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My stomach turned, cheeks flushed, and forehead flooded with sweat, as my friends and I approached my parent’s house. It was a typical Friday night in this quiet suburban street. As such, there were dozens of cars parked outside the house for this week’s bible study meeting.

Being an awkward sixteen year old at the time who dreaded having a spotlight on him, these meetings became the bane of my existence. Swarms of kids would constantly pick fun of me at school, asking what type of cult activity was going on in the house every week.

I entered the home to the sounds of thirty Filipino adults praying in tongues. If you’ve never heard of this strange practice, it sounds like someone speaking a type of language, but linguistic analysis shows it doesn’t resemble any type of formal vernacular. Practitioners feel as if the holy ghost has taken over them, allowing them to murmur this peculiar language.

As the meeting wound down and the final guests left for the night, I would debate my parents for hours how much their meetings (especially the singing in tongues) were a crock of shit. They’d claim they were entering transcendent, unitive states that brought them closer to God. I was convinced it was all in their head, and their church group was making fools out of them.

These early experiences with Christianity would eventually lead me down the path of atheism, having extreme contempt towards religion as a whole. Yet after transformative experiences with tools such as ayahuasca, holotropic breathing, and brainwave entrainment my views around spirituality have radically changed.

Trailblazing researchers are now studying religious experiences through the lens of science, leaving skeptics like myself re-examining rigid assumptions they once had towards religion. EEG (electroencephalogram) devices are measuring what brain waves are produced during meditation. fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines are pinpointing what areas of the brain light up during prayer. PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanners are examining the brain’s blood flow during controversial practices such as prayer of tongues.

The name of this exciting field is neurotheology, and the rebel scientist leading this revolution is Dr. Andrew Newberg. Before the 1990’s, science and spirituality were diametrically opposed to one another. The scientific community didn’t take religion seriously, and religious leaders rarely explored the science of their practice.

Enter Andrew Newberg – a trained neuroscientist who at an early age has been fascinated with the nature of reality and the mysteries of spirituality.

With technological advancements in neuroimaging like fMRI and PET scanners, researchers like Newberg are now able to study the brain during mystical experiences. In the book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler describes Newberg’s work:

“In the fifteen years since Newberg founded the field of neurotheology, we’ve gone from initial investigations of these effects to be able to reproduce them at will. Both developments provide a clearer understanding of the mechanics of ecstasis—essentially a Clif Notes version of esoteric techniques that took thousands of years to evolve. Consider that most religions have lengthy recipes for encountering the divine. Hundreds of ingredients: what to eat, what to wear, whom to marry, how to act, what to believe, and, of course, what kind of spiritual practices to perform. But out of that entire list, there’s only a fraction of “active ingredients” that reliably impact brain function and alter consciousness. Neurotheology lets us validate which ingredients actually make a difference.” 1

Down below, I’m going to share these Cliff notes with you. We’re going to explore three of Newberg’s greatest discoveries over the past two decades in the field of neurotheology. After reading this article, you’ll be equipped with the ingredients needed to enter higher states of consciousness at will. You’ll learn that controversial practices such as prayer and speaking in tongues have much more scientific legitimacy than you may realize.

1. Prefrontal Cortex – Increase In Activity

Throughout the nineties, Newberg studied Franciscan nuns (during intense prayer) and Tibetan Buddhists (during meditation) using single photon emission tomography (SPECT).2 Both groups reported feelings of love, compassion and a deep sense of unity with the world around them.

SPECT technology injects a small amount of radioactive material into the bloodstream, eventually making its way to the brain. By tracking what areas of the brain this material gets distributed to, researchers get a snapshot of the brain during a particular moment in time – in this case during mystical experiences.

When these two groups were under SPECT scanners, Newberg found a significant increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with focus and attention. This makes sense as both prayer and meditation requires the practitioner to concentrate on a specific task (whether that be a religious idea like God’s love, or something agnostic like the breath) flexing the brain’s focus muscle in the process.

2. Right Parietal Lobe – Decrease In Activity

Another major insight from Newberg’s studies was that Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists both showed a significant decrease in activity in the right parietal lobe. This area of the brain is looked at as the brain’s navigation system, responsible for creating a clear boundary between ourselves and the world, allowing us to operate through our environment.

In terms of spirituality and mysticism, this area of the brain is particularly interesting. Kotler writes:

“What Newberg discovered is that extreme concentration can cause the right parietal lobe to shut down. ‘It’s an efficiency exchange,’ he explains. ‘During ecstatic prayer or meditation, energy normally used for drawing the boundary of self gets reallocated for attention. When this happens, we can no longer distinguish self from other. At that moment, as far as the brain can tell, you are one with everything.’

In finding biology beneath spirituality, Newberg helped bridge the gap between science and religion. For the first time, mystical experiences were understood not as a symptom of mental illness or divine intervention, but rather as the by-product of normal brain function. Almost overnight, an area once off-limits to researchers opened for exploration. It was the birth of the field known as neurotheology—the application of the tools of modern brain science to the study of religious experience.” 3

Whenever I’ve taken a psychedelic like psilocybin, sunk into a transcendent state through a practice like metta meditation, or was swept away inside the silence of a floatation tank, a common thread linking these experiences was a loss of self. No matter the vehicle, boundaries between myself and my environment blurred, and I felt a profound connection with everything around me.

Coming out of these experiences, it’s difficult to find words to accurately describe it. Trying to explain what it’s like to peel the layers of your ego and connect with a universal consciousness will make you sound bonkers. But through the research made by Andrew Newberg and his team, we now have a better idea of why these experiences are occurring.

