01/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg

I recently had the fortune to interview Dr. Andrew Newberg, one of the leading researchers focused on meditation and the brain. Dr. 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 researched the brain impact of meditation and prayer, and how brain function is associated with mystical and religious experiences.

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 you say, for example, 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 with leading scientists by checking out our SharpBrains Neuroscience Interview Series.