Why We Believe
Podcast #14 — Aired January 23, 2014

Do you believe in God? This week on BetterWorldians Radio we’ll talk about research that explores why people believe what they believe. Our guest this week is best-selling author Dr. Andrew Newberg. Newberg will discuss what neuroscience has to say about religion and tell listeners why he believes faith is a powerful tool for improving your well-being. Tune in every week to hear new guests share how they are making the world a better place and to learn how you can become a BetterWorldian!

 

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Dr. Andrew Newberg
Author, Why We Believe What We Believe Director of Research, Myrna Brind Center

Dr. Andrew Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and is Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine. Newberg is considered a pioneer in the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field frequently referred to as – neurotheology. Dr. Newberg has published over 150 research articles, essays and book chapters, and is the co-author of five best selling books, including Why We Believe What We Believe and How God Changes Your Brain.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Joining us today is neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg. Dr. Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He's also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and is Board certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine as well. Dr. Newberg is considered a pioneer in neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field frequently referred to as neurotheology. Dr. Newberg has published over 150 research articles, essays and book chapters and is the co-author of five best-selling books including Why We Believe What We Believe and How God Changes Your Brain. Dr. Newberg joins us today to discuss what neuroscience has to say about religion and explain why he believes faith is a powerful tool for improving your wellbeing. Andy, thank you so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Thank you for having me on your program.

Raymond Hansell
You're very welcome. I'd like to ask right off the bat, you asked the question in your book that our brains are built for religion. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well a lot of the research that I've been involved with over the past 20 years really has explored the relationship between religious and spiritual ideas in the human brain. And what we find more and more in terms of how our brain intersects with our religious and spiritual beliefs is that the brain is set up in such a way, it functions in such a way that religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs are very easily made a part of the way in which we think about our world and think about ourselves so its sort of this natural connection between the brain and religion that we continue to see in the research. We continue to understand as we develop our ideas about this intersection and therefore I feel pretty comfortable being able to say that our brain is really designed for us to be spiritual, to be able to address and engage these kinds of ideas, the practices like prayer and meditation, and ask those real big questions about the nature of reality, the nature of ourselves, the nature of how we as human beings interact with our world around us. So it's a very fundamental part of who we are. It seems to be a part of our biology, a part of the way in which our brain works and there's really just a very nice correlation between being spiritual and how our brain actually functions.

Raymond Hansell
So you're saying in effect, if I could just summarize, that yes, our brains are actually built for religion. Is that correct?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
In many ways, I think they are, yes.

Raymond Hansell
Okay. Now why is that important?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well I think ultimately when we start to understand what religion and spirituality is for us as human beings, for several thousands of years we have understood that in the context of the religious and spiritual. We've understood that in the context of what the religion says to us, what it tells us to do, how it tells us to be, but in the last hundred years and even more so in the last 20 to 25 years, we have been able to bring in a very different kind of perspective and that's the scientific one or ultimately the neuroscientific one. And therefore I think this kind of research is showing us exactly how and why religious and spiritual ideas have been so powerful for human beings over history, why they affect us so profoundly. As a person in neuroscience, when I look around and I see the pervasiveness of religious and spiritual ideas throughout time or across cultures and people, one has to say well why is that? What's going on? Again as a neuroscientist I say well it must have something to do with our brain that is enabling us to have those experiences, to have those feelings and ideas. And therefore we can begin to explore what that relationship is in more detail to hopefully contribute to the overall understanding of what religion and spirituality is all about. Its not to negate or get rid of what we understand in terms of the sacred texts or the doctrines or whatever. The theological side of this is still very much a part of the whole discussion but we now have a new perspective that we can bring in and I think ultimately there are some very potentially important implications for looking at this link. I know we'll probably talk about this a little bit later on, but we can understand how religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs affect our mind, how they affect our psychological well-being, our physical well-being. It tells us something about how our brain actually works and how it helps us to decipher what's going on around us and to act and behave morally and so forth. And ultimately, and this has been a central part of my own particular interest, has been the idea of trying to better understand what the spiritual and religious side is all about, how our brain conceives of, understands, experiences the theology, the various ideas that come about as part of religion. And so I think on so many different levels, this area, this work, this intersection between the brain and religion has some very, very important implications for us as human beings.

