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116 of 120 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Astonishing Book
This fascinating book examines how human beings construct their beliefs about everything: how we map the realities of the world, build moral and political beliefs, and develop religious and spiritual beliefs about the universe. The authors base their premises on neurobiological research and then they integrate their findings with contemporary psychology and sociology...
Published on September 20, 2006 by Neil Schuitevoerder

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inconsistent, but interesting
This book has two sections to it... a general overview of neurophysiology and a review of experiments looking at brain scans of people having religious experiences. I found the first part... the overview ... to be below average. There are many far better, far more interesting books that cover the topic, and I found that I started to skim. During these parts, the authors...
Published on June 24, 2011 by M. Hyman


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116 of 120 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Astonishing Book, September 20, 2006
This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
This fascinating book examines how human beings construct their beliefs about everything: how we map the realities of the world, build moral and political beliefs, and develop religious and spiritual beliefs about the universe. The authors base their premises on neurobiological research and then they integrate their findings with contemporary psychology and sociology without ever becoming overly technical, a difficult feat when it comes to explaining the neurological processes of the brain.

The introductory chapter introduces the basic premises of the book, using the case history of a man who riddled with cancer and is about to die in a research hospital at UCLA. Placebo injections are given, and within a week all tumors disappear, but when newspaper reports describe the ineffectiveness of the medicine the patient thought he was taking, the tumors returned. The doctor convinced the patient that a "new and improved" medication was available, and again the tumors disappeared. The FDA then pronounced the medical study a failure, and again, the tumors returned. The authors return to this story throughout the book to explain how our beliefs can deeply influence the neurobiological processes in the brain.

In Chapter 3, the authors use numerous optical illusions to How the brain incorporates perceptual errors into its maps of the world. In this way, they show how many supernatural beliefs are literally perceived as real within the brain. In the next chapter, they show how different cognitive functions contribute to the foundations of everyday beliefs about reality, and how a child's brain is prone towards seeing monsters, believing in Santa Claus, and relying on magic to explain unusual occurrences in the world. The authors also show what happens in the brain when adults attempt to perceive the unperceivable, i.e. God and other spiritual realms.

In Chapter 5, Parents, Peas, and "Putty Tats," Newberg opens his chapter on developmental neuropsychology with a story of how his mother got him to eat his plate of peas. He uses this cute tale to show how early childhood beliefs can shape the remainder of one's adult life. The authors show how easy it is to implant false memories in children and adults, why autobiographical memories are faulty, and why false memories remain imprinted in various circuits of the brain well into adulthood. They also offer a brilliant integration of neurological development with the psychological development of morality (unfortunately, our brains begin to deteriorate in our thirties, and the likelihood of us changing our beliefs, especially inaccurate ones, becomes less and less the older we get.

As the title of Chapter 6 implies (Ordinary Criminals Like You and Me) we are not as moral as we like to think we are. Using brain scan research, they show how we are easily manipulated by authorities to lie, hurt and even kill. Ultimately, the more complex the moral dilemma, the longer it takes our brain to react. Thus we are likely to stand by and watch when others commit immoral acts.

In Chapter 7, Newberg describes his brain scan research with a group of Franciscan nuns engaged in prayer, and the authors suggest how spiritual beliefs become neurologically real in the minds of practitioners.

Chapter 8 includes the first brain scan study of Pentecostal practitioners who speak in tongues, and the findings show that this uniquely creative form of prayer is very different from other forms of spiritual practice, and is probably very similar to shamanic trance states, hypnotherapy, and certain altered states of consciousness brought about by drugs. The authors are careful to point out that Pentecostal practices are inherently beneficial and do not represent pathological processes of illness.

In Chapter 9, the authors conduct the first brain scan on an atheist who attempts to pray to God. They found that when a person focuses on opposing beliefs, a neurological dissonance takes place that prejudices the individual to reject them. Atheists are physiologically healthy individuals, even though they are one of the most despised groups in America. This chapter sheds light on why political parties tend to despise one another and goes a long way in explaining why there is so much religious discord in the world.

Finally, in Chapter 10, the authors discuss ways to become "a better believer" by developing a more cautious, skeptical, yet openminded approach when evaluating information from the media and from science. An overview of 27 forms of cognitive biases are presented, along with a systematic critique of prayer/religion research. They also summarize contemporary research on the placebo effect.

