neurotheology

Distinct ‘God spot’ in the brain does not exist, researcher says

Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a “God spot,” one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, University of Missouri researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences. Based on a previously published study that indicated spiritual transcendence is associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning, MU researchers replicated their findings. In addition, the researchers determined that other aspects of spiritual functioning are related to increased activity in the frontal lobe.

“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”

In the most recent study, Johnstone studied 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, the area of the brain situated a few inches above the right ear. He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. He found that the participants with more significant injury to their right parietal lobe showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.

“Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone said. “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.”

Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.

In addition, Johnstone measured the frequency of participants’ religious practices, such as how often they attended church or listened to religious programs. He measured activity in the frontal lobe and found a correlation between increased activity in this part of the brain and increased participation in religious practices.

“This finding indicates that spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain,” Johnstone said.

The study, “Right parietal lobe ‘selflessness’ as the neuropsychological basis of spiritual transcendence,” was published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion.

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Scans show more brain activity when people meditate

People who pray, meditate and perform religious rituals show considerably more activity in their brain’s frontal lobe during these activities than when the brain is at rest, a scientist has found.

Andrew Newberg from the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in the US is a proponent of neurotheology, which tries to study the relationship between the brain and religion.

Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced Tibetan Buddhists before and during meditation, reports the Daily Mail.

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He found an increase of activity in the meditators’ frontal lobe, responsible for focusing attention and concentration, during meditation. He attributes the change to the effects of their religious experience, a statement of Thomas Jefferson University said.

However, it is just as likely that the scans are another example of what happens when people meditate, rather than any religious link.

Neurotheology has come under fierce attack from other academics in the past who say it is not rigorous enough in its studies and that theology and science should not be linked in this way.

It is not the first time that brain activity and meditation have been studied.

Last month, a study at the University of Oregon found that people who meditate can strengthen their brain. Meditation novices took part in brain-training meditation sessions for half an hour on weekdays for a month.

Another group received the same amount of tuition – 11 hours in basic relaxation techniques.

Brain scans revealed the brain connections of those in the meditation group – but not the other group – started to strengthen after six hours’ practice. Differences were clear after 11 hours.

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Andrew Newberg to direct studies in integrative medicine

wildmind meditation news

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.

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How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

Reuters: Some book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

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That brings up another interesting aspect. While he is clearly favourable to faith and spirituality, Newberg remains a scientist eager to study the religious feelings he calls “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.” He studiously avoids promoting any one faith or closing the door to atheists who might be reading the text. The tone is upbeat, the approach inclusive and the conclusion optimistic. There’s a touch of Eastern mysticism, too, with sections on how widely practiced meditation could foster compassion and understanding among people and peoples. Thanks to this open-minded approach towards both religion and science, Newberg teaches radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and speaks frequently to church groups or in religious media.

Newberg gave me a few SPECT brain scan images that illustrate the changes he finds in his subjects’ brains. The image above left shows the brain of a Buddhist monk before and during meditation. The increased yellow in the lower right of the right-hand image shows reduced activity in the parietal lobe, the brain area responsible for orientation in space and time. Below right, the image shows a nun before and during prayer, with increased activity in the frontal lobe, the area for concentration and analytical thinking, and in areas linked to language.
Newberg, a cheerful and optimistic man who was brought up in a Reform Jewish family and says he is still exploring his own beliefs, told me his next book will be an academic work on neurotheology. He stresses that the field is in its infancy and its brain scanning methods are still “incredibly crude. We really don’t know which neurons are firing in that little three-millimeter space” captured in fMRI scans. “If we can ultimately say something epistemologically interesting, then that’s great,” he told me. “But it’s going to take me a long time before I get to saying something like that.”

What do you think about “neurotheology”? Do you think brain scans and neuroscience can tell us anything significant about religion?

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Faith rites boost brains, even for atheists

Reuters: Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns boost their brain power through meditation and prayer, but even atheists can enjoy the mental benefits that believers derive from faith, according to a popular neuroscience author.

The key, Andrew Newberg argues in his new book “How God Changes Your Brain,” lies in the concentrating and calming effects that meditation or intense prayer have inside our heads.

Brain scanners show that intense meditation alters our gray matter, strengthening regions that focus the mind and foster compassion while calming those linked to fear and anger.

Whether the meditator believes in the supernatural or is an atheist repeating a mantra, he says, the outcome can be the same – a growth in the compassion that virtually every religion teaches and a decline in negative feelings and emotions.

