Saturday, June 14, 2008

A photograph of the soul?

So claims Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, according to this story from the St. Petersburg Times. He uses a process called single photon emission computed tomography, or SPECT, to scan the brains of deeply religious people such as monks and nuns while they are praying or meditating, and has discovered unusual functioning of two portions of the brain while they were doing so.

"The frontal lobes got especially busy. They're the part of the brain he calls the "attention area." The meditators had clearly tapped their frontal lobes to focus on their task.

He also saw the thalamus kick in. That's a pea-sized piece of the brain atop the brain stem that, among other things, sends sensory information to the frontal cortex, where much of our heavy thinking happens. Whatever was happening in meditation, the thalamus was making it feel very real.

The surprise was elsewhere, in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us orient ourselves in relation to things around us. Newberg discovered that the nuns and Buddhists had actually shut down that part of the brain, suspending their senses of space and time. It was then that they entered the peak of their transcendent experiences — altered states of "timelessness and spacelessness."

If religious devotions are a brain function, that may answer the question I raised, Do we choose to believe?

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