Raymond Hansell
Okay, now why did you get into this field to begin with?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well I got into this because I guess this really goes back to when I was a kid in many ways. I was always asking these kind of big questions about why are there different religions? How are people coming to different understandings about the world? Why do we have different countries, different political beliefs, different religious beliefs, different moral beliefs? And I really struggled with that and as I went through my training through high school and college and ultimately medical school I kept asking what I thought were very crucial but to some degree they're kind of those big questions. And on one hand I came to think that certainly science had something to say about this that there is certainly an important approach that science takes which helps us to understand our world, understand ourselves, our bodies, our minds in a very important way, but I kept feeling that there were certain questions that science couldn't quite get us to, couldn't quite help us to unlock the answers to those questions and they are some of those kind of deeper bigger questions about the meaning of life and why we're here and how we're supposed to act and behave. So I started to turn to various philosophical traditions, various religious and spiritual traditions to understand what they had to say. And of course there's a wonderful richness in those traditions that helps us to address those big questions as well. But again there are certain pieces that they miss especially when you start getting back to the physical world and how our neurobiology works. So I realized that ultimately I think if we were really going to get to answering these questions that we had to find a way of bringing these two very powerful players, very powerful forces in human history, the scientific as well as the spiritual together in such a way that we could help them to understand themselves, understand each other and ultimately understand ourselves. So that was really what kind of where this whole search has grown within me. It's been my own spiritual path to some degree. It's been my own scientific path and I've been very fortunate that as I've gone through my training to become a physician I've had some wonderful mentors in many of these different areas including brain imaging studies, scientific research as well as the religious and spiritual side. So for me personally its been this kind of wonderful coming together of these different ideas, these different concepts that obviously I'm still working on but nonetheless I think has provided a tremendous amount of new information, new perspectives on these issues and hopefully will continue to do that as we go forward. I think we're really just scratching the surface and there's so much more for us to be able to explore.

Raymond Hansell
These are exciting times. Now you just mentioned research. Speaking of research our listeners should know that you are studying in your research people who are praying, meditating, and even speaking in tongues. Now how do you do research like that?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well it requires a lot of prayer on my part actually. First of all, we really didn't have the opportunity to do these kinds of studies up until about 20 years ago where we had the advent of a number of different brain imaging modalities, techniques, that we now have available. Those never really existed past 20 years ago or so, so there was no way to do it. Once we started to develop these different imaging techniques, we started to apply them to a variety of more sort of standard medical questions. Questions about diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and this has actually been a large area of my own research as well. I've had grants from the National Institute of Health looking at Alzheimer's disease, other types of disorders, psychiatric disorders and so forth. So we said okay well we can look at the brain and a lot of these modalities have the unique ability to look at the brain's function so its not just looking at the structure of what's there but what its doing there. Is it more active? Less active? And as we started to develop these tools, since I was so interested in these other aspects, practices like meditation and speaking in tongues and so forth and how they affected us I thought well maybe there is a way of bringing these imaging modalities to study these particular practices. So we've taken a variety of different types of techniques and some of them have been -- some of the listeners will have heard of these things like functional magnetic resonance imaging, FMRI which tends to look at overall activity. We've done studies using something called SPECT imaging which stands for single photon emission computed tomography and that's where we inject a small amount radioactive material that we can then follow some aspect of the brain's function, maybe blood flow or even different neurotransmitters. And what we can do is we can do these studies while people are actively engaged in a particular practice. So we scan them when they're at rest for example and then we'll say okay now go ahead and meditate or pray and we begin to scan their brain while they're doing the particular practice. Now there's a lot of interesting challenges because obviously shoving somebody into an MRI scan, I don't know how many listeners have had an MRI, but if you get shoved into this very tight tube and there's a lot of noises and you have earphones on, this is not a very conducive environment for prayer. But we have been able to develop ways of studying prayer, studying these practices where sometimes you are in the scanner and that's one way of doing it and we've been fairly successful at studying that but sometimes we have certain techniques where you don't have to be in the scanner. The SPECT imaging I mentioned a minute ago, that's something where people can be outside of the scanner when we inject this tracer and then we can see where that tracer goes after they're done doing their practice of speaking in tongues or prayer. And again we can then see what changes go on in the brain during those practices.

Raymond Hansell
That is amazing. That is really, really amazing. We're going to take a short break right now. I can't wait to get back. I'd like to offer this challenge to our listeners in the meantime. If you know someone who's small acts no matter how small are making a big difference in the lives of other people, we'd love to hear about it right here. Please tweet us at hashtag BetterWorldians so we can let the better worldian community know. We'll talk more with Dr. Andrew Newberg when we come back. In the meantime you can learn more at BetterWorldians.com. Follow our live tweets at Twitter.com/BetterWorldians. We'll be right back.

