If Your Sense of Curiosity Likes Big-Picture Inquiries and Great Mysteries That Run in Sequels, Then You Couldn’t Have Picked a Better Time (So Far) to Live

For me, one of the things that makes the estimable “times in which we live” so doggone mesmerizing is the shear scope of the questions being asked. Add to that new technologies for pursuing answers. This equates to some remarkable successes, coming one after the other, in understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Such a thought kicked in the afterburner the other night as I watched a rerun of the BBC’s Horizon show about astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter’s search for a way to capture images and data on supernovas on demand. Perlmutter heads the international Supernova Cosmology Project headquartered at Berkeley Lab.

In the early 1990s, he realized that supernovas—exploding stars far, far away—held the secret to how fast the universe was expanding. But to make good predictions, scientists needed data on large numbers of supernovas, and these rara avises of the nighttime skies are among the most uncommon of events.

Maybe you saw the show, too. If you did, you know that in about a five-year period in the middle ‘90s, the indefatigable Perlmutter and his team developed ways to use the world’s biggest telescopes, new kinds of film and new computer technology to find very distant supernovae “by the batch” with only a few days of telescope time each year. With data from scores of supernovas, Perlmutter and company concluded that the universe is blowing itself apart fast enough to keep on expanding forever: eventually, the nighttime skies will be black because nearly everything that currently twinkles up there will be too far away for anyone to see.

This scientific triumph was still fresh on my mind when I read about a quest by another scientist that shares a kinship with Saul Perlmutter’s successful quest in ways that are more than merely metaphorical or poetic.

That scientist is Andrew Newberg, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind there. Since the mid-1990s (roughly the same period of Perlmutter’s supernova studies), Newberg has been hooking various spiritual practitioners, including Franciscan nuns, Buddhists and Pentecostal Christians who speak in tongues, up to imaging equipment and studying what happens to their brains when they get in a [you choose the best word for you] a religious, spiritual or contemplative state of mind.

But what Newberg would really like to do is have someone hooked up to his gizmos when the person is having a Meister Eckhart or St. Francis-like moment of world-shattering transcendence—a truly BIG, profound, INNER experience. Only, he knows the odds of having that happen are not very likely.

Well, if he were so fortunate as to capture such a rare event with his apparatus, what does he think he’d see?

Here’s what Dr. Newberg told Salon.com’s interviewer Steve Paulson: “I think the orientation part of the brain would be profoundly affected. So while we’re seeing decreased activity in this orientation part of the brain during prayer, for example, I think if somebody had a true mystical experience, we would see a vastly greater change—to the point where there would be a complete loss of their sense of self in relation to the world. Now, one other aspect of the overall function of the brain that we haven’t mentioned is the autonomic nervous system that regulates our arousal and our quiescent responses in the body. What we have hypothesized is that in these peak states, there is a simultaneous activation of both this very profound sense of arousal and alertness and also a deep sense of oceanic bliss and calmness. Maybe someday, if we’re fortunate enough, that could actually be captured on a brain scan.”

The search for a “God center” in the brain is intriguing to more than neurotheologians like Newberg. Neurobiologist and geneticist Dean Hamer has already written a book called The God Gene that identifies a specific gene, VMAT2, that varies (is “polymorphic”) from person to person. VMAT2 seems to regulate how a person responds emotionally and cognitively to the same stimuli. Could this explain why some folks are more susceptible to hypnotic or to “religious” experiences than others? Hamers and other researchers pursing this line of research haven’t proved it but think they might.

But even if they hammer this puppy scientifically, notes philosopher Daniel Dennett in his remarkable book arguing for studying religions scientifically, Breaking the Spell, it will signal merely the beginning of a new, Saul Perlmutter-like inquiry. The next stage is to inquire into how whatever brain functions might turn out to be the lock-step companions of genuine religious experience managed to produce the extraordinary religious panorama that surrounds and involves humanity today.

Dennett quotes British scientist Richard Dawkins: “If neuroscientists find a ‘god center’ in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me want to know why the god center evolved. Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god center survive better than rivals who did not?”

Just as Perlmutter’s discovery (that the universe is expanding so fast it will never stop) led to yet another deep mystery (why is it expanding so fast?), a documented worldclass transcendent experience or an ironclad God gene will merely deepen a greater mystery: why and how has religion come to exercise such a hold on humankind?

Isn’t life interesting?

You can read the transcript of the BBC Horizon program about Saul Perlmutter here: From Here to Infinity

Salon.com’s interview with Andrew Newberg is here: Divining the brain

Purchase Dean Hamer’s book here: The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes

Purchase philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book here: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

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