How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)

NEURAL EVOLUTION AND GOD

The imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results…. The value of the products of our imagination depends of course on the number, accuracy, and clearness of our impressions, on our judgment and taste in selecting or rejecting the involuntary combinations, and to a certain extent on our power of voluntarily combining them.

—CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN

4. WHAT DOES GOD FEEL LIKE?

The Varieties of Spiritual Experience

What does God feel like?

When I ask people this question, their reaction is often the same. They pause for a very long time. This means something special to a neuroscientist, namely that a great deal of neurological activity is taking place as different parts of the brain attempt to put into words a concept that defies the parameters of language for many people. Indeed, for most believers, God is much more than an idea. God is a deeply valued experience that goes far beyond any theological definition of the word, which is why most people responded with a version of, “Wow! What a question … it's really hard to say.”

Even the atheists I queried gave pause. Some laughed, and many responded by saying that God didn't feel like anything. For these individuals, God was nothing more than an abstract idea. However, one of my nonbelieving friends, who doesn't even like to discuss religious issues, replied in all sincerity that God felt “warm and fuzzy.” It was the same answer that an evangelical colleague had given me the previous day.

“But you do not believe in God,” I said to my atheist friend.

“No, but I do believe in transcendent experiences—you know, those moments that reveal a deeper dimension of life.” His answer reminded me that spiritual experiences can be defined in either religious or secular terms.

Only two people responded to my informal survey in less than five seconds, and both were Catholics who felt abused by their religious upbringing. For them, thinking about God brought back disturbing memories they preferred to avoid. Traumatic memories are retained longer and are rapidly recalled, which would explain why my two interviewees responded so quickly with negativity.1 And when the brain records a traumatic experience, neural circuits will be connected to related memories as well. Let's say, for example, that you tripped on the steps of a church and broke your hip. Although the event had nothing to do with your religious feelings, your concept of God could become neurologically fused with your pain.

A large percentage of the people I queried said that God felt like love. But when I asked them what love felt like, they again paused for a long time.1 Love may even be more difficult to describe because it can be used as either a noun or a verb. The brain processes each of these semantic expressions in different ways, but studies have shown that ambiguous words like “love” involve greater neurological activity—and thus more time to process—than simple nouns and verbs.2 Thus, if you think about God as a feeling, as opposed to an entity that exists in the universe, it will take more neural time and energy to process. It also suggests that people who spend a great amount of time contemplating God are more likely to perceive God in more sophisticated ways.

It is easy to describe the qualities of a concrete object like a table or tree, but for many people, God is as real as anything else you can see or feel in the world. Why, then, is God so difficult to describe? If you search through the volumes of religion surveys, theological texts, and psychological theories, you'll find enough definitions of God to fill a book. Different believers see God as a friend, guide, teacher, father, mother, creator, or judge. Some envision God as a lawgiver, miracle worker, or a distant observer of humanity's fate. Others refer to God as spirit, hope, inspiration, life, love, or truth. Others equate God with everything, nothing, a higher power, a delusionary fantasy, or one's innermost self. In traditional psychoanalysis, God is sometimes equated as a symbolic projection of one's parents, a necessary illusion, or a moralistic ideal.

Most people have multiple meanings and perceptions of God, but if you simply ask average Americans if they believe in God, more than three-quarters will say “yes.”3 However, if you tie yourself to a stricter definition, and a specific group of people, as Edward Larson and Larry Witham did when they queried a thousand randomly selected members of the National Academy of Science, you will come up with very different results. They defined God as an entity that engaged “in intellectual and affective communication with human kind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer,” and found that only 40 percent expressed a belief in such a deity.4

So if you want to know what people believe, you have to ask the question in different ways. This is what Mark and I set out to do using several innovative approaches. We were interested in how people defined God and spirituality, and we were specifically interested to see if there was a difference between people's religious ideas and their personal spiritual experiences. When we integrated our findings with other polls conducted over the past two decades, we discovered that a gradual shift is taking place in America, where the importance of God's physical characteristics is declining, while an interest in spiritual values is increasing.