Raymond Hansell
Hi, we're back live with Dr. Andrew Newberg. We'll have more with Andy in a minute but first I'd like to share some big news that we have here at BetterWorldians Radio. We've recently launched a worldwide kindness campaign and we're challenging better worldians around the globe to watch a two minute video that illustrates the power of kindness. When that video reaches a million views, we will release funds for surgeries that will allow 10 kids in the developing world to walk for the first time. So please, watch the video, share it with your friends at ColorWithKindness.com, that's ColorWithKindness.com.

Gregory Hansell
Hi Andy, this is Greg.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Hi.

Gregory Hansell
You know first question I had was religion can be a pretty touchy subject. Can you talk of the need for open mindedness to do this kind of research?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well yes, one of the things I guess has been particularly rewarding from my own personal perspective is that over the years I think that there has been a progressive openness, at least in the medical community and certainly to some degree in the general scientific community as well as in the religious and spiritual communities regarding this topic. I think what I've tried to do is take a fairly middle of the road course in terms of understanding and trying to be respectful of both the religious and spiritual side as well as the scientific side and I think a lot of people have generally appreciated that. We can talk about this intersection between science and the brain and religious and spiritual ideas in a constructive way in a way that helps us to better understand the spiritual part of ourselves as well as helps us understand the brain part of ourselves. And certainly in the medical community I think more and more doctors have recognized the importance that when we take care of somebody that we're not just taking care of this biological machine but there's a psychological and a social and a spiritual side to many of the people that we take care of and therefore there has been a growing openness in fact you can even just see this in the number of articles that have been published in the context of spirituality and health that 20-30 years ago there were just a few and if you go to PubMed which has most of the biomedical literature its hundreds of articles a year now which are being published. So there's definitely been an increased interest and an openness to it but certainly you have to have that and I think that there have been times where certainly I've confronted individuals both from the scientific as well as the spiritual side who may be reluctant to understand or appreciate that relationship and I think its always important to just do the best you can to try to reach out to where each person is and take them down the path as carefully and appropriately for them as you can.

Gregory Hansell
Yah, yah, I agree. I think its interesting that you use the term and that the term is widely used now in neurotheology rather than neuroreligious studies or neuroanthropology. Why do you use that term?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well actually I recently published a book called Principles of Neurotheology and I talk a lot about where this term comes from. Interestingly, actually the first mention of the term that I am aware of is actual in a book by [ph] Albix Huxley written in I believe it was 1961 called The Island and he just kind of mentions neurotheology, as part of this kind of futuristic society. But I also discuss the idea that well there are probably a lot of other terms that could be as good or maybe even better and you'd mentioned some in neurospirituality or psychoreligion. I don't know. That just seems to have been the term that has stuck and I guess people tend to like the idea of the neuro part, the neuroscientific part as well as the religious or theological part but obviously it has a problem too because theology is a very specific discipline and neuro or neuroscience is a very specific type of study. And for me for the term to work for me and this is what I talked about in the Principles of Neurotheology the idea that we really have to take both of those sides very, very broadly and include the psychological and the anthropological as well as not just theology but the various practices that people do, meditation, prayer, the experiences that people have, mystical experiences, near death experiences, and all of the other aspects that go into what religious and spiritual phenomena are ultimately all about. But I think if you define both sides of the coin very broadly for neurotheology it really can work for a term and I think maybe its just the catchiest sounding term. I don't know but it does seem to be the one that stuck. And ultimately I think it can be a good term and that's part of why I've started to try to address it more specifically because I think it does need to be more clearly defined and people need to understand what it is. But I think that again its something that we've really just scratched the surface. There's so much great stuff that can be done exploring this link and exploring this relationship between the brain and our spiritual selves and I think neurotheology kind of sets us up to begin to do that.

