RE: Plumbing the mystery of prayer with the instruments of scienc e

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Thu May 03 2001 - 15:33:55 BST

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    Subject: RE: Plumbing the mystery of prayer with the instruments of scienc e
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    This is the same research I referred to as being in New Scientist last week.
    Thanks Wade.


    > ----------
    > From: Wade T.Smith
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Thursday, May 3, 2001 2:37 pm
    > To: memetics list;
    > Subject: Fwd: Plumbing the mystery of prayer with the instruments of
    > science
    > 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
    > millenia.
    > ''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
    > worship.
    > 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
    > This story ran on page A02 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2001. Copyright
    > 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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