Can science explain God and beliefs in things which cannot be proved? Is God conjured by human mind or does He exist even outside it? These are some of the questions the new Centre for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania is trying to fathom. The Centre is using brain imaging techniques not only to find answers to such questions but also to examine how secular and spiritual beliefs affect human health and behaviour. Founded in April 2006, the Centre is much more than a mere mortar-brick structure built by civil engineers. It is made up of human experts. It is made up of researchers trying to establish the relationship between brain and spirituality from biological, psychological, social and ideological angles. About 20 experts from various fields including medicine, pastoral care, religious studies, social work and bioethics have been taken in from the elite private University of Penn.The brain is a-believing machine and the beliefs affect every part of our life ultimately making us what we are. It must be remembered that spirituality and belief cannot be equated with religious faith. The feeling of enlightenment and well-being arising out of spirituality and belief can also be had from artistic pursuits, non religious meditation and even listening to music or watching beauties of nature. Even atheists have their own beliefs. But how is the elation between mind and spirituality established? By using imaging technology the Centre conducted tests on brains of Pentecostal Christians speaking tongues(scientifically glosolalia) and singing gospel music, Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer. It found that there was a decreased activity in the brain’s language centre when the Pentecostal Christians practiced glosolalia than when singing gospel music. The tests on the Tibetian Buddhists and Franciscan nuns also showed decreased activity in that part of the brain which deals with sense of self and spatial orientation. This could be the explanation for the experiencing of oneness with God and of transcendence sometimes felt during meditation or prayer.
Prayer and meditation are also found to increase levels of dopamine,said to be the brain’s pleasure hormone. These tests are establishing more and more firmly that the mind and the body are two sides of the same coin and, therefore, it is not enough to give medicines only for the body. Something has to be given for the mind, too. Daniel Monti, Head of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Integrated Medicine Centre is happy that as they now know, though to some extent only, the relationship between the body and the mind the Integrated Medicine Centre has begun to teach patients with cancer, chronic pain and other ailments to include meditation along with proper diet to their conventional therapy.However, not many imaging studies have been done to study the changes in blood flow to various parts of the brain as suitable sophisticated technology has become available only recently. However, even the limited studies conducted show that an increase in blood flow to certain parts of the brain results in an increased activity in those areas. The Centre is currently studying the brains of yogis i.e. the practitioners of Indian yoga to learn how the brain of a novice yogi changes as he gradually becomes adept in yoga. It is also trying to find out whether meditation can improve cognitive impairment in people with mild dementia or early Alzheimer’s disease.Dr. Andrew Newberg, a doctor of nuclear medicine and the Director of the Centre, enthusiastically says that the sky is the limit as far as the things they can study in this Centre.