“In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life — be they religious, scientific or psychological — your brain is going to grow,” says Newberg, head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist,” he writes in the book written with Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist at the Center.

NEUROTHEOLOGY

In his office at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, Newberg told Reuters that “neurotheology” – the study of the brain’s role in religious belief – is starting to shed light on what happens in believers’ heads when they contemplate God.

Science and religion are often seen as opposites, to the point where some in each camp openly reject the other, but this medical doctor and professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies sees no reason not to study them together.

“The two most powerful forces in all of human history have been religion and science,” he said. “These are the two things that help us organize our world and understand it. Why not try to bring them together to address each other and ultimately our world in a more effective way?”

Atheists often see scanner images tracking blood flows in brains of meditating monks and nuns lost in prayer as proof that faith is an illusion. Newberg warns against simple conclusions:

“If you see a brain scan of a nun who’s perceiving God’s presence in a room, all it tells you is what was happening in her brain when she perceived God’s presence in a room.

“It may be just the brain doing it, but it may be the brain being the receiver of spiritual phenomena,” said Newberg, whose research shows the short prayers most believers say leave little trace on the brain because they are not as intense as meditation.

“I’m not trying to say religion is bad or it’s not real,” he added. “I say people are religious and let’s try to understand how it affects them.”

NO “GOD SPOT”

Another notion Newberg debunks is the idea there is a single “God spot” in the brain responsible for religious belief: “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God.”

Instead, religious experiences fire neurons in several different parts of the brain, just like other events do. Locating them does not explain them, but gives pointers to how these phenomena occur and what they might mean.

In their book, Newberg and Waldman sketch out some of the “God circuits” in the brain and their effects, especially if trained through meditation as muscles are through exercise.

Meditation both activates the frontal lobe, which “creates and integrates all of your ideas about God,” and calms down the amygdala, the emotional region that can create images of an authoritative deity and fog our logical thinking.

The parietal-frontal circuit gives us a sense of the space around us and our place in it. Meditation suppresses this sense, giving rise to a serene feeling of unity with God or the world.

“Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health,” the authors declare in the book.

Newberg, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family and has studied many religions, said his work might help both believers and atheists understand religious feelings, which he said were “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.”

But he cautioned against expecting “neurotheology” to come up with surprising insights soon: “As good as our techniques are, they are still incredibly crude. We have a long way to go.”

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God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

Reuters Blogs: Neurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah, aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

“There isn’t a separate religious area of the brain, from what we can tell from the data,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Penn university hospital and author of several books on neuroscience and religion. “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God. When you look at religious and spiritual experiences, they are incredibly rich and diverse. Sometimes people find them on the emotional level, sometimes on an ideological level, sometimes they perceive a oneness, sometimes they perceive a person. It depends a lot on what the actual experience is.”

In their research, Newberg and his colleagues have scanned the brains of Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns to see if their long experience of meditation and prayer had left its mark on their brains. One thing they noticed was that their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain linked to concentration and decision making, seemed to be more active than usual even in a resting state, and more active still while meditating. Some studies showed it was even larger in long-term meditators than other people. “It’s almost like a muscle,” he said. “If you exercise it every day through meditation, you enhance and increase its function.”

Rather than being located in separate areas, religious and spiritual phenomena “tend to be built upon the existing framework of how the brain works”, said Newberg. “So if we have an experience of the love of God, there is an underlying biology of that experience that is probably the same as how you feel love for your wife, for example. On the other hand, what we also tend to find is that there seems to be a larger network of structures that do tend to get involved. The data seem to suggest that (faith) probably activates these structures to a slightly stronger degree.

“If you’re doing math, your frontal lobe turns on. If you’re doing meditation, your frontal lobe turns on. But if you’re solving math, the frontal lobe turns on and that’s about it, you solve the math problem and then you’re done. With meditation, the frontal lobes turn on, but based on our research, then there’s activation in the temporal lobes, the parietal lobes are changing, and then it starts to activate the limbic system, the emotional drivers of your brain. So a lot more is happening.

“There are some people who say this is evolutionarily adaptive,” Newberg observed. “I try to get away from that because, unfortunately, there’s no real way to prove that. You don’t know what happened 100,000 years ago, whether religion became a part of us as human beings because of the mystical experiences people had, because people were afraid of dying and wanted to know what happened afterwards, or because it created a system of morals and ethics for people and helped enhance socialisation. It does all of those things, sure, but we don’t really know if it was all of those things or one or two of them. To some degree, I get worried about how much we can take that argument.

