The Effects A Religion – Judaism – Has On The Brain W/ Dr. Andrew Newberg

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“The more the person believes in the practice, the greater the impact it has on the brain.”
— Andrew Newberg

Greetings, SuperFriends!

Today we are rejoined by Dr. Andrew Newberg. Dr. Newberg is currently the Associate Director in Charge of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University, and the adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. (Try saying all that out loud!)

Dr. Newberg is also, as you know from our previous episode, which I highly recommend, one of the preeminent experts on the study of neurotheology, which looks into how religion affects our brain – a very interesting topic. He's published over 200 peer-reviewed articles on the subject, and he's authored a number of books, including How God Changes Your Brain, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, and his most recent book The Rabbi's Brain, which is what we wanted to talk about in the episode.

Now, I want you to avoid the temptation to go “Oh, this is an episode about Jewish stuff and I'm not Jewish – who cares…”, because I'm also not very Jewish, despite being a Levi and born into Judaism. As we learn from our episode with Andre Norman and many other episodes, you don't have to be of a particular faith to learn some of the lessons and some of the values from it – you don't even have to particularly be faithful, as there are a lot of good stuff in there anyway.

So, my goal for this episode was to understand how a specific religion (in this case, Judaism, but it could be anything) actually affects our brain, whether it benefits or hurts us, and what are the things that are happening in the brain. I was especially interested in this because of my fascination with not only the brain itself, but also meditation and how it changes our brain. So I wanted to know, is meditation different from reciting Hail Mary, reading the Shema, or doing the morning prayer in Islam?

In the episode, we answer all these questions and many more – I think you are really going to enjoy this episode, as I always enjoy chatting with Dr. Newberg!

-Jonathan Levi

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In this episode, we discuss:

  • How did Andrew Newberg get to focus on Judaism within the realm om neurotheology? [5:00]
  • What are some unique features of Judaism [8:00]
  • Does spirituality play a role in the effectiveness of the practice (prayer or meditation)? [10:00]
  • The characteristics of what you believe in play a role [12:30] 
  • Can a religion be taken to the dark side by a practitioner? [14:30]
  • How did Andrew Newberg design the studies for his book? [15:35]
  • Where do rabbis draw their wisdom from – thoughts, experiences, or emotions? [18:00]
  • What are some surprising discoveries from Andrew Newberg's research? [19:25]
  • How did rabbis decide to practice religion? [22:00]
  • A quick note on mystical experiences in Judaism [24:00]
  • The effect of reading the Shema on the brains of two different people [24:50]
  • Some amazing changes Andrew Newberg noticed in the brain during reading the Shema [27:00]
  • Language and neurotheology [28:40]
  • The comparison between the religious practice's effects on the brain and meditation's [30:55]
  • Psychedelic experiences and prefrontal cortex [33:20]
  • What could you do as homework based on this episode? [34:50]
  • A few notes on the book [36:45]
  • Where can you get in touch with Andrew Newberg? [37:35]

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

Favorite Quotes from Andrew Newberg:

“The practices that people truly believe in, and buy into, are the ones that really provide the greatest impact.”
“There are different ways of using rituals and traditions that can be either good or bad.”


Introduction: Welcome to the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast, where we interview extraordinary people to bring you the skills and strategies to overcome the impossible. And now here's your host, Jonathan Levi.

Jonathan Levi: Before we get started, I want to ask you, what would it mean for you to be able to double or even triple your memory and ability to learn? So many people tell us that this skill would be absolutely life-changing for them, but they just don't have the time. They just don't have the time. So that's why we have developed, my team and I, a five-day memory mastery crash course, where we go into all the fundamental neuroscience and the actual techniques that are used by the world's best memory athletes and world record holders. It's a course that we value at $97, but here's the thing we are actually giving this course away completely for free. All you have to do to enroll in the course is visit JLE.VI/5 that's JLE.VI/5.

Greetings my Super Friends and welcome to this week's episode. We don't have a review for this week, which is a total bummer. So if you could, just take a quick moment and go to JLE.VI/podcast very easy and leave a review. Leave a review. All my podcasting buddies get reviews every week so I expect to get reviews every week. All right, that little bit of entitlement out of the way.