SURVEY OF SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES

In 2005, I created an online questionnaire called the Survey of Spiritual Experiences, collecting data on people's religious orientation and their belief systems.2 Specifically, I was interested in analyzing first-person descriptions of their spiritual experiences and relating them to people's social, religious, and personal backgrounds.

We chose to do our survey online because research has shown that respondents are more open, honest, and less biased when they are not confronted by an interviewer.5 By the end of 2007 we had gathered information from almost 1,000 people, of which over 300 have described specific spiritual experiences in detail. Most reside in the United States, but approximately 15 percent live abroad. Thus, we had representatives from Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Nigeria, Brazil, Denmark, Qatar, Israel, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Finland, and the Congo.

In our survey, we included several established questionnaires to measure religious background, spiritual activities, and the individual's degree of religiosity, particularly as it related to marriage, drug use, and psychological health. I also wanted to know how tolerant people were when they encountered individuals with different religious beliefs, and so we developed our own survey that we called the “Belief Acceptance Scale.” The results were surprising—and somewhat disheartening—because we discovered that nearly 30 percent of those queried had difficulty accepting others who held different religious beliefs. In fact, more people were willing to marry someone of a different race or ethnic background (85 percent) than someone with a different religious orientation (72 percent).

SEARCHING FOR THE REALITY OF GOD

It is easy to analyze facts about a person's religious beliefs and activities, but very difficult to gather data about experiences that have the capacity to transform an individual's perception of reality. This is why we encouraged online participants to describe, in their own words and in as much detail as possible, those experiences they believed had a profound and lasting effect on their lives. Even if they didn't have such an experience, we encouraged them to write about how their religious or spiritual perspectives had affected or changed their lives. Finally, we asked them the following two questions:

1.  When you had the experience, how did it compare to your usual sense of reality?

2.  In hindsight, how real does it seem now?

These questions were important to me because I have argued throughout my career that spiritual experiences neurologically alter one's perception of reality. However, as we mentioned in Chapter 1, it is very possible that our perceptual sense of reality is different from our conscious awareness of reality, since each type of reality is assembled through different neurological circuits that do not communicate with each other.6 We believe that consciousness represents a limited and somewhat fragmented view of reality that is discrepant from the holistic view generated by nonconscious processes in the brain. Perhaps this explains why people intuitively know that reality is more than what they consciously understand, and why some equate that reality with God. By combining our neurological research on meditation with the subjective reports gathered through our survey, we hoped to expand our understanding of how spiritual experiences alter the brain, and why no two people see eye-to-eye when it comes to religious and spiritual beliefs.

But how do you analyze personal narrative descriptions of spiritual experience? The technique we used is called “content analysis,” which categorizes how often certain words or groups of words are used. For example, if I wanted to know how many people experienced a feeling of unity with God or the universe, then words such as unity, oneness, or wholeness could be grouped together and then compared to other people's words such as separate, distant, or alone to describe their spiritual experiences. Basically, we were searching for the commonalities of religious and spiritual experience. In fact, we didn't find any, which was a very significant discovery.

PERSONAL VARIETIES OF SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE

Of the nearly 5,500 words that people used to describe their experiences, no common terminology emerged.3 Even the words experience and spirituality, which you would expect to be high in a survey that specifically addressed spiritual experiences, logged in at only 23 and 17 percent, respectively. God was only mentioned 18 percent of the time, and Jesus less than 4 percent. Barely 10 percent of the respondents mentioned love, and only 6 percent talked about peace. Less than 5 percent referred to faith, consciousness, or truth—words that I expected would be used far more often when describing spiritual and religious experiences. Here are the top six words, and the approximate percentage of people who used them:

Experience

23.0%

God

18.0

Feeling

17.0 (includes feels, feelings, and felt)

Spirituality    

16.7 (includes spiritual)

Life

14.9

Belief

13.8 (includes believe and beliefs)

To give you a clearer picture of the commonality—or lack—of usage, when we printed the entire list of words used by our participants, we ended up with a hundred pages, with 57 words per page. The words on page 2 were used, on average, 6 percent of the time, page 3 dropped to 5 percent, page 10 was below 2 percent, and every word on the remaining eighty pages was used less than 1 percent of the time. In essence, hardly anyone used the same words, phrases, or expressions to describe his or her personal encounter with the divine. Truly religious and spiritual experiences are unique, at least when it comes to our ability to describe them in words.

