making sense of change
« on: 2002-12-05 12:41:29 »
THE SEEKERS: FAITH'S PLACE
Part 3 of 5: Belief in a spiritual power is a universal trait. That's because we've been designed for religious experience.
Tuesday, December 03, 2002
BY AMY ELLIS NUTT
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The human brain, even at its ancient, primitive core, is less an organ of impulse than a machine of reason. We are built to make sense of things. Our brains restlessly scan the world for patterns in chaos and causes in coincidence.
We crave explanation and, when faced with the ineffable, sometimes we create the answer.
For many people, the answer to the most ineffable question of all -- "Why do we exist?" -- is God.
Neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph has spent years studying history, myth and biology in his quest to understand the universality of spiritual experience and its evolutionary function.
In his studies of the brains of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns, radiologist Andrew Newberg seeks out the relationship between neural activity and mystical experience.
Both men believe that the connection between the brain and spirituality suggests that there is a physiological basis for religion -- that human beings, in essence, are hard-wired for God.
REALMS OF REALITY
Rhawn Joseph slowly stirs his third cup of coffee, staring at the whirlpool of milk that spreads across the top and then disappears. Joseph is an oasis of quiet in the lunchtime havoc of the Cozy Restaurant in Santa Clara. Maybe that's because Joseph is soft-spoken and shy.
Or maybe it's because he's thinking about God.
Joseph believes there is a neurological, even genetic, explanation for religious belief and spiritual experience.
Homo sapiens, he theorizes, have evolved the capacity to experience God primarily through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure buried deep in the brain. The amygdala, along with the hippocampus and hypothalamus, make up the limbic system, the first-formed and most primitive part of the brain, where emotions, sexual pleasure and deeply felt memories arise.
Says Joseph: "These tissues, which become highly activated when we dream, when we pray or when we take drugs such as LSD, enable us to experience those realms of reality normally filtered from consciousness, including the reality of God, the spirit, the soul, and life after death."
Joseph, who has a doctorate in neuropsychology and is the author of a comprehensive textbook called "Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Neuroscience," published by Lippincott, cites his own clinical and historical research, as well as studies of epileptic patients who have experienced religious hallucinations, as evidence that "spiritual experience is not based on superstition but is instead real, biological, and part of our primitive biological drives."
The quest for the truth of spiritual experience started early for the 51-year-old neuroscientist:
"My grandparents were very religious, especially my grandmother," says Joseph, whose heritage is Jewish and Catholic. "She would read to me from the Bible when I was a little kid. I loved listening to those stories, and I still remember the evening when she was reading to me about Sodom and Gomorrah. I was 3 or 4 years old, and I asked her if God had killed the little children, too, and she said yes, and I said, 'What did they do wrong?'
"She didn't have an explanation for it, and it really made me wonder: What kind of God is this?"
That question stayed with Joseph through college at San Jose State University, where he majored in psychology and minored in philosophy, and at Finch University of Health Sciences/The Chicago Medical School in Illinois, where Joseph enrolled in the neuropsychology Ph.D. program. He finished his requirements for the doctorate in two years, half the usual time, and then interned at the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of the VA/Palo Alto Health Care System, which, says Joseph, gave him "a whole different direction in life: the brain."
After a second internship, this time in the neurology department of Yale University Medical School, Joseph was offered academic positions at a number of colleges and universities.
"I turned them all down," says Joseph. "The salaries were too low, my ego was too big, I wanted to be independent, and I didn't like cold weather.
"It was a big mistake. It is the tragedy of my life. I have always wanted to teach; unfortunately, the right job and the right school in the right location has never been offered."
Today, the short, solidly built scientist is the founder of an independent publishing company in Santa Cruz called University Press. Some of the company's nonfiction books concern astrobiology, the science of consciousness and, in a recent collection of essays, neurotheology -- the study of the relationship between brain function and spiritual experience.
PEERING THROUGH THE MYTH
There is a maverick, even provocative bent to much of Joseph's writing. He has published a half-dozen books of his own at University Press, including "The Transmitter to God: The Limbic System, the Soul, and Spirituality," and he continues to research a number of subjects, many of then in evolutionary biology.
Most of Joseph's investigations begin with a look into cultural contexts.
"In a lot of myth, you can go back and find elements of history," he says. "You can look at the Old Testament as fanciful stories, or as containing the seeds of historical information. ... If you're going to be a scientist, you can't dismiss things and you have to go take a good look and try and sift through it all. It's like panning for gold."