Let me tell you about this week's episode. We are rejoined this week by Dr. Andrew B Newberg. He's currently the associate director in charge of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University and hospital in Philadelphia. He is also a professor in the departments of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson University, an adjunct professor in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who that's a mouthful. He's also as you know, from our previous episode, which I highly recommend, one of the preeminent experts on the study of neurotheology, which is How does religion affect our brain?

Very interesting topic. He's published over 200 peer-reviewed articles on the subject, and he's authored a number of books, including How God changes your brain, Why God won't go away, Brain science and the biology of belief, and his most recent book: The rabbi's brain, which is what we wanted to talk about in this episode.

Now I want you to avoid the temptation to go, Oh, this is an episode about Jewish stuff. I'm not Jewish. Who cares because I'm also not very Jewish, despite being a Levi and born into Judaism. As we learned from our episode with Andre Norman and many episodes, you don't have to be a particular faith to learn some of the lessons and some of the values from it, and you don't even have to particularly be faithful. There's a lot of good stuff in there anyway. And so my goal for this episode was to understand how a specific religion, in this case, Judaism, but could be anything how it actually affects our brains. Does it benefit us? Does it hurt us? And what are the things that are happening in the brain?

I was especially interested in this because of my fascination with not only the brain but meditation and how it changes our brains. So I wanted to know, is meditation different from say, reciting hail Mary's? Or reading the Shema? Or doing the morning prayer in Islam? We answer all these questions and many, many more I think you are really going to enjoy this episode. I always enjoy chatting with Dr. Newberg, so I hope you enjoy it. Dr. Andrew Newberg, welcome back my friend. How are you?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I'm doing well. Thanks. Thanks for having me back on the program.

Jonathan Levi: Yeah, I suppose I should wish you a belated hug somehow who just had all the Jewish holidays, very fitting that we're going to talk today about Jewish neuroscience.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jonathan Levi: So to catch our up audience up in case they miss the last episode that we did, which was fascinating and I recommend people check it out. Last time we spoke, we talked about faith and spirituality and how, from a neuroscientific perspective, given your background as a neuroscientist and professor of neuroscience, you've discovered that there are so many incredible benefits to having some spiritual practice, whether that be, you know, improving your daily outlook, but also, I remember you talking about actual structural changes in the brain.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Right. That's correct.

Jonathan Levi: So recently, more recently, you have decided to focus in on the original Abrahamic religion and start studying how the brains of devout practitioners of Judaism are different. Tell me a little bit about that.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: So, uh, this was very exciting to me, as you had mentioned, the last time we spoke, we talked a lot about this field of neurotheology and how our religious and spiritual selves are related or linked to our brain and our body. And as you mentioned, that has implications for mental and physical health that has implications for spiritual health and also just how we understand religion and spirituality in general. The field of neurotheology generally has been defined somewhat broadly, and we've looked at a variety of different brain scans while people are doing different practices, but obviously, at one point I kept thinking in the back of my mind that, well, really we should be able to target different traditions and look at what's going on more specifically with one type of tradition, see what are the unique elements, see what are the similar elements to other traditions, so I was very fortunate to uh, meet up with a medical resident who was here at Thomas Jefferson University. And, uh, he is by training, not only a physician but an Orthodox rabbi.

Jonathan Levi: Oh, wow.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah. So I got into talking and of course, my background, while I'm not Orthodox, I am a reformed Jew and was raised in that kind of household, but always felt very close to my Jewish heritage and Jewish tradition and, and for me, it was just extremely exciting to finally have somebody who I could kind of talk to who, who really knew all of the other aspects of what Judaism was and could bring all of that to the table while we were now starting to expand the discussion to look at what's going on in the brain when we engage these different aspects of Judaism.

So this has been very exciting for me because it's really the first attempt at targeting neuro theology at a particular tradition of course, it's, it's my root tradition so that's even more exciting. But I think while obviously, we'll focus a lot today on what we have found and what we discussed about Judaism itself, even for people who are not Jewish, this same kind of treatment is something that can be focused on every tradition. And so we could look at other Christian denominations and Buddhism, Hindu, and so forth. We could really look at all the different traditions and sub-components of those traditions and see, where are the similarities, where are the differences, what are the things that are going on in the brain that helped to define those different traditions and really help to more thoroughly explore the specifics of what each tradition ultimately brings for the people who were following it. So it's very exciting. I think that, um, there are so many different opportunities to be able to look at Judaism and, and obviously the beliefs, the practices, the prayers, the stories, and traditions, even just the whole approach to how we kind of analyze and think about things in the context of Judaism. There are a lot of unique characteristics and it's exciting to think about what our brains are doing when we do all of that.

