Trishula Patel, Philadelphia Inquirer: Andrew Newberg, 44, has been named director of research at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, a spokesman announced Friday. He leaves the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine after having served as an associate professor of psychiatry and radiology for the last seven years. Newberg, who hails from Bryn Mawr, spoke with Inquirer staff writer Trishula Patel.
Question: Why are you leaving Penn? What opportunities do you see at Jefferson that you couldn’t pursue at Penn?
Answer: As much as I’ve enjoyed doing research at Penn, my real passion and love is in the field of alternative medicine, and the more specific practice of meditation and other spiritual practices and how they relate to health care. I was able to pursue my research on complementary medicine on the side at Penn, but at Jefferson I can now make it my primary work.
Integrative medicine includes everything from traditional to alternative therapies. If you need antibiotics, we’ll give you those, but if it’s dietary changes that will be the best for you, we can help with that, too.
Q: What will the Myrna Brind Center become known for under your leadership?
A: There are two main things: the first is to make the center the premier research facility and program for the study of integrative medicine. The other is to expand on the research I’ve been doing over the past two decades. It’s important to look at the mechanisms and biology of what’s going on with integrative therapy, and not just use acupuncture to alleviate pain, but understand why it helps too.
Q: A lot of money has been spent on alternative medicine trials and some would argue that we haven’t seen much gain from it. How will you change that?
A: Obviously when looking at research dollars, we have to make sure they’re distributed properly. I also think what happens often is that we forget about the patient in all these big trials. We need to understand an individual not just on a biological level, but on a social and spiritual level too.
And so many of these integrative therapies are actually very cheap. If we can work with something simple, we don’t need to spend billions on treatments that have no effect. This will be useful especially when it comes to disorders where there aren’t treatments, like irritable bowel syndrome; integrative therapy may be the best treatment.
Q: Tell me about the study of neurotheology, which you used in the title of your recent book.
A: It’s a very exciting field that, simply put, is the study of the intersection between religious phenomena and the human brain. On the neurological side, there’s neuroscience, the study of effects on the body, and ultimately overall health. On the theological side, there are all the aspects of religion and spiritual phenomena.
The question then is, how do we bring them together to help us better understand who we are as people? Ultimately, the brain is a very important player in religious practices, and trying to understand this relationship is the key to understanding the nature of our whole existence.
Q: What happens to the brain during spiritual practices like meditation? How is this beneficial for our health?
A: We’ve found a very large number of changes that go on in the brain during meditation and prayer – a whole network of structures that appear to become active depending on what the person is actually doing. The simple answer is that when one engages in these practices, activating different parts of the brain, it improves the efficiency and function of the brain. People have reported remembering better and thinking clearer, and this helps with cognition and emotional health. In turn, it affects the body by lowering the level of stress, which in turn lowers stress hormones, which then lowers blood pressure.. . .
So it translates back into an overall healthier person, provided it is something that works for the person. You can’t tell someone to pray in one way if they don’t want to, or if they don’t understand, or if it conflicts with prevailing religious or spiritual beliefs.
Q: Do you meditate daily?
A: I don’t have a formal practice to what I do. As I pushed myself to try and find the answers to the big philosophical questions as I grew up, it became more of an internal contemplative process where, as I began to ponder those questions, I was able to derive a much better understanding of what people mean when they say they had a mystical experience. I continue to pursue that development of what you could call my own spiritual path, but I don’t have a formal religious practice that I follow.
Q: Do you think alternative therapies will change medicine, or will medicine change alternative medicine?
A: I think that alternative medicine will probably change medicine, rather than the other way round. Alternative therapy really looks at a person on a biological and social and spiritual level, and many physicians have come to the understanding that we need to work with all these levels. And the crucial part is to know when it’s right to prescribe antibiotics or get a CAT scan, or when to address social issues.