Overall, an astonishing book that was equally fun to read--but then again, that's what I believe.
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102 of 116 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and compelling, although with obvious biases, September 20, 2006
This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
Andrew Newberg, professor of Radiology and Psychiatry, has written (along with Mark Robert Waldman) a sequel to his book, Why God Won't Go Away. The new book has strengths and weaknesses, but, should be of some interest to those who have an interest in spiritual matters and human behavior. The book is primarily written to address the question of how the brain works so that we arrive at what we believe to be true. The authors write from a spiritual perspective, but take numerous jabs at Christians and Christianity throughout the book. In contrast, New Age and Far Eastern religions seem to receive little or no criticism (co-author, Mr. Waldman seems to be into New Age type spirituality), and are actually endorsed. Likewise, atheists may not be entirely comfortable with the content, since it clearly challenges their cherished belief that that have no beliefs.

Even with this viewpoint bias, the first two parts of the book ("How the brain makes our reality" and "Childhood development and morality") are nothing less than fascinating. The topics are broad, so a lot of details are not included (especially supporting studies), although doing so would have increased the length considerably. Even so, I would have preferred more details and citations and a little of the controversy, which must be present in such a complex field. One gets the distinct impression that the results are not quite as neat and tidy as presented, and one wonders if studies that do not support the authors' premises are omitted as a form of viewpoint bias or just to save space.

A particularly interesting chapter entitle, "Ordinary Criminals Like You and Me," presents numerous experiments (many of which would be considered unethical today) that demonstrate that the vast majority of individuals will do extremely immoral acts, given the right conditions. For example, if enough people (planted experimental confederates) go along with a lie, test subjects will do likewise. In another study, participants "electrocuted" a "student" who was a "poor learner." Studies simulating prison conditions showed that the "officers" (experimental subjects) routinely mistreated the "prisoners" (also experimental subjects). In other experiments, subjects would usually act in selfish ways, rather than take the moral high ground. Newberg suggests that barring interception by our frontal lobes of our brain, all our actions would be immoral and selfish.

The book's third section, spiritual beliefs and the brain, presents Newberg's latest (and earlier) functional brain scan results on religious people. Previously, Newberg had studied the brain activity of Buddhists practicing meditation and Franciscan nuns practicing "centering prayer," a Roman Catholic method of meditating deeply on a specific biblical passage or concept. These results had shown similar patterns of brain activity for those meditating on "becoming one with the universe" or "inner peace" (Buddhists) and those meditating on God or the Bible. Both groups showed increased activity in the frontal lobes (primarily the prefrontal cortex), which represents the "attention area" and decreased activity in the parietal lobes (the "orientation area"). Each group interpreted their experience on the basis of their beliefs (e.g., inner peace for the Buddhists or God's presence for the nuns). In this book, Newberg added a third group - Pentecostal Christians who "speak in tongues." When analyzed, the brain scans showed increased activity in the thalamus (as in Buddhists and nuns). Speaking in tongues also resulted in high activity in the temporal lobes (involved in making emotions) and in the midbrain (probably resulting from the activities of speech and dance). Like Buddhists and nuns, Pentecostals represent a small percentage of the American population (probably only about 1% of Americans claim to speak in tongues). Newberg presented one case (not exactly a scientific sampling) of a spiritual atheist. Like the Buddhists, he practiced meditation, and presented with a brain scan similar to the Buddhists and nuns (though the actual scans were not shown in the book).

Also noteworthy was the finding of asymmetric thalamic activity in the Buddhists, nuns, Pentecostals, and even the one "spiritual" atheist, which is not found in the vast majority of people. The question arises whether these people are born with this asymmetry, resulting in the ability to play these mind games or whether the continual practice of the games themselves lead to the asymmetry. None of Newberg's studies were able to address these questions. An even more fundamental question concerns the rest of us, who lack the asymmetry, but still have religious beliefs. Maybe none of these studies really tell us anything about the kind of religious belief that most of us exhibit, since all the groups chosen for study represent extremely small minorities.