Gregory Hansell
Yah, one of the things that struck me about the term and that I liked about it is that unlike some of the other ones we both mentioned, it sort of connotes this insider's perspective. This is about the practitioners and what they're experiencing and trying to get a handle on that and appreciate it versus kind of something that's only from the outside.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well right and you actually bring up a really important point and its something that I try to be very clear that this is not the neuroscientific study of religion or the neuroscientific study of meditation. That when people engage in religious and spiritual ideas, beliefs, practices there is the spiritual component that needs to be understood, that needs to be part of the whole dialogue, that needs to be part of the whole scholarship and so to some degree it is an outside in but its also an inside out. Its a two-way street on many levels and I agree with you. That to me is part of what makes it very, very important in terms of going forward that we don't get kind of caught up in looking at some of these ideas or some of these issues just from one direction. And part of the problem is that sometimes when I design a research study where we're going to study prayer for example with MRI, that is a little bit more of an outside in, just by its nature of what it is and that's okay. It doesn't mean that you can't do it that way but you need to not only do it that way but also recognize the other components of it and understand and appreciate the other aspects of it and ultimately do a very careful job at how you interpret the information that you get from those studies. So as I always tell people, there's some really important big issues that come about when we studied a group of Franciscan nuns. If one of them had the experience of being in God's presence and I captured a brain scan of that, that scan tells me what's going on in her brain when she has that experience. It doesn't prove whether it actually happened or whether God was in the room with her or she was actually in communion with God. That's a different kind of question. It's a different kind of issue, equally important but nonetheless we have to be careful about how much we can say from the scientific perspective and how much we can say from the religious or spiritual perspective.

Gregory Hansell
Yah, well let's dig a little bit deeper into that interface with spirituality with that perspective and let me ask you have you found that different religions and religious practices affect the brain in varying ways?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well yes, I mean one of the things that has been so fascinating, maybe the best way to start off this answer is that sometimes people say well is there this religious spot in the brain. Is there just one little part in the brain that's religious? And from my take of studying over 150 individuals in multiple studies and like you said different types of religions and practices is that there isn't just one part of the brain. In fact if anything when you start to look at all of the results and see all the different parts of the brain that seem to get involved, it really is if there's a God part of ourselves its the whole brain. Its everything about how our brain functions because these phenomena are so rich and detailed with emotions, with thoughts, with behaviors and so many different ideas and beliefs that its not just one part. And what we have found is that we're able to kind of tie in the areas of the brain to the aspects of the experiences and the practices that people are doing. So if somebody is engaged in prayer and they have a very powerful emotional experience, well then there's parts of the emotional parts of the brain that are being activated and are being turned on by this practice. If somebody is contemplating the nature of God and thinking about very abstract ideas and the nature of infinity and omniscience and so forth, well that's where you're invoking our language areas, our abstract areas of the brain and maybe not quite so much the emotional areas of the brain. And then of course when we do certain behaviors, when we do certain practices that involve bowing or moving or praying or whatever, then we're modifying our behaviors and the behavioral parts of the brain turn on. So depending on the particular approach that a person takes and the particular beliefs that they take, it appears that there may be specific areas of the brain that are involved and yet they can be different if the person is doing a different kind of practice or if the person has a different kind of religion.

Gregory Hansell
Well let me ask you the big question. You've already hinted at it which is what do you think your research says about the possible existence of God or a higher power, the divine?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well this is kind of the $100,000 question or I guess we're up to a million dollar question. But that is part of what I think this kind of research can help us with is while it may not necessarily answer the question although I'm a never say never kind of person so it is potentially possible I guess that we could design some study that might help us to figure that out in some way. But what we can say is what's going on in our brain when somebody is believing in God? How is their brain reacting? How is it treating the concept of God, the same or differently than how they treat everything else in the world? And there's been some very interesting research studies that have shown this. For example, when people are engaged in a kind of conversationally prayer where they are basically having a conversation with God, they activate the same areas of the brain as when they have a conversation with another person. So at the very least what we can say is for that individual when they have that experience they are treating God as if they're treating another person that exists in reality. So for them, God absolutely exists and they can have a conversation with God just like they could have a conversation with their best friend. So and there's other studies that have kind of hinted at how our brain perceives God, thinks about God and this is part of why I got into this whole field of research too which is ultimately when we look at this from a cognitive neuroscience perspective one of the things we can say is well everything seems to affect our brain. So how then can we ever really know if what we're thinking on the inside is accurate with what's going on in the outside? And there's no real way to do that. So we sometimes are left with the notion that part of how we decide what's real or not is simply by how strong the sense of realness is for that particular thing. So when we look at our spouse or when we look at an automobile, it looks real. It feels very real to us and we say okay, it must be real. But when people have experiences about God, about religion and spirituality, not only do they perceive them as being real but often times they perceive them as being more real than everyday reality kinds of experiences and I think again that doesn't necessarily answer the question. It doesn't tell us for sure that it's real but it certainly is something that really has to contribute to this overall question about well what is really real. Is God really real especially when people have these experiences of God which feel intensely real even more real than everything else in the reality around us. So they're really fascinating kind of philosophical theological questions that up until now have always been purely in the realm of philosophy and theology but now we can at the very least bring in some ideas about how our brain works, how our brain helps us to interpret reality and maybe someday we'll get a little closer to answering that question.