Joseph admits his approach to questions is sometimes unorthodox. Like other scientific seekers, he is creative and intuitive, more comfortable taking his own route to an answer than someone else's. In the 1970s, Joseph was one of the first scientists to demonstrate the hormonal and environmental foundations of gender differences in learning, as well as the neuroplasticity of the brain -- recovery of brain cells -- in primates. Though he is unaffiliated with any academic institution, Joseph has been invited to speak on all these subjects, at different times, by the University of California at Berkeley, Brigham Young University and the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
For the past 20 years, Joseph has been mining neuroscience, astronomy, history, religion, archeology and anthropology for clues about the meaning of intense religious ecstasy during which a person may see an image of God or hear the voice of an angel. Joseph believes those experiences are the result of hyperstimulation of the amygdala, which releases large quantities of natural opiates. The same opiates are released in response to pain, terror and trauma, as well as social isolation and sensory deprivation.
"Hyperactivation of the amygdala, hippocampus and overlying temporal lobe gives a person the sense that they're floating or flying above their surroundings," says Joseph. "It can trigger memories and hallucinations, create brilliant lights, and at the same time secrete neurotransmitters that induce feelings of euphoria, peace and harmony."
Many religious people might view the cause and effect in reverse -- it is the divine inspiration that activates those areas of the brain, instead of the other way around -- but to Joseph, the order is irrelevant. For him, the more important question is, "Why?"
"There are creatures living in caves who don't have eyes," he says, "because there's nothing for them to see. But we have a visual cortex and an auditory cortex, because there are things we were made to see and hear. You don't develop a brain structure to help you experience something that doesn't exist." We are hard-wired for God, in other words, because there is a real God to experience.
Matthew Alper, author of "The 'God' Part of the Brain," believes this assumption is flawed. "We're capable of repression, of phantom limb pain -- our capacity to believe what isn't there is also sometimes helpful."
Joseph acknowledges this but argues there is an equally possible alternative explanation for spiritual experience: evolution.
"Maybe the ability to experience God and the spiritually sublime is an inherited limbic trait. Maybe we evolved these neurons to better cope with the unknown, to perceive and respond to spiritual messages because they would increase the likelihood of our survival."
We became genetically predisposed to spirituality, says Joseph, because belief in a divine being makes us stronger.
It also makes us less anxious, says Alper, and that is critical for a self-conscious species like our own.
"Consciousness creates so much anxiety that our species had to come up with a cognitive adaptation to deal with the pain of our intelligence -- being able to think about our own mortality, for instance," he says. "So it came up with a brain modification that allows us to believe in an alternative reality, that when we die there is a spiritual part of us that will live forever."
Proving the evolution argument, says Massimo Pigliucci, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is an entirely different matter.
"It is possible that if there is an advantage -- that believing in an afterworld or God reduces anxiety or allows you to better navigate the world -- that nature selected for that belief. But there's no evidence for that, and not only do we not have any evidence, there is no way to gather the evidence. It is inconceivable that you could do an experiment on survival of people who believe in an afterlife, because human beings in the past evolved in a totally different environment than any of us live in today."
THE ENCHANTED LOOM
The lack of opportunity for empirical studies does not deter Joseph. He sees similarities across cultures in near-death experiences; beliefs in ghosts, spirits and demons; symbols such as crosses, triangles and circles, as further evidence of the neuro-anatomical basis of spirituality.
"If you're a scientist and you find people having the same experience, colored by their own cultural differences, all over the world 4,000 years ago and among both children and adults, you have to say, well, there's something there that's worthy of scientific explanation."
For Joseph, the brain is a magical vessel, "an enchanted loom," as neurologist Charles Sherrington wrote 60 years ago, "where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns."
The search for those patterns, says Joseph, is what brain research is all about.
"You throw open a door and there is another door and another door. Most people don't even realize they're closed, or they don't care. I want to open all of those doors."
When he's not readying his company's next book for publication, Joseph, who is single, spends most of his time writing and reading, or thinking as he walks his two German shepherds in a nearby park. His home, he says, is piled high with journals from every scientific discipline.
There is a restlessness to Joseph's mind that is revealed only in his eyes. They are constantly scanning the landscape wherever he is -- in a diner, in a park -- looking for some missed opportunity to make a connection, to find an answer, or to uncover another question.
Sometimes on the weekend, Joseph will travel around Santa Cruz, where he has lived for 16 years, and stop in at a religious service. One day it's a gathering of Jehovah's Witnesses, another time it's a synagogue. Or the Church of Christian Science.