Jonathan Levi: That's really interesting. So if I understand correctly, your past work has focused on faith and spirituality as a whole, and this, you happen to have an opportunity to work with someone who is very steeped in the Jewish faith, but really the goal here was to understand how specific religions, you know, in this case, in Abrahamic religion, how it actually works in the brain, how it's different from other types of spiritual practice and, and really start to get at like what happens when you commit to a certain faith.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Absolutely. And then, of course, you know, Judaism offers some particularly unique aspects of itself because first of all, it is the oldest religion. So it's been around for a long, long time, and that obviously is different than certain traditions that have come about more recently. It is a group of people and it is a small group of people, probably about 0.2% of the world's population or something along those lines so that from a scientific perspective is always great when you can keep things very focused. If you were looking at Catholicism, there's a billion Catholics out there, much harder to try to draw, you know, different ways, similarities across all the different people. Somebody who's Catholic in Brazil may be completely different from someone who's Catholic in Singapore and somebody who's Catholic in the United States.

But Judaism obviously has a unique and common fiber through all the people who are Jewish and so that again is something which is a bit unique about that. And of course, as you mentioned, I mean, it is the initial Abrahamic tradition. So the monotheistic, the first monotheistic tradition that has its own aspects and components to it so there's a lot of very unique aspects of it that make it particularly ripe for looking at it from above kind of perspective. And that's also why I think it's very exciting to be able to do this.

Jonathan Levi: Right. And especially since Judaism is kind of the forefather of Christianity, which is that, you know, if you follow along the story of the subsequent prophets, Judaism kind of came first and additional religions built on top of that foundation of the old Testament so it's really interesting to go back back to that route. So I think it's really fascinating you know, on top of all of that, I've always found, like when I talk to a rabbi, it seems like Judaism has an answer for everything in some sense, and especially, you know, you talk about mysticism and we've actually had a, an expert in Kabbalah come onto the show and say, do you know, essentially that Judaism has an answer to the spiritual meditation and connecting with the oneness.

So I always wonder, you know, In an era where meditation has become so secularized and you have CEOs and athletes practicing secular meditation,

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Right.

Jonathan Levi: You know, how does Judaism come up to bat? And what did you find? How is it different from these other practices?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, I think that we know one of the things that we have looked at, and, and of course we have a long way to go before we can really make definitive statements about how different approaches compared to each other.

But one of the things that typically has come up in our research is that. Then practices that people truly believe in and buy into are the ones that really provide the greatest impact and the greatest effect for them and what I mean by that is that if you're a CEO or you're a football player and you want to do a little mindfulness meditation or something like that, That's great, you know, it's going to help and it'll keep you a little relaxed, it might help you with your stress and things like that, but typically it is not tied into a larger context of spiritual or religious context that has a lot of meaning for you, whereas when we look at it at a traditional Judaism, the practices, and you mentioned in the Kabbalah, it's steeped in the entire tradition.

And so when somebody is engaged in that more so than just feeling some mild calmness, it's much more likely that people are going to have some very powerful type of spiritual experience or mystical experience, something that confers a great deal of meaning and importance within their lives, what we've seen in some of the brain scan studies is again, not specifically with Judaism, but just in general, that again, the more a person believes in it, the deeper, the practice, the more powerful the practice, the greater the impact it has on the brain. So I think that again, studying Judaism provides some unique opportunities to be able to see how these particular practices within Judaism really have a very intense impact on the brain and where the similarities are and where the differences are and we can talk about them in a little bit.

