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Is God All in the Mind?

July 6, 2001
book cover

A review of Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause’s Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

About ten years ago I began research on the question of why people believe in God, I asked a colleague in a religious studies program to recommend the latest path-breaking scientific work in this area. “William James’s 1890 Varieties of Religious Experience” he responded sardonically, explaining that in his opinion the field was largely moribund.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but his point was that with the exception of a handful of psychologists teaching at theological seminaries, mainstream social and cognitive scientists had largely ignored the question. This has changed dramatically in the past decade, as the renewed debate on the relationship of science and religion has exploded onto the cultural landscape and scientists from a variety of fields have jumped into the fray. Enter Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, both M.D.s, with Newberg holding joint appointments in radiology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and D’Aquili, now deceased, a professor of psychiatry at Penn. (Rause is a free lance writer.)

God won’t go away, the authors argue in this breezy and speculative book written for general readers (but with enough new material, especially on the neurophysiology of mystical experiences, to hold the interest of professional scientists) because the religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain. When Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray, for example, their single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans indicate strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a bundle of neurons the authors have dubbed the OAA, or Orientation Association Area, whose job it is to orient the body in physical space (people with damage to this area have a hard time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode — as in deep meditation and prayer — that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy. Is this what happens to monks who feel a oneness with the universe, or with nuns who feel the presence of God?

Yes, say the authors, who believe they have “uncovered solid evidence that the mystical experiences of our subjects — the altered states of mind they described as the absorption of the self into something larger — were not the result of emotional mistakes or simple wishful thinking, but were associated instead with a series of observable neurological events … ” It is an odd distinction to make, which the authors do throughout the book. “A skeptic might suggest that a biological origin to all spiritual longings and experiences, including the universal human yearning to connect with something divine, could be explained as a delusion caused by the chemical misfirings of a bundle of nerve cells.”

Indeed, I am one such skeptic, but I fail to see the difference (outside a minor linguistic distinction) between a delusion and a decrease in OAA activity. Delusion is simply a description of what happens when the OAA shuts down and the brain loses the ability to distinguish self from non-self. It’s still all in the brain. Unless, of course, you believe that these neurologically triggered mystical experiences actually serve as a conduit to a real spiritual world where God (or what the authors call “Absolute Unitary Being”) resides. That is, in fact, what they believe: “ … our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.” Thankfully they are honest enough to admit that this conclusion “is a terrifically unscientific idea” and that to accept it “we must second-guess all our assumptions about material reality.” In the final chapters they do just that.

The strength of Why God Won’t Go Away lies in the original research conducted by the authors, and the brain correlates of mystical states they have identified, that together go a long way toward explicating the experiences of religious mystics. For the billions of believers who have never had a mystical experience, however, explanations for their faith are more likely grounded in the psychology and sociology of belief where, for example, the number one predictor of anyone’s religious faith is that of their parents, modified by siblings and peer groups, mentors, education, age, cultural experiences, and other variables. This is not a critique, since the authors focused their attention on the neurological correlates of belief only, but the book does unravel when they seek an evolutionary origin for religion.

As compelling as such evolutionary explanations are — and surely this must be where the ultimate reason for belief lies — much of the authors’ case depends on explanation in the just-so storytelling mode (critics of sociobiology will find much fodder for their cannons here) where, for example, we are told that religion alleviated the “existential gloom” facing our paleolithic ancestors who were “taken off their game by the soul-sapping notion that no matter how hard they struggled, how skillfully they hunted, how fiercely they battled, or how creatively they thought, death was always waiting, and that their lives added up to nothing in the end. The promises of religion protected early humans from such self-defeating fatalism, and allowed them to struggle tirelessly but optimistically for survival.” That’s interesting. Prove it.

The authors also fall into the trap of thinking of human evolution as almost entirely centered around men on the hunt, a paradigm abandoned decades ago in favor of more sophisticated models of social evolution that stress the importance of relationships, hierarchy, dominance, cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and various forms of social exchange. It is out of this paradigm, in conjunction with psycho-social models, that a fuller explanation for why God won’t go away is to be found.