This is astonishing, especially since many researchers in psychology and religion have argued for the universal nature of spiritual phenomena—the “perennial philosophy,” as it has been called.7 The only common denominator we found was not in the description, but in the positive effect that such experiences had on the participants’ lives. In fact, 89 percent of the respondents felt a deeper sense of spirituality. Only 10 percent felt that their spirituality was unchanged by their experiences, while 1 percent said their sense of spirituality was adversely affected by their experience. Even more important, 79 percent said they felt more purpose in their lives, compared to 4 percent who felt less purpose.

When we asked our participants about how spiritual experiences affected their religiosity, we kept the definition of that term purposely vague to see how they would answer without any prompting. About half said they felt more religious, a third said their religiosity didn't change, and 11 percent said they felt less religious. Numerous respondents said that their spiritual experiences were not adequately addressed by religions in which they were raised, and so they turned away from them to engage in more individualized pursuits. In a new survey we have just begun, we are finding that college students express very strong interests in Eastern spiritual philosophies, especially when compared to Western religious traditions. These results support the idea that America is gradually becoming less religious but more spiritual and that the quality that governs this shift is influenced by the use of spiritual practices that integrate meditation and prayer into one's daily life.

In our online survey, 60 percent of the respondents felt that their family relationships improved as a result of their spiritual experiences, and 8 percent felt they got worse. This may reflect increased friction with parents who embrace stricter religious beliefs.

Fifty-three percent also felt that their health was enhanced, while only 3 percent felt their health declined. Interestingly, this suggests that individual spiritual pursuits may have similar health improvements as those found in people who regularly attend church. On a psychological level, 76 percent said they now felt less fear about death, while only 2 percent felt more. In general, other studies have found that religiosity lessens death anxiety, but often the correlation is weak.8 Thus, our finding suggests the possibility that spiritual experiences may be the key element that lessens a person's fear of death. This resonates to the Buddhist belief that meditative experiences can reduce one's anxiety about death.

Finally, I found confirmation that spiritual experiences alter one's sense of reality in a significant way. At the time of the experience, 63 percent said that it was more real than their normal experience of reality, and 7 percent said it felt less real. Looking back, only 46 percent said the experience felt more real. It appears that the impressions left by altered states of reality can dissipate over time. Unfortunately, since we did not ask our respondents for their definitions of reality, they may have answered our questions with something else in mind. This is an inherent problem associated with research questionnaires.

The sense of realness at the time of the experience and in retrospect broke down this way:

 

  REAL AT TIME  

REAL LOOKING BACK

More real

63.2%

46.0%

Same

23.6

44.0

Less real

6.8

5.2

Still, I believe it's safe to assume that spiritual experiences have a unique quality that make them feel very different from our everyday sense of reality and that this is true for the majority of people who have them. Furthermore, it appears that some relatively universal sensory elements make these experiences what they are, even though they are described in vastly different ways. Cognitive processes turn God into an idea, but sensory processes turn God into a generalized feeling that changes the way we perceive the world.

IS GOD PRIMARILY A FEELING OR AN IDEA?

Returning to our analysis of the survey participants’ descriptions, we began to group different words into different types of categories. By far the largest category included words that reflected strong emotional content. Nearly a third described their experiences as being intense, using words like ecstatic, exciting, great, strong, powerful, exhilarating, and profound. Nearly one-half described their experiences using words that expressed calmness, serenity, and contentment. This correlates well with our neurological model suggesting that spiritual experiences simultaneously stimulate the sympathetic (arousing) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous systems. Generally speaking, it is rare that an experience both arouses and calms, which is one of the reasons why we think spiritual experiences stimulate the brain in a unique way.

