plumbing with his work. He sensed in me, I think, a genuine interest in the implications of his research. In no time we'd found a wavelength, and the book began to take shape.

That's not to say that any of it ever came easy. I lived for nearly a year in a chronic state of spectacular befuddlement. And never was I more befuddled than when I wandered into the incomprehensible realm of the mystics.

I knew from the start that the mysticism chapter would be a pivotal section of the book, but all I knew about mysticism is what you can learn watching late-night reruns of "Kung Fu." If I was going to make this chapter work, I had to know precisely what the mystics were all about. But when I cracked the books on mysticism, I found myself hopelessly lost in a mind-bending hall of mirrors. Things got especially muddy when the mystics of old waxed ineffable on the subject of the Ultimate Absolute. I mean, criminy:

An Islamic mystic says, "We and our existences are nonexistences. Thou art Absolute Existence showing Thyself as perishable things."

A Buddhist offers, "It has never existed. It has never been nonexistent . . . ."

And a rabble-rousing medieval Christian mystic named Meister Eckhart declares, ". . . . if I say 'God exists,' this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being."

God is, God isn't. There is an Absolute, but it never was. Ultimate reality is Nothing, but so am I. I was so deeply confused I wanted to cry. But I had no choice but to keep working and hoping I'd find a toehold.

Then, by sheer luck, I stumbled on a passage written by a contemporary Benedictine monk named Bede Griffiths. In the passage, Griffiths describes something he experienced as a boy. He was walking in the evening, when he was suddenly dazzled by the beautiful song of a flock of birds. The beauty of their singing seemed to awaken senses he'd never used before. In an instant the world seemed magically transformed, and everything in it seemed to burst with what he calls a "kind of sacramental character."

"I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me," he wrote. "I felt inclined to kneel on the ground . . . and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God."

It was, he says, as if he'd stepped into "the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery . . . which seemed to be drawing me to itself."

That was it: no burning bushes, no flaming chariots, no butt-kicking bolts from the blue. Just a gentle, subtle awakening, a soft epiphany that many of us might simply shrug off. But it changed Griffiths' life forever, and now it was giving me the chills. I knew this mysterious presence. I'd known it when I was a boy. It was the secret holiness that haunted the shadowy rafters of my old church, that numinous impending something. I understood, as I read Griffiths' account, that he had glimpsed what I'd only suspected. I scoured his words for every scrap of meaning. Then I went looking for more.

In no time, I'd found several accounts of similarly mild revelations: people surprised by a thrill of wonder and recognition as they read poetry, or pondered the cosmos, or prayed. According to author and mystic Andrew Harvey, such experiences are not uncommon. They are, he believes, available to all who want them. "All human beings are given in the course of their lives glimpses into the heart of the real which they are free to pursue or forget."

The poetic practicality of the idea floored me and turned all my spiritual assumptions inside out. Mystical experience, I was beginning to understand, was not about a magical ascension into some distant literal paradise, it was about a quiet, personal epiphany that the miraculous and the mundane are one and the same, and that both are right before our eyes.

"Better a single moment of awakening in this world," says a Jewish rabbinical text, "than an eternity in the world to come."

Could this be the loophole I'd been hoping for? For the first time since I was a kid, I felt the hovering presence of something mysterious and fine. What that something was, I couldn't fathom, and somehow, I didn't need to know. The world was suddenly full of possibilities, and that was enough for me.

It was the most solid and satisfying spiritual feeling I'd ever had, and I felt the rightness of it resonate in my bones. The odd thing, though, was this: as I embraced and was uplifted by this mysterious insight, I fully assumed that Newberg's brain scans had explained all the mystery away.

"I wouldn't say we've explained it away," Newberg said when I brought up the subject.

"But the SPECT scans show that 'mystical union' is just a brain state, right?"

"It is," he replied. "But everything can be explained as a brain state. Like the experience of eating an apple. Like your experience of your self. Your self may feel as real as the apple, but you might be surprised to know that you didn't always have a self."

Newberg explained that the brain of a human infant lacks the circuitry needed to draw a line between the self and the rest of the world. It floats in a state that Freud described as "oceanic bliss," unaware there is room in the universe for anything other than its own endless being.