Jonathan Levi: Yeah. I mean, that really reminds me of the takeaway that I took away from our previous episode, which is just believing in something, whether it's Allah or the Buddha or the flying spaghetti monster actually had a lasting impact on how good of life and how happy people were.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah, absolutely. But there are other aspects of it too and I think we spoke about this a little bit, but clearly again, when, when looks at different traditions, if people are focusing on a more compassionate perspective on being loving, being good, you're being a good person doing this votes and so forth, giving to charity, then those are the neural connections that get stronger and stronger in the brain and they make the person more charitable, more altruistic, more compassionate, more empathic towards others. Whereas if you are focused in a given tradition on hatred or anger or that, you know, we're right, and everybody else's wrong, or evil than that from a lot of negative attitudes, negative emotions for people in that actually can be even that can be destructive both on an individual level, as well as the societal level, as we've clearly seen throughout the Middle East and, you know, willing to fly a plane into a building or something like that I mean, these are very negative attitudes, very destructive attitudes, both for the individual as well as for society. And, and actually, I mean, this is an area that where there has been very little data and I think it is something that would be wonderful to be able to explore a little bit more because to some degree, almost every tradition has people who can look at it very negatively or in a very angry kind of way.

Hopefully, most traditions, including Judaism have a more compassionate perspective on how to behave. But again, you know, what is the difference between somebody who is Jewish, who feels that they have to go and help the world of versus somebody who maybe feels that they're Jewish, but feels that they're angry with everyone and what are the differences in their brain?

So, so these are questions that I think are important ones and they have practical implications as well because we can think about how we might redirect people into more positive ways of thinking.

Jonathan Levi: Totally. And there is no shortage. I mean, just to not be on the moral high ground, there is no shortage of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are really backward as far as our cultural values in stoning women and, you know, all kinds of really repressive stuff so you're absolutely right that no one faith is the answer and people can take any philosophy good or bad and take it to really, really awful places.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah. And a lot of our early work was actually designed to look at rituals and of course, rituals as my late colleague Crilley. And I used to talk about, we said that they were morally neutral technologies and rituals like the Passover state or something like that.

They can be used towards great good, and binding families together, and remembering important events, and what it means to be Jewish, but rituals can also wind up leading down obviously the Nazis made exceptionally good use of rituals for obviously horrible ends. So, um, there are different ways of using rituals and traditions that can be both good or bad.

Jonathan Levi: Totally. So tell me how, I mean, I love the idea that you're a neuroscientist and you're such a, an experienced researcher you've published over 200 papers, tell me how you designed the studies and what kind of studies you did for actually going about and learning what you could about the influence on the brain.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: So our book is titled The Rabbi's Brain, and as we started to think about it, we realized that one of the fundamental aspects of doing brain research is knowing what people are actually thinking or feeling on the inside when I look at a brain scan unless I have asked you what you're actually doing or feeling, I don't really know how to interpret it.

I mean, I can look at an area and say, okay, the emotional areas of the brain are turned on, but I don't know what that means unless you tell me, I felt love, I felt anger, you know, whatever it is. So we always need to have this subjective correlation. And one of the best ways of doing this and this to me is always a very exciting aspect of neurotheology, which sort of gets kind of passed over a lot of times, no pun intended, I guess that you know, something that, um, We really have an opportunity to explore what people's religious and spiritual beliefs are simply by asking questions.

We so often just think that because somebody is sitting next to us in synagogue, that they think the same thing we do. And clearly, that's not the case so what we've started to do, we've had several big projects where we have created online surveys, where we've asked people a lot of very basic questions about themselves, their beliefs, their experiences, and of course, with our focus on Judaism and, and more specifically the quote-unquote rabbi's brain, we developed a survey where we asked about 150 rabbis from at least the four major denominations that we have here uh, the Orthodox conservative reform and reconstructionist. And we asked them questions. Questions that would be related to their beliefs, their ideas, the way they are as a person, all the time, thinking about how that might be associated with different aspects of their brains function.

So, so for example, we asked the rabbis, how much do you use your emotional responses versus your thoughts versus your experiences in constructing either different beliefs? And we looked at them as a group. So we, in one sense, it's helpful to just kind of throw everyone together. On the other hand, it's also important for us to look at if there's differences in, within the denominations or across the denominations.