Gregory Hansell
Yah and I think its interesting in terms of that million dollar question. I have to also ask to what extent does it matter? And maybe that's a crazy point of view but to me there's so much debate, so much controversy and anger regarding the question of God and whether its just more important to realize that we're simply kind of hardwired for religion and kind of respect that and see what that reveals versus spend our time with this debate.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Yes well in some of the talks that I give I have two slides and the first one is basically that question. Does it matter that we can't prove God and on one hand the answer is sure. Look, we'd all love to have some kind of proof in some way or another but on the other hand how important is it as you mentioned and certainly when you start to get into the more practical aspects, when you start to get into the psychological and physical health related aspects, it is not necessarily relevant. What's more relevant is what is going on within the person. How are they turning to their religious or spiritual beliefs in a way that they benefit from, in a way that helps them to cope better with their cancer or deal with a particular stressor in their life. And of course part of the flip side of that which is an area where there's very little research but something that I've become increasingly aware of and very interested in trying to explore are the negative sides of religious and spiritual beliefs and what happens when a person has a very punitive view about God, that God is punishing and very angry with them? What about the people who strap a bomb around their chest, and kill people because they don't believe in the same God that they do? So there are negative sides to religious and spiritual beliefs and what's the difference between them? What's the difference in a person's brain who is very religious and then becomes open and compassionate to all other people versus somebody who is very religious and wants to kill everyone who doesn't believe what they believe? So there really are some very, very fascinating, very fundamental questions that we really have left to explore and try to explore in a very big way.

Gregory Hansell
Yah I mean related to that one of the questions we were kicking around in the studio is how a lot of studies this is reported a lot in media these days show that Americans are becoming increasingly less religious and what could neurotheology tell us about that? I doubt that the brain is changing but how is that reflected in what you see?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well this gets into the why we believe what we believe concept, which is that all of us as we go through our lives we develop certain beliefs, a certain belief system that works for us. And if you grew up in a religious family then you may hold those religious and spiritual beliefs that you understand God in a certain way or your relationship to God in a certain way. As one goes through life, we experience additional information, data if you will from a scientific perspective that we then incorporate or reject and a lot of times we hold our beliefs very strongly and often times and this is true for scientists as well when new research, when new data comes about that is contrary to the way we understand something then we reject it out of hand. I always remember when I was a medical student that was when they started to realize that stomach ulcers were being caused by a bacteria instead of caused by excess acid and everybody said oh that's ridiculous. And then when the studies came out they said no the studies were bad studies. Well finally there was enough data that everybody said you know what, that's really the way it is. And I think when it comes to religious and spiritual ideas its no different. When you go through life if you start with a religious background for example and throughout your life you feel that and you feel connected to God and you feel that God has been there as part of your life, well that strengthens that belief system. That becomes who you are as you go through your life. On the other hand, if you go through life and you get involved in drugs or you just have a lot of bad things happen to you or at some point you just suddenly decide that you're not experiencing God anymore or you have too many questions that aren't being answered by a religious or spiritual tradition then at some point you may change your belief system and say you know what, I just can't hold that belief anymore. There's just too much information that is contrary to it. And that's part of what made me work towards writing the book about beliefs because no one had really understood how beliefs form, how they strengthen, how they weaken and go away and ultimately it has to do with the neuroconnections in the brain that strengthen. The more we use a certain set of beliefs or a certain pattern of beliefs and weaken as we start to come up with ideas that are contrary. So it has a lot to do with how our brain works and again the more people are inundated with ideas that are contrary to perhaps religion or spirituality the more people may turn away from it. And then the more people come in contact with ideas that support their beliefs then the stronger they become. And in fact, even though as you mentioned a lot of times people are saying that in the United States people are becoming less religious, there's still a growing interest in spirituality. And of course then we get into well what's the difference between the two and how do they manifest within the brain and how can we start to explore that interaction as well? And that's all part of what neurotheology can look at.

