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The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience

The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience

Professor Andrew Newberg
Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
Course No.  1682
Course No.  1682
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Does God exist? Do we have a soul? Is it possible to make contact with a spiritual realm? How should we respond to the divine? Will life continue beyond death?

Whether you are a deeply religious person, a spiritual seeker, or one who has come to doubt or disbelieve in a spiritual power, you have probably pondered these questions and at least begun to answer them for yourself. In fact, archaeological and historical records show that even the earliest humans were aware of a spiritual realm and developed religious practices as a result.

One of humanity’s most awesome forces, the spread and practice of religion has exerted a profoundly outsized effect on individuals and entire civilizations, altering the course of history. The religious impulse is so powerfully pervasive that neuroscience has posed a provocative question: Are our brains wired to worship?

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Does God exist? Do we have a soul? Is it possible to make contact with a spiritual realm? How should we respond to the divine? Will life continue beyond death?

Whether you are a deeply religious person, a spiritual seeker, or one who has come to doubt or disbelieve in a spiritual power, you have probably pondered these questions and at least begun to answer them for yourself. In fact, archaeological and historical records show that even the earliest humans were aware of a spiritual realm and developed religious practices as a result.

One of humanity’s most awesome forces, the spread and practice of religion has exerted a profoundly outsized effect on individuals and entire civilizations, altering the course of history. The religious impulse is so powerfully pervasive that neuroscience has posed a provocative question: Are our brains wired to worship?

In The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience, award-winning scholar and practicing neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, offers you 24 riveting lectures that explore the new and exciting field of neurotheology, a discipline aimed at understanding the connections between our brains and different kinds of religious phenomena. Using an academic, experimental approach into what he calls “objective measures of spirituality,” Dr. Newberg attempts to explain what others have previously only guessed at: the neuroscientific basis for why religion and spirituality have played such a prominent role in human life.

Spirituality through a Scientific Lens

How do religious experiences originate? What is their meaning? And why does religion play such a huge role in human experience? In this captivating course, you will peer directly into the seat of all human thought and action as you experience a leading researcher delve into the relationship between brain function and spirituality.

Dr. Newberg grounds The Spiritual Brain in the context of the brain’s neurophysiological structure and religious development from infancy through late adulthood. You’ll discover how the brain and spirituality appear to develop in parallel throughout a person’s life span, tracking through different stages of religious awareness. You’ll also learn

  • how the various parts and systems of the human brain work together to create and sustain different beliefs about the world;
  • the ways in which religious beliefs and practices have measurable, biological effects on the individuals who hold and engage in them; and
  • why the increasing neuroscientific data help us to better understand how God, religion, and spirituality may be inextricably intertwined with ongoing brain development.

Now, after millennia of human devotion to the divine, neuroscience is beginning to disclose the relationship between religion and the brain by providing answers to questions that have long eluded us. Or have they? Could this modern discipline actually be reinforcing some of our most cherished beliefs?

New Insights into That Old Time Religion

A leading researcher in neurotheology, Dr. Newberg offers you innovative approaches to ancient beliefs and practices. Using brain imaging and other cutting-edge physiological studies, he helps you to better understand how the brain controls or responds to religious and spiritual beliefs and behavior. For example, you’ll examine MRI studies showing that long-term practitioners of spiritual practices like meditation have thicker and more active frontal lobes than those who do not practice meditation.

One obvious question that arises: Did their brains naturally develop these attributes, making them more inclined to practice meditation? Or did their brains change over time as a result of practicing meditation? Follow Dr. Newberg as he continually devises new experimental methods designed to answer these apparent scientific stalemates.

You’ll also take a look at “snapshots” he has taken of the brains of cloistered Franciscan nuns engaged in prayer. You will then see what his analysis showed about the neurological changes that took place during prayer, as well as long after.

For many people, religious practice relates to a specific tradition, but that is not always the case. In The Spiritual Brain, you’ll observe what Dr. Newberg’s groundbreaking research tells us about the role the brain plays in mystical states. You’ll study firsthand accounts showing

  • how speaking in tongues may represent a supernormal functioning of certain areas of an otherwise whole and healthy human brain;
  • why near-death experiences and other reports of disembodied consciousness might be more than the activity of a brain on the verge of physical extinction; and
  • what the widespread experiences of divine revelation and spiritual salvation have to do with the brain’s continued progression toward advanced states of development.