Our data demonstrates that spiritual experiences, when they occur, are feeling states, not abstract forms of intellectualism. In fact, words like feel, felt, and feeling were used as often as words that referred to God. Does that mean that “God” is more of a feeling than an idea? Apparently not, because most of our respondents used the term in a historical, comparative, or philosophical context, as the following examples demonstrate:

·     “I do believe in Spinoza's God.”

·     “I don't believe in God in a traditional way.”

·     “God is too big to fit into one religion.”

·     “My thought is that God is the name of the collective unconscious.”

In fact, of the 1,000 references made about God, only 42 related to direct personal experiences, while 99 percent used the term in a highly abstract way. We found it surprising that only 1 percent of our respondents felt that they had a direct, personal encounter with God. Instead, God was typically used to intellectually explain the source of the spiritual experience.

Based upon what we know about the brain's processing of sensations and the conscious recognition of experiences, we believe that a person's spiritual experience (such as being born again) precedes cognitive awareness by approximately a half second. Then, to translate that awareness into language, the brain must engage in dozens of unrelated activities to turn that experience into words. This takes additional neurological time, so the gap widens between the actual experience and the expression of it through language. The experience may be common to many people, but the words used to describe it will inevitably vary from person to person. Thus, it is possible that different spiritual texts are describing a universal experience but using language that is idiosyncratic to the culture and denomination in which it was written.

For the person who has not had some level of a spiritual experience, God will remain an intellectual idea—a promise or a possibility of something that may or may not exist. For these people, faith becomes the essential key for maintaining religious beliefs. But for the person who has had a powerful spiritual experience, God is both a feeling and an idea. And as far as the brain is concerned, if you give an experience a label (in this case, “God”) and imbue it with meaning, it will be perceived as something that actually exists in the world.

So why do people call this experience “God”? For the simple reason that the brain must affix a name onto anything it experiences in order to file it into memory. Vague experiences stimulate many parts of the brain, generating uncertainty and anxiety, and so for survival reasons the brain will consolidate and reduce a feeling into an identifiable category. If you consciously interrupt the labeling process that naturally occurs in your frontal lobe, you will interfere with your ability to communicate the experience to others. Religious practitioners who do this are often considered mystics because they refuse to define their experiences in unambiguous ways.

GOD FEELS LIKE LOVE AND EVOKES PEACE

Our content analysis showed that most people who have had spiritual experiences will talk about God in the context of a positive_felt experience. The two words used most often to describe the experience and its aftereffects were love and peace, and for most people, love was often associated with God. Here's how one respondent put it:

The experience changed my life. Over time, old feelings have been wiped clean from me and I no longer react or behave the way I used to. I see life from a much clearer perspective based on love. But even the word “love” doesn't really convey the magnitude of which I speak. I'm speaking about the kind of self-love and acceptance that the energy of God recognizes in all of us.

For many of our respondents, God became a symbol for love and peace. For others, God symbolized light or truth. Many people also experienced God as a way of connecting to the universe, to nature, and with others. Overall, they saw their spiritual experiences as learning experiences, but not on a mundane level of day-to-day living. For example, few people said that their experiences touched upon issues like work, vacation plans, or what things they need to shop for. Their experiences were almost always associated with deep philosophical and fundamental issues.

RELEASING THE DEMONS

Spiritual experiences aren't always positive, and nearly 10 percent of our respondents said that they experienced negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and fear. The reasons could include: discomfort with having old beliefs shattered, concern about how friends and family members might react, and the fact that spiritual awakenings may occasionally unleash disturbing unconscious material, especially for people who are very sensitive or suffer from emotional disorders.

In one dramatic case, reported in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology,9 a young professional woman had been attending a kundalini meditation group when, without warning, she began to wildly hallucinate. She tore off her clothes, ran from the ashram, and admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital, where she was sedated for several days. Afterward, she had dreams in which she found herself in hell, having sexual relations with her father. In therapy, she recalled numerous incidents of emotional abuse, memories she had tried to suppress for decades. With the aid of her therapist, she came to understand how certain types of meditation can break down psychological resistance, leaving a person vulnerable to extraordinary feelings and thoughts. She later became involved in the Catholic tradition of her youth, where she found tranquility and a deeper purpose to life.