And, you know, I would say that with regard to those three cognitive domains, emotions, thoughts, and experiences, most of the rabbis, I would say at least about 70 to 80%, really put more emphasis on their thoughts and also their experiences than their emotions. They still had a lot of emotional elements to how they looked at things, but it was much more weighted towards thoughts and experiences, perhaps not a surprise based on what we know about Judaism and how rabbis tend to act and think, but again, It's great to have the data, to be able to point to that and to be able to see exactly what the, how they're responding. And of course, given those answers, we can say, Oh, okay, well it looks like the cognitive processes of the brain parts of the frontal lobe and temporal lobe that helped us with our thoughts and abstract thinking, they probably outweigh some of the emotional responses that are in an area of the brain called the limbic system, or when you're looking at a person who is engaging Judaism in a very strong way. So, so Judaism, which always. It does have that kind of notion that it is a bit of a more rationalistic approach tends to at least occur along those lines, that these based on the survey.

So that's kind of how we start to get into it. And then we asked them a lot of other questions as well about, you know, did they always want to be a rabbi? Did they have mystical experiences? So a lot of great questions that we can then keep relating back to what rabbis do and how it might be related to their brain.

Jonathan Levi: Really really interesting. What were the surprising things that you discovered? I mean, what, what were some of the takeaways without spoiling the entire book?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah, the good thing is, is that there's so much data about it, especially when you start to get down into the different denominations that it's going to be hard for me to spoil it too much but, um, there were a couple of things in particular that just kind of stood out to me that I was intrigued by one of the things that we asked people again, these are all rabbis and I should also add that because this has come up in a couple of questions for me is that the gender was spread pretty evenly. So, I mean, obviously, in the Orthodox, they were all male, but in the overall cohort, it was about half female and half male in terms of the rabbis themselves, who we were asking the questions to.

Jonathan Levi: That's refreshing.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and again, it gets to an idea okay. You know, is there a difference between a female rabbi and a male rabbi in terms of using emotions or things like that?

So you get into all these great opportunities to ask very interesting questions. One of the things that I was intrigued by, and this goes back to our earlier discussion about mystical experiences that in the survey about two-thirds of the rabbis reported having mystical experiences. Now it was probably weighted a little bit more in the reconstructionist and the reform rabbis.

They had a higher percentage, but even within the Orthodox, there was still a fairly good percentage of the people who describe some kind of mystical experience and of course, we asked them for some brief description about what it was. A number of people talked about a feeling of oneness, a feeling of being connected to God, a feeling of oneness with everything,

one of the things I was intrigued by several of them talked about the mystical experience in relation to a dream. And of course, you know, you probably know, and many of the listeners know that dreams are a very important source of revelation in the Torah. It's not surprising that people describe that kind of an experience.

And then others, um, had incredibly intense, emotional reactions to different rituals or prayer, or even the study of the Torah that became very, very important to them. So, so that was kind of interesting because we've tried to tie in different aspects of the mystical experience, that sense of oneness with an area of the brain called the parietal lobe,

the frontal lobe also helps in these mystical experiences as part of that feeling of surrendering to God or surrendering to the oneness that in and of itself, I thought was quite interesting in terms of thinking about what the rabbis actually, you know, how they sort of thought about these experiences and what they actually perceive themselves to have, as far as these experience go, we also ask some just basic questions about why they became a rabbi.

And actually, only about 20% of the respondents stated that they always had wanted to be a rabbi, which is interesting to me because as a doctor, I've always. Kind of known that I wanted to be a doctor and over many years on the admissions committee at different medical schools, that seems to be a very common statement.

I would say about a third of people who go into medicine will say, I always wanted to be a doctor. So I was kind of curious to know if that's the way he rabbis felt, but, uh, only about 20% actually said that. And that was pretty similar for all the denominations. We then ask them about, well, so why did you become a rabbi and a number of people just talked about how it just kind of fit with the way they thought about things.

But about 60% actually said that they felt that they were called to be, they felt that the Jewish teaching was calling them that their family background was kind of calling them into that particular way of living their lives, and so, again, you know, this is kind of interesting. What does it mean to feel called? And we've written some. It was on that and what's going on in the brain when you feel that, I mean, a sense of calling is something that's pulling you, you get an experience of being pulled in a direction and how does that happen? And so, uh, this is, again, something interesting that came up in our data that we'll be looking into more and more.

And one last point I just want to make about, you know, this is a survey of rabbis, but all of this equally can be applicable to just, you know, the Jewish person. It'd be wonderful to ask similar kinds of questions to people in all the different denominations about, do they have mystical experiences? How much did they use their emotions, their thoughts, their experiences?

