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This article is from Issue 63: May/June 2013

This Is Your Brain On Religion

How scientific research is helping us understand the soul.

As Dr. Andrew Newberg revealed his findings on how prayer affects nuns’ brain scans, one nun said, “This makes so much sense to me. Now I understand the impact God has on my brain.” Brain scans don’t often garner ecclesiastical affirmation, but it’s all in a day’s work for Dr. Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College.

Dr. Newberg isn’t particularly devout, but his work touches a lot of people who are. Newberg and his team, who have conducted brain scans of people engaged in specific spiritual practices—from Franciscan nuns in prayer to Tibetan Buddhists in meditation, from chanting Sikhs to Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues—have released findings that are changing the way people understand religious experience. Specifically, they’re finding a direct scientific link between spiritual practice and unique brain activity.

But with each new finding, more questions arise. For instance, are human biology and human spirituality connected? If so, how? And could a better understanding of our body’s physical workings lead Christians into deeper faith?

Exploring the Findings

To put such questions to the test, Newberg’s team injects subjects with a radioactive tracer and scans their brains using MRI or SPECT imaging. Each subject’s brain is scanned twice—once in a resting state and then while engaged in a spiritual practice.

Through these tests, Newberg found surprising links between spirituality and the brain.

When subjects engaged in meditation or prayer, for example, their ability to concentrate increased dramatically. Brain scans often revealed an intense loss of one’s sense of self during such exercises.

When subjects spoke in tongues, the activity of their frontal lobes—the largest and most complex region of the brain—dropped rather than increased. Newberg interprets this finding as evidence that the subjects aren’t speaking in tongues of their own volition, but rather allowing it to happen to them.

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