Such occurrences, though uncommon, are now acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association as a temporary state of crisis involving a “loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of other spiritual values which may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution.”10 As more Americans experiment with different religious values, health-care professionals need to become aware of this type of psychospiritual problem.

SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES ADD NEW DIMENSIONS TO LIFE

Of the more than three hundred respondents to our survey who described their spiritual experiences in detail, 80 percent said that they had some form of sensory, visual, or auditory experience. People described seeing light, colors, or auras; hearing sounds like humming or ringing; or hearing voices. These sensations greatly enhanced the power and meaning of their experience. Interestingly, such experiences translated into more permanent perceptual abilities. Some people said that their everyday senses were heightened, and 60 percent felt they actually developed new abilities that allowed them to interpret information in different and more meaningful ways. One person stated that “God gave me a vision of who I am.” Another found that she could, at times, “hear angelic music and see shadows or people who would speak to me.” For one scientist, his experience led him to accept the reality, validity, and utility of intuitional insight:

I have been meditating for several years on and off, but one day, while not involved in any formal meditation, everything in life seemed to click. I had this clarity and it was as if I was looking at life from the inside out. It was almost as if my intuition from somewhere “deeper” had offered some sort of direct experience that validated my scientific need for proof. It is actually hard to put into words because it was not merely a “logical” linear experience and many common words cannot really do it the justice it deserves.

Again we see the difficulty people have when describing spiritual experiences. But even when the experience defies description, many people felt that it transformed their orientation to life. As one respondent wrote, “The world became more three-dimensional. More rich, intense, and pleasurable.” Spiritual experiences also have the power to alter one's sense of self, as seen in the following dramatic descriptions:

I felt my “self (as a process, not a thing) go quiet, and became aware of an implicit silence, darkness, and emptiness within me and surrounding me. Within this silence, I felt an abyss or void full of possibilities, hope, creativity. It also seemed a lot like a mirror—that is, that my consciousness was “pure” consciousness without subject or object, that Reality was myself in macrocosm and that I was Reality in microcosm. I also felt an openness, positive feeling, gratitude, unconditional regard, etc., for all things and people. As though I encountered the Golden Rule, love of neighbor as myself, concretely within this moment. These feelings or instances of awareness were intuitive and implicit—that is, they seemed to come without actual thoughts or words.

During meditation, I have had the experience of feeling like a disembodied consciousness suspended in infinite space. I have also had the experience of unity with all that is. I experienced a spiritual presence, and I have come to know that the presence I experienced was not other than myself.

I felt a great, unconceivable exterior/interior energy full of power, love, and clarity. There is not anything superior to this in my entire life.

These descriptions are very similar to those recorded a century ago by the American psychologist William James,11 which reinforces the popular conception that spiritual experiences have remained relatively consistent throughout history. It also highlights my premise that for thousands of years the human brain has spontaneously generated spiritual and mystical experiences. The universality of this neurological phenomenon is critical for helping us understand the fundamental similarities and origins of religious and spiritual traditions. Yet within this universality, our inability to linguistically express these experiences with any degree of accuracy has led to the great diversity of religious ideas and theologies.

SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES CHANGE YOUR OLD BELIEFS

In our survey, many people reported that their spiritual experiences altered their beliefs, and as I mentioned above, “belief was the sixth most common word used. We also found evidence to support the notion that spiritual experiences alter one's traditional ideas about God. For many people, God lost its biblical sense of otherness and became a force that resided inside:

Since that moment [of mystical experience] I am sure God cannot get a name. God is something, not someone, and it is not something independent of me. But I use the word “God” simply to express an idea, not a specific character.

These experiences, when I have had them, do not seem to be “personal” insofar as I do not feel I am encountering a larger Person. I guess the idea of God simply as a person seems like an anthropomorphism to me; making God in our own image.

