Spiritual change seeks cultural synthesis

Science & Theology News, Spet 6, 2005

Researchers from a wide variety of disciplines have begun studying spiritual transformation more concretely.

ISLE OF SHOALS, N.H. -- Transformative experiences can influence relationships, deepen spirituality, redirect vocations and change lives. And now science can provide important analytical processes to figure out the hows and whys of spiritual transformation.

<< The doctor is in: Andrew Newberg studies spiritual change. (Photo: Betty Lau)

To study these phenomena, however, science must determine the best ways to measure responses and assess whether what it is attempting to measure is actually what is being measured. For example, in meditation studies, how does a researcher know, if he finds increases in the brain’s frontal lobe, that it’s from meditation and not concentration, which would elicit similar responses as performing a mathematical task?

Aimed at presenting an analysis of spiritual transformation from biological, psychological, social and religious perspectives, the “Varieties of Spiritual Transformation” conference in New Hampshire drew more than 230 participants from both religious and scientific fields from around the globe. The studies cited included those from the Metanexus Institute’s Spiritual Transformation Project. Speakers presented these various perspectives, providing a foundation for future research to examine how transformative experiences may affect human beings as individuals and as a collective.

Presenters at the island conference looked at neurobiological issues such as the neuropsychology of spiritually transformative experiences, and cultural issues, including the health effects of transformative experiences and the integration of psychotherapy and spirituality. Discussion topics also included the study of near-death experiences, sleep paralysis and current biological models of the mechanisms underlying spiritual transformation.

The psychology of spiritual experiences was a key topic, determining how spiritually transformative events can enable an individual to grow and develop. Questions raised included how might those experiences get incorporated into a person’s life, and how can they be utilized to benefit a person’s overall mental state and well-being?

The study of spiritual transformation represents a fruitful nexus for science and religion that can enable both perspectives to enhance the other, allowing for greater understanding of some of life’s most compelling experiences. By combining biology, psychology, theology and philosophy, the conference was an initial step toward a new synthesis of how spiritual transformation affects human society.

Just as individual experiences of people such as Martin Luther and Buddha resulted in the transformation of entire cultures, we must understand how individual spiritual experiences come about and where we must go from there.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, Star Island conference co-organizer, is assistant professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.