(The Ballantine Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 034544034X)
This review was originally published in Science.

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31 Comments to “Is God All in the Mind?”

  1. Chuck Almdale Says:

    I read “Why God Won’t Go Away” several years ago (it’s now Jan. 2008) and it performed a crucial function in my achieving a divorce from religion in all its forms, Christianity especially, and mystical experience especially. My only disappointment in the book was the authors’ apparent acceptance of the possibility of the validity of mystical experience (paraphrase: “maybe there really is a mystical level of reality that the mystic is tapping into”). I thought their research and conjectures convincing enough to cause me to question my 40-year-long acceptance that my own mystical experiences were in some as-yet-unexplained way, completely true.

    Shermer’s comment above, “I fail to see the difference (outside a minor linguistic distinction) between a delusion and a decrease in OAA activity”, captures the essence of my religious deconversion and rejection of mystical experience. The conclusions I previously drew about the “truth” revealed by my mystical experiences were, simply, delusions. Once I accepted this, the question became “why do mystical experiences seem so convincingly valid?”

    The short answer, for me, is that during the deafferatted OAA state (when outside sensory input drops towards zero), the reality cognitive operator also ceases to function. This operator (e.g. it tells us that waking life is more real than dream life) stops performing its function. Everything, just as in a dream or hypnogogic state – no matter how ludicrous it may be – takes on an aura of hyper-reality. You believe it without question.

    But the mystical experience, like a dream, is caused by the operation of our brain, and by nothing else. Any conclusions one may draw from the seeming “more-real-than-real” mystical state are misinterpretations based upon insufficient evidence. All Gods, spiritual planes, heavens and hells are the product of our imagination operating on too little data. Enjoy them if you so desire, but they contain no more truth or reality than the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

    I regret the 40 years I spent in pursuing my misinterpretations of my religious mystical experiences. I’m glad I came through it alive, and I’m glad to have a handle on a phenomenon that still befuddles most of the human race.

    For the reasons given above, and with the single caveat I stated, I think this is an immensely valuable book. It can be a useful tool in weaning people away from a belief in religious experiences in general, and mystical experience in particular.

  2. roberto hollnagel Says:

    The comment above is very refreshing! I wish I could read similar revelations more often! I find it very difficult to understand and accept that in the 21st century religions still occupy such an important position even in very advanced societies. We know that, contrary to the US,
    secularism is advancing strongly in Europe and in the far East, but convention and “traditions” keep these changes “underground”. The reason God won’t go away is that the human being, in spite of all cientific advancements, still suffers from its oldest ill: fear of death! This is the reason why, even if you close all churches and outlaw all religions (the great “cruzade” led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and some others) there is no way you will do away with all the believers! Several billion people who are affraid of death…what comes
    “after”, and what happens to their “soul”.
    So, when the staunch “horseman” Dawkins admits in his “God delusion” that on a scale of one to seven of his invented
    categories of agnosticism, he is only 6th grade (“God is a very low probability but SHORT OF ZERO, de facto atheist, I CONDUCT MY LIFE AS IF THERE WERE NO GOD”!!!) you see what I mean. On another occasion Dawkins declared in an interview that “WHEN SCIENCE WILL EXPLAIN THE UNIVERSE AS A WHOLE, GOD WILL BE OBSOLETE”!!! So, if even someone like Dawkins is unable to declare himself a true atheist…what can you expect of normal people who live in the midst of so many other believers? Personally I would very much like all religions to disappear, mainly due to their manifest hipocrisy in all stances,their criminality regarding aids protection, homossexual assault, abortion, stem-cells, and their permanent thievery of believers through donations on false promises.
    On the other hand you would lose a lot of “spiritually inspired” good-doers, Sister Theresa-like people vocationally destined to give rather than receive, who would’nt fit into a government or even a non-government entity in order to fulfill their deeds. What do you do with these?
    Unfortunately God won’t go away! He will go on saving some and torturing others…as much as secularism may advance!
    After all…we’re only human!
    I’ll welcome comments on my email

  3. Kenn Says:

    Post-life consciousness will be the same as pre-life consciousness: non-existent.

