As a child, Dr. Andrew Newberg peppered his father with some serious questions about the concept of reality. “But he was very good at throwing it back at me,” Newberg recalls.
So he would have to find the answers on his own. In the months between his graduation from Haverford College and heading to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, Newberg often meditated as he walked. Then he’d simply sit and think. Some of what he experienced he can’t explain to this day. It led directly to his studies on the impact of religious and spiritual experiences on the brain. This unconventional field is known as neurotheology, and Newberg is one of its pioneers.
In How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, one of his 10 books, Newberg notes that his uncertainties coalesced into a “realm of doubt,” which he later upgraded to “infinite doubt.” “There was nothing I could know, and everything was contained within that,” he says. “All was one. All was undifferentiated—without ego or self. I continued to say that I’d try to find the answers, but I also concluded that I’d never know.”
Newberg found comfort in that.
“It was OK to not know—it also meant that I could keep looking,” he says. “I think deeply about things. It could be the coronavirus or the Flyers or Trump: Why do some people think he’s the greatest, and others say he’s the devil reincarnated?”
As the research director for Thomas Jefferson University’s Myrna Brind Center at the Marcus Institute of Integrated Health in Villanova, Newberg is popularizing his work at a time when many are retreating from religiosity. In 2019, a $20 million gift from the Marcus Foundation established a department of integrated medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College. In 2017, a $25 million gift from the Marcus Foundation established the Marcus Institute of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson Health’s Thomas Jefferson University. Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College offers a master’s degree, several certificate programs, and a one-year clinical fellowship in integrative and nutritional medicine.
The Marcus Foundation grant also kickstarted new lines of scientific inquiry into the effectiveness of integrative therapies in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, congestive heart failure, chronic fatigue and Lyme disease. Newberg mans one of the region’s whole-body PET/MR scanners. It’s one of just 30 in the country and perhaps 60 in the world. “Jefferson has made the leap,” says Dr. David Monti, chair of the department of integrative medicine and nutritional sciences at Sidney Kimmel.
Also the CEO of the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, Monti has worked alongside Newberg for the past decade. His book, Tapestry of Health: Weaving Wellness into Your Life Through the New Science of Integrative Medicine, formally promotes this direction. Initially, the two shattered territorial turf when Newberg was still at Penn, and they worked on a National Institutes of Health grant that used art to help cancer patients with related traumatic stress. “He’s helped us to build this location as a premier international destination for research,” says Monti of Newberg. “Spirituality is an important component of health that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s not something that you can say, ‘Oh, it’s not part of medicine.’ Andy’s proven that. Our health is about mind, body and spirit.”
Among other things, Andrew Newberg sees the general decline in religious interest and church attendance as a sign that humans are looking to reconnect with the universe in basic ways. He’s noted that religious affiliation is at its lowest point in American history, with 46 million Americans publicly declaring themselves non-religious—20 percent of the adult population. And there’s nearly a 60 percent dropout rate for those younger than 30. “I’d like this [focus on spirituality] to bring us to the point of compassion and love rather than hatred and violence,” Newberg says.
With this ongoing retreat from formal religion, Newberg hopes he’s in on a burgeoning area of research. He’s been invited to speak at science organizations, churches and atheist groups—and he always attempts to reach people where they are. “I just hope they can use my work to embrace all sides of themselves and understand their part in the journey,” says Newberg.
Born in Bala Cynwyd, Newberg grew up in Bryn Mawr in a Reformed Jewish household. His father, Fred, was a businessman, his mother, Joanne, a former teacher. An only child, Newberg played baseball, soccer and tennis. Science was always an academic strength. In elementary school, he made repeated trips to the library to check out a nine-book series on systems of the body. He also had an interest in astronomy and space. “I used to think science held the answers to all my questions,” says Newberg, a Harriton High School alum. “But it when comes to consciousness and perceptions of reality, science doesn’t get you all the way there.”
