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Neurotheology researcher explores spirit, mind conundrum

The head of the first university research centre in the United States focussing on the relationship between spirituality and the human brain says he hopes his investigations will help foster greater understanding about religion.

"I’m hoping we can help create much more positive views about religious groups and the views they have toward each other," said Dr Andrew Newberg, director of the newly-founded Center For Spirituality and The Mind of the University of Pennsylvania.

The centre focuses on "neurotheology", a discipline that applies brain research to spiritual questions, such as, "Does transcendence through prayer have a neurological basis?", "Is moral behaviour part of the evolution of the human brain?", and, "Is God created by, or the creator of, the human brain?"

The ultimate goal of the centre is to improve understanding about religion and spirituality and to examine the impact of belief on the human brain, said Newberg, a medical doctor and assistant professor at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

In an interview with Ecumenical News International, Newberg said he was very young when he started asking questions about God. "I remember thinking, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What is God all about?’" he recalled.

Newberg’s past research has focused on how the brain functions during mystical or religious experiences. His book, "Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief", summarises his long-term studies that used high-tech imaging to examine the brains of meditating Buddhists and of Franciscan nuns at prayer.

He discovered that intensely focused prayer triggers a specific response within the brain that makes the transcendent religious experience a reality.

Newberg’s most recent book, "Why We Believe What We Believe", argues the human brain has the capacity to create and maintain a belief system which goes far beyond survival-oriented needs.

"These belief systems not only shape our morals and ethics, but they can be harnessed to heal our bodies and minds, enhance our intimate relationships, and deepen our spiritual connections with others," Newberg said. "However, they can also be used to manipulate and control, for we are also born with a biological propensity to impose our belief systems on others."

Still, while beliefs are rooted in the biology of the brain, they are equally shaped by parents, peers and society, Newberg stressed.

And, he added, a better understanding of beliefs might foster a more compassionate perspective about people who hold different standpoints and point the direction towards a more positive society.

He said, "I’d hope we can promote deeper understanding of hard social issues as well and to help people, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, each develop a compassionate stance to one another."

(c) Ecumenical News International