    To think that we will have no memory of existing, that reality will be after life as it was before life, that reality will be forever erased as if we never existed…

    That’s disturbing; “existential gloom.”

  4. Chuck Almdale Says:

    There’s an old song, which has a line something like:
    “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and one thing’s for sure…I’d rather be rich!”

    “Existential gloom vs Heaven or Doom, believe you me, I’ll take the gloom!”

    Actually, it’s not gloomy at all. Knowing that post-life consciousness, something like dreamless sleep with no content or end, that’s fine by me. When I believed in Heaven/Hell, most of the time I feared the likelihood (for me) of Hell. The occasional certainty of Heaven would be quickly tempered by the thought that certainty of one’s after-death fate was a clear example of Spiritual Pride, frequently considered by theologians to be the worst, most pernicious and most tenacious of all the Seven Deadly Sins. So it was impossible to win for long.

    Leonard Cohen sang once in an early song:
    “I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned,
    When you’re not feeling holy your lingering says that you’ve sinned.”

    That captures the situation more exactly than any words I can muster.

    People of religious faith are – in my personal experience – quietly terrified, and the mechanism of their release from terror (i.e. religion) is itself creating and recycling much of the terror. The only way to escape this conundrum is to “cut the Gordian Knot” – give up the game and get out.

  5. steve Says:

    It shouldn’t be a surprise that religion persists and to presume that those that follow it are stupid and shallow is a mistake. My old neurophysiology professor pointed out that many “higher” functions of the brain are in fact under the control of “lower” functions of the brain in the same way the flappers controlled the elite in Gulliver’s Travels. If you substitute the word “ideology” for the word “religion”, the population of subscribing individuals expands. Both passion for religion and passion for science derive from the same limbic structures.

    As Larry Niven said, “intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.”

  6. TM Akashi Says:

    “A compass is a device that helps give us direction.
    The Bible is like a compass that points north.
    Buddhism is like a compass that points east.
    Islam is like a compass that points to Mecca.
    Science is like a compass that points at the laws of the universe.”
    – by TM Akashi, 2006

    If you understand the value of a compass when traveling through new or uncharted territory, then you will better understand why god/religion won’t go away. That compass that each person learned to use is the device that helps give them direction. Surely everyone would feel scared and totally lost, in the middle of an ocean, on an overcast night, without a compass (or GPS device) to guide them. It is that additional security that a compass would give us, which is the reason that god won’t go away. Personally, I think compasses are a very valuable device.

    Really, the better question is, why can’t people learn to use more compasses? People should learn to use multiple compasses, because every compass has its limitations, in certain situations. The compass that points north cannot help when trying to understand evolution. The compass that points east cannot help when soldiers are told to kill those that resist. The compass that points at the laws of the universe cannot help when leaders decide to drop bombs on civilians. Bush (as well as other “christians”) used the claim “to be born again” to fool people into thinking that Iraq was north.

    When we learn how to use multiple compasses, then we can better understand human beings and our place in the world. This is what Mr. Shermer is able to do, because he is able to use many compasses and is aware of the weaknesses in each of them. Possibly, a skeptic is a person who is aware that every compass can be used to lead and mislead people. Perhaps, the problem is that humans haven’t evolved enough to realize that one compass is not enough to travel on this planet intelligently. Humans seem to think their compass is the true compass, but become confused when they follow it and end up in the wrong place. Perhaps humans should stop listening to people who claim to have the solution which is contained in one compass or book.