"Am I religious? No. Am I spiritual? Yes. I certainly don't believe in an anthropomorphic God. I would say the kingdom of God is inside us all. The brain is the chamber of God. It allows us to realize God and contemplate God, whatever God is."
THE COLORS OF MEDITATION
Huddled inside a shoe box of an office that is buried deep inside the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, Andrew Newberg is also looking for God. Though he believes the limbic system is important in explaining religious phenomena, he does not think it is solely responsible. The complexity and diversity of those experiences, he says, must involve other higher brain structures, specifically the autonomic system.
The 36-year-old radiologist is a study in intensity. When he speaks, his sentences often spill into one another like excited children on the cafeteria lunch line.
"Going back to when I was young, as a child, I just was always asking a lot of questions, always wondering about why we were here and how we can know something and what it meant to have that kind of knowledge and how we got to it."
Newberg's day job is radiology. Three days a week, he takes pictures of kidneys, lungs and hearts, looking for signs of disease. Two days a week, when he has willing subjects, he takes pictures of the brains of deeply religious people, looking for signs of God.
Newberg is conducting brain-imaging experiments trying to identify those areas where neural activity is linked to religious experience. In so doing, Newberg is taking Joseph's theories about the relationship between the limbic system and spirituality one step further.
A dozen times over five years, Newberg has brought in men and women, Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, to peer into their brains as they meditate and pray. In the first experiment, involving a Tibetan monk, Newberg attached an intravenous line to the subject's arm and had him meditate inside a small, darkened laboratory on the third floor of the hospital. When the monk was deep into meditation, Newberg injected a chemical tracer into the IV line.
A minute later, the monk was placed on an inclined table, his head directly beneath three rotating lenses of a massive, high-imaging machine known as a single photon emission computed tomography camera.
The images from the SPECT scans were filled with pools of neon green and red. The patterns represented increased and decreased blood flows to various parts of the brain, especially the lobes. Newberg found areas of increased blood flow in the frontal lobes, where higher thinking takes place, and decreased blood flow in the back or parietal lobes, where spatial orientation takes place.
Newberg said the frontal lobe activity might be an indication of heightened activity in the amygdala, as Joseph theorizes, although better imaging techniques would be needed to prove it.
"We believe that we were seeing colorful evidence on the SPECT's computer screen of the brain's capacity to make spiritual experience real. We saw evidence of a neurological process that has evolved to allow us humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all that is," Newberg says in "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief," one of the two books he wrote with the late psychiatrist Eugene d'Aquili.
The son of Reform Jewish parents, Newberg practices Judaism but has an affinity for Eastern religions as well. His scientific searching, he says, is just part of what it means to be fully human:
"I read in a book about Taoist teaching that there's this two-way street between you and God. And that in some way, as a human being, you have to kind of go up and reach towards it. And to me it's a little bit like that: that whatever is real out there, you have to let it come to you, but you also have go towards it.
"And I think that the contemplative part for me is the waiting part and the scientific is the going-after-it part. And so for me personally, the thing is to keep pushing yourself toward the questions and keep asking about the issues, and not being satisfied when the answers don't quite make sense."
THE PATH TO NEUROLOGY
Newberg has been pursuing reality and trying to describe it for most of his life. As a chemistry major at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, he had nearly enough credits to graduate in 1988 with degrees in astrophysics, philosophy, religion and Russian history. Before going off to get his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Newberg conducted an unusual senior research project at Haverford: trying to create life.
"It was one of these classic experiments where you put together methane and ammonia and water in a test tube and then jolt it with electricity or ultraviolet light or something like that and try to make amino acids. That's the basis for a lot of theories about how early life started. I had this big test tube, and I had these visions of coming in and seeing two little eyes looking out at me. I think we may have made an amino acid at some point. ...
"I just wanted to tackle something like that. I'm always tackling the big questions."
In medical school, Newberg realized a lot of his interests kept leading him back to the brain. Radiology -- taking pictures of the inside of a person's body and especially the brain -- seemed a good fit. Research in dementia and Alzheimer's led Newberg to reading psychiatry bulletins, which in turn led the young doctor to d'Aquili, then an associate professor of psychiatry at Penn's medical school and a pioneer in the neurological research of religion.
D'Aquili was heavily involved in his own work but finally relented and agreed to meet the persistent medical school student. Newberg bombarded the psychiatrist with questions. By the time he finished medical school in 1993, Newberg had teamed with d'Aquili.
