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Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief Hardcover – April 3, 2001

3.3 out of 5 stars 111 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Over the centuries, theories have abounded as to why human beings have a seemingly irrational attraction to God and religious experiences. In Why God Won't Go Away authors Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquili, M.D., and Vince Rause offer a startlingly simple, yet scientifically plausible opinion: humans seek God because our brains are biologically programmed to do so.

Researchers Newberg and D'Aquili used high-tech imaging devices to peer into the brains of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns. As the data and brain photographs flowed in, the researchers began to find solid evidence that the mystical experiences of the subjects "were not the result of some fabrication, or simple wishful thinking, but were associated instead with a series of observable neurological events," explains Newberg. "In other words, mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real.... Gradually, we shaped a hypothesis that suggests that spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology." Lay readers should be warned that although the topic is fascinating, the writing is geared toward scientific documentation that defends the authors' hypothesis. For a more palatable discussion, seek out Deepak Chopra's How to Know God, in which he also explores this fascinating evidence of spiritual hard-wiring. --Gail Hudson

From Publishers Weekly

The collaborative efforts of science writer Rause, radiologist Newberg and psychiatrist d'Aquili (Newberg's late colleague at the University of Pennsylvania) result in a murky and overspiritualized remix of what should be a compelling scientific investigation into the neurology of mystical experience. The book's best material is its summary of Newberg and d'Aquili's research using advanced imaging technologies to study brain activity during "peak" meditative states, which not only suggests a characteristic radiological profile but also uncovers some specific correlations between brain function and subjective religious experience. For example, in subjects who reported a feeling of infinite perspective and self-transcendence during meditation, the researchers identified decreased activity in the brain's "object association areas" where perceptions of the boundary between self and other are normally processed. The authors conclude that these experiences are the result of normal, healthy neurophysiology, not to be dismissed as pathological or random events a point that believers and practitioners will doubtless appreciate. But the broader questions these results suggest questions about the origins and significance of human religious behavior lead the researchers quite out of their depth into a speculative rehash of Joseph Campbell, comparative religion and sociobiology. This culminates in a confused and confusing discussion of what it means to accept that religious experience is "neurologically real" or that spirituality "does us good."

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 226 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1 edition (April 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345440331
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345440334
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #666,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Thsi book does a good job expounding the authors' theory of the neural mechanisms behind transcendent experience, and its relationship to religious belief. They start out explicitly relying on the traditional objective realist position, and show how interaction of certain brain areas can lead us to lose our sense of boundaries in time and space. Thus the authors theorize that ineffable mystical experience arises from inhibition of a brain region that is critical for maintaining our sense of boundaries in time and space. The description is not very technical, but it is clear and should make sense to general readers without any background in neurology. The authors use their own simple terms for brain areas and functions rather than using the more obscure jargon of neuroscience. The excplanations work well up to a point.
There is another, weaker aspect to this book, which is the philosophical musings of the authors. Somewhere in the middle of the book, they decide that there are only two positions to be taken, objective realism and subjectivism. They make the reasonable point (though without supporting it in the book) that current neuroscience research reveals human perception to be constructed to a great degree, rather than directly providing a literal reflection of nature. This particular point is made in more detail by others, such as by Gerald Edelman in "Bright Air, Brilliant Fire," also suitable for general readers, and by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their writings, as well as Walter Freeman in "How Brains Make Up Their Minds.
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Format: Hardcover
Science cannot determine that gods of any type exist, nor can it determine that no gods exist. However, there may be scientific reasons why the belief in gods remains strong. In the surprisingly titled _Why God Won't Go Away_ Ballantine Books) by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquilli, M.D., and Vince Rause, we get a fascinating scientific answer to the title question, and a review of the current scientific understanding of the roots of belief. The authors have done research by means of brain scans on those who are having mystical or religious experiences. The brain scans show that something is going on among the neurons that doesn't happen at other times. Most of the scans described in the authors' research show an increase in activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, an area just behind the top of the head. They call this for operational purposes the "orientation association area (OAA)," because the OAA orients a person in physical space. "To perform this crucial function, it must first generate a clear, consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. In simple terms, it must draw a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else; to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe." When this area is damaged by trauma or stroke, patients have difficulty maneuvering in physical space; when it is extra active, it seems to be a source of an inexplicable feeling of connection to all creation. A meditator describes the ineffable state in terms that are typical: "There's a sense of timelessness and infinity. It feels like I am part of everyone and everything in existence.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
I must admit that I'm very torn as to how to review this book. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 80% of it. It was new information for me, it was insightful, it was affirming, and I was devouring it. Then I came to this transition point, where the authors make the leap from neuroscience to philosophy, and suddenly my notes in the margins kept getting more and more critical. So here's what I think I'll say about it...
First, I enjoyed enormously the discussion on the biological brain functioning, and the conclusions that they derive in the first few chapters. The best way to summarize that particular discussion is as follows. Your brain is designed to keep you alive. As it developed particularly unique and complex abilities, most notably the ability for causal analysis, it discovered that there is one thing that the brain cannot do with regard to our surival...it cannot ultimately prevent our death. Since the limbic system creates an "anxiety response" to physical threats, the brain must create a response to quiet the anxiety produced by this existential discovery. If it is a normal stimulus, the brain knows how to tell the self to flee or fight. But with the ultimate death, there is no such possible response. So the brain invents answers, including God, life after death, etc. to quell the anxiety, and the neurology of the brain creates such powerful physiological response that we "feel" we have come to "true" conclusions.
I liked that part. But then they make some major leaps and begin to describe a concept that they call "Absolute Unitary Being," about which I never did get a clear idea of what they mean. On the one hand, it sounds like they are simply describing a "ground-state" of reality, from which all our neurological perceptions arise. I'm okay with that.
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