  7. Monty Snow Says:

    I wish I could experience an underfunctioning OAA. I am frustrated that you can’t have an intelligent discussion with someone whose mystical experience is the basis for his belief in God. On the other hand, it feels a bit cheeky if not irrational of me to contradict the conclusion he reaches in his transcendent state without at least having paid a short visit there myself.

    The closest I ever came was after a stress-relief seminar at work. I went to my car and practiced my newly acquired self-hypnosis skills for what was to be a 10-minute break. An hour and a half later, I was awakened by a co-worker who banged desperately on the window until I revived. He thought I had either committed suicide or had a stroke. Unfortunately, so far as having a mystical experience, I may as well have been dead. I was extremely well-rested for a few brief moments, but the stress returned as I walked through the gauntlet of silent stares back in the office.

    It’s like my OAA has somehow got itself cross-wired with the autonomic nervous functions, like breathing. In any event I can’t turn it off even in a self-induced stupor, and therefore, like Dawkins, I must leave open the possibility that the answer lies somewhere I haven’t been.

    I think I must be somewhere between a backsliding deist and a pious agnostic, for the simple reason that I cannot rationalize existence unto itself. Even if the entirety of creation consisted of a clod of dirt floating in space, I would be flummoxed by it, and that’s because – and I’m sure this is not an original thought – I lack the sophisticated wiring to imagine either the clod’s creating itself, or even more difficult, the idea that the clod had no beginning or end, but simply is, i.e., the great “I AM” reduced to a clod of dirt. I am exasperated by the limits of my imagination, but have only to look at my dog to see that I’m not the only one. He has no idea where his dog food comes from. The differnce is, he doesn’t care.

    However, as difficult as it is to imagine the eternal existence of dirt, the alternative is equally daunting. I have come to the conclusion that there could be “nothing” without “something.” In other words “nothing” could not exist without a “something” to distinguish itself from the “nothing.” In fact “nothing” in that sense is itself “something.” So, in my warped reasoning, the dirt clod was, is, will be mandatory, simply because in my mind without it, the concept of it’s absence cannot exist. The smart aleck who discovered dark matter has not helped things.

    I realize this sounds like it was conceived in a profound state of malfunctioning OAA. Nevertheless, faced with the prospect of surrendering the rationality of confusion to poorly constructed fairy tales, I will, like Iris DeMent, just have to “let the mystery be.” Every skeptic who needs a chuckle should look up Iris and her song, which, until better evidence presents itself, pretty much sums up the extent of my theology.

  8. Enric Avinhon Says:

    Belief in a god and religion will last as long as there will be people given to mental laziness and feebleness of mind. Over time, man has longed to understand the meaning of life. Philosophy and to a certain degree science have tried to rationally extract plausible answers. This has been a very disparate and halting process. Religion represents an impatient reaction to the deliberateness of philosophy and critical thinking in general. It provides ready answers to the quentessential concerns of humanity in a dogmatic format that dispenses with the arduous task of careful reflection. March 2, 2008

  9. Michael Says:

    Mental laziness. What about people who have had mystical experiences? I have practiced meditation for years and I can safely say it has made for a more productive, more focused , and diciplined mind. I have no problem with critical thinking skills. Furthermore most of the arguments posted here and elsewhere are no more conclusive than what religion has to offer. I think that it would be a mistake to clump all religion into “fantasy” not very logical or a sign of careful reflection . All is the key word here.

  10. Lawrence Green Says:

    God exists, in the mind of man, because nature is totally impersonal, without eyes, ears, mouth, brain or heart. Man cannot emotionally understand, much less reason, plead, negotiate or bribe a totally impersonal force.
    So man, in the grip of existential anxiety, created in his mind a compensating substitute; the personification of nature with whom he could reason, plead, negotiate or bribe in order to obscure the reality of an impersonal, uncaring, morally neutral universe.
    God exists because he provides those of us unable to face our worst fears with the fantasies of ultimate justice and the avoidance of total personal annihilation.