With every intriguing answer these experiments produce, many more questions are raised as a result, and with this course you have the advantage of Dr. Newberg’s expertise to accompany your quest for their answers every step of the way.

Inside the Body of the Believing Brain

Throughout The Spiritual Brain, Dr. Newberg examines not only the neural activity of the religious brain, but also the effects of various religious beliefs and practices on human mental and physical health. There are literally hundreds of studies that show that religion has a measurable effect on health. What’s more, specific religious beliefs also have specific health advantages. You will see that

  • church attendance is associated with decreased heart disease, blood pressure, emphysema, cirrhosis, and suicide;
  • Mormon males may have decreased rates of cancer and mortality;
  • elderly Christians and Jews are less likely to die in the 30 days before important holidays; and
  • Seventh-Day Adventists live longer than the average population.

If this connection exists, these same studies then raise the question of potentially detrimental effects of religious belief and practice, such as in cases of dangerous cultic activity. Dr. Newberg evaluates fascinating research involving both believers and atheists showing the ways in which your beliefs actually determine how you rationalize—as well as mistake—the world around you.

Your brain is a belief-generating machine that has evolved to realize your beliefs through your behaviors. Join Dr. Newberg as he shares some game-changing discoveries coming out of the field of modern neuroscience, and perhaps on your thrilling voyage through these fascinating discoveries, you may reconsider some of your own beliefs along the way.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    A New Perspective on Ancient Questions
    For many, science and religion address two fundamentally distinct realms of human experience, but scientists and theologians are increasingly discovering that these realms intersect. Learn how neuroscience is tackling some of life’s biggest questions while shedding new light on humanity’s most ancient and enduring beliefs and practices. x
  • 2
    Why Do We Have a Spiritual Brain?
    We humans possess highly evolved brains that enable us to create sophisticated systems of religious beliefs and practices. Examine the theories that seek to explain the development of this astounding organ, showing how and why we have such a powerful inclination to search for a spiritual realm. x
  • 3
    Brain Function and Religion
    The brain is structured in several sections, governs a variety of systems and functions, and is the central processing unit of the human body. Delve into the inner workings of this elusive organ by means of modern neuroscience to determine how various brain processes may be involved in religious and spiritual experiences. x
  • 4
    How Does Science Study Religion?
    Pursuing knowledge by means of science requires a disciplined methodology. This methodology is based in experimental approaches to its subject. Dissect the various ways in which science attempts to investigate religious phenomena, allowing you to better understand these spiritual experiences in an effort to determine their ultimate nature and makeup. x
  • 5
    Believers and Atheists
    Religion has been a fundamental part of human culture for many millennia. If the human brain is hard-wired for religious activity, then why do some people’s brains reject the notion of the divine altogether? Analyze the current neuroscientific evidence for the differences between the brains of believers and nonbelievers. x
  • 6
    Spiritual Development
    Human brains are capable of producing complex spiritual thoughts and states. At what age does this capacity begin? How does this capacity change throughout a lifetime? Trace the development of the brain from infancy into adulthood and see how this physiological transformation corresponds to progressive stages of religious belief. x
  • 7
    The Myth-Making Brain
    From the first campfires of our ancient ancestors, storytelling has been an essential part of our human experience. Stories communicate important ideas meant to illuminate and inspire us. Harness the power of myth to appreciate how it is used by your brain to make sense of an often puzzling universe. x
  • 8
    The Brain and Religious Rituals
    Habitual activity is the key to internalizing behavior, and religious ritual is a clear example of this phenomenon. Observe how the rhythm of repetitive routine changes your neural network by imprinting the precepts of religious worldviews in transformative and visceral ways. x
  • 9
    The Biology of Spiritual Practices
    Two of the most common forms of religious behavior are prayer and meditation. Although these practices seem to be a pathway to another, more spiritual realm, learn how they can also be measured by the physiological changes that the practitioners exhibit, not only while engaged in them but long afterward. x
  • 10
