Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mind-body panel 2: Andrew Newberg - "A growing openness to these kinds of issues"

Dr. Andrew B. Newberg is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a staff physician in Nuclear Medicine.
It’s not that we necessarily have to change the way science is done, although that is something that may happen. It’s not necessarily that we have to change what religion and spirituality is, although that’s something that may happen as well. But it’s the ability for people of all different perspectives to be aware of what their biases are, what their beliefs are, and to try to find better ways of having a dialogue and interacting. I think that will improve our science, our politics, and our social and spiritual interactions. That’s really where I can see a lot of this kind of research and information going.

It’s not that we have to get rid of one way of being or one way of looking at things. But we need to understand how that relates to all the other perspectives, and to try to take a more open-minded approach. I think a lot of us have been fairly impressed at the growing openness to these kinds of issues—to have centers like Christina’s at major universities where this kind of work is going on, to have the kinds of projects we’ve been talking about here, to have a national center for complimentary and alternative medicine at NIH.

I mean that would never have been thought about 25 or 30 years ago, but it’s happening now. The cancer institute is working with the national center for complimentary medicine and NIMH, so people are beginning to realize that we need some kind of integration that looks at all of us, not just as biological beings, but as biological, spiritual, social, and psychological beings, and it’s combining together all of those different dimensions of who we are that is where I think this paradigm may ultimately lead us, making us look at the world in a different way.
One reason for the new emphasis on spirituality in medicine is probably demographics. Most Western societies now have large - and rapidly increasing - aged populations. Aged people often cope with several chronic disorders. Medication alone is not the answer. It can even be counterproductive - many people are injured by medications or don't take them correctly and end up in the hospital. Many health care professionals now consider mental states in promoting good health, which results in a reduced need for medication.

Newberg also brought up a problem that Mario Beauregard and I looked at in The Spiritual Brain, the problem of language. Language explains - but it also limits:
We’ve been running an online survey of people’s spiritual experiences and one of the things that we are learning from the data that we are looking at is that when you ask people to describe the spiritual experience they had, you get answers that are just all over the place: some people use the Force, some people say it’s an energy, some people say it’s God. If you ask questions in specific ways, you can get completely different answers. When we just ask general questions, it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of coherence between what people consider to be a spiritual experience, but if we start to ask questions in other ways, it seems like everybody had the same exact core experience.
That sounds right. Language is full of abstractions that can mean different things to different people - words like "love" and "peace" come to mind. Different life experiences create different spectra of meaning.

Consider a current example: For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, "religion" connotes oppression - based on her life experience. But in my own life experience, religion was the bedrock of philanthropy and social development and the guarantor of civil liberties, at home and abroad. So, because the word "religion" means such different things to the two of us, saying that we were both raised in a "religious" environment doesn't tell you anything. Further questions must determine what that means.

For other examples of new approaches, see Adopting a dog better for your health than pills? (Pfizer is promoting a "More than Medication" program)
Meditation really can change the brain
Getting past the "you are a computer made of meat" phase - a look at Andrew Newberg's work
Next: Mind-body panel 2: Bruce Greyson - Brain and mind don't seem to be the same thing.


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