Book Review: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain
How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain
by Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman
Although cultures all over the world have long spoken of enlightenment, the concept can seem fuzzy: You know it only if you’ve experienced it. For some, it may come after decades of stringent ritual practice; for others, it arrives out of the blue, an unexpected, transformative thunderbolt.
In an attempt to get more specific about what enlightenment is and how it works, Andrew Newberg M.D. and his coauthor, Mark Robert Waldman, conducted a worldwide survey of over 2,000 people who claimed to have felt it, as well as fascinating studies of Buddhist meditators, Brazilian psychic mediums, whirling Sufi mystics, and Christian Pentecostals who speak in tongues. They identified five common elements: “a sense of intensity, unity, clarity, and surrender, and a permanent large-scale change in our awareness, behavior, or belief system.”
Because he’s a medical researcher with access to advanced brain-scanning equipment, Newberg has taken things a step further: He argues that these experiences can be neurologically “real,” and connects their traits to activity in two specific regions in the brain, the frontal and parietal regions. What’s more, the book provides readers with exercises designed to activate or deactivate these centers in enlightening ways.
This approach might risk making profound experiences seem merely mechanistic, yet it never feels reductive. The authors show interest in and respect for a great variety of ways of training the mind, both religious and secular, and—like the Dalai Lama, who has expressed a similar interest in neuroscience—they point toward an exciting new joining of science and spirit.