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Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg

Dr_Andrew_NewbergDr. Andrew Newberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published a variety of neuroimaging studies related to aging and dementia. He has also researched the neurophysiological correlates of meditation, prayer, and how brain function is associated with mystical and religious experiences. Alvaro Fernandez interviews him here as part of our research for the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age.

Dr. Newberg, thank you for being with us today. Can you please explain the source of your interests at the intersection of brain research and spirituality?

Since I was a kid, I had a keen interest in spiritual practice. I always wondered how spirituality and religion affect us, and over time I came to appreciate how science can help us explore and understand the world around us, including why we humans care about spiritual practices. This, of course, led me to be particularly interested in brain research.

During medical school I was particularly attracted by the problem of consciousness. I was fortunate to meet researcher Dr. Eugene D’Aquili in the early 1990s, who had been doing much research on religious practices effect on brain since the 1970s. Through him I came to see that brain imaging can provide a fascinating window into the brain.

Can we define religion and spirituality -which sound to me as very different brain processes-, and why learning about them may be helpful from a purely secular, scientific point of view?

Good point, definitions matter, since different people may be searching for God in different ways. I view being religious as participating in organized rituals and shared beliefs, such as going to church. Being spiritual, on the other hand, is more of an individual practice, whether we call it meditation, or relaxation, or prayer, aimed at expanding the self, developing a sense of oneness with the universe.

What is happening is that specific practices that have traditionally been associated with religious and spiritual contexts may also be very useful from a mainstream, secular, health point of view, beyond those contexts. Scientists are researching, for example, what elements of meditation may help manage stress and improve memory. How breathing and meditation techniques can contribute to health and wellness. For example, my lab is now conducting a study where 15 older adults with memory problems are practicing Kirtan Kriya meditation during 8 weeks, and we have found very promising preliminary outcomes in terms of the impact on brain function. This work is being funded by the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, but we have submitted a grant request to the National Institute of Health as well.

Can you give an overview of the benefits of meditation, including Richard Davidson’s studies on mindfulness meditation?

There are many types of meditation – and we each are researching different practices. Which of course share some common elements, but are different in nature. Dr. Davidson has access to the Dalai Lama and many Buddhist practitioners, so much of his research centers on mindfulness meditation. We have easier access to Franciscan monks and to practitioners of Kirtan Kriya meditation.

At its core, meditation is an active process that requires alertness and attention, which explains why we often find increased brain activity in frontal lobes during practice. Usually you need to focus on something – a mantra, a visual or verbal prompt- while you monitor breathing.

A variety of studies have already shown the stress management benefits of meditation, resulting in what is often called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. What we are researching now is what are the cognitive – attention, memory- benefits? It is clear that memory depends on attention and the ability to screen out distractions – so we want to measure the effect of meditation on the brain, both structurally and functionally.

To measure the brain activation patterns we have been using SPECT imaging, which involves injecting small amounts of radioactive tracers in volunteers, and helps us get a more view of what happens during practice (fMRI is much more noisy).

To measure functional benefits we use the typical batteries of neuropsychology testing.

If there is a growing body of evidence behind the health and cognitive benefits of meditation – what is preventing a more widespread adoption of the practice, perhaps in ways similar to yoga, which is now pretty much a mainstream activity?

Well, the reality is that meditation requires practice and dedication. It is not an easy fix. And some of the best-researched meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, are very intensive. You need a trained facilitator. You need to stick to the practice.

In fact, that’s why our ongoing research focused on a much easier to teach and practice technique. We want to see if people can practice on their own, at home, a few minutes a day for a few weeks.

The other problem is that this is not a standardized practice, so there is a lot of confusion: many different meditation techniques, with different sets of priorities and styles.

My advice for interested people would be to look for something simple, easy to try first, ensuring the practice is compatible with one’s beliefs and goals. You need to match practice with need: understand the specific goals you have in mind, your schedule and lifestyle, and find something practical. Otherwise, you will not stick to it (similar to people who never show up at the health club despite paying fees).

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote two very thought-provoking articles, one on the Cognitive Age we are living in, another on the Neural Buddhists, where he quotes your work. What is the big picture, the main implications for society from your research?