Newberg majored in chemistry at Haverford College, where he also began reading more philosophical works and taking liberal arts courses in Hindu and Buddhist thinking, astronomy, and Russian history. That diversity of interests is far from evident at his bland Villanova office, with its desk, two armchairs, computer and bookshelves filled with copies of his own books. More dazzling is the research equipment elsewhere in the suburban Jefferson location, which opened in 2015, drastically improving his commute from West Conshocken, where he lives with his wife, Leslie. Their daughter, Amanda, is at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., studying history and political science.
Newberg spends most of his time at the Villanova office. “Other than having the scanners in my own basement, this is the next best option without all the noise,” he says.
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The scanner Newberg uses handles both positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), so it’s capable of depicting both structural and functional changes. The latter allows Newberg to study where emotions and other subjective experiences like pain, stress or spirituality reside in the brain. In a concussion study, for instance, MRI results might reveal structural normality in a patient’s functioning, but PET data detects more subtle abnormalities or imperfections in the brain. “Like a carpenter friend of mine always said, ‘The more tools you have in your basket, the more you can do,’” says Newberg.
Board-certified in nuclear medicine and internal medicine, Newberg is in research mode 80 percent the time. His small clinical practice serves mostly patients enrolled in executive health programs. “They’re healthy and want to stay healthy,” he says.
Newberg also teaches “Human Brain Imaging,” a course for senior pre-med students at Penn that focuses on the biological basis of behavior. At the end each semester, he explores the nature of the brain and its perceptions of reality—basically a primer in neurotheology.
“They all say it’s a great way to finish their final class,” he says.
Newberg fell in love with nuclear medicine and radiology during his own med school days in the early 1990s. Working in nuclear medicine at Penn between 2000 and 2010, he collaborated with world-renowned physician-scientist Abass Alavi on research into people’s experiences while meditating, praying, and engaging in acupuncture or yoga.
Now 82, Alavi has conducted an array of research at Penn since 1969, leading to advances in the management of serious diseases and disorders. “Andy joined me with the same aim,” Alavi says. “He’s given this a new beginning, and others are discovering that this is the new game in town—looking at brain images to examine even subtle function. This really goes beyond standard medicine.”
With Alavi, Newberg began studying the brains of American Buddhist monks, along with Franciscan nuns at Neumann University in Aston, compiling data on as many as 2,000 individuals. “Some theologians love to hear about science, but some don’t want to see science involved,” says Newberg. “Regardless of that, religion is a human phenomenon.”
Jefferson’s center inspires clinical applications of Newberg’s research. “Prayer is a complex cognitive practice, but this is research that challenges science,” he says. “It comes closest to psychiatry or psychology. How does the brain engage religion?Why is there a God for some and not others, and how is that possible?”
Michael Wintering is an outpatient behavioral therapist who incorporates spirituality into his work at Horizon House in Philadelphia. He was involved in a study of a silent Jesuit spiritual retreat Newberg tapped into. Wintering knew the work. His wife, Nancy, manages many of Newberg’s studies. “You can’t see the whole picture [of a patient] if you’re pretending that half of it doesn’t exist,” says Wintering. “There’s a mind-body connection, and that makes a whole person.”
Once, as part of his research, Newberg asked participants to draw pictures of God. Twenty percent of them portrayed God with a human-like face. A third drew abstractions like swirls or variations of hearts, and another third depicted nature scenes. The rest left the paper blank, pointing out that God doesn’t exist or is too incomprehensible to draw. “We used to go to the philosophy books [for answers], but why not go directly to the people?” Newberg poses. “What’s the same or different across traditions? Is there a difference if a subject is on psychedelic substances? We should’ve been doing this work in the 1960s-— but I was born in the ’60s. We’re just catching up now.”
Yet science best addresses the “how” questions, as opposed to “why.” And that presents a problem. Scientific methodology wants everyone in a sample to have the same result. But with religion and spirituality, no one has the same experience. Still, science and faith are complementary and not exclusive. “Andy is trying to quantify the faith thing,” says Wintering.
Ultimately, though, neurotheology is but one component of Newberg’s integrated being—albeit a crucial one. “It’d be like saying, ‘What would I be like without the left side of my body?’” he says. “It’s part of who I am.”