    Religion and Health
    Do prayer and meditation increase your physical well-being? Can regular church attendance contribute to an increased life span? Consider the emerging evidence that shows that increased involvement in a religious lifestyle may offer many additional health benefits. x
  • 11
    Religion and Mental Health
    Explore the complex relationship between religious conviction and disorders like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and determine what role, if any, religion should play in medical therapy. x
  • 12
    Religion and Brain Dysfunction
    Some scientists have linked religious conversion with a physical pathology, while others have associated intense spiritual practices, such as speaking in tongues, with brain dysfunction, but are these perspectives too reductionist to be accurate? Test these experiences to determine whether they speak to mental disorders or to supernormal brain functioning. x
  • 13
    Transmitters to God
    Messages of the mind are relayed through brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Uncover the mental connections involved in humanity’s religious experiences and follow the hidden pathways through which human beings may be connecting with the divine. x
  • 14
    Stimulated States and Religious Experiences
    Changes in brain activity that occur from natural or internal conditions seem to track closely with artificial methods produced by electrical or chemical stimulation. Grasp how stimulated states give us insight into the nature and meaning of spiritual experiences. x
  • 15
    Near-Death Experiences and the Brain
    Even at the point of death, our cerebral circuitry is quite active. In fact, the neural activity of these extreme states contributes to phenomena that some claim as evidence of life beyond death. Come to appreciate how neuroscience is broadening our perspective on the riveting reports associated with near-death experiences. x
  • 16
    The Believing Brain
    Your brain works hard to interpret your experiences, making sense of your world through creating and adopting belief systems about it. In a manner of speaking, your brain is essentially a belief-generating machine. Master the mechanics by which your brain constructs your beliefs—including those that may prove demonstrably false. x
  • 17
    The Brain’s Influence on Religious Ideas
    Whether you are thinking about the here and now or about the abstract notion of a spiritual realm, your thoughts are governed by the nature and capabilities of your brain. Ponder the ways that the structure and function of your brain shape and limit your religious and theological conceptions. x
  • 18
    Revelation, Salvation, and the Brain
    Your experiences are processed by your brain to determine both their immediate importance and their connection to your life as a whole. While many experiences are dismissed as largely insignificant, others have the ability to profoundly transform us. Test two widely experienced religious experiences with the tools of modern neuroscience. x
  • 19
    The Brain’s Influence on Religious Behavior
    Ethical behavior is close to the heart of all religious traditions. Find how neuroscience is shedding new light on the processes that make possible religiously motivated behavior such as altruism, empathy, and forgiveness. x
  • 20
    How the Brain Changes God
    Given the fact that your brain interprets experience to construct a picture of reality, how does this shape your concept of God? Size up the various ways we tend to envision God as our brains work to formulate ideas of divinity, ranging from the overly humanized to the esoterically abstract. x
  • 21
    How God Changes the Brain
    Your brain is constantly changing in response to your shifting thoughts and experiences. This ongoing neural transformation recreates your brain to adjust to everything from your routine activity to thoughts and experiences of extreme enlightenment. Consider the ways in which these spiritual practices and religious beliefs actually modify your brain. x
  • 22
    Why God Won’t Go Away
    Despite the prophesied death of God and demise of religion, both are alive and well over a decade into the 21st century. Moreover, they are gaining ground in many spheres of modern life. Discover how the two most basic functions of the brain allow for religion’s ongoing durability. x
  • 23
    The Mystical Mind
    Religion and spirituality can be said to be very important aspects of human life, but what about people who take it much further? Transcend the religious ego to experience mystical frames of reference in which distinctions between the self and other, as well as the past, present, and future, simply disappear. x
  • 24
    Reality and Beyond
    Having explored how our brains construct and interpret reality, we have yet to address why we assume our mental constructions are correct. Test the boundaries of your worldview and probe the possibility that spiritual experiences may speak to an underlying reality that is hidden from us in our everyday lives. x