“My favorite discussion is what does this really mean. Does it mean we’ve found how God interacts with our brain or have we found that God is nothing more than a manifestation of our brain? I don’t have an answer for you yet …”

It isn’t all just lectures at the Boot Camp. We’ve also visited the university hospital’s fMRI scanner, where patients are slid into a narrow tunnel surrounded by a huge and powerful magnet. That’s me in the picture above entering the hospital’s mock scanner used to accustom patients to the claustrophobic feel of the machine before they actually enter the real one to have their brains scanned.

I’ll have more from the boot camp in coming days about religion, ethics and other issues. Anyone interested in getting a closer look at the conference can follow the Bloggin’ from Boot Camp entries by Francis X. Shen on the Law and Neuroscience Blog. Shen, a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Government, is writing daily wraps on the day’s discussions for the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

Original article no longer available…

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Is This Your Brain on God?

National Public Radio: “More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyze the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual — from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.” Read more here.

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Meditation: Do you Digg it?

We take a look at the ten highest-rated meditation articles from the social news site, Digg.com, where users submit and vote on articles.

These days the fastest-growing and most exciting parts of the web are based on user-generated content — a phenomenon known as Web 2.0. Rather than just consuming other people’s online offerings we’re now sharing photographs on Flickr, voting for videos on YouTube, and leaving comments on innumerable blogs (including this one).

One of the most prominent Web 2.0 sites is Digg, where users submit, vote, and comment on news stories and articles. Some of the articles offered up in this raucous marketplace of opinions are true gems, while others are of dubious value. But that’s voters for you.

From time to time users of Digg have highlighted stories that feature meditation, so we’ve combed through past stories and found those that were most highly rated. We don’t necessarily think Diggers are necessarily the final arbiters of what makes a good article on meditation, but here, in reverse order, are the ten most popular stories.

10. Buddha on the brain

Digg’s blurb: “Ex-monk B. Alan Wallace explains what Buddhism can teach Western scientists, why reincarnation should be taken seriously and what it’s like to study meditation with the Dalai Lama.”

Our take: Alan Wallace is one of the most important western Buddhist teachers and authors, and has a particular interest in the relationship between science and spirituality. This in-depth Salon article is well worth a read.

9. Meditation has a measurable effect on alertness

Digg’s blurb: Meditation is often credited with helping people feel more focused and energetic, but are the benefits measurable? When researchers tested the alertness of volunteers, they found that the practice proved more effective than naps, exercise or caffeine.

Our take: This New York Times article is a brief, but interesting account of research done by Prashant Kaul of the University of Kentucky.

8. Colors of religion: Buddhism

Digg’s blurb: The most prominent colour concept in Buddhism is that of the rainbow body, which is the highest level of meditative achievement wherein the body is transformed into pure light. The rainbow body is the highest achievement other than Nirvana, which is the essential end-goal for Buddhists.

Our take: If you’re into color symbolism you’ll enjoy this well-informed survey of the ritual and mythic associations of six main colors.

7. The physical and mental benefits of daily meditation

Digg’s blurb: In a modern world that values activity, achievements and results, it is perhaps surprising that more people are turning to meditation. For all the activity of modern society, many still feel a fundamental need for silence, inner peace, and a moment of reflection. Meditation can reduce stress and help us relax; but, it can also give us a lot more.

Our take: This blog article by a disciple of the recently-deceased Sri Chinmoy offers a competent overview of the benefits of meditation. There are no surprises for experienced meditators, but this is a good place for a beginner to get a sense of what meditation can offer.

6. 101 Zen stories

Digg’s blurb: “A school of Mahayana Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation and self-contemplation.”

Our take: This is an entire website rather than just an article, and you get what it says on the tin: 100 short tales from Zen Buddhism that illustrate important aspects of spiritual practice. The stories are from Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. There’s no actual meditation instruction, but the stories are interesting, challenging, and often very humorous.

5. Meditation for beginners: 20 practical tips for quieting the mind

Digg’s blurb: Although a great number of people try meditation at some point in their lives, a small percentage actually stick with it for the long-term. This is unfortunate, and a possible reason is that many beginners do not begin with a mindset needed to make the practice sustainable.

Our take: Some excellent advice on meditating from Todd Goldfarb, useful for beginners but also a good refresher for more experienced practitioners

4. Are humans hard-wired to believe in a higher being?

Digg’s blurb: Some scientists are calling religion the great equalizer and point out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God.