In conclusion, the book is well-written and compelling, although the obvious biases of the writers will probably annoy most Christian readers. The topic is complex and experimental design is difficult at best. Future studies will likely shed more light on this subject.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why We Believe What We Believe, August 24, 2007
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This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
I'm just about done reading this book and have enjoyed it very much. The author doesn't go on any tangents, go off the subject or include any difficult theories to weed through. The author does mentioned several scientific experiments but they are necessary to back up his findings. He doesn't bash people who believe in spiritual things but he doesn't sway that way himself he just looks at what he discovered with a scientific eye. I prefer books that don't bash other people with an opposing view but prefer someone who is looking for the reason of things with an open mind. I still would recommend that if you are a Christian you will need an open mind to enjoy this book.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free Yourself From Your Belief in Beliefs., November 10, 2007
By 
DonkaDoo (The Good Earth) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
In his latest book, author Andrew Newberg, MD (Why God Won't Go Away) explores the biological basis for belief and the nature of reality and truth. The book explores the powers of placebo, false memories, immorality in "moral" people, group think, speaking in tongues and 27 forms of biases.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and helpful, September 10, 2007
By 
Zee "Zee" (Woodstock, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
Was struggling with faith. This book helped me sort things out. Very, very helpful.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inconsistent, but interesting, June 24, 2011
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This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
This book has two sections to it... a general overview of neurophysiology and a review of experiments looking at brain scans of people having religious experiences. I found the first part... the overview ... to be below average. There are many far better, far more interesting books that cover the topic, and I found that I started to skim. During these parts, the authors came across as being a bit egoistic.

In the second section, the book explores research the authors have conducted, and focuses on studies of monks, nuns, pentecostals and others in the midst of religious experiences, in which the authors inject a tracer and study their brains. This part is much more interesting. There is less philosophical fluff, and more exploration of research in interesting areas.

Although I'm glad I read the book, it is hard to give a good rating because of the difference between the two sections. For a general review of brain functioning, seek other books.

But the studies of brain scans of meditating nuns and Buddhists and people speaking tongues and so forth was quite interesting, along with conjectures as to how the brain functioning is giving a strong sense of reality to the religious experience. That part was quite interesting.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I stumbled on a book that clears many of my accumulated doubts, April 19, 2009
The book, published in 2006, attempts to construct a model of the origin, functions and limitation of beliefs at the neuronal level. As such, this is a scientific, not a religious book. It is not written for technical people; rather, it aims at accessibility to the general public. But it is also not a "popular" book in the popular sense of the usage of this word. It is intriguing, well documented, factual and readable, with few scientific jargon to block the road. Like all scientific books, it presents thoughtful hypothesis that can be tested and argued.
The authors start by giving an example of a story of a person suffering from cancer to show how powerful belief could be. This sure has a very strong impact in readers like me. They argue that beliefs are influenced by the interactions of perception, emotion, cognition and social consensus which allow us to identify, explore, evaluate and compare a wide variety of beliefs, from our most mundane evaluation of the world to the most extra ordinary vision that illuminate our purpose of life. Our beliefs, they hypothesize, therefore, are an assemblage of perceptual experiences, emotional evaluations, and cognitive abstractions that are blended with fantasy, imagination and intuitive speculation. The four circles of influence are then looked into in greater details, including which parts of the brain where processes affecting these factors are carried out and their limitations. Optical illusion, which is well known, is widely quoted as examples of perceptual errors which may render our beliefs erroneous.
Part II of the book looks at childhood development and morality, covering the temporal windows in which certain moral behaviors are developed. These windows are dictated by neuronal development of the child at different ages; at certain age certain neuronal development has reached a certain stage to enable a child to learn certain moral concepts. Before that, the child can not learn such concept simply because the hardwired circuits are not there yet. In some cases, beyond these windows the learning of some concepts or skills may be difficult or impossible. The relative influences of the four factors in these stages are also identified. The materials presented herein are useful in moral education. We are to learn from the authors that up to the age of 30, there are appropriate times to learn certain moral concepts, not earlier and perhaps, not latter.
The authors devote an entire chapter to deal with the gap between behavior and moral beliefs with explanations.
Part III of the book writes about the brain activities and spiritual beliefs. The authors use fMRI to scan brain activities of nuns who focus on sacred prayer and Buddhist practitioners who meditate on sacred image. The results? The Buddhist practitioners and nuns show significant similarities and differences in neural processing with major differences occurring in the language centers of the brain. Both show greater activities in their Frontal Lobes, and in particular, the prefrontal cortex and less activity in the parietal lobes. This is consistent with their claims of suspension of self consciousness and loss of sense of space and time. Thalamic asymmetry was also observed among other things. This results definitely point to the common goals achieved by of two different forms of spiritual practices and this is where commonality of different religions can be found: at the neuronal level.
One entire chapter is devoted to the study of Speaking in tongues and one on Atheists who pray to God. The results are interesting, particularly when compared to those obtained from the fMRI studies of the nuns and meditators. The results of the studies of the Atheists , to me, is an even more important reflection of the common results of spiritual practice at the neuronal level performed by religious and atheists alike.
The authors have listed 27 ways our brain distort reality and processes suggestions as to how to become a better believer. The famous Placebo effect was also dealt with briefly. Knowing how we are biased may teach us to be more humble, less authoritarian and more tolerant.
Then, the final chapter talks about the Ultimate beliefs. What is ultimately real? Does anything exist beyond our beliefs? Can we suspend all systems of beliefs? If we can find a person who can really suspend his belief system and scan his brain, what can we find out? Let me quote the authors:" Hopefully, I might stumble on the connection between the "every day" reality created by the brain and the fundamental reality that links us to life, the universe and everything. And the more we push science and spirituality to their limits, the better chance we have to answer the Ultimate question". I really want to see what they will find out from accomplished yogi, either of the Himalayan Tradition or the Tibetan monks in the Monasteries.
Personally, I did not expect so much from this book. I actually stumbled on it while looking for Newberg's new book " How GOD changes our brain". But, I really enjoy reading it and I learn a lot about beliefs from one single book which clears a lot of my accumulated doubts built around the concept of beliefs.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brains and belief, December 11, 2010
By 
Jaylia3 (Silver Spring, MD United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
God is everywhere, or there is no god. The atheist holds beliefs just as passionately as a religious fundamentalist, but how does each individual decide what truth is? The English word "belief" comes from a German word meaning "to hold dear" or "to love." Our beliefs guide every area of our lives; what we eat, who we vote for, whom we trust and how we worship or don't. Combining science, psychology and religion Why We Believe What We Believe examines how our brains convert our perceptions of the world into moral, religious, and political beliefs that determine the kinds of lives we live and fill us with a sense of meaning and purpose.

These beliefs can be either constructive or destructive, but once they are in place it is difficult to challenge them. If you would like to examine your own belief system with the goal of living a happier, healthier, less biased life this book will give you a lot to think about. Authors Newberg and Waldman consider the Liar's Paradox, whether animals have beliefs, why superstitions are perceived as true, why political parties often seem to despise each other, why there is so much religious strife in the world, how placebos work, how simple it is to implant false memories and how easily many people can be led to commit acts they consider immoral. Newburg, a medical doctor compares the brain scans of Buddhists meditating, nuns praying, Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues and even an atheist contemplating an image of God.

The book is divided into three sections. "How the Brain Makes Our Reality" opens with a story that shows the power of belief. A man whose cancer goes into remission when he is given what he believes is a miracle cure later dies. His cancer returned shortly after he learned that a Food and Drug Administration report concluded that the medicine he received was ineffective. The book's second section, "Childhood Development and Morality", covers childhood beliefs and the gap between moral beliefs and actions in adults. The last section, "Spiritual Beliefs and the Brain", contains brain scan analyses and concludes with a chapter on how to become a "better believer"; providing a list of 27 biases to examine in your own life and (keep your mind open now) eight steps the CIA uses to teach its intelligence gathering analysts to be more clear thinking, wise and effective.

Author Andrew Newberg, MD is a founder of a neurotheology, new interdisciplinary field of study. He is an Associate Professor in the department of Radiology and Psychology and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Mark Robert Waldman is an Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind also at the University of Pennsylvania.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scientific and Open-minded, September 23, 2013
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This review is from: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (Hardcover)
Good review for laymen of what goes on in our brains as related to various spiritual pursuits. A little biased towards the nothing is real outside of the brain position.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We all have beliefs, July 22, 2012
So that we can approach the effects of beliefs - particularly religious or spiritual ones - on people, it is necessary to acknowledge what science and technology can do and what it can't. Our technology can only measure and record empirical data as we observe from the outside as objectively as possible. Beliefs come from the mind whereas scientifically we are observing the brain, so science doesn't 'prove' or 'disprove' anything in this regard as it is personal and ultimately subjective - not external or material.

This book was very insightful. There is, however, a bias towards thinking that we can be 'hardwired' to certain beliefs and this is a nature vs nurture argument. As we have free will, we do not have to be victims of circumstance although we can be predisposed towards, say, mental and physical illness or be encouraged towards either in our environment. If we use such bias, in the extreme it can be used to support negative eugenics.
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