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Vol. LXIII, No. 41
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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NPR Correspondent Barbara Hagerty Talks About the Science of Spirituality

Ellen Gilbert

“I want to discuss something so wacky that people only speak of it in whispers,” said National Public Radio (NPR) religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty as she began a public lecture at Princeton University’s Lewis Library last week.

The “wacky” subject turned out to be one of the all-time biggies: Does God exist? As she did in her recently published book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead Books), Ms. Hagerty referred to both personal experiences and scientific investigations in her talk, which was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion.

Ms. Hagerty’s own quest began, she said, during a conversation with a woman whose melanoma had returned after being in remission for some time. Rather than railing against her fate, the woman told Ms. Hagerty that she believed that God had made her sick again so that she could “have a transcendent experience helping others with the disease.” A dramatic change in the humidity and temperature of the air around them as the woman spoke to her both frightened and intrigued the reporter, who has a law degree from a Yale and an undergraduate degree in economics from Williams.

She wrote the book, she said, because “I wondered if I was crazy.” The combination of amassing individuals’ reports of transformative spiritual experiences and her examination of scientists who observe brain states that correlate with these experiences resulted, she said, in “the most fascinating and terrifying research I’ve ever done.” A Navajo peyote ceremony, participation in a University of Wisconsin program on meditation (“I’m bad at it”), and a conference of people who have had near-death experiences and the scientists who studied them, were all part of her research.

Among the questions Ms. Hagerty sought to answer during the year she took off from her NPR duties to work on the book was whether or not there is “a God spot,” an area of the brain that mediates spiritual experience. Early researchers knew that stimulating the temporal lobe can result in out-of-body experiences, she noted, and some believe that many great religious figures suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which Hippocrates called “the sacred disease.”

“I have a little trouble with this,” Ms. Hagerty observed. “How can something this debilitating enable great accomplishments?” Still, she said, she believes that the temporal lobe mediates spiritual experience. She cited the experience of Jeff Schimmel, a non-believer who had a profound change of heart — or of brain, as it were — after a benign growth was removed from his brain. Soon after the surgery, he began to suffer mini seizures and hear conversations in his head. Twice he had visions; eventually he recognized the Virgin Mary. “‘I laughed about it,’” Ms. Hagerty quoted Mr. Schimmel as saying, “‘because why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, a Jewish guy laying in bed, looking at the ceiling? She could do much better.’” An MRI showed that indeed Mr. Schimmel’s temporal lobe looked completely different than it had before his surgery. He went on to study spirituality, eventually becoming a Buddhist. There was “no question,” said Ms. Hagerty, that Mr. Schimmel’s new-found faith and love for other people came from his brain.

What about the brain, Ms. Hagerty asked, “Is it a CD player or a radio?” Most scientists, she said, believe that it is the former, a closed system; there is no outside God, and everything we experience comes from within the brain. On the other hand, she observed, “Everyone possesses neural equipment to receive messages. Some have the volume too low, some too high.” The sender, she believes, is separate from the receiver; All Things Considered will still be transmitted even if one’s radio is broken.

Although she does not think that “science will be able to prove or disprove the existence of God,” Ms. Hagerty does believe that the “mind-brain debate” can have a conclusion, which she described as “an open seam in the armor of materialism.” Citing the example of a woman who was able to describe the details of an operating theater while she was under deep sedation, Ms. Hagerty reported that the neurosurgeon who was present at the operation “had no scientific explanation” for what had happened, but that “the experience changed his notions about reality.”

Although the study of transcendent spiritual experiences is still in its infancy, Ms. Hagerty noted, she, for one, seems already convinced about the radios in our heads. “Our brains,” she said, “are finely tuned to connect with the divine.”

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