Our take: This is a truly fascinating article by CNN on research into what goes on in the brain during religious experiences such as meditation, prayer, and speaking in tongues. Theists like to think that this proves that God hard-wired the brain for religiosity, while atheists see religious experience as a by-product of evolution. Highly recommended.

3. Four powerful reasons to meditate and how to get started

Digg’s blurb: A great way to reset.

Our take: Another blog article on meditation by the Sri Chinmoy devotee mentioned above. It’s a good, clear guide to the benefits of meditation that also covers a variety of techniques. The article also deals with questions like “Is meditation religious?” and “How do I find time to meditate?” We can’t figure out how he managed to squeeze so much into one article.

2. Scans of monks’ brains show meditation alters structure, functioning

Digg’s blurb: The brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.

Our take: Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, this article is republished in the website of The Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which by no coincidence is a major center of research into the neuroscience of meditation. The article describes how scientists scanned the brains of experienced meditators and found them to have unprecedented levels of gamma waves, indicative of a level of consciousness far exceeding the norm. This is now regarded as a classic piece of research into the power of meditation to reshape the brain.

1. Meditation, the geeky way

Digg’s blurb: This is how the modern meditation works. Meditation 2.0, I would say. Funny comic by Joy of Tech.

Our take: This being Digg, a survey of articles wouldn’t be complete without something totally trivial. Diggers tend to be very interested in technology, which is probably why this is the top story. I found it amusing, and perhaps you will too.

In summary: we only just managed to scrape together ten articles that were worth mentioning from the roughly five million that have been submitted to Digg, so meditation is obviously not a strong interest among Diggers. Some of the more popular meditation stories, moreover, also touched on technology, and so that may be the reason people were voting for them. So I’d encourage you meditators to get onto Digg and make your voices heard! Maybe you could even Digg some articles from this site?

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Hard-wired for God (The Globe and Mail, Toronto)

ANNE McILROY, The Globe and Mail, Toronto: Only something extraordinary could entice the Carmelite nuns of Montreal to break their vow of silence and venture out of the cloister, ANNE McILROY says. They have joined forces with science to look for a concrete sign from God — inside the human brain.

The Carmelite nuns live a life of silent prayer, separated from the modern world by the high stone wall that surrounds their monastery in an industrial part of Montreal. Except for medical care, they rarely leave their sanctuary. But that changed late last month, when they began to make periodic visits to, of all places, a science lab.

The sisters arrive at the neuro-science laboratory in the University of Montreal’s psychology department two at a time, wearing habits sewn from thick, dark cloth, high white collars and veils that frame their faces and flow down their backs. On their feet are sensible brown laceups that appear to have never seen the outdoors before.

They come to take part in an experiment that will probe a mystical and very private part of their lives. Sister Diane, the monastery’s prioress, and Sister Teresa admit to being nervous as they peer curiously into a dark chamber about the size of a walk-in closet and equipped with an old barber’s chair.

It is here that they have agreed to try to relive unio mystica, a religious experience so intense that Christians profess to sense their Lord as a physical presence. The nuns hope to help Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard uncover just what happens in their brains when they feel the hand of God.

Their openness to scientific examination is a sign of a relatively recent rapprochement between science and religion, especially in the new field of neurotheology, which uses the tools of psychology and neuroscience to probe the neural underpinnings of religious experience.

This is only a dry run, but the formidable Sister Diane suddenly looks vulnerable as she takes off her veil and loosens her thick grey hair. Research assistant Vincent Paquette gently helps her put on what looks like a red bathing cap full of holes. Inside the cap, electrodes below each hole will be attached to her scalp to measure the electrical activity of her brain.

“This isn’t,” she says, “what we are used to.”

Indeed, life inside the monastery has changed little since the Carmelites founded it in 1875. Sister Diane and her nuns rise at 5:20 for breakfast and an hour of silent prayer that they liken to meditation. The days are filled with chanting the Psalms, attending mass and more silent prayer.

When they aren’t praying, they are working; cooking, gardening, baking hosts for communion, washing and sewing habits, making crafts to earn money. They are permitted to talk to each other only during two 20-minute recreation periods, after lunch and after supper. In the evening, they must write notes if they have something pressing to say.

“We are hermits, living in a community,” Sister Diane explains. They even pray in separate wooden compartments.

There are 19 nuns now in the monastery and all plan to stay until they die.