Gregory Hansell
Let me ask you if your studies of neurotheology have changed the way you personally look at your own religious or spiritual life and if you have one?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
So well yes, I mean to some degree. I guess maybe the better way for me to answer the question is to say that this whole approach has really been my spiritual path and its been a combination of kind of a spiritual philosophical and scientific path in terms of understanding the nature of who I am and the nature of the reality that I experienced. As I've gone through and done these studies I guess to the extent that it has affected my beliefs what it has given to me at the very least has been a deep appreciation for everyone's beliefs regardless of whether they are religious or spiritual or not and an openness to those beliefs realizing how strongly people actually hold them, how important they are for people, how necessary they are for people, but also realizing that essentially we're all in the same situation. We're all in the same boat, that we have a brain that is looking out on this world. We see a miniscule percentage of everything that's going on in the world, in the universe and somehow we have to deal with that and come up with some belief system that works for us, that helps us to survive, that keeps us as happy as possible and keeps us going from one day to the next. So our brains are kind of doing the best job they can under extraordinarily difficult situations and so its not surprising that somebody might come to a different belief system than me or people will come to different belief systems from each other because each person has their brain doing the best that it can based on the information they're seeing and the people that they're talking to. So for me again, it has been my own kind of spiritual path. It's been my own exploration of these big questions about the meaning of life, why we're here, what we can know to be real, how we can try to prove something to be real. And through that it's been a very self-reflective and contemplative process on my own and through those sort of contemplative processes I've certainly gained a deep appreciation for meditation practices, prayer practices, various spiritual and mystical experiences but I've also understood the need and the necessity for the scientific side and looking at what's really going on physiologically as well as theologically. And so I go and continue to explore these questions and hoping to continue to inform people about the nature of the results and how they may be of value in other people's paths, in other people's journeys to explore the same questions.

Gregory Hansell
Well let me ask you a final question before we head to the break. We only have about a minute for this. But how do you hope your work can really change the world? I mean its a question we ask here very seriously at BetterWorldians Radio and I'm wondering [overlapping]

Dr. Andrew Newberg
You're giving me a minute.

Gregory Hansell
Maybe a minute and a half but that's it.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Okay. Well I think it can occur on multiple levels and to be as brief as possible from the practical to the esoteric. On the practical side we can understand how religious and spiritual ideas affect our overall health and well-being, how they may help to improve a person's just overall life and what they do in their life. This kind of research also helps us understand the human brain. These are very complex processes, practices, beliefs and studying them teaches us more about how the brain works, how the brain helps us to interpret and experience our reality. And then as you move towards the esoteric I think we can understand more and more about what these spiritual practices do to us, how they affect us, and then finally I hope that there is at least this new scientific perspective that may shed some light or at least bring a new way of thinking about the very profound questions about is there a God or isn't there a God. How we should be as moral individuals. How we experience reality. Epistemological questions about what is the nature of reality and what we can actually know. So I think that it extends on multiple levels and can have an impact in terms of helping people to address all of these different issues with the ultimate goal of trying to advance humanity and helping make human beings better individuals, better able to interact with each other and better able to interact with the world around them.

Raymond Hansell
Well that is fascinating work that we're talking about here today. I think we're going to take a break. I'm going to call this a brain break.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
I could use one myself, yah.

Raymond Hansell
When we come back we'll talk more with Dr. Andrew Newberg. You can also ask Andy a question after the break. You can do that several ways. First, you can call us at 1-866-472-5788. That's 1-866-472-5788. Or you can also send us an email at Radio@BetterWorldians.com or tweet us a question at Twitter.com/BetterWorldians. We'll be right back. (Music)

Raymond Hansell
Hi we're back live with Dr. Andrew Newberg. We'd love it if you'd call in with a question if you have any for Andy. You can call us at 1-866-472-5788. Again that's 1-866-472-5788 or if you prefer you can also email us at Radio@BetterWorldians.com or tweet us a question at Twitter.com/BetterWorldians. Now let's welcome back Andy and MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Andy.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Hi, how are you?