So this is something that could be applied to just the everyday person within Judaism. And again, as we said at the beginning, this can also be applied it'd be great to apply this to instead of rabbis, to priests or ministers or, or moms or something like that and see where the similarities and the differences are.

Jonathan Levi: Incredible. Incredible. It's also super interesting to note 60% had a mystical experience. I think it was just for a religion which no one outside of Kabbalah doesn't claim to have missed the CISM, so to speak in it I mean, I, I'm not the most studied Jew, but there's not a lot of talk of mysticism or connection to the oneness and to have 60% experience that I think is pretty overwhelming.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah. I was very surprised by that. And that, to me, was exciting to see and something for us to think about as we go forward in terms of looking at the brain, could we actually bring in some of these rabbis who have had these experiences and reflect on them, or look at the areas of their brain and see where they're different areas of function and structure are that might be associated with that kind of an experience.

Jonathan Levi: So interesting. So you told me before we hit record that, one of the interesting experiences you had was of measuring the brain when you did the Shema, which is for those who don't know, it's a prayer that is a lot kind of like hail Mary in a sense that it's repeated often in times of trouble or, but really a lot of times in general, and it's kind of like a protection prayer asking God to look over the people of Israel.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Right. And, and it really is kind of the fundamental prayer, which I think is, is also interesting. And, uh, to kind of the declarative statement of what Judaism is that there's that singular God. So one of the things that we realized that we needed to do was we really needed to have a brain scan of a rabbi, and so myself, as a non-rabbi, I went into the scanner to repeat the Shema and, um, you always need a comparison States. So the comparison for us was to just sing just an extremely well-known basic fundamental song. So for us here in America, it's a row, row, row your boat, and, um, you know, you just kind of know how to do that, but you need to make sure that when you're looking at the changes during the Shema, that it's not just singing that you're looking at, but it is the religious element of the singing. So we had my co-author David, as we've mentioned, is an Orthodox rabbi and continues in his Orthodox Jewish tradition. We had him do the prayer, we had myself do the prayer, and I guess I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that his brain went crazy, so to speak, I mean, all kinds of changes going on. My brain didn't change very much. And I was a little disappointed because I've always felt that the Shema was an important statement and I've always felt connected to that prayer, but clearly someone who does it at the level of an Orthodox rabbi. Where it just has a whole different level of meaning shows tremendous changes going on in the brain compared to relatively few in my brain. And so, again, that goes back to what we were saying earlier on the idea that part of it is how much do you buy into and believe the things that you're doing, that's a very fundamental piece of all of this, but there were also some interesting the specific changes in the brain that we noticed with regard to David's scan. And, uh, one of the areas that we have looked at are the frontal lobes, which are right behind the forehead. And when people do a meditation practice, they typically increase the activity in their frontal lobes because the frontal lobes are involved in concentration and focus.

So when you're, you're focused on anything, the Shema, you typically will increase your frontal lobe activity. But we've also noticed that in certain practices where a person kind of surrenders themselves to the practice that frontal lobe activity goes down. And typically we've seen either the frontal lobes go up or the frontal lobes go down.

The thing that was somewhat unique about David's brain in this regard is that when he was doing the Shema, what we found was that, one part of the frontal lobe actually had increased activity on the right side, and one part of the frontal lobe on the left side actually had decreased activity. And we'd never seen this before in a prayer practice where they kind of have both things going on at the same time, that sense of attention and intentionality and focus, but also a sense of release and letting go and to do that and to capture that happening at the same time is a very unique signature for this particular type of prayer. And of course it begs the larger question of maybe we really ought to do this now and in many more people and look at other types of Jewish prayer and see whether the Shema is unique in that regard or whether it is something that we tend to see in a lot of aspects of Jewish prayer. It was definitely an intriguing finding and something that at least indicates the importance and the uniqueness of this particular prayer, which is obviously the fundamental prayer of Judaism.

