This Is Your Brain on Enlightenment: Andrew Newberg ’88
Back in the 1990s, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg began scanning the brains of people deep in meditation. Since then, he’s done hundreds of brain scans of people engaged in spiritual and religious practices, along the way becoming a pioneer in a new field called neurotheology, which is revealing the connections between these practices and emotional and physical health.
The director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Newberg is the author or co-author of eight books, including The Mystical Mind; Why God Won’t Go Away; and How God Changes Your Brain.
His newest work is How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation (Avery), written with research collaborator Mark Robert Waldman. In it, they use brain-scan data and survey responses to explore the experience of “small e” enlightenment (those moments of breakthrough insight about ourselves and the world), and “big E” Enlightenment (the kind of permanently life-changing realization that can relieve pain and bring peace and happiness).
John Bellaimey ’76 talked to Newberg about neuroscience, enlightenment, and Newberg’s own big-E moment, which he describes in the book as “the most intense, compelling experience” he has ever had.
John Bellaimey: How did you find research subjects for your study? Enlightenment is not exactly something one advertises as a Facebook status.
Andrew Newberg: Over the years, we have studied a variety of expert practitioners in various traditions. For example, in our study of Franciscan nuns, the nuns had all been doing something called centering prayer for 50 years or more. Many of our meditators had been doing their practices for more than 20 or 30 years. So we have been fortunate to be able to find highly spiritual people who have generally had intense experiences.
Our recent research used an online survey in which we received responses from over 2,000 individuals who provided information on their most intense enlightenment experiences. I think one of the big take-home messages from this research is that enlightenment can happen to anyone. It is not reserved for only the Buddhas of the world.
I remember [Haverford Philosophy] Professor Ashok Gangadean saying that an enlightened person could be a taxi driver. It is not what you do in life that makes you enlightened, it is how you do it, and the connection you feel to ultimate reality and truth.
JB: Your research shows there’s no single enlightenment center in the brain, but rather a kind of constellation: one thing in the parietal lobe, something else up front, a different activity in the thalamus, and so on. Was that what you expected?
AN: Yes, we did expect a more complex network of brain structures to be involved, because the experiences are so multidimensional. There are emotions, feelings of surrender, and feelings of oneness—all happening at the same time. So we thought there would be a variety of complex changes going on. We have argued for this similarly with spirituality/religiousness in general. Spirituality can be expressed through emotions, creativity, cognitive processes, or experiences. Given the richness and diversity of these experiences, it seems much more likely that the whole brain is involved.
JB: You identify five characteristics of Enlightenment in the book: a sense of oneness, newfound clarity, emotional and sensual intensity, a sense of surrender, and a permanent change in some core aspect of a person’s life. How did you choose those five?
AN: The characteristics were based on the best ways of categorizing the findings from the survey of experiences. We tried to distill the experiences to the most essential components. There are many variations on these themes, but those core characteristics were the ones that kept sticking out. These core characteristics also all can be connected to specific brain regions and functions.
JB: The famous whirling of Sufi dervishes produces the sorts of brain changes you associate with Enlightenment, but you also discovered that regular daily prayer by Muslims achieves some, if not all, of the same results as whirling. How so?
AN: Our brain scan study of Islamic prayer was quite fascinating and speaks to the importance of the feeling of surrender and how that intersects with the brain’s frontal-lobe function. In many of the practices we have studied, including Islamic prayer, in which there is a sense of surrender, we see a decrease of frontal lobe activity. Since the frontal lobe helps us perform purposeful behaviors, a decrease is likely related to the feeling of surrendering one’s will to the experience.
JB: The spectrum of human awareness you write about seems to be a valuable tool for describing levels that reach toward higher consciousness. But you discovered biological indicators of the levels. Does that make researchers more confident that subjects reporting Enlightenment experiences are reporting something “real”?
AN: In general, we realized that it would be helpful to explain Enlightenment in the context of human consciousness to show how different levels relate to each other and are experienced. And we also felt it would be important to consider the parts of the brain associated with different levels of awareness—ranging from instinctual behaviors, to intention and creativity, to the transcendent awareness associated with Enlightenment. Of course, we also emphasize that the brain does not necessarily create consciousness. It is entirely possible that consciousness or awareness is the primary “stuff” of the universe and that our brain simply interacts with or receives this consciousness. This field of neurotheology has as one of its core questions the nature of reality and the relationship between consciousness and the brain.
JB: How did your studies at Haverford push you toward the Enlightenment experience you write about?
AN: Much of my exploration of these questions really came to a peak during my time at Haverford. I had some wonderful professors, including Ashok Gangadean and Masao Abe (a visiting Buddhist professor at the time), who provided some very rich ways of thinking about these issues. But I was really struggling with the whole question of how humans perceive reality. And much of my own thought processes evolved while I was thinking about everything I was learning at Haverford, from philosophy to logic to chemistry to astrophysics. These areas of study all contributed to my thinking about the fundamental nature of reality. And these ultimately led to my own personal experience, which I had during the summer between Haverford and entering medical school.
JB: What was it like being premed at Haverford? When I was a student, I remember my professor Wyatt MacGaffey used to regard premeds with pity as being overworked, with no time to be curious about other things.
AN: Yes, there was a ton of work; we were always in the lab, but we weren’t stressed about it. That is the way it was. Near the end of med school, some of us went back to Haverford on a Friday night to visit. We checked to see if there was anyone in the chemistry lab on the most social night of the week, and sure enough, there were four people there, boiling stuff and eating pizza.