MarySue Hansell
Good. You know many people have problems with their memory and in your book How God Changes Your Brain; I read how meditation can be a powerful tool for helping memory. Now you tell a story about a construction worker there. I think his name was Gus. That sticks in my head. Can you tell us a little bit about that story? I thought it was fascinating.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Sure. Well this study actually was designed to look at a specific kind of meditation practice, something called kirtan kriya which is a mantra based practice so the people have to say certain phrases over and over and while they do that they kind of move their fingers in a specific pattern. And the idea was that we were going to scan a person's brain at baseline, what they kind of come in with. We were going to have them do this practice. It was part of why we like the idea of this particular practice was that it was 12 minutes a day so it did not require a lot of excess time. It was very easy to teach people and we just gave people a CD so they could go home and do this. Part of it is that you're supposed to say these particular sounds out loud and then in a whisper and then in silence as part of the overall practice. The idea was that they would come back eight weeks later. We were going to retest them in terms of their memory as well as look at their brain scans to see whether or not the meditation program had actually changed the way their brain functioned and whether this ultimately was associated with an improvement in their overall memory. This guy Gus for lack of a better name was one of our first subjects and we were kind of a little nervous about him because he didn't quite strike me as the meditation type guy but nonetheless we went through the process of explaining to him the study. He really was concerned about his memory and he said he was really excited to do it. So we said okay and we showed him how to do the practice and he really when he came back eight weeks later he loved it. He said he really had a great time doing the practice. He said one of the interesting problems that he had was that he tended to get up very early in the morning, I guess like around four or five o'clock in the morning and he lived in this apartment complex and part of the as the instruction goes on the CD they really tell you to kind of belt out this meditation so he was apparently called by a few people for disturbing them at four o'clock in the morning singing this meditation practice. But I think he kind of worked around it but really enjoyed it. And what the results of the study were really fascinating. So what we found was in general that when we looked at a group of patients, the cohort of patients in our study, about 20 of them, that there was a significant improvement in their memory in certain measures of memory like verbal fluency its called and how much you can recall certain things by about 10-15%. Now you say well that's not that great but keep in mind that its eight weeks and its 12 minutes a day so for something that's cheap, easy and relatively quick to do, to improve your memory by 10% I thought that sounded pretty good. And then of course we looked at the brain scans as well. When we looked at the brain scan we found that there were significant differences in how the brain functioned. What was particularly interesting about this was that not only did the brain function differently when the person was meditating but even when the person was just at rest, which is how we did our initial scan with them; we just get them while they're sitting there quietly there were differences in how their brain worked. And one of the main areas of the brain that was different was an area of the brain called the frontal lobe which is located right behind the forehead. This is an area of the brain that we have found to be active in a lot of meditation practices where you're concentrating because this is kind of our concentration area of the brain. So it turns on whenever we focus or concentrate on something, like a mantra for example, or prayer. So it was actually very exciting to us and very interesting to us to see that over a period of eight weeks as a group these individuals actually increased the resting activity level in this area of the brain. And I kind of liken it to the analogy of exercising a muscle, that if you lift weights and you lift weights over a period of eight weeks what happens? Your muscle is going to become stronger and bigger and what we were looking at was the stronger part. Its like lifting a weight for the brain that it actually increased strength, the functionality of the brain in this frontal lobe. And this also corresponds very well with several other studies that weren't longitudinal like this but just looked at people who are long-term meditators and found they actually had thicker frontal lobes than those people who were not meditators. And so again the analogy of the muscle is perfect. The more you do this kind of exercise for the brain literally the thicker your brain becomes, the more active it becomes and this seems to correlate with improvements in its functionality.

MarySue Hansell
Now was Gus and the other 19 people all senior people or were they different ages?

Dr. Andrew Newberg
This study was designed for older individuals so we did not look at a younger cohort of individuals although there are some studies that have looked at cognitive function with meditation in medical students and college students which have also shown similar kinds of changes but this study was specifically designed for those individuals who are older, who were starting to complain of memory loss. So I think the average age was probably around in the mid-50s, low-60s kind of thing.

MarySue Hansell
That's really interesting. As you say it was only eight weeks for 12 minutes a day.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Yes, exactly and that to me was what was very nice because a lot of meditation programs require people to spend an hour or more a day in practice or require people to come in and do certain sessions. This is something that can be done at home and in fact the listeners again its called kirtan kriya and people can probably pull an audio file off of different websites that have it but its a very simple, very basic type of meditation practice and something that worked very well. But part of what we also acknowledge is that there are many different meditation practices and this is certainly not the only one. And if somebody said you know what I've tried that and I don't really like it that much. I don't get it. It doesn't kind of fit with the way I am that much, well then try something different. They all potentially can be valuable. They all can potentially work but what data is starting to show is the ones that work best are the ones that kind of resonate with that individual the best. So if you are particularly a religious person and you like to do prayer then do prayer. Prayer will work very, very effectively. But if you're not a particularly religious person and you want to do something that's more secularly based, then try kirtan kriya or try mindfulness or try one of many other types of practices but something that feels good to you, where its philosophy makes sense to you, where you feel like its something that you're comfortable doing. And if you start doing something and its not working that well for you, I mean obviously you have to give it a reasonable chance but if after a couple weeks you're really just not finding it to be useful to you then I usually tell people then try something else. It doesn't mean that your body doesn't like meditation. It just may not like that particular one.