Now, they have agreed not only to venture out of the cloister, but also to relive perhaps the most intimate moment of their lives while researchers watch what happens to their brains.

Sister Diane says unio mystica, the mystical union with God, is difficult to put into words. St. Teresa of Jesus, the Spanish nun who established the Carmelite order in 1526, described it as talking lovingly to God as though He were a friend and sharing a divine intimacy. The experience happens only once or twice in a lifetime, typically before a person turns 30. Sister Diane had it happen twice in the same year — 1977, when she was 29 — and not again since. She has never talked about it before, she says; it was too private, too intimate. She was at a religious retreat, praying silently and recalls entering an altered state, with an intense sense of God’s physical presence. She lost herself in it.

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how much time had passed. It is like a treasure, and intimacy. It is very, very personal. It was in the centre of my being, but even deeper. It was a feeling of fullness, fullness, fullness.”

Sister Teresa, 43, also experienced her unio mystica when in her 20s. “It is more than a feeling,” she says. “It is more intense than feeling, but you sense God is physically there. It brings intense happiness, even bliss.”

When Dr. Beauregard and Mr. Paquette, his doctoral student, first approached Sister Diane about using three of the most powerful brain-imaging tools available to learn more about unio mystica, she was intrigued. She had heard about other experiments investigating the biological basis of religious experience.

The researchers were hoping the nuns would have a mystical experience right in the lab. Sister Diane told them that this would be impossible — God can’t be summoned at will. “You can’t search for it. The harder you search, the longer you will wait,” she says.

So the scientists came back with an alternative: Would the nuns be able to remember what it felt like? Dr. Beauregard is certain that when they recall such an intense experience, their brains will operate the same way as when the nuns actually felt God’s physical presence.

He says there is plenty of evidence that this is likely. When we think about doing something physical, such as hitting a forehand in tennis, the same parts of the brain are active as when we are actually make the shot.

Similarly, he has conducted experiments with actors and found that dramatizing a sad experience causes intense activity in the parts of the brain that process emotion.

This approach pleased the nuns, and so far six have agreed to participate in the experiments, which will take two years to complete.

The first step is to measure their brain waves, or electrical activity, using an electroencephalographic (EEG) recording device as they re- live unio mystica as best they can.

The second, using functional magnetic imaging, will provide a living picture of their brains at work by showing which regions of their brain are active and which aren’t.

In the third experiment, the nuns will be injected with a low-level radioactive chemical so that the scientists can use positron emission tomography, better known as a PET scan, to measure levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in different parts of the brain. Serotonin is involved in regulating a person’s moods, and there is evidence that psychedelic drugs such as LSD mimic it to produce hallucinations.

Some cultures use hallucinogens to communicate with God, and Dr. Beauregard believes that serotonin may play a role in unio mystica. Not that he is trying to prove that unio mystica is all in the head. Every human experience occurs in the mind, he says. The “experience is real, but the manifestation is in the brain.”

When the analysis of all three experiments is done, he hopes to have a clear biological picture of an experience that mystifies even those who have lived it. Ultimately, he would like to know enough about how it works to be able to offer the same experience to anybody seeking spiritual growth.

Sister Diane says she is certain that Dr. Beauregard will discover a biological basis for the Carmelites’ spiritual experience, one she says is shared by all human beings. God equipped people with the brains they need for a spiritual life, she insists. “Our body has a spiritual component. To be a human being is to be a spiritual being. I’m convinced this will show in the results.”

Sister Teresa seems less sure. “It will be up to God,” she says.

Dr. Beauregard is not the only researcher probing the neurobiology of belief. In September, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, took part in a high-profile meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held to compare Buddhist and scientific views about how the mind works.

Buddhists believe that they can regulate their emotions through meditation, and studies conducted on Buddhist monks have shown intense activity in specific parts of their brains when they meditate. Which part of the brain appears to depend on the type of meditation — whether the person is focusing on compassion or on the details of a mental image of Buddha.

The sold-out MIT session attracted many respected scientists, including a researcher from the Royal Ottawa Hospital who is interested in whether meditation may be useful in treating anxiety disorders.

The study of meditation is no longer considered the flaky fringe of science, thanks to researchers such as Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who helped to organize the session with the Dalai Lama.

In 1992, he travelled to northern India equipped with electrical generators, computers and machines that could measure the electrical output of the brain. In the foothills of the Himalayas, he wired up monks to learn more about their brains.

