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God and the Brain: The Physiology of Spiritual Experience

God and the Brain: The Physiology of Spiritual Experience - Andrew B. Newberg These are three one-hour lectures by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg reporting on his study of brain functions, and how they respond to various spiritual and meditative practices. By bringing neuroscience and religion together he aims to provide a new perspective on practices such as worship, prayer, religious studies, rituals, the process of forgiveness and the various emotions of awe, charity, love and altruism. This ultimately spills over into an understanding of belief systems and why we ultimately believe the things that we do about our world and our reality. This leads to a discussion of ways that physical and mental health can be affected by belief systems.

Some listeners will conclude that the lecturer is reducing religion and spirituality down to the level of biology by describing mystical experiences in terms of neurotransmitter functions and blood flow changes in the brain. But he points out that a brain scan of somebody looking at apple pie appears the same as a person eating it. Therefore, a brain scan of a person contemplating God doesn’t prove or disprove the reality of God.

All humans use their brains to perceive and understand their environments. In the process of doing so we all develop myths to explain inexplicable sensations (i.e. is the sound in the dark a burglar or wind blowing?). Whether one is a devout Christian, a Buddhist meditator, or even a dedicated atheist, the part of the brain that controls spiritual experience has a profound impact on our entire identity. People who incorporate religion and spirituality into their lives are using them as one of several types of tools to help their brain to accomplish its fundamental goals of self maintenance and self transcendence.

Dr. Newberg sees no indication that religion is going to disappear any time soon:
”Unless our brain ultimately changes is some very fundamental way, the concepts of religion, spirituality and God will be here for a long time to come.”
The three lectures concentrate on the following subjects:

First Lecture--provides an overview of the structure of the brain, how it functions and what brain scans show in response to various activities.

Second Lecture--describes reasons for various beliefs and how beliefs get reinforced by neuron pathways being repeatedly activated.

Third Lecture--links the effects of religion and spirituality on health and mental attitudes.

I found the lectures to provide some interesting insights into the relationship between spirituality and science.