  11. V. Spak Says:

    I’ve just discovered your great website. As someone who was brought up Catholic and outgrew those beliefs through studying Philosophy I agree that religious belief springs from the need for the human brain to supply meaning for events, whether they be disasters or triumphs. In earlier times when a volcano erupted, say, the meaning of the event was ascribed to the god or spirit that lived in the mountain becoming angry with the people who lived around it and wreaking punishment on them. This possibly seemed like a good explanation to illiterate people. As scientific knowledge advanced, explanations based on evidence could be put forward. It interests me that early nature religions invariably taught the need to worship objects that give off energy – sun, moon, stars, thunder, lightning or the energy in a volcano, etc. Energy – matter without mass – is invisible yet has visible effects. Humans tried to explain its source and existence and control its effects. We are still walking that path, although these days science does offer more rational explanations than religions did/do. In order to grasp the concept of energy in earlier times people personalised it and ascribed human traits such as emotions of love, anger, vengeance, etc. Through science we understand that energy has no emotion; it just is as it always was and always will be. Does that sound familiar? Yup, the same words are used to explain god’s source and existence. It’s just that the name (god/energy) has changed. Although our understanding and knowledge has expanded we still do not know all of the answers and there are still unexplained phenomena. The experiences or events that some people describe as mystical I would call natural. It is just that as yet we do not understand how they operate. It was heartening for me to hear my belief echoed by an American scientist who visited Australia last year (2007) for the Festival of Ideas. I think her name is Angeia and she is a science educator based in New York. Like me she asserts that there are no supernatural only natural events for which we still lack a verifiable explanation. For example, telepathy, telekinesis, etc. have been experienced by many people yet scepticism remains because the events are so difficult to replicate or test by experiment. Recent studies carried out to teach children with disabilities to operate computers with their minds are a promising avenue for further research that may open up ways of offering objective evidence of the transmission of energy from the human brain to influence the physical environment. We are generators of electromagnetic energy – just call me a human dynamo!

  12. Allen Price Says:

    Deriding those holding traditional God-beliefs isimply not good thinking. It’s not any smarter than calling your professional colleagues “stupid” (even if they are!). All of us have been looking for explanations for that which we do not know. A mystery to the active mind is very unsettling. A condition that could cause us harm if we don’t properly respond. This is a very primal reaction for us all.

    We all start out as children – uninformed and totally impressionable. Our parents get first crack at us and glue down the first layers in our pyramid of thought. In my religious life that meant observing my Mom in church, going to Sunday school classes, praying to God, and “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal savior”. Wow, hard to believe it actually did that!

    But, I had a special set of parents that gave me an extraordinary experience. My father essentially never went to church – and here’s the kicker – I eventually realized he was an equally moral person to my mother. When I added that to my encounter with the multiplicity of creation myths in all cultures – Voila! – a new world opened. Slowly and without voice, but relentlessly, nonetheless. God was mystery incarnate with a superhuman persona. Celestial Spiderman that could assume any form. Now I saw it as a placeholder, a working theory, a tool that “did the job” for its time.

    Yes, Virginia, there is a God and he is OF OUR MIND. He has served us well while young, but now we are no longer young.

  13. Sean Says:

    Chuck says ” But the mystical experience, like a dream, is caused by the operation of our brain, and by nothing else.”

    Just imagine what would happen if a God did exist. For one thing he would exist one dimension higher than we do, since he literally looks across all time. And so because of that one can say that there are two different planes of reality. One, our reality, which is always confined to the present, and the other, his reality, that extends across all time. Events would occur at the point of intersection of these two planes of reality.

    Now if this were true, all sorts of weird things would happen since an event at the point of intersection could be governed from either of the two planes of reality. The results of particle interactions would be different depending on which plane of reality is governing these interactions. In one case it would be a real time interaction, and from the other it would be circumstances that are present across a certain time period that would determine the outcome of the interaction. And so there would be two kinds of events. A Holistic ( cross time ) event, and a Relativistic ( real time ) event.

