Interview with Andrew Newberg

Andrew Newberg

Rahasya: I’m doing some research right now on the social and neurological consequences of belief systems and I noticed something interesting in myself while researching. I observed myself getting angry at times when reading about some of the extremists in religious movements. It was almost like there was a mental pattern already there and all I needed was to run some energy or thoughts through it to wake it up. Do you think we may have preexisting neural patterns for fundamental and aggressive beliefs, possibly as a by-product of our early evolution?

Andrew Newberg: Yes, absolutely. My book Why We Believe What We Believe, does go into some detail about both fundamentalism and how people respond to things that are negative or anti whatever our own beliefs are. I’ve done a lot of work lately on mirror neurons, neurons that mirror whatever somebody’s doing in front of us, so if somebody is being overtly negative, then we will have a tendency to respond in kind. And that is something that is built into the brain. When somebody is speaking in a manner which is opposed to our beliefs, we’re also faced with a slightly different conundrum. We use our beliefs to help us survive in the world, and we want our belief systems to work, and we want to feel good about them. If we’re confronted with somebody who is trying to shoot down our beliefs it puts our whole approach to existence in jeopardy. And we usually have one of a couple of ways of responding to that. One way is to really reflect on our own beliefs and try to think about why we might be wrong, which, like I said, is really not a very good position for our brains to be, or the flip side of that is to say, “Well, you know what? I must be right; it must be these other people who are wrong.” And that sets up a kind of an antagonistic exclusive, hateful kind of relationship because why would somebody be telling me my beliefs are wrong when I clearly know that they’re right?” And that really goes to show how our brain is built in order to support our beliefs and to essentially reject those beliefs that are going against our way of thinking and our way of trying to support the belief systems that we have that help support our way of living and surviving. So I think that the short answer to your question is that to some degree there is a built-in mechanism by which we respond fairly strongly and fairly negatively to somebody who is being negative or to somebody who is simply disagreeing with us, in which case it’s a very unhappy position for our brain to be in. Our brain does not want us to be wrong. Because that has very dire consequences in terms of our overall survival.


Rahasya: Do you think that it’s at least possible that as a human race we are entering into a new level of consciousness where we no longer feel the need to invent beliefs when we hit that wall that we inevitably hit when we are searching for answers? Like when you are searching for any truth, there is always a wall that we hit because of the limits of our understanding, and when we hit that wall we have this tendency to make up a belief and pretend we know what’s on the other side of the wall or pretend there’s no wall there at all. The other option would be to embrace the mystery and be courageous enough to say, I don’t know.

Andrew: That is true. I think our brains does have a tendency to be true to its own ideas and statements. In my last book about beliefs, I said that everything we do and everything we think about is a belief. Until we get to the point where we look beyond our own ego-self, and to some degree beyond our own mind, we are always going to make assumptions and have beliefs to make our brains feel more comfortable. And if we can get to a point where we embrace that uncertainty and doubt, and be willing to learn from that and to explore that, I think that that could be a very positive experience. And whether or not we are on the brink of evolving into that, I don’t know. I certainly know there are people that have been successful or are more successful than others at doing that. But it’s hard for our brain to break out of these patterns that have been around for thousands and thousands of years. So it’s possible, but it’s not easy.


Rahasya: That’s true. I stopped believing in a personal God that listens to me many, many years ago. I realize now that it was the mental concept or thought of God that was getting in my way to having a deeper realization. I have friends who are atheists and agnostics and to the surprise of my religious friends they have very deep and meaningful mystical experiences without any concept of God. The reality is that my own conscious experience has gone much deeper after I let go of the concept of a personal God that I was indoctrinated with as a child.

Andrew: In our new book How God Changes Your Brain, I think the answer to your question is that it kind of depends on the individual. The concept of God can be very interfering for some, as in your case, and can be very opening for others. There are many people who say it’s not God, or a personal God, but it’s an energy, it’s a force, it’s a unifying conceptualization of the universe. I think for some people it can be a very positive, and a beneficial way of looking at things. But then certainly for others it can get in the way. I think part of the issue that often comes up, which I also think you are alluding to, depends to a large extent on how one defines what God is especially if it becomes exclusive and a hate filling definition. It may depend a lot on the person’s own individual beliefs and past experiences that may have an effect in terms of how a concept of God really does affect them and change them for good or bad.


Rahasya: We really do see the world, not as it is, but as we are. For me, this is even further evidence of the necessity of all of us looking at our beliefs and putting them out there to see if they are valid in this modern world. The fact that most of the worlds religious beliefs come from ancient books supposedly written by the creator of the universe thousands of years ago is troubling for me. So you’re correct, whether we are good or bad does depend on our concept of God which is what I see at the heart of the problem in our world today.

Andrew: A more fundamental question is how do we know what reality is. And how do we get there? That’s what I keep looking for.


Rahasya: I think we’re getting there with conversations like this and to stop pretending we know things that we have no idea about and then go out to recruit others and build organizations around those beliefs.

Andrew: The thing that concerns me more than anything is when anybody becomes closed off and exclusive of other people’s ideas. All of our brains are in the same mode of searching when trying to understand reality, and when we come to a belief system that makes sense to us we hold it strongly, whether it’s an atheist view, or a Christian view, or a Muslim view, whatever, then it’s very hard to let go and I think it’s so important to try to foster dialogue.