Jonathan Levi: That's really interesting because recently I was reading a book called happiness beyond thought, and he talks about Sanskrit being one of the first languages and that it has a special connection to the human brain and how, if you learn some of the mantras in Sanskrit, it will be more effective than saying I am connected to home for example, and I've heard the same thing said by energy healers and spiritual people about Hebrew, how it's such an old language and such a kind of basic language that it connects at some special level and that it's therapeutic albeit not very pretty language.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, you know, there are some interesting issues that arise with that. And this is another area that would be very ripe for study in the context of neurotheology because there is sort of competing issues here. One is, do you understand what's being said, and then two, as you were alluding to what are the different sounds that are being made?

Do they in and of themselves have some particular impact on the way the brain is? So if I don't understand Judaism, but I can say the Shema in Hebrew, you know, if I don't really know what I'm saying, does it have the same impact as if I do know what I'm saying? And of course, I mean, some of the Shema is a very simple prayer so most people know what that means both in terms of English as well as Hebrew, but certainly, as you get into listening to somebody read the Torah, for example, you know, if I don't understand the words, is it still helpful to me? And that's been something that's been an issue in, in many traditions, uh, you know, again, Catholicism with the Vatican councils, the idea of going to the secular languages versus using Latin, and there was a lot of discussions back and forth about should Latin be used or should it be more available to the everyday person. And so there are these kinds of competing factors that neurotheology could theoretically take a look at and try to answer the question of how important is it that it is in that native ancient tongue versus something which is more understandable and which will have more meaning to the person.

So the short answer is we don't know yet, but that would be a very interesting question for neurotheology to address.

Jonathan Levi: Super interesting. Now I want to go back because one of the more interesting things you said is just how your partner's brain went crazy during reading this. Tell me more about that, I mean, how does that compare, and I know it's hard to make comparisons without huge double-blind studies and all that kind of stuff, but how does that compare to when you've studied people's brains who do meditation, for example?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Generally, we've seen one of two basic patterns, at least with regards to the frontal lobe. Now there were other changes that also occurred in his brain, especially in some of the emotional areas.

But when we look at frontal lobe activity, typically we see either increasing activity in the frontal lobes as a person is concentrating on a mantra, on an image, a phrase, whatever it is that they're doing, they tend to activate their frontal lobes because they are deeply focused on the particular object of the meditation.

On the other hand, when we've studied certain practices and we did do a research article on Islamic prayer, which of course, you know, the fundamental aspect of Islam is the notion of surrender. But also we did an interesting study of Pentecostal Christians doing a kind of practice called speaking in tongues.

In both of those circumstances, there is the sense that the person is releasing themselves, giving themselves over surrendering themselves to the process. And in those contexts, we see a drop of activity in the frontal lobes because if the frontal lobes normally help us to concentrate and focus our attention, then the opposite, letting go that attention and just sort of allowing things to happen would be associated with a decrease of activity in the frontal lobes and we actually think that these changes in frontal lobe activity may be particularly relevant in the context of mystical experiences. So when you see a brain, like David's actually have areas of both increased and decreased frontal lobe activity that may explain a lot about why so many people talk about mystical experiences, even though it is not kind of commonly thought of in the context of Jewish teachings other than through capitalistic teachings.

So, yeah, so there was certainly a uniqueness to the pattern in David's brain when he was doing the Shema. And we will just have to see whether or not that kind of a difference where one side is up and the other side is down is something that is totally unique to this particular practice or can we find other practices in other traditions or even within Judaism that might lead to the same kind of change.

Jonathan Levi: That's interesting. And, you know, from our last conversation where my brain goes, when we talk about the prefrontal cortex, either going dark or selectively going dark, which is psychedelic experiences, right? It's if I'm not mistaken and I'm certainly not a neuroscientist. We are now kind of are starting to believe and understand that one of the reasons why people feel this oneness and connected to nature on something like LSD is because the prefrontal cortex kind of goes is dark.

And that's what helps us understand the difference between us and the universe around us. It's what creates this barrier. And when that goes dark, we start to feel more connected to a bigger picture, right?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Right. And actually, it's, it's sort of a combination of both the frontal lobe as well as the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe is located a little bit more in the back of the brain that takes our sensory information and helps to create that sense of self and how that self is related to the rest of the world. So when people have these very intense spiritual experiences, the sort of allowing it to happen and just kind of taking you over, as you mentioned, even with psychedelics, you know, the person isn't controlling the process, it's kind of happening to them.

And as you said, the frontal lobe it tends to shut down in that context, but also when the parietal lobe has shut down, