Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg on brain changes associated with spiritual experiences:
When practitioners surrender their will, activity decreases in their frontal lobes, suggesting that speech is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.
Newberg is a pioneer in the field of neurotheology, the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences. In the 1990s, he began his work in the field by scanning what happens in people’s brains when they meditate, because it is a spiritual practice that is relatively easy to monitor.
Since then, he’s looked at around 150 brain scans, including those of Buddhists, nuns, atheists, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and Brazilian mediums practicing psychography—the channeling of messages from the dead through handwriting.
As to what’s going on in their brains, Newberg says, “It depends to some degree on what the practice is.” Practices that involve concentrating on something over and over again, either through prayer or a mantra-based meditation, tend to activate the frontal lobes, the areas chiefly responsible for directing attention, modulating behavior, and expressing language.
In contrast, when practitioners surrender their will, such as when they speak in tongues or function as a medium, activity decreases in their frontal lobes and increases in their thalamus, the tiny brain structure that regulates the flow of incoming sensory information to many parts of the brain. This suggests that their speech is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.
Believers could say this proves that another entity is speaking through the practitioner, while nonbelievers would look for a neurological explanation. Newberg takes into account both perspectives. When he defines neurotheology in his book, Principles of Neurotheology, he writes, “An ardent atheist, who refuses to accept any aspect of religion as possibly correct or useful, or a devout religious person, who refuses to accept science as providing any value regarding knowledge of the world, would most likely not be considered a neurotheologian.”