"We came up with a very detailed model about what we thought was going on in the brain" during intense spiritual experiences, Newberg said. "So we started working toward testing those hypotheses by doing imaging studies."
The imaging studies revealed that two specific areas of the brain, the posterior superior parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex, play a critical role in intense spiritual experiences. In their books, Newberg and d'Aquili refer to these two brain structures as the areas of orientation and attention, respectively.
The "orientation association area" is responsible for creating the mental experience of personal physical boundaries and for providing a kind of spatial, three-dimensional matrix in which the body locates and orients itself.
The "attention association area" is critical in organizing all goal-directed behavior and actions.
The SPECT scans of Newberg's subjects during deep meditation revealed two things: that there was increased activity in the attention association area, and decreased activity in the orientation association area.
"Several studies suggest that the attention area is able to focus the mind upon important tasks through a process neurologists describe as 'redundancy,'" write Newberg and d'Aquili in "Why God Won't Go Away." "Redundancy allows the brain to screen out superfluous sensory input and concentrate upon a goal. It's what allows you to read a book in a noisy restaurant or daydream while walking along a crowded street. ... Victims of damage (to the attention association area) are often unable to complete long sentences or plan a schedule for the day. They also frequently exhibit emotional flatness. ...
"We believe part of the reason the attention association area is activated during spiritual practices such as meditation is because it is heavily involved in emotional responses -- and religious experiences are usually highly emotional."
In the scans of one of Newberg's Buddhist subjects, this attention association area was lit up in red at the peak of his meditation. However, the orientation association area in the parietal lobe registered little electrical activity.
Newberg asked himself: What if the orientation area was working as hard as ever but the incoming flow of sensory information had somehow been blocked? With no information flowing in from the senses, the orientation association area wouldn't be able to find any boundaries. What would the brain make of that?
Using the evidence of his meditating monks and praying nuns, Newberg says he now believes the brain has no choice but "to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses," and that this perception, to those in the midst of an intense spiritual experience, feels "utterly and unquestionably real."
The University of Tennessee's Pigliucci believes Newberg's experiments are "well-done and interesting," but he takes exception to Newberg's interpretation of the results:
"Suppose we wanted to investigate some paranormal phenomenon, such as telepathy, and you claim that your brain behaves in a particular way when you do telepathy. So we do a brain scan, and we see that the pattern of neural activity will change because you are trying to concentrate on doing telepathy.
"The scan will obviously be different from your brain at rest, but does it show that telepathy is going on? No. The brain is always working. ... You go to the movies, you eat a piece of chocolate, you dream -- your brain patterns will change."
Newberg acknowledges that at some fundamental level, the question of the existence of God will forever remain unanswered. "You can't throw open that veil of the brain and get outside of your own brain and see what's going on in the objective external world."
Even if science can't pry open that door, Newberg remains sanguine.
"Regardless of the perspective you take, the idea of God doesn't go away. I don't think we would ever say we could prove or disprove God just on the basis of our imaging studies."
Like Pigliucci, Anne Harrington, a Harvard professor in the history of science, believes Newberg's interpretations are overreaching, but she thinks his attempt to understand, scientifically, the nature of spiritual experience is worth the pursuit.
"If you really want to understand humans, you can't say anything is off bounds," says Harrington. "Max Weber, an important sociologist, gave a talk ... in which he said science was disenchanting us of our idea of reality, and that if people couldn't cope, then the doors of the churches were still open. They (Newberg and Joseph) aren't trying to re-enchant science. They're just saying that everything is still open to scientific investigation."
Newberg is willing to follow those investigations wherever they lead.
"What we're really talking about is that, regardless of whether God truly exists or not, in some sense it's not even a relevant issue. Human beings are always going to have this sense of connection to God, defining God broadly, whether we create it ourselves or whether there really is a God. ... In either case, to me it's a part of who we are. I've always felt that that which is absolute is everywhere, and it's just a matter of being open to it."
How faith happens -- its connection to the thick forest of neurons inside our skulls -- may be just one more leap of the imagination, the brain's gymnastic way of exercising its instinct for order.
"I don't think I've found any answers yet," Newberg says. "I think I'm finding ways of understanding the questions better, and I think -- or, at least, I hope -- I'm heading down a path that will give me more and more tools to be able to really answer those questions ... Just because we can't figure these experiences out doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about them, even if they're intensely inexplicable. How we ultimately describe them, that's what's important."