I believe Philosophy complements Science, and all of us human beings would benefit from spiritual practices to achieve higher state of being, develop compassion, increase awareness, in ways compatible with any religious or secular beliefs. This is the main theme of my upcoming book, How God Changes Brain (to be published on March 2009): how we develop a shared knowledge of our common biology, and celebrate the differences which are based on our specific contexts. We are spiritual and social beings.

From an education point of view, I believe schools will need to recognize that rote learning is not enough, and add to the mix practices to improve cognition, and manage stress and relationships.

That spiritual angle may prove controversial in a number of scientific quarters. What would, for example, say to biologist Richard Dawkins?

I’d tell him that we all view the world through the lens of our brains, reflecting our cultural, social, and personal background. His view is based on his lens. Same as mine. All of us have a belief system. His is not particularly more accurate than everybody else’s.

We shouldn’t throw out the baby with bathwater. I don’t think religion is a black & white matter: yes, fundamentalism is a problem, as is rejecting data and ignoring scientific findings. But there are also good elements: the motivation to care about human beings, to develop compassion, to perfect ourselves and our world.

Dr. Newberg, thank you for your time today.

My pleasure.


You may enjoy more interviews and insights by checking out The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness book.

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9 Responses

  1. Alvaro and Dr. Newberg,

    Thank you so much for bringing another perspective to the brain/mind discussion of meditation, mysticism and spirituality. During the 1970’s, when Indian yogis, Zen monks and South American shamans were being shuttled into university brain research labs up and down the West Coast (of the U.S.), I had the extraordinary chance to work in Dr. Val Hunt’s UCLA lab that looked into shamanistic models using electromyography. I suspect had we used the kind of testing equipment now available to neuroscientists, we would have found some fascinating correlates to the muscle movements we were recording.

    Today, the field of religious and spiritual studies is spreading open to encompass new horizons, ones privilege both the neuroscientific and the ethnographic paradigms that define the “meditative” experience.

    For those of us working in the brain research and fitness fields, we have a chance to translate the insights of ancient traditions into clear pictures and accessible practices of how to achieve peaceful and wise hearts, brains, bodies and minds.

    Gtatefully yours,

    Dr. G.

    M. A. Greenstein, Ph.D., R.Y.T.

  2. Mark Waldman says:

    I work closely with Dr. Newberg, and when you look at all of the brain-scan meditation studies (including Davidson’s), an emergent consistency appears: the different practices (including yoga) tend to strengthen a specific neural circuit that enhances cognition, self awareness, and social empathy. This circuit, which appears to be both functionally and structurally altered by contemplative spiritual practices also suppresses areas in the limbic system that generate anxiety, depression, and stress. Thus we feel it is safe to say that meditation-along with exercise, intense social interaction, and intense intellectual pursuits-are three of the most important activities for maintaining a healthy brain.

    Mark Waldman
    Associate Fellow
    Center for Spirituality and the Mind,
    University of Pennsylvania

  3. Rob says:

    I can’t speak for Richard Dawkins, but I suspect he would have no problem with the kind of spirituality discussed in this interview.

    As a non-believing, non-religious person, I really enjoy and benefit from meditation, and I am interested in spirituality. A human spirit need not be a literal transcendent soul in order to be a recognizable concept worth experiencing and talking about.

  4. GaryD says:

    Very interesting post!

    Quoting from the post”

    “practices that have traditionally been associated with religious and spiritual contexts may also be very useful from a mainstream, secular, health point of view”

    This is not surpristing to me. In fact, many of the “religious” practices found in the Old Testament were health related (ie. dietary rules, cleanliness rules,etc).

    It does not surprise me at all that “religious” and “spiritual” practices would be useful from a mainstream, secular, health point of view. From a believing persons view point, I believe such practices were given to use for our provision in the first place.

    It is in fact interesting to see that science has discovered that spiritual practices such as prayer (likened to meditation) and even music and singing have beneficial affects on our brains.

    Again, thanks for the post.


  5. Alvaro says:

    All, thank you for your excellent comments!

