Fwd: Plumbing the mystery of prayer with the instruments of science

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Thu May 03 2001 - 14:37:03 BST

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    Plumbing the mystery of prayer with the instruments of science

    By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff , 5/3/2001

    In a quiet laboratory, Andrew Newberg takes photographs of what believers
    call the presence of God.

    The young neurologist invites Buddhists and Franciscan nuns to meditate
    and pray in a secluded room. Then, at the peak of their devotions, he
    injects a tracer that travels to the brain and can reveal its activity at
    the moment of transcendence.

    A pattern has emerged from Newberg's experiments. There is a small region
    near the back of the brain that constantly calculates a person's spatial
    orientation, the sense of where one's body ends and the world begins.
    During intense prayer or meditation, and for reasons that remain utterly
    mysterious, this region becomes a quiet oasis of inactivity - a fact that
    could explain the borderless spiritual communion felt by the faithful for

    ''It creates a blurring of the self-other relationship,'' said Newberg,
    an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose work
    appears in the April 10 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. ''If
    they go far enough, they have a complete dissolving of the self, a sense
    of union, a sense of infinite spacelessness.''

    Newberg and other scientists are finding that man's diverse array of
    devotional traditions has a powerful biological reality. During intense
    meditation and prayer, the brain and body both experience signature
    changes, as yet poorly understood, that could yield insights into the
    religious experience and, one day, even provide clues to living more
    healthy, more fulfilling lives.

    Already, scientists say, the young field has provided evidence that these
    meditative states - which rely on shutting down the senses and repeating
    words, phrases, or movements - are a natural part of the brain; that
    humans are, in some sense, inherently spiritual beings.

    ''Prayer is the modern brain's means by which we can connect to more
    powerful ancestral states of consciousness,'' said Gregg Jacobs, an
    assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has
    published several studies of the way brain waves change during meditation.

    With meditative states, people seem to turn off what Gregg called ''the
    internal chatter'' of the higher, conscious brain.

    During meditation, increases have been observed in the activity of the
    ''theta'' brain wave, a type that moves slowly and is known to inhibit
    other activity in the brain. Based on a preliminary analysis of recent
    data, Gregg said, he has observed inhibitory theta activity coming from
    the same region of the brain, called the parietal lobe, that unveils the
    becalmed oasis during prayer. Eventually, researchers hope that they can
    identify a common biological core in the world's many varieties of

    As scientists increasingly bring sophisticated technologies to the study
    of religion, though, many caution that these first glimpses of mysterious
    territory should not be over-interpreted.

    ''Whatever we can learn about these states is going to be a great
    advantage to us,'' said Lawrence E. Sullivan, the director of the Harvard
    University Center for the Study of World Religions. But there is the
    danger ''that our technologies and our conclusions won't be equal to the
    richness and complexity of religion.''

    Even prayer itself is spectacular in its diversity, said Sullivan, citing
    the Taoist tradition of deep meditation in which the practitioners
    re-imagine their own birth, and the chanting, dancing ritual of a people
    who live near Venezuela's Orinoco River in which teenagers achieve an
    ecstatic trance-like state and then metaphorically die.

    In the last century, researchers have been rediscovering the power of the
    brain to affect the body. By the 1970s, some scientists had begun to look
    seriously for therapeutic value in religion. Herbert Benson, president of
    the Mind/Body Medical Institute, affiliated with Harvard University,
    coined the term ''relaxation response'' to describe the healthful
    physiological changes in those who followed Eastern meditative practices.

    Recently, scientists have begun to consider similarly intense Western
    prayer practices as well. And last year, the National Institutes of
    Health said it was sponsoring a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins
    University to study the effects of lengthy group prayer sessions among
    African-American women with breast cancer - the first such study ever.

    One of the most striking findings came in 1997, when a team of
    researchers from the University of California at San Diego found what
    they called the ''God module'' in the brain. They studied patients who
    suffer from a form of epilepsy that affects the brain's temporal lobe.
    These patients experience deep religious feelings during the attacks and
    remain fascinated by mystical questions after the attacks.

    The researchers, headed by Vilayanur Ramachandran, said the seizures were
    strengthening a portion of the brain that responds to religious words,
    implying that religious feeling is a part of the brain's architecture.

    Pennsylvania's Newberg, who is the author of a book out this month called
    ''Why God Won't Go Away,'' said the mystery of religious experience was
    inherently difficult to solve in the lab, especially with a noisy brain
    scanner clanging away. His strategy has been to use a technique called
    SPECT, which relies on a tracer that fixes on the brain's pattern of
    activity when it is injected, but can be observed later, under a scanner.

    Nobody yet knows why the brain has this ability to reach other kinds of
    conscious states merely by turning inward, quieting down, focusing on a
    shimmering image, or repeating a sacred phrase.

    Some will interpret the research as evidence that God is a product of the
    brain, while others will say it is evidence that the brain is a product
    of some higher power's hand - that, as Benson put it, ''perhaps God gave
    us the mechanism to understand and experience God in a certain way.''

    Gareth Cook can be reached by e-mail at cook@globe.com

    This story ran on page A02 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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