MarySue Hansell
Yah, I don't know if I'm unusual but I like to try different types of meditation. I've tried the kirtan kriya. I like that. But I do like to change it. I don't know if most people are like that or not.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well, I think that there's a huge variety and this is a question that I get all the time. I mean I've had people come up to me and say gee I've tried 10 different kinds of meditation and I don't get it. This just isn't working for me. And I've had other people who like yourself say I've done a lot of different kinds of practices and everyone is better than the next. I kind of enjoy doing all of them and they all can do different things for me. And I think to some degree that there is a predisposition to that, just like what people eat or music people listen to. Some people just eat one kind of thing and like to have meat and potatoes and other people try all different kinds of stuff so I think that there is some underlying physiological predisposition that each of us has. But that being said; I think each of us can potentially derive benefit from a practice that works best for them, and if they've tried 10 different kinds of mantra based practices and its not working for them, maybe they should try a practice that doesn't involve that, maybe they should try yoga. Maybe they should try more of a mindfulness practice where they just have to clear their mind of thoughts and not necessarily focus their mind on something. Or maybe they want to do something with music or something with some other creative act or doing a walking meditation. There's so many different approaches that one could take and its great to try lots of them but not all of them are going to work for every person and then other people like yourself may find a benefit from many of them.

MarySue Hansell
I think that's great advice. Now you say in your book there are seven other type practices besides meditation to exercise our brains and one surprising one, I think the listeners will be surprised to hear that yawning was one.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
I have lots of debates with my co-author about that. Yah well when he first sort of found this and we really looked into it to make sure we understood what it was and what was going on, and yah, its kind of odd and funny but it turns out that yawning is something that appears to be very good for your brain and something that actually can help to improve the way in which the brain functions. Part of the reason why we have such a negative view about yawning is we kind of think about when it happens. When does it happen? It happens when we're bored, when we're tired and that usually implies that well we're not enjoying ourselves but what it really means is that we are actually trying to wake our brain up. So when you think about what yawning actually does, it appears to actually activate the brain. It wakes the brain up. It begins to activate different parts of the brain and enables the brain to perform in a better way. And in fact, there were some interesting stories when our book came out it was I guess the last Olympics and we were noticing that there were certain athletes, some of the speed skaters for example would purposely yawn prior to doing the race and they felt that that was very beneficial. It helped clear their mind. It helped relax their body and it got them ready to do this very, very vigorous form of exercise. But the same can be true at a workplace or if you're about to do a meditation practice that if you kind of fake a few yawns to begin with then your body and your brain will take over and you'll probably do a few natural ones and in doing so you will actually revitalize your brain, wake up your brain. And there seems to be some physiological mechanisms by which that happens. One of the most basic ones seems to be that because the air comes in through your mouth and nose which rests right under that frontal lobe that we were talking about that it actually helps to cool down the brain. The brain like your motor in your car or the more active you use it, it heats up and by cooling off the brain it helps to allow it to function in a more effective way. So it turns out that yawning can actually be a pretty good thing for people. Its easy to do. Its cheap and sometimes if you're at your desk and just feeling a little run down, just force a few yawns. You'll probably wind up taking a few yawns. Do it for 30 seconds or a minute and your brain will probably feel a little bit more revitalized by simply doing that practice.

Raymond Hansell
I have to tell you at this point we're really stifling the yawn.

MarySue Hansell
We're all yawning.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
And its contagious.

Raymond Hansell
And this is nothing to do with the subject matter or the speaker but I'm dying to yawn as soon as the show is over.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Well, let it happen. Let it go and but it is. It's funny how its contagious and it activates social areas of the brain so there may be some evidence that it helps to improve social interactions. Its fascinating.

Raymond Hansell
Well for all our listeners you can find out more about Dr. Andrew Newberg's work by going to his website AndrewNewberg.com. Andy, we'd like to thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Dr. Andrew Newberg
Thanks so much for having me on your program.

Raymond Hansell
You're very, very welcome. Its been really a wonderful ride. For you are listeners, join us next week on BetterWorldians Radio when we'll be talking with author and social media self-help guru Lori Deschene about the importance of self-compassion and how to achieve it. We have an excellent lineup of guests in the coming weeks and if you know an unsung better worldian, who would make a great guest on our show, please send us an email at Radio@BetterWorldians.com. Once again we'd like to remind everyone that they can be part of a miracle by simply sharing our video challenge to help heal 10 disabled children. Its that easy. Just go to ColorWithKindness.com, watch the video, share it with your friends, pass it around, give these kids the gift of a lifetime in the process. We'd like to thank everyone today for joining in and listening at this hour. We look forward to seeing you next week at the same hour. You can join the better worldians community at BetterWorldians.com and until next time everybody please be a better worldian. (Music)