    Gary: it is important to note that research is showing that praying can be beneficial for the one praying (not for anyone being prayed for). A natural effect, yes. A supernatural effect, no.

    Rob: I agree with you. In fact, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene includes these two amazing paragraphs:

    “When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes…But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.”

    “… We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones…We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism-something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machine and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

    I would love Dawkins to build on content like this, building bridges with people who may disagree with us in order to “rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”

  6. Dylan Payne says:

    I am a sixteen year old atheist, and the son of two biologists. While I have no interest in learning about the supernatural, I have become quite interested in the psychology behind religion, and spirituality, specifically meditation. Most of my research on the subject has been done through speculation, reading, and conversation with friends and family, so I was fascinated to read about the psychology of religion from a scientific standpoint. I have several ideas and questions on the subject that I would love to get feedback on.
    I have read quite a bit about brain scans performed on monks during meditation. It seems that different areas of the brain, or “neural circuits”, as Mark Waldman put it, become very active during meditation. I don’t know much about neural science but I imagine that if scientists could pinpoint these areas, a machine could be created that could help people learn to meditate. The mechanism is simple: a person is attached to an fMRI machine which is programmed to emit a sound when certain areas of the brain associated with meditation light up. The student may then be able to recognize the right thought processes by the sound and learn to meditate much faster than conventional methods allow. The same machine may work to reinforce any other circuits in the brain, like doing muscle isolation exercises.
    Another less realistic, but perhaps more important question that I have is the question of enlightenment. Religious ideas such as spirituality and meditation seem to have captured the interest of a number of neuroscientists today. Meditation is an important part of Buddhism but it is thought of by most Buddhists as a means to an end. An equal or greater amount of Buddhist literature has been devoted to the subject of enlightenment than the subject of meditation. I can’t deny that enlightenment may be as false as any other religious myth, but I believe that enlightenment is a legitimate mental state, explainable in scientific terms. I think that enlightenment is simply letting go of one’s insecurities and emotional connections to the world. Everything that we see in the world is warped by our own perceptions. When you let go of your emotions, you can see the world through a clear lens, for what it really is. I think that this is the wisdom gained from enlightenment. Techniques for gaining enlightenment have been created and refined by monks for hundreds of years. Unfortunately these techniques are based around supernatural Buddhist beliefs. I think that enlightenment, and the process of achieving it should be analyzed scientifically for the benefit of any non-Buddhist who wishes to achieve mental peace. Perhaps a new and more effective method for achieving enlightenment could be created based on studies of ancient Buddhist methods, much like pills derived from Chinese herbal medicines.
    My last idea was the idea that got me interested in religious psychology. It is simply this: a new religion for atheists without any supernatural beliefs; a religion based on human psychology. As Newberg said “…all of us human beings would benefit from spiritual practices to achieve higher state of being, develop compassion, increase awareness, in ways compatible with any religious or secular beliefs…From an education point of view, I believe schools will need to recognize that rote learning is not enough, and add to the mix practices to improve cognition, and manage stress and relationships.” This is all good to talk about, but how many atheists are going to pick up religious practices such as meditation or prayer without any encouragement or guidance? If these age-old techniques for mental improvement aren’t going to reach anyone non-religious but a small group of mostly middle-aged, mostly white people how important is it to research them? Across the world, religions are falling out of favor with people due to undeniable contradictions with scientific observations and the impracticality of practicing a religion in a modern life. A religion formed to fit modern lifestyles, with clearer tenets and a focus on community could help fill the spiritual void left by religions based on the supernatural. Creating a new religion for atheists is a chance to make a religion that is better thought out; to keep what was good from the old (community, spirituality, charity etc.), and throw out the bad (unclear teachings, widespread corruption, justification of violence). Perhaps a new religious institution created by atheists with no other motive than to help people live happily together could be the first major instrument in our battle against “the tyranny of our selfish genes”. Please reply if you have any thoughts or criticisms of my ideas!

  7. Anirudh says:

    Yoga (Application) which was based on the control of the body physically and implied that a perfect control over the body and the senses led to knowledge of the ultimate reality. A detailed anatomical knowledge of the human body was necessary to the advancement of yoga and therefore those practising yoga had to keep in touch with medical knowledge. (Romila Thapar, A History of India, volume one).