As the baby's brain develops, however, and the baby interacts with the outside world, a perception of a self emerges, spun like a cocoon out of memory, experience and various neurological bits and pieces. As the emerging perceptions of self take on increasing form and substance, we grow accustomed to its subjective perceptions, and soon we accept the self, without question, as real.

"So the self is assembled neurologically," I said.

Newberg nodded. "And logically, what can be assembled can be undone."

*

The undoing of the egotistical self, of course, is a primary concern of the mystics; only when the self is pushed aside, they tell us, can we see reality as it truly is. Newberg's SPECT scans show that the brain can indeed undo the perception of the self, and his theory shows that the resulting neurological state would feel very much like the spiritual union the mystics describe. But what does it all add up to? Can spiritual experiences, both monumental and modest, be dismissed as tricks of the brain? Or do Newberg's brain scans show that the mind has been endowed with a biological link to the divine?

"What do you think, Andy?" I ask, "personally, I mean."

I've tried before to outflank Newberg's professional objectivity, but he never takes the bait. Instead, he only reiterates what his research can support: The brain can experience two realities. In one reality, awareness reaches the mind through the filter of the self. In the other, the self is swept aside, and the mind's awareness grows broader and more unified. Both are solid and properly formed perceptions, produced by normal, healthy brains. And both will come undone when the neurology that supports them is unraveled.

"And there's no way to say that one is more real than the other?" I ask.

Newberg's cryptic smile tells me there might be more to the story. In fact, he does have a theory, based on a phenomenological understanding of the workings of the brain, which implies that a higher, more unified reality is not only possible, but likely. It's a complex and multilayered argument that eventually would become one of the most provocative chapters in the book. But in the end, it can be boiled down to a surprisingly simple point: Reality is a matter of degree; what feels most real is most real.

"The mystics tend to experience this [transcendent] state as more real than ordinary reality," Newberg says. "They often describe [the advent of that transcendent state] as the feeling of waking from a dream."

I am momentarily silenced. Newberg is the most scrupulously rational person I've ever met. Is this another of his mind-bending thought experiments? Or could he really be suggesting that the mystics have something to say to scientists about the ultimate nature of what's real?

In my heart, the words of the mystics ring true, but I am still a rational person. I can't quite swallow the notion that mystical insights should help shape our practical view of existence. It seems so . . . unscientific. Then I found this passage written by Albert Einstein, in which he reveals that his work had led him, in the end, to a "cosmic religious feeling," in which one "looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole."

There was no personified God in Einstein's "religion." No heaven or hell. No doctrine or scripture. Just the intuition of an incomparably brilliant mind that there is room in a rational universe for inexplicable wonder. "The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience," Einstein said, "is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He (or she) to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead."

I soon discovered that Einstein's mystical leanings were shared by other great scientists--giants of physics such as Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrdinger, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg, to name just a few. These men had peered more deeply, and more reverently, into the fabric of reality than any other humans in history, and they concluded, one by one, that science alone could never solve the bottomless mystery.

"Science," wrote Max Planck, "means unresting endeavor and continually progressing development toward an aim which the poetic intuition may apprehend, but which the intellect can never fully grasp."

Science has its limits. Poetry has its place. Perhaps mysteries aren't meant to be solved, after all. Maybe, in the end, all we have to guide us is the intuitive wisdom of the heart.

*

The book came out in April, and media interest was strong. Newsweek featured it in a cover story on God and the brain. Diane Sawyer interviewed Newberg on network TV. Producers and editors everywhere were captivated by the idea that someone had finally slapped the calipers on God.

While Newberg struggled valiantly to explain that it really wasn't that simple, I slept in, played with my daughter, and reflected on what, if anything, I'd learned. I can't say I've found faith, and I haven't found religion. What I've found is a belief in the realness of mystery, and the realization that the biggest, most fascinating mysteries are to be savored, not resolved. The world minus mystery is flat and empty. God minus mystery is a bore. But mystery is all around us. We get glimpses, we hear whispers. We just need to humble our hearts and learn to pay attention.

"My salvation is to hear and respond," wrote Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and bestselling author who died in 1968. "For this, my life must be silent. Hence, my silence is my salvation."

And that, I've decided, is my new spiritual master plan: to forget about being informed or interesting or rational. To forget about being right. To just shut up and listen for a while.

FOR THE RECORD 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.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°