Lecture Titles

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Andrew Newberg
Andrew Newberg
Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Dr. Andrew Newberg is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University, and he teaches undergraduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Newberg received his medical degree in 1993 from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia, and he completed a fellowship in Nuclear Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine. Dr. Newberg has actively pursued neuroimaging research projects, including studies of aging and dementia, epilepsy, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders. He has been particularly involved in the study of religious and spiritual experiences and the relationship among the brain, religion, and health. Dr. Newberg's research has included analyzing brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and various trance states. His research also has included understanding the physiological correlates of acupuncture therapy, massage, and other types of alternative therapies. Dr. Newberg has taught medical students, undergraduate and graduate students, and medical residents about stress management, spirituality and health, and the neurophysiology of religious experience. In 2010, he was named Teacher of the Year for the University of Pennsylvania's Biological Basis of Behavior Program. Dr. Newberg has published numerous articles and chapters on brain function, brain imaging, and the study of religious and spiritual experiences. He is the author of Principles of Neurotheology, a culmination of ideas based on his research over the past 10 years. He is a coauthor of the best-selling books How God Changes Your Brain and Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. His most recent book, Words Can Change Your Brain, was published in June 2012. Dr. Newberg is also a coauthor of Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs and The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, both of which explore the relationship between neuroscience and spiritual experience. The latter book received the 2000 award for Outstanding Books in Theology and the Natural Sciences presented by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. Dr. Newberg has presented his work at scientific and religious meetings around the world and has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, CNN, and ABC's World News Tonight. His research also has appeared in Newsweek; TIME; The New York Times; Los Angeles Times; Scientific American; O, The Oprah Magazine; and Reader's Digest.

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Reviews

Rated 2.8 out of 5 by 45 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Awesome––Swept Me Away! [Audio Version] I ordered and downloaded this course the same day it appeared for the first time at TTC’s website. I really enjoy courses that tackle big ideas, and the ‘The Spiritual Brain’ fully delivered. What is reality? What is the role of the brain when we perceive reality? How does the brain limit us in seeing reality? What are we missing? I consider myself an ‘informal believer’ and Professor Newberg thoroughly shook me up. The course was much like a roller coaster ride for me, with the trip ending with some major changes in how I personally look at belief in my own life. It was a happy, comfortable ride. What especially impressed me was Newberg’s structuring the lectures in a way that built almost unbearable suspense. Instead of just telling us his findings right off, he takes us step by step through his scientific, empirical measurements of the brain’s activity while people meditate, pray, and engage in other spiritual activities. I got goose bumps several times waiting to find out the final results. And more than a few times, the results of his tests were totally mind-blowing. My favorite lecture was on NDE’s, or Near Death Experiences. Double goose bumps! One of the biggest takeaways for me was Newberg’s introducing me to James Fowler’s book, ‘Stages of Faith.’ My own beliefs between age 40 and 60 were taking me nowhere, and now, thanks to this course, I know why. The impact of ‘The Spiritual Brain’ will likely vary depending on what you bring to the table, or where you are on life’s journey. But I suspect that Newberg’s unbiased presentation will intrigue atheists, agnostics, and lifetime true believers. There’s something for everyone here. Science cannot ignore ‘neurotheology.’ It affects our minds, bodies, health, emotions ... nearly every aspect of our lives. I couldn’t put this course down. I listened to it while driving, working, walking, and even while eating dinner. I didn’t take this course as much as the course took me. It swept me away. Bravo! November 1, 2012
Rated 1 out of 5 by Gentlemen : I take this opportunity. to inform you I have been Unable to download the course because I lack the technical skill with computers. My intención was to buy the DVD versión ( as in all my previos purchases). Is there posible that you quote me for a substitution ?. October 26, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Shockingly inferior Save your money! The "professor" has fair enthusiasm, but the content is so poorly organized that it is difficult to follow. He appears to have little knowledge of neuroscience or of spirituality. As others have pointed out, he fails to deliver adequate references to the centuries of ostracism, discrimination, and even murder of scientists and those who deign to differ from established religions. This is a shockingly inferior course and one to avoid. October 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Best of the Best This lecture give as not only the information about The Spiritual Brain, but shows new directions for studying this very controversial topic. Dr. Andrew Newberg showed as that the new science, neurotheology, is very important part of the studying neurophysiology of the human brain. It is understandable, because religion and spirituality have played such a big part in human life. This new science can help as to find out relations between divine and humankind and answer the most vital question if divine is the product of our brain or our brain is the device which divine can manipulate with the humankind. Thanks October 15, 2014
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