Being able to get beyond the here and now is a central human property, but space/time challenges are often problematic. We know what’s occurring here, but we’re not sure about there; and although we know about the past and present, the future is an enigma.

Enter belief and faith, cognitive properties that allow us to function without space/time certainty. Belief allows us to make assumptions and act when we can’t accurately predict the outcome of a looming physical or interpersonal event, and faith basically represents our level of confidence in our beliefs and decisions.

For example, we’re not certain of the eventual wisdom of our choices when we order from a menu, vote in an election, or get married. We thus base our decision on past experience, the advice of others, personal preferences and prejudices and sometimes on the flip of a coin.

The results throughout life are a mixed bag, but most such decisions don’t have serious consequences. It’s typically not life shattering if we later regret a menu choice or waste a few dollars on a recommended film we didn’t enjoy.

Some decisions are important however; so the many religious, political, cultural, and economic belief systems that humans subscribe to are useful in that they provide a general framework that simplifies decision-making in that domain. For example, we’ll vote for candidates we don’t really know well because they represent our preferred political party.

Our beliefs about natural phenomena and human relationships don’t have to be correct. To persist, they only have to help us survive challenges, simplify our life, and develop a sense of optimism about the future.

Religious values are ubiquitous in human society, partly because they address common afterlife uncertainties. Religious activity encompasses a broad range, from building hospitals that heal to recruiting suicide bombers who kill. Although some beliefs are common to almost all religions, doctrinal differences exist that have led to extended controversy, because folks tend to be adamant about their religious beliefs. Religious beliefs have become increasingly connected to political beliefs and public policy, so their role in a theologically diverse society is currently contentious.

Andrew Newberg studies the underlying neurobiology of religious belief. He has academic appointments in Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and he’s also the director of the university’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind. He and his collaborator Mark Waldman have synthesized recent scientific discoveries on the biology of belief in an informative thought-provoking book, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (2006). They’ve done a remarkable job of explaining complex research in non-technical terms, something that readers with a limited understanding of neurobiology will appreciate.

The book begins with an analysis of the concepts of reality and belief and their relationship to natural phenomena and human relationships. The systems that regulate the natural world were incomprehensible during most of human history. Humans could observe what occurred, but were typically clueless about the cause. Perceiving no natural agent, early humans tended to ascribe storms, harvests, and other incomprehensible events to magic and gods, and let it go at that.

For example, imagine if the Biblical account of Creation had included an extended technical explanation of genetic regulatory systems. How much simpler to suggest to pre-scientific readers “And the earth brought forth grass and herb yielding seed after his kind…”

Although early humans lacked the technology to observe and understand causality in the natural world, they could understand interpersonal relationships. Various scriptures thus proposed useful moral and ethical belief systems. These continue to drive contemporary society, because human nature hasn’t fundamentally changed much over human history.

Conversely, powerful research technologies have sparked scientific explanations of natural causality that differ considerably from ancient beliefs. These relatively new developments now dominate our current understanding of the natural world.

Still, ancient sacred and secular beliefs about natural causality persist, as do personal prejudices and superstitions. For example, a majority of American adults reject key principles of Darwinian biology, and gamblers with a university degree beseech their lucky charms and numbers. We’ve thus come to both trust and mistrust scientific discoveries and cultural beliefs.

Doubt is the handmaiden of belief, so we tend to bolster our beliefs by joining with others who share them, and by seeking converts to our beliefs. The development of preferred moral/ethical values in children is a central task for a society that hopes to maintain its identity, and the book’s discussion of this issue is interesting and informative.

Dramatic advances in neuroimaging technology now permit researchers to observe the activity of brain systems that regulate religious belief and behavior, and this research forms the heart of the book.

Communion with an ethereal God through prayer and contemplation is obviously important to those who seek divine help. But how do we know that such supplications demonstrate a genuine trust in God, rather than an ingrained habit? Although the authors can’t currently answer that complex question, they used neuroimaging technology to seek accessible data on the more fundamental problem – to identify the brain systems that process human/divine interaction.

The research design was simple: Locate people who have a strong belief in the efficacy of spiritual connection, and have had extended experience in seeking it. Compare their levels of brain activity when they are and are not spiritually engaged.

The book describes the results of studies with Buddhist monks during meditation, Franciscan nuns during prayer, Pentecostals during glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and an atheist with much meditative experience. What follows is a brief synthesis of key elements of the book’s extensive non-technical report of the research and its implications.

The brain scans of the monks and nuns during contemplative states were similar. Both experienced a reduction of activity in brain areas that orient us in space and time. Here/there and past/present/future thus lost their normal meaning, and were supplemented by a sense of being at one with God (nuns) or the universe (monks).

Both groups also experienced increased activity in brain areas that regulate attention—not surprising, because the subjects’ contemplative activity was highly focused. Further, attention is a central element of problem solving, and prayer is basically a problem solving activity. The authors suggest that focused positive religious ritual creates an optimistic feeling that in turn enhances our sense of the validity of our beliefs.

The brain scans of the Pentecostal subjects who spoke in tongues (glossolalia) during what could be called a peak experience differed from those of the contemplative monks and nuns. During glossolalia, activity decreased in the brain areas that regulate attention, increased in the areas that regulate emotion, and remained constant in the orienting areas. The Pentecostals thus didn’t lose their sense of self in search of God, but rather reported that they simply “gave themselves over to God” and allowed the experience to unfold as it would. Perhaps most intriguing, activity in their brain’s language area didn’t increase, which suggests that speaking in tongues might activate different circuits than those used during normal speech.

The researchers also studied an avowed atheist who had long engaged in meditative activities, and when meditating, often (and surprisingly) focused on the image of God depicted in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting. Although he had conventional moral/ethical views, he disavowed any theological base for them.

His brain scans exhibited a reduction in orienting area activity during meditation that was similar to the monks and nuns, but no increase in attention area activity. His resting state attention area activity was higher than the monks and nuns, which might be explained by his very analytical personality.

The thalamus is a divided relay station between sensory input and cognitive analysis. All subjects in the study exhibited abnormal thalamic activation during resting periods, the left side being more active than the right. The authors suggest that the long term spiritual and/or meditative activity of these subjects may have permanently altered their normal perception of reality. In religious people, for example, spiritual feelings can thus become the norm. One nun said, “I feel God’s presence every minute of the day.”

In general, the research suggests that our sense of reality is powerfully influenced by the vividness of the experiences that shape our beliefs. Intense contemplative and peak experience activity alters normal brain activity, and extended focused spiritual activity can permanently alter the neural networks that maintain beliefs. This isn’t surprising; because any learned information or developed skill does the same thing. What’s important about this research is that it connects spiritual behavior to specific cognitive systems that then enhance the reality of a person’s beliefs. Spirituality thus isn’t a completely disembodied (soul, spirit) experience, as many believe. Further, each system of sacred/secular belief activates a unique pattern of neural activity that changes the way the adherents perceive reality.

The book concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the important roles that sacred and secular belief play in self and society – from healing to hurting. In this, it offers useful suggestions on how to enhance the power of belief in our lives – to connect conscious and subconscious thought and behavior, to develop constructive and avoid destructive beliefs.