3. Limbic System – Increase In Activity

Have you ever noticed how mystical, unitive, out-of-body experiences can be so memorable? Senses are cranked up to the max, emotions are heightened, and you’re able to recall long lost memories you’ve never thought of since childhood. People even feel that it can feel more real than real life. Can neuroscience help explain what makes these experiences so transformative?

During a John Hopkins study on psilocybin, 36 volunteers were given a pill containing psilocybin or a placebo.4 Not only did the researchers conclude that psilocybin could occasion a mystical experience, it was one of the most important experiences of their lives. Michael Pollan writes:

“Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third-ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.” 5

Andrew Newberg’s research may help explain why we’re seeing these results. In his studies with Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists, he found that at the peak of these experiences, the limbic system shows a dramatic increase in activity. This is the part of the brain responsible for controlling our emotions, survival instincts, and memory.

Brain scans during prayer and meditation have shown significantly heightened activity in areas of the limbic system such as amygdala (responsible for telling the body if something of emotional importance is near), hippocampus (responsible for memories), and hypothalamus (which controls the body’s nervous system). Since the emotional area of the brain lights up during mystical experiences, it can lead to individuals reporting it being one of the most defining moments of their life, even decades after it occurred.

Other Discoveries Made by Andrew Newberg

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I because an atheist for years is because of my negative experiences early in my life with the Christian church. I’d view traditional practices like prayer as a form of mental masturbation, and nontraditional practices like praying in tongues, as batshit crazy:

Religious folks like my parents are convinced that praying in tongues (formally known as Glossolalia) can be one of the most powerful experiences to connect with God, that go beyond the constraints of language.

Like prayer, Newberg has researched praying in tongues, exploring if its symptomatic of brain dysfunction. Newberg has mentioned that schizophrenia and mania have been associated with hyperreligiosity. Studies have shown that temporal lobe epilepsy has been associated with this type of religious fervor. Can this explain why people pray in tongues? Or is there any evidence suggesting that the phenomena might explain supernormal brain functioning?

To answer these questions, he recruited a number of Pentecostal subjects claiming the ability to pray in tongues.6 He had them hooked up to a Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanner, able to detect blood flow in the brain. He would take two snapshots of the brain: once while singing a gospel song, and another while speaking in tongues.

The scans gave fascinating insights into the mysterious practice. Unlike prayer and meditation, the scans showed a deactivation of the brain’s frontal lobe (responsible things like language). The scans also showed increased activity in the thalamus and basal ganglia.

The evidence suggests that for whatever reason, these individuals are actually losing their ability to speak in language during the height of their prayers. In fact, since the frontal lobe is responsible for our executive function, it could also explain why these participants claim that they are taken over by the force of God. Now, does that mean that this is actually happening? Definitely not. But these insights give us evidence that supports their claims.

How To Hack Your Consciousness Using Newberg’s Research

As we mentioned earlier, Newberg has produced a Cliff Notes version of techniques to positively impact brain function and alter consciousness. But now that you have the blueprint, how do you actually put it into practice?

The traditional route of meditation or prayer could take you there, as it did the Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists. However, it took these individuals thousands of hours of practice throughout their lifetime to reach this level of development. I’m assuming you’re looking to speed up this process and skip the long, arduous journey.

Technology like brainwave entrainment, brain stimulation, or even the use of psychedelics are proven methods to accelerate your results. However, from all the tools I’ve personally come across, neurofeedback seems to be one of the most promising tools to implement Newberg’s playbook.

I recently had inventor and tech entrepreneur Adam Curry on Warrior Radio, who described a 2-week intensive he attended with neurofeedback expert Martin Wuttke (another WR guest). Curry described the intensive as one of the most transformative events of his life. With the assistance of neurofeedback, Adam applied the active ingredients of Andrew Newberg’s formula: increased activity in the frontal lobe, decreased activity in the parietal lobe, increased limbic system activity. Here’s a clip of Adam describing the process:

Conclusion

Andrew Newberg is a consciousness hacking trailblazer who is helping bridge the gap between science and spirituality, two domains that are typically mutually exclusive. Through Newberg’s research of Franciscan Nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians, he was able to uncover the neurological markers of mystical experiences. Through this research, Newberg’s given us cheat codes for the mind. And when paired with technology like neurofeedback, the results can be profoundly transformative.

Resources

Andrew Newberg Books:

* If you read only one book, I recommend diving into The Spiritual Brain, which isn’t a book, but a 12+ hour course taught by Newberg that summarizes all of his most important findings throughout his career.

Andrew Newberg Videos:

References

  1. Kotler, Steven, and Jamie Wheal. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALS, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Dey St., an Imprint of William Morrow, 2017.
  2. Newberg, Andrew, et al. “Cerebral blood flow during meditative prayer: preliminary findings and methodological issues.” Perceptual and motor skills 97.2 (2003): 625-630.
  3. Kotler, Steven, and Jamie Wheal. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALS, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Dey St., an Imprint of William Morrow, 2017.
  4. Griffiths, Roland R., et al. “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” Psychopharmacology187.3 (2006): 268-283.
  5. Pollan, Michael. “The Trip Treatment.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment.
  6. Newberg, Andrew B., et al. “The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: a preliminary SPECT study.” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 148.1 (2006): 67-71.

Tony Balbin

About Tony Balbin

Founder of warrior.do. Creator. Digital Nomad. tonyb.com

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