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Brain Areas Located for Religion, Sense of Self

Professor Andrew Newberg, of the University of Pennsylvania, measures prayer. He invites Buddhists and Franciscan nuns to meditate and pray in a secluded room. At the peak of their devotions, he injects a tracer that travels to their brains and reveals brain activity at the moment of transcendence.

He has found that there is a small region near the back of the brain that constantly calculates a person?s sense of where the body ends and the world begins. During intense prayer or meditation, for unknown reasons, this region becomes a quiet oasis of inactivity as the person becomes ?one? with the universe.

?It creates a blurring of the self-other relationship,? says Newburg. ?If they go far enough, they have a complete dissolving of the self, a sense of union, a sense of infinite spacelessness.?

?Prayer is the modern brain?s means by which we can connect to more powerful ancestral states of consciousness,? says Gregg Jacobs, of Harvard Medical School. During meditation, people are able to turn off what he calls ?the internal chatter? of the higher, conscious brain. There are also increases in the ?theta? brain wave, which is known to inhibit other activity in the brain.

Other researchers, who are studying patients with a rare degenerative brain disease that triggers changes in personality, say they have located the part of the brain that controls a person?s sense of self.

Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, says that an area in the front part of the brain?s right frontal lobe seems to harbor the sense of self?of personality, beliefs, likes and dislikes.

He began studying this after noticing that several of his patients with frontotemporal dementia, also known as Pick?s disease, underwent a great transformation that changed their religious and political beliefs, as well as preferences in food and clothing.

His team examined 72 people with the disease, which is similar to Alzheimer?s. They used advanced brain imaging techniques to determine which areas of the brain had the most severe degeneration. Of the 7 patients who had undergone a dramatic change of self, 6 had their most severe abnormalities in the brain?s right frontal lobe. Of the 65 patients whose sense of self had been preserved, only one had the most severe damage in the right frontal lobe.

One patient was a 54-year-old woman described as a charming, dynamic real estate agent who went from wearing expensive designer apparel to choosing cheap clothing and gaudy beads and asking strangers the cost of their clothing. Once a lover of French cuisine, she became fond of fast food, particularly Taco Bell.

Another patient was a 63-year-old woman described as a well-dressed life-long political conservative who became an animal rights activist who hated conservatives, dressed in T-shirts and baggy pants and liked to say, ?Republicans should be taken off the earth.?

?This is kind of a mysterious area in the brain,? says Miller. ?The question is why in this non-language area do we see a loss of self concepts. And the answer is: We don?t know.?

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