Such notions contradict many traditional doctrines, which may explain why people who see themselves as spiritual are often less willing to attend church or identify themselves with their religious past. Our data found that half of the people changed their religious orientation as a result of such experiences. They were more willing to marry outside of their religious belief system, yet changing religion did not make them more willing to accept the “correctness” of other religious beliefs.

A related study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the trend toward exploring alternative forms of spirituality is growing. In 1982 less than 20 percent of the student population indicated no religious preference. In 2004, 31 percent of the incoming freshman students claimed no religious affiliation, yet over three-quarters said that they were “on a spiritual quest.” One-third of the students also felt it was important to use college as a place to encourage their “personal expression of spirituality.”12 Other surveys on religion and spirituality reflect similar changes in beliefs. Ironically, as spiritual interests increase, church attendance declines.13

BECOMING ONE WITH GOD,
THE UNIVERSE, AND OURSELVES

The bottom line in understanding the phenomenology of subjective religious experience is this: Nearly every spiritual experience, in some small way, changes our sense of reality and the relationship we have with the world. Generally, it increases our sense of unity and wholeness, not just in a metaphoric sense, but in the way we conduct our lives. In fact, almost three-quarters of our respondents indicated that they felt a sense of oneness with the universe or a unity with all of life. These feelings are also associated with a greater sense of purpose and meaning in one's life.

Such experiences involve a degree of self-transcendence and a suspension of personal egotism. In those moments, one no longer feels the need to control the external environment, because everything seems fine just the way it is. Past and future are suspended, and a sense of living in the present pervades one's consciousness. In such a state, some believe they are in the presence of God, while others may simply feel the suspension of negative moods. All is as it should be, for believer and disbeliever alike. As one of our survey participants described it, “I feel that every person is a spark of Oneness, doing what he or she is supposed to do.”

WHAT MAKES A PERSON
MORE TOLERANT OF
OTHER RELIGIONS?

People who score higher on our belief acceptance scale have less religious prejudice than those who score lower. Those engaged in Eastern spiritual practices were more accepting of other religious beliefs than those who adhered to Western monotheistic traditions. Women were more comfortable with other belief systems and also more likely to participate in other religious practices. High socioeconomic status, when compared to low socioeconomic status, also predicts greater tolerance, but one's level of education was the greatest predictor that encouraged people to be more accepting of others. Interestingly, people who had unity experiences were also more accepting of other people's beliefs.

Religion and spirituality operate on different levels, but they ultimately affect each other. Religion creates a template for spiritual practice, and spiritual experiences alter one's conception of religion. Thus as long as people have experiences they equate with spirituality, religious beliefs will change.

THE FUTURE OF GOD

All of the research that we and others have accumulated allows us to make a prediction about the future of God. Clearly, God is not going to go away, but it won't necessarily be the God depicted in our sacred texts. According to a recent Barna survey, the biblical views of an all-powerful, all-knowing creator is waning.14 What will take its place? If our survey sheds any light on the question, it will be a God that maintains its mystery, a very intimate experience that cannot be captured by words. And if the trend toward personal spirituality continues, we should see a world where many notions of God coexist. Hopefully, this will inspire greater tolerance between people of different religious faiths as they realize the underlying unity and diversity of these experiences.

How will traditional religious institutions respond? In the same way they have in the past—reinventing themselves to meet the needs of the next generation of seekers. Mainstream churches are liberalizing their theologies. Evangelicals are moving away from the rhetoric of fundamentalism, and New Age churches are growing throughout the country. Even in Muslim countries, support for extremist politics and beliefs is beginning to decline.15

Religion and spirituality are constantly changing and evolving, and this is a good thing, for both society and the human brain. New ideas challenge us to think more deeply about personal values and survival, and the more you think about the mysteries of human nature, the more likely it is that you'll have an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about.

1 In a new survey we just created, we found, in fact, that many college students do describe God and their feelings of love in remarkably similar ways.

2 To review the questions we asked or participate in the study, go to www.neurotheology.net.

3 Words like a, and, the, out, etc., were excluded from our analysis of this data.