What is the nature of reality? In this video, host Josh Zepps of HuffPost Live explores that question with neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, director of research at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine.
Newberg’s research is sometimes referred to as neurotheology, studying the relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences. In the video, he notes the similarities in brain activity induced by prayer and by psychedelic journeys via substances like psilocybin mushrooms.
Newberg shows images of the brain activity of a group of Franciscan nuns during a baseline scan, compared to images when the nuns are engaged in prayer. “Part of the experience the nun actually has is this sense of oneness with God, this sense of connectedness with God’s spirit,” Newberg says. “It’s a very powerful experience for them.”
More active areas of the brain get more blood flow, so it’s easy to see during the scans what areas are turned on and which regions are turned off. During prayer, the frontal lobe shows a substantial increase in activity. But in the parietal lobe, where the “sense of self” is found, there is a big drop in blood flow. “There is a substantial decrease in activity in this orienting part of the brain that normally helps us to establish our sense of self,” he says.
What’s amazing is that the same effect on the brain is seen in people who take psilocybin — and they report a similar closeness or connection to the divine.
“It’s the essence of the experience, it’s not the means,” Dr. Franz Vollenweider from the Heffter Research Centre for Consciousness Studies says in the video. Be it prayer, psychedelics, sensory overload, sensory deprivation, hypnosis or another technique to go into an altered state, “the brain uses the same tools, the same parts to enable that experience,” Vollenweider says.
No matter how it is induced, the results of the experiences are lasting.
“One of the really unique features of all these different kinds of spiritual experiences,” Newberg says, is they “tend to result in very permanent changes in the way in which the brain works. People change their entire way of life, change the way they think about things, change the way they look at their jobs, their relationships, and it can really carry with them for months, years and really for an entire lifetime.”
Newberg also addresses the question of whether using psychedelics is a shortcut or artificial way to explore spirituality compared to arriving via prayer alone. “That’s one possible interpretation, but it may also be a way of getting the brain into a state that enables us to experience a spiritual realm, a spiritual aspect of the universe that our brain normally can’t do.”
He compares taking psychedelics to wearing glasses — they may come from outside the body rather than within, but they nevertheless help him see the world clearly.
“As we do more research, we might be able to get to a bigger answer to that question, about what’s the real nature of reality, which to me all of this research is ultimately getting at,” Newberg says. “It’s a very complex question to try to figure out what the real nature of these experiences are, what the real reality is. It’s far from a simple answer.”