    If there are two kinds of events, then this would lead to all sorts of things such a Particle/Wave behavior, Action at a Distance, Particle Entanglement, Collapse of a Quantum Wave, etc. Hmmmmm, I could swear I have heard of things somewhere already. In short, all the questions not yet answered in the field of physics would all be answered in a flash if God’s plane of reality was taken into account.

    People might even begin to recognize this mysterious fellow.

  14. Chuck Almdale Says:

    This discussion continues, to my surprise.

    Sean (immediately above) suggests (using my words now, not his) the possibility that God exists in a higher dimension, from which vantage point our entire space-time continuum is spread out to His view, like a road map. He further suggests that this view could explain many interesting cutting-edge phenomena in Physics.

    Good point. One I’ve pondered since reading “Flatland” at the age of 10. I’m sure many others have also.

    The problems associated with John Bell’s theorem – quantum entanglement, action-at-a-distance – as well as newer problems such as string theory and brane intersection obviously can involve more dimensions than to which we have access. I think such dimensions probably exist, but as yet I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence for it nor has anyone (that I’ve heard of) yet devised a way to test this. Maybe the Large Hadron Collider, coming on line this year, will yield useful data along this line.

    Even if these dimensions exist, there’s no reason to assume that they are occupied by sentient being(s) that were/are involved in our meager 4-dimensional space-time lives and universe.

    At this juncture, I can only repeat that I remain convinced by my deconversion experience. Human brains, including mine, do funny things. When the Orientation Association Area stops receiving input (deafferation), the personal experience is that of the unification of all space & time & consciousness into a Unitary Whole, and the experiencer is perfectly joined in that unification. Hindu mysticism would express this as “Atman is Brahman” (the personal Soul is identical with the Cosmic Soul”. My additional conjecture is that the brain’s Reality Cognitive Center also “cuts out”, causing the experience to feel absolutely real; actually, if feels “Realer than Real.” It’s like that story about the Chinese sage who dreamed he was a butterfly. The dream was so intense that after awakening, he spent the rest of his life not knowing if he was a Chinese philosopher who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming that he was a Chinese philosopher.

    My deconversion realization consisted of recognizing that both the Mystical Unitary Experience and the “Realer than Real” experience are misinterpretations of an unusual psychological experience caused by an unusual and temporary functioning of the brain. This was not a pleasant conclusion to reach, as it forced me to accept that one of the main goals of my life was a pointless exercise in futility. On the positive side, I feel that I’ve gained a certain insight because I’ve seen – as Joni Mitchell wrote decades ago – “Both Sides Now.”

  15. Don Fincher Says:

    God could exist in a dimension unavailable, but god could also not exist there, even if there is a “there”. Confession is good for the soul, even confession of impenetrable ignorance. Epistemological constipation is evident when we dwell on the nature of god (if there is one). Ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing nothing comes), Leibnitz. Assigning or even relating knowledge of god to neurophysiology it seems to me to be in violation of the law of parsimony. I suggest it far more likely that purported knowledge of god comes from an entirely explainable facet of human nature. The need to be comforted and the need to exist beyond our natural life. The important socially normative value of having a supernatural parent who rewards and punishes aside, we as a specie revolt at the prospect that this life on earth may be all there is. If it is not, we revolt at the notion that the next life is not defined and indeed may not be guaranteed. Whether or not god exists only in the mind really doesn’t much matter. Our lives are lived through the filter of our minds and in so doing assigns reality. What is real and what is not is relevant only as it affects us personally. This stands in high relief when we choose to define god in anthropomorphic terms with human desires and human needs..the need for subservient worship, a god of love, a god of wrath, etc. Our person-hood needs stroking, rewarding, punishing, and ultimately is of such great value that we need to continue our existence after our earthly life is over. Religion says god is real (outside our mind). It reminds us that there is more yet to come, either good or bad. It pats us on the head and says be good and you’ll get a cookie, but if you’re bad you’ll get a spanking.