New, more powerful brain-imaging equipment has drawn other researchers to the field, including scientists at Harvard, the University of California at San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Beauregard at the University of Montreal.

They are trying to answer a number of intriguing questions: Are humans hard-wired to have religious or spiritual experiences, which are common to almost every culture on Earth? What happens in the brain when they do have them? Is it something that non-religious people might be able to replicate with the right stimulation? Is a transcendent Buddhist experience, often described as feeling connected to everyone and everything in the universe, the same as Christians’ unio mystica? Can religion and spirituality make people healthier, as some studies suggest?

Work with the Buddhist monks shows that meditation results in decreased activity in the parietal lobes, which are located at the top and back of the brain, and help to orient a person in time and space. (For example, they tell you that your hands are on the steering wheel and you’re driving to the store.)

The theory is that a lack of parietal activity reduces the sense of self, and makes a person feel there is no boundary between his or her body and the rest of the universe. As well, there appears to be increased activity in the limbic system, which helps to process emotion.

Dr. Beauregard says Christian mysticism may involve a different biological mechanism. His is the first study to use three techniques for monitoring the brain activity of religious subjects. The two-year, $100,000 (U.S.) project is financed by a foundation created by John Templeton, the mutual-fund titan who is now in his 90s and wants to know more about God.

Mr. Templeton is investing $16-million to $30-million (U.S.) a year in the scientific study of spirituality, everything from whether prayer can heal to how primates exhibit forgiveness.

Dr. Beauregard’s goal is to understand the neurobiology of Christian mysticism, and he has won over the Catholic establishment. Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Archbishop of Montreal, has written in support of the project in a publication read by Quebec’s other contemplative orders. The researchers hope to attract as many as 15 volunteers from four other Carmelite communities in the province.

It is not clear, however, that God is on-side. Sister Diane and Sister Teresa arrived at the neuroscience lab for their EEG tests only to find that someone had broken in and stolen key pieces of equipment. Although frustrated, the researchers walked the nuns through the process so they would know what to expect. The more relaxed they are, Mr. Paquette says, the easier it is to monitor their brains. A week later, the researchers were ready to go, but Sister Diane called in sick at the last minute, prompting another delay.

But the two nuns already tested were moved by the experience. One in particular, Sister Nicole, seemed to come especially close to recapturing unio mystica while perched in the barber’s chair (used because it is comfortable — and solid, even more vital to the research results).

When Mr. Paquette opened the door to the soundproof chamber, she was surprised that 20 minutes had passed sp quickly. Asked what it was like, she began to describe the unio mystica she achieved as a child; the two experiences had become blurred in her mind. She also told him that she had heard music, Pachelbel’s Canon.

In the tape Mr. Paquette made of their conversation, her voice sounds dreamy and content. “I have never felt so loved,” she says.

It is far too early to draw many conclusions from the experiments, but the researchers say they already find the data intriguing. “We are seeing things we don’t normally see,” says Marc Pouliot, an engineer who is analyzing the EEG results.

The two nuns experienced intense bursts of alpha waves in the brains, common in a reflective and relaxed state such as meditation. They also had intense activity in the left occipital region at the back of the brain — which is not what the scientists were expecting in the wake of research by Michael Persinger, a controversial researcher at Laurentian University in Sudbury who has developed the so-called God helmet. He uses the device to stimulate the right side of the brain, including the parietal lobe, with low-level electromagnetic radiation. In 80 per cent of subjects, this induces the sensation that there is a presence in the room. Many weep and say they feel God nearby.

However, the real “God experience” may be different, according to the nuns. Rather than crying, they say they felt intense joy and looked forward to the lab experience since there is little chance they will ever enjoy a true mystical union with God again.

This may seem sad, but Sister Diane compares her love for God to the way two people love each other. When they fall in love, they feel a physical rush. They blush. They feel tingly. That, she says, is the kind of love young nuns feel for God when they experience unio mystica. But over time, the love deepens and matures. It isn’t as thrilling, she says. It becomes more of a day-to-day relationship.

This is an intriguing observation, because some researchers have speculated that the human capacity for mystical experiences may have co-evolved with the brain networks involved in sexual pleasure.

At 55, Sister Diane describes her relationship with God as more like a marriage, solid, secure, but without the rush. She says she knows God has been present by the peace he leaves behind, not from the excitement of a mystical union.

“That feeling of peace flowing through you — pacification — tells you He has been here.”

Anne McIlroy is the Globe and Mail’s science reporter.

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