BOB ABERNETHY: Here's a question: when a person has a religious experience, what happens within the brain? What kind of changes take place?
Science has been looking into this. In one experiment, for example, brain scans examine the parts of the brain that are activated during prayer. In another, mystical and religious experiences are simulated by using bursts of electrical impulses. As you might expect, these experiments have created no small amount of controversy. Lucky Severson reports:
DR. MICHAEL PERSINGER: I think one of the most exciting
challenges in science is to find the basis, the empirical
basis, of why people experience the "God phenomenon." Not
belief in God -- that is a different process. But the experience
of the "God phenomenon." That of course is tied to the brain
SEVERSON: Dr. Persinger is a neuroscientist who has
been conducting experiments with a helmet that pulses tiny
bursts of electrical activity into the brain. Persinger
says the pulses can simulate mystical or spiritual experiences.
And at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Andrew Newberg
can show, through a brain scan, the parts of the brain that
are activated during meditation, and also during prayer.
(to Dr. Newberg): What's the significance of all
this? What does it mean?
DR. ANDREW NEWBERG: Well, what it means is that when
people actually do these kinds of spiritual practices, when
people do prayer or meditation, that there are real changes
that are going on in their brain.
SEVERSON: The concern of some religious believers
is that this new research might imply that God is a concept
created in our brains rather than a transcendent being who
exists quite independent of us.
MS. GRACIA THOMPSON: I feel it would be against God
to try to alter or change anyone's belief of Him.
RAMIRO GARCIA: I cannot conceive of living without the
presence of someone greater than ourselves to lean on.
SEVERSON: Dr. Persinger says his experiments can
actually induce the sense among his subjects that there
is a presence in the room with them.
DR. PERSINGER: The types of experiences in our laboratory
when magnetic fields are applied to the brain are considered
spiritual because the person feels at one with the universe.
Very often it is very personal. There may be a sensation
of quiescence, a kind of eternal peace, but they know that
somehow their sense of self has been changed forever.
PROFESSOR JOHN HAUGHT: This is something that is
not entirely new. A lot of people have testified, for example,
that under the influence of LSD or cocaine or other stimuli
to the chemistry of the brain, that certain ideas happen
that didn't happen before.
SEVERSON: John Haught is a professor, not of science
but of religion, at Georgetown University. He argues that
religion encompasses much more than biology -- that it means
charity and faith and doing good works.
HAUGHT: I would say that in this recent flurry of news
about the brain and religion, what is often left out is
that religion means much more than a state of mind or [an]
ecstatic or mystical mood. It's a commitment over a lifetime
to what a person considers to be good.
SEVERSON: Among the scientists in the field, Dr.
Persinger is controversial because he has stated in the
past his view that God is a creation of the brain.
DR. PERSINGER: There are Christians and individuals
of other faiths who have come to me, very often hostile
at first, pointing out that I am threatening their belief,
accusing me of being an atheist and often worse terms. I
am not trying to remove God as a phenomenon. I am trying
to understand the areas of the brain and the magnetic patterns
-- the electromagnetic patterns -- within the brain that
produce the experience.