    I suggest : Mind and brain are two distinct things. Brain is anatomical entity whereas mind is functional entity. Mind can be defined as the function of autonomic nervous system (ANS). It is claimed that mind can be brought under conscious control through the practice of meditation. But how? ANS is largely under hypothalamic control which is situated very close to optic chiasma (sixth chakra or ajna chakra). Protracted practice of concentration to meditate at this region brings functions of ANS say mind under one’s conscious control.

    ANS is further divided into parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). On the basis of these facts I have discovered a mathematical relationship for spiritual quotient (S.Q.). Spiritual Quotient can be expressed mathematically as the ratio of Parasympathetic dominance to Sympathetic dominance. PSNS dominates during meditative calm and SNS dominates during stress. In this formula we assign numerical values to the physiological parameters activated or suppressed during autonomic mobilization and put in the formula to describe the state of mind of an individual and also infer his/her level of consciousness.

    Meditation is the art of looking within and science of doing nothing. We don’t use anything in meditation. We just try to concentrate to meditate at some point in human anatomy known as ‘chakra’ in Indian System of Yoga. The current of mind is flowing outward through the senses and unconsciously. The mind comes at rest gradually through regular practice of meditation. Then comes self realization and enlightenment. Protracted practice of meditation under qualified guidance will help to manage all sort of psychological problems.

    Emotional Quotient can also be expressed mathematically as the product of I.Q. and Wisdom Factor. E.Q. stands for Emotional Quotient. An intelligent person may not be wise. But a wise man will always be intelligent. An intelligent person having certain level of positive emotions can be said as wise. An intelligent person lacking wisdom will turn autocrat. A wise man will always be a democrat who respects others existence.

    Some may raise doubt that how could be the Wisdom quantified? The answer is simple -if Mental Age of I.Q. can be quantified then Wisdom can also be quantified, of course, comparatively with more efforts. Wilhelm Stern had given the formula of I.Q.. It is, Mental Age/ Chronological Age x 100. Spiritual Quotient (S.Q.) leverages both E.Q. and I.Q.
    Radha Soami Faith is a branch of Religion of Saints like Kabir, Nanak, Paltu, Soamiji Maharaj and others. You may call It a New Wine in Old Bottle. We should not expect any miracle overnight.

    In this discussion, it appears, that experts from various disciplines are participating someone of course from psychology. He /she can understand my views more clearly.

    Maslow has given Hierarchy of Needs. At the top of it is need for self-actualization or self-realization.

    In our society we should learn To Live and Let Live and help to satisfy others need. When the lower order needs, physiological and sociological both, are satisfied then only a person think to satisfy need for self-realization in true sense. Else he/she may spend all his/her life to satisfy at the most the for self-expression instead of self-realization.

    It is, therefore, the duty of every responsible person, at the least, of our society to give serious thought over it.

    For the satisfaction of need for self-realization i.e. establishment of harmony of individual consciousness with that of universal consciousness we need following three things:

    1. Mater or Guru (A Self-Realized Soul)
    2. Secret of Levels of Universal Consciousness
    3. Method for traversing the path.

    Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

  8. Dylan: thank you for your thoughtful, and I’d say, mindful, comment. On your 2 points:

    1- “I don’t know much about neural science but I imagine that if scientists could pinpoint these areas, a machine could be created that could help people learn to meditate”: well, similar approaches are already under way, so what you suggest is likely to happen once 1) scientists have a more defined understanding of the brain-basis of a variety of mental states, 2) neuroimaging is not as expensive as it is today. Similar approaches today for emotional self-regulation rely on biofeedback, which is pretty inexpensive, and there is a start-up, called Omneuron, builds on fMRI and cognitive therapy (more established than meditation to help patients with depression) to accelerate the development of skills. You can learn more at

    2- In my view, the religious vs. atheist discussion adds very little to the “enlightenment” agenda you propose, which is attractive to many people no matter religious/ secular inclinations. I am not sure about launch a new “religion” but indeed I encourage you to socialize with like-minded people and encourage each other into a path of lifelong learning and positive contributions to the world.

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