  16. Mark Waldman Says:

    Newberg found that activity in the parietal lobe (the orientation/association area) decreases after 45 minutes of intense meditation (in both buddhists, and nuns, by the way). This part of the brain generates our sense of “self” in relation to other objects in the world. So, for a brief period of time, that sense of self weakens. However actvity in the frontal lobe (where logic, reason, intention, language, and social awareness take place)increases. Thus, you feel at one with whatever you’re contemplating. The psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as flow. It is similar to losing yourself in a game, or a good book. The meditator looses him/herself in the object of contemplation: god, peace, or even money. Thus peace becomes more real or intense. Money becomes perceived as everything.

    But the state does not last. Thus, throughout the day, we are always altering our sense of reality to everything. It’s not delusional–it’s just a spectrum of self/object/thought/world emphasis. Can you get lost in the sense of God, or the transcendent? Yes, but the brain always returns to baseline. The real benefit of meditation lies in the permanent increased activity Newberg, Davidson, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and others are finding in the meditator’s frontal lobe, the anterior cingulate (social awareness), and the basal ganglia. The anterior cingulate and basal ganglia suppress activity in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that generate fear, anxiety, irritability, and the release of stress neurochemicals. Thus Newberg’s recent research has documented why meditation improves neurological health. His most recent study shows that meditation also enhances memory in people who have only practiced 12 minutes per day for 8 weeks. The findings will be published this fall, and reported in his next book, How God Changes Your Brain.

    For the record, I’m sure I have a positive cognitive bias toward Newberg’s research since I am a co-researcher and co-author with him.

  17. Mark Waldman Says:

    P.S.: One more interesting finding in Newberg’s brain scan studies. All the meditators had assymetric activity in their thalamus, even when not meditating. Our hypothesis is that intense meditation may permanently alter this sensory/reality/meaning-making structure in the brain. Thus the longer you meditate on “god,” or “truth” or “quantum string theory”, the more the brain responds to these abstract ideas as though they are objectively real. This is the danger all researchers face: the longer you immerse yourself in the object of your study, the more “real” it will feel to your brain.

  18. Chuck Almdale Says:

    Some of the postings in this discussion exemplify the difficulty common to all discussions of the origin/need/excuse/purpose of religion, and where the mystical experience (if any such thing exists) or “flow” as Waldman states above, fits into the puzzle.

    If you’ve never had a mystical, or flow, or peak, or unitary (among the many synonyms and near-synonyms available), AND you are not religious, it’s inevitable that the mystical experience will be discounted or ignored altogether, and issues of social pressure or family upbring will be seen as sufficient explanations for the existence of religion.

    If you’re religious, such social explanations are rejected. God is the reason! End of discussion. (Please forgive this huge generalization.) The mystical experience may be ignored, accepted, perceived as crucial, or rejected as blasphemous.

    Our current day is perfect for studying both religion and the mystical experience. We have the tools. We have the scientific outlook. We’re unlikely to be burned as witches (recent events in Kenya notwithstanding).

    Newberg (and Waldman too, apparently) have gone a long way towards rooting out the source of the mystical experience. I am very grateful for their studies, and for the book itself, which brought me to a new understanding of my own mystical experiences.

    As far as the social, as well as additional physiological factors that have brought about the existence of religion, I highly recommend Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained.”

  19. Lee Says:

    God won’t go away because everyone will cease to exist if he ever does. The secret to eternal life is KNOWING truth. KNOWING truth is the only WAY to eternal LIFE with God. God Truth LAW controls, regulates, and sustains everything.

  20. Lee Says:

    The human body/brain machine does not contain the mind, conscious awareness, thinking ability, memory, which are all part of your spirit function. Contrary to conventional science belief, spirit can be tested, proven, and demonstrated. Is God all in your mind? YES, because God Spirit is your mind. You could have a brain transplant and you would still be the same you, you know as you, because the real you is spirit soul (individual spirit self).

  21. Stefan Says:

    Well said, #11.

