For thousands of years, religion has posed some unanswerable questions: Who are we? What's the meaning of life? What does it mean to be religious?
In an effort to address those questions, Dr. Andrew Newberg has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists. He studies the relationship between the brain and religious experience, a field called neurotheology. And he's written a book, Principles of Neurotheology, that tries to lay the groundwork for a new kind of scientific and theological dialogue.
Newberg tells NPR's Neal Conan that neurotheology applies science and the scientific method to spirituality through brain imaging studies.
"[We] evaluate what's happening in people's brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer," Newberg says. He and his team then compare that with the same brains in a state of rest. "This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices."
Newberg's scans have also shown the ways in which religious practices, like meditation, can help shape a brain. Newberg describes one study in which he worked with older individuals who were experiencing memory problems. Newberg took scans of their brains, then taught them a mantra-based type of meditation and asked them to practice that meditation 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, they came back for another scan, and Newberg found some dramatic differences.
"We found some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention," he says.
According to Newberg, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things after eight weeks of meditation. Remarkably, the new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims.
"They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent," Newberg says. "This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years."
Newberg emphasizes that while neurotheology won't provide definitive findings about things like the existence of a higher power, it will provide a deeper understanding of what it means for a person to be religious.
"For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion," Newberg says. "But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world."
Because of that, Newberg says the success of neurotheology hinges on open-mindedness.
"One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God's really in the room, but the scan itself doesn't really show that," Newberg says. "For neurotheology to really work as a field it needs to be very respectful and open to both perspectives."