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Faith

Believing with your heart, soul, strength ... and brain?

Dr. Andrew Newberg has made a name for himself on the border of religion and science. Once worried that his dual interest in spirituality and neuroscience could never meet in one career, Newberg is now a fixture in feature stories about the brain's relationship to religion.

"Neurotheology" is a bit of a mouthful, but it's about being mindful of the many changes that occur in the brain during prayer or meditation. The Atlantic defines it as "the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences."

"The goal of neurotheology is to determine what's happening in the brain during a religious experience. Obviously, the field can be a bit controversial; those with deeply spiritual beliefs about the connection between a person and his or her maker aren't thrilled about reducing religion to something happening in the brain," wrote Molly Edmonds, for the popular podcast site HowStuffWorks.

"But the work of the scientists does seem to show that there's some connection with our gray matters and our pray matters," Edmonds continued.

Newberg's focus during interviews has been on the symbiotic relationship between religion and science nurtured by neurotheology. Analyzing brain scans taken during spiritual experiences enhances understanding of both the brain and religion.

"Newberg emphasizes that while neurotheology won't provide definitive findings about things like the existence of a higher power, it will provide a deeper understanding of what it means to be religious," reported NPR after the publication of Newberg's book, "Principles of Neurotheology."

"Findings of this kind increase our understanding of the various brain structures and systems that play a role in both 'normal' religious experience," wrote D.F. Swaab for Salon.

Newberg's latest book, "The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought," attempts to further explore the variations in brain activity between types of practice. Practices like mantra-based meditation that use repetition involve the frontal lobes, whereas activities like speaking in tongues deal with the thalamus.

"To take his scans, Newburg uses functional magnetic resonance and single-photon emission computerized tomography imaging," reported The Atlantic's Lynne Blumberg. But he also asks the monks, nuns and other participants to describe their experiences, hoping to address the aspects of spirituality that science can't capture.

But the real missing piece may be fellow practitioners, not subjective descriptions. HowStuffWorks noted that "Newberg's work as of yet is focused on individual, private experiences, as opposed to the relationships and experiences that happen between other people."

Fortuneately, for those who identify unanswered questions, neurotheology is a growing field. The Deseret News reported in February about a new initiative at The University of Utah exploring how religion shapes the brain.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas