Mysteries of the Mind

A Conversation Between a Neurosurgeon and a Neurotheologian

What’s the connection between the mind and the brain? Does the brain produce the mind, or does it merely facilitate and focus the mind, serving as an interface between the immaterial and the material realms?

And what’s the connection between religion and the brain? What effect does prayer have on the physical body? Do the brains of atheists and believers behave differently?

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews neurotheologian Andrew Newberg about these questions and many more in a fascinating podcast at Mind Matters.

A pioneer in the field of neurotheology, Newberg studies the physical effects religious experiences such as prayer, meditation, and speaking in tongues have on the brain. He uses a variety of imaging tools, including Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and nuclear medicine, which involves injecting different types of radioactive tracers to look at different physiological processes in the brain.

Newberg is careful to point out that “when it comes to metaphysical questions ... we have to be extremely careful how we interpret results of any scientific study.” As an example he describes a brain scan he did involving a Franciscan nun engaged in centering prayer. The nun interpreted the physical changes documented by her brain scan as science demonstrating what she already knew about the benefits of a connection with God; an atheist, however, interpreted the study’s results as proof that God is just a manifestation of the brain’s functions.

Egnor elaborates on this complexity:

The connection one would have with God would be an immaterial connection. It wouldn’t be a material act of the brain. So one might even imagine that the connection with God would not be something that would show up on any brain imaging, but then again, the cause and effect is difficult. So what shows up on brain imaging may be the material response to the immaterial connection, or it could even be the suppression of [certain brain activity] to allow an openness to immaterial ways of understanding. So it’s so difficult to interpret and so difficult to know.

Nevertheless, the studies add to our body of knowledge and can be beneficial in a variety of ways. Newberg says:

I think there is some real value because it does provide some knowledge about how being a religious or spiritual individual or doing a spiritual practice may actually have an impact not only on the spiritual part of who they are, but on the biological part and the psychological part as well. And so sometimes it’s helpful for us to understand a little bit more about how these different practices affect us.

.... There’s always a more practical aspect as well, which is certainly important for a lot of people, which is when people engage in various spiritual practices for spiritual purposes, for religious purposes, sometimes it helps them feel better.

It helps them to cope. It helps to reduce their anxiety or their depression. And from a biomedical perspective, sometimes it’s helpful to see [and then to ask the question,] is that having an impact in the same way that psychotherapy may have an impact or even a medication may have an impact?

The conversation ranges widely and can be heard at Mind Matters or as two shorter episodes at ID the Future (The Mind-Brain Problem and the Power of Meditative Prayer and Into the Mystic with a Neurosurgeon and Neurotheologian).

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PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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