Last week NPR listeners got what some of them pay for -- a thoughtful, consistently engaging look at the interdisciplinary field of science, and particularly brain science, and spirituality. Those who listened to Barbara Bradley Hagerty's five-part series on the "science of spirituality" heard a diverse group of (mostly scientists) ponder the ways in which the brain is affected by spiritual events, including those with hallucenogenic drugs, meditation and near-death experiences.
Although her editors allowed her a very big chunk of time (as much as ten minutes) to explore such topics as charting changes in the brains of mystics, any examination of this enormous topic can only scratch the surface. In fact, Bradley Hagerty just published a book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, which apparently examines these topics in detail.
First off, listeners who expect to hear theologians debating scientists will be disappointed. This doesn't pretned to be a series in which science and religion battle one another, and, frankly, in my opinion, it's a lot more interesting to hear debate within the scientific realm itself about the import of some of these events. That being said, Bradley Hagerty's evenhanded approach can sometimes sound a bit tentative, as in these closing paragraphs on whether prayer for other people changes them (the story summary provided on the website isn't a word for word transcription, but is substantially accurate) :
This idea -- that we may be connected at some molecular level -- echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.
But it infuriates others -- like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.
"Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."
Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.
Tell us what you really think, Dr. Sloan. That's a great quote. And Hagerty does leave the door open for diverse ways of explaining these phenomena. But she doesn't clue readers in to what a few of those alternative explanations might be, leaving us with the impression that scientist Radin doesn't have any theories to explain what he is analyzing. Somehow I doubt that. There's a certain superficial quality that is probably inevitable when a journalist only has eight minutes to describe a complex topic in what is still basically a new science.
I enjoyed the whole series, but for my money the single most important thing Bradley Hagerty said was at the very end of the last essay, where she's discussing scientists with contrasting opinions.
In other words, Woerlee and Beauregard looked at the same images and came to opposite conclusions.
I found that dichotomy everywhere as I interviewed experts about the emerging science of spirituality. It's kind of like a Rorschach test: Some researchers look at the data and say spiritual experience is only an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, or a brain gasping for oxygen -- all fully explainable by science. Others say our brains are reflecting an encounter with the divine.
And almost invariably, where a scientist stands on that issue has little to do with the clinical findings of any study. It has almost everything to do with the scientist's personal beliefs.
Think about the implications of Bradley Hagerty's assertion for science, as well as for religion, if scientists tend to view their results through the lens of their own beliefs. Do you find what you were looking for to begin with? For the sake of science, religion, and oh, by the way, journalism, I hope we can transcend our own biases -- or at least argue furiously with them.
Picture of monks praying is from Wikimedia Commons