A scientist reckons with a force called faith


Last in a series about individuals with mental illness, and health care and medical professionals.

There are universals that apply to a person’s attempt to understand God, even when they are living with challenges of a mental illness.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the founders of a new interdisciplinary field called neurotheology.

As a neuroscientist, Newberg is interested in the way a person thinks about or describes something, and how that relates to specific brain processes. His theories combine philosophy and theology to create the backdrop against which brain scan studies are measured and evaluated. This research is forging ahead to define the relationship between the human brain and spiritual experiences.

Newberg explains his theories and findings in several books, including Why God Won’t Go Away and How God Changes Your Brain.

In How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg writes, “Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes.…”

Newberg explains the force that he calls “faith” includes a person’s belief systems and values — and a person’s drive to “survive and transcend.”

God in the midst of pain

When the complexities of mental illness interfere with a person’s survival mechanisms or cloud that spiritual core, it will be the role of mental health providers to help clients understand what part religion and spirituality might have in the path toward recovery.

In a recent interview, Newberg explained that the primary components of an experience — for example, an emotional, sensorial or cognitive response to a religious or spiritual experience — could add to the understanding of that experience.

“Our brain is wired to always do its best to understand some aspects of the world around us. To understand who we are as people,” Newberg said. “That, to me, is the universal driver as each of us works out a path toward faith and spirituality.”

Newberg said that one of the universals is a “sense of connectedness.” That connectedness — that relationship with God — will be defined in the context of a person’s own spiritual beliefs and experiences.

There are other factors — biological, genetic, and environmental factors, like family, friends, or involvement in organized religion — that also affect the brain. “That speaks of the tremendous diversity of the human brain and of how the human brain works,” Newberg said.

“But there are certain universal aspects that are part of these experiences,” Newberg said. “Our brain can only look at the world, or process the world, in so many general categories or ways.”

Varying degrees of emotional, sensory, and/or cognitive reactions can form a person’s perceptions and feelings about the world — and about his or her spiritual experiences, he explained.

Newberg said, “We can think of things in terms of emotions, or of causality: Did God cause this to happen — or am I causing this to happen?”

“How am I, as an individual, expected to behave? Am I expected to help other people? Am I acting in a moral way? All of these things create, within each of us, a very unique signature of brain function that results in our own unique way of looking at the world, and therefore our own unique way of looking at God and religion,” Newberg said.

In Why God Won’t Go Away, Newberg writes, “…our research gives us new ways to understand and address the connection between brain activity and many ‘everyday’ religious and spiritual experiences; the importance of community and family; ethics and morals, love, compassion and forgiveness.”

Thinking about God

Newberg’s research provides evidence that thinking about God will actually change a person’s brain. These biological activities and changes in a brain are similar to what happens when a person meditates on other mysteries, explains Newberg and co-author Mark Robert Waldman in How God Changes Your Brain.

“But religious and spiritual contemplation changes your brain in a profoundly different way because it strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions,” write Newberg and Waldman.

One of the conclusions of their research: “Every human brain assembles its perceptions of God in uniquely different ways, thus giving God different qualities of meaning and value.”

The authors write, “If a belief in God provides you with a sense of comfort and security, then God will enhance your life. But if you see God as a vindictive deity who gives you justification for inflicting harm on others, such a belief can actually damage your brain as it motivates you to act in socially destructive ways.”

“We don’t fully know why people would have a negative view of God,” Newberg said. “It may be that it is related to the disease process itself. Or it may stem from the way people feel when they are suffering with a mental illness.”