Rahasya: Yes, it gets to be a very tricky situation when you’re dealing with religious people that come from an exclusive point of view, where their way is the only way. Then of course when you mix that with nationalism and high technology, which we always do, we have a problem.

Andrew: Yes, and not just religious. There are plenty of scientists that hold on to theories even in the light of new evidence that contradicts them.


Rahasya: Yes, I talked to Bruce Lipton about that, he spent years being excluded from the academic part of his own world because of his views on the cell which are just now becoming accepted.

How important do you think meditation is to mental health and dealing with the complexities and varieties of religious experiences we have in our lives?

Andrew: My research and what a lot of research I think brings to the table is that many of these kinds of practices are very beneficial for people. What we’re showing is evidence that one particular kind of meditation, that we’ve studied at least, has shown improvement in memory, in cognitive function, in mood. A number of, many other studies have shown the effect of meditation on depression symptoms, on anxiety symptoms, so as a general statement, then, and what I think a lot of research ultimately points to, is that many of these practices are ultimately beneficial for people.


Rahasya: This next question is something I’d really like your feedback on, and we might step out on a limb a little bit, to get this, but I think it’s really important in today’s world. Since we live in a technically advanced society that seems to be holding onto beliefs, some of them that date back to the Iron Age, I see a danger that can no longer be overlooked, especially when we consider a quote by Voltaire when he says, “If they can make you believe in absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities.” The social consequences of maintaining our out-of-date and dysfunctional belief systems are fairly obvious in today’s world, but what about the neurological consequences of maintaining those same beliefs? Do you think there may be a neurological connection in the brain of a person who maintains a belief system that is by all definition absurd and the ability of that same person to commit an act that would be considered atrocious by most people? In other words, what is the making of a suicide bomber?

Andrew: Well, the scary aspect of what you’re asking is this: The research that’s coming in is clearly showing that we are all capable of such things. If you put people in the right, or I should say the wrong environment, you can get lots of people to do lots of really bad things, even though inwardly or outwardly, they would not generally do that. I certainly don’t feel like I would be the type of person that would hurt other people but the evidence points to the fact that I would, given the right circumstances and the right state of mind.


Rahasya: So one might come to the conclusion based on what you just said that there is a possible relationship between a limited and distorted view of reality and your ability to commit atrocious acts. Some of this stems back to a saying in biology, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” It only stands to reason that if they don’t fire together, they don’t wire together. So I think that to support a limiting belief you need to cut yourself off from knowledge of science, life experience and history, which means you actually stop firing those neurons, which is the same network you need for understanding many of the complex situations we run into, and the problem solving necessary to survive and have a meaningful life.

Andrew: So that’s right, and the plus side of that is the idea that you still need to ultimately focus and concentrate on certain ideas and practices like meditation. And as my late colleague and I always said, these are morally neutral technologies, you can use meditation, and prayer, and ritual to foster compassion, love, and inclusiveness, or you can use them to foster hatred, and exclusiveness, and anger. And it’s really just a matter of what concepts, ideas you decide to focus on.


Rahasya: In Chapter 1 of your new book that’s coming out, you talk about why religious beliefs generate both anger and compassion in virtually everyone’s brain, what is it exactly that determines whether it’s going to be anger or compassion?

Andrew: Well, it is a combination of things. It is a combination of the thoughts that are associated with it and whether the emotions that you ultimately try to foster are going to be positive or negative. We tell the story about a little boy asking his grandfather about that very question, and the grandfather’s response is that there are two wolves that are battling it out inside of your mind: One is selfish and hateful and the other is compassionate and forgiving, and the child says, “Which wolf wins?” and the old man says, “Well, it’s the wolf that you feed.” So, if you continue to feed ideas, concepts, behaviors, and all these things that foster the positive side, then that is the one that wins. Then of course after one side wins, that’s the beginning of a belief system that is difficult to break away from.


Rahasya: Yes. It’s difficult, because we identify with those beliefs, and to some extent those beliefs become us. We feel threatened; that’s the reason we say, “I am a Republican, I am a Christian, I am a Muslim.”

Andrew: Right. In fact, in my talks I give about why we believe what we believe, what I thought was a cute way of ending was to say that we should really take Descartes’ old idea of Cogito, ergo sum and switch to Credo, ergo sum, that “I believe, therefore I am,” that it really is those beliefs that make us who we are.


Rahasya: Right. But that’s the whole point, that’s the place I have arrived at in my life, because I am starting to let go of beliefs and to embrace what’s left, which is the mystery. And it can be scary at times when you find yourself face to face with that “nothingness” that seems to be everything the world is made of.

Andrew: But it’s wonderful, and you’re able to do it. And I always think to some degree it would be wonderful to have lots of other people feel more comfortable in doing it, and hopefully, we’ll get more and more people there.


Rahasya: Yes, because you know what, it might always be a mystery, Andrew. I don’t care how far up the ladder you go, whether you’re an ascended master or whatever, I have a hunch there will always be this breathtaking awareness that no one really knows the ultimate truth. Isn’t that amazing?

Andrew: Oh yes, absolutely.