  22. Lee Says:

    God will not leave you but you can leave God by your free-willed second death known as soul death. What will it do to gain the world but lose your soul. Your free-will mind is from God mind, you can make the free-will choice to lose it. Knowing God truth available to all in a very personal direct way can set people free from the bondage of false beliefs, lies, and deceptions.

  23. John Zeger Says:

    I am grateful to Michael Shermer for his article and Chuck Almdale for his comments. Although I have not reached a definitive conclusion yet, I am on the road towards agreeing with both gentlemen. Like Chuck, I was a forty year mystic who is now reluctantly ready to admit that mystical experiences are only an aberrant functioning of the brain. But, unlike Chuck, I don’t regard my adventure with mysticism as having been a waste of time. It has been a fascinating trip and I would rather go to my grave knowing the truth than believing in a delusion. I can think of no better way of spending one’s time than in discovering the truth, even if it takes an entire lifetime.

  24. Kyle Says:

    I often wonder if spiritual visions are really *divine* or if they are just brain farts in some kind of mechanical error trying to correct itself?

    In fact:
    I often wonder if that’s why some people see visions more then others is because their brain is busy fixing itself.

    We obviously have a LOOOOOONG way to go in understanding the brain and the very FIRST thing we need to do is end the political science crap that encourages the *us verses *them* war on mystical/spiritual aspects of science.

    We need to dust off our ye old bibles/Korans.etc and bring back the guns for self protection from our ever-invasive government to cut out the BS of this world.

    If the government had to I doubt they could *walk the talk*.

  25. Kyle Says:

    I’ll admit it gets me excited at first that spiritual visions could be a believe in God but I usually only believe in God to have someone to blame and was no better then the hypocrite Christians.

    I am just having a hard time letting go of the belief of a God that’s in control of our lives since I have had experiences that prove I do not have much free will yet when I ask God for an answer or to show himself I get no response so I just shrug my shoulders and *sigh*.

    Once in a while it will seem like my prayers get answered but when trying the expeirment again I get no results so obviously it was just flukes when I get what I thought was my prayer answered.

  26. Kyle Says:

    So in other words i

  27. Kyle Says:

    God really is all in the mind! It’s not about if he is real or not but what is going on inside the brain activity during prayers.

    I personally think the reason why people claim to see Jesus before they die is because despite the heart not functioning their brain activity is still going though at a small scale but just enough to keep them semi-attached to their body.

    Here is an interesting article about Spiritless people by Montalk which a lot of his articles are over my head but they serve interesting points about why society is the way it is and what can be done to change it and yourself.

    I’ll try again.

  28. Kyle Says:

    One proof that you don’t necessarily die right away is that chickens if you try to cut their heads off really do run around for several minutes before they finally die.

  29. Kyle Says:

    One problem I am having is I am always attracting bad luck with health where me and my parents are having constant colds that don’t go away and I am pretty fed up with it.

    I often wish to just run away and be a hermit in a small shack not giving a rip about the rest of the world letting the crazies kill each other off in the upcoming war.

  30. Kyle Says:

    Last comment!

    Yes I was actually born retarded with severe learning disbilites which when I meditate it helps me be able to focus better on what I need to do next or otherwise I go crazy and panic easy. LOL.

    I have to constantly over ride my *retard* state to not make itself known as it’s my default.

    I had dreams that point to me that I have had spiritual accidents when born that fucked me up royally.

  31. Mac Says:

    There seems to be one possibility yet unexplored by five years of this thread: the color purple.

    Is purple real? Well, no, not in the sense that it exists in wave or particle form. You won’t find it in a rainbow. But yes, it is real in that it is a color we genuinely perceive due to how our eyes and brain are constructed.

    It seems the entire debate about god is the same thing. Does the spiritual exist outside of ourselves? No. But does that mean that it – like the color purple, or the love a child for its favorite stuffed bear – is not real?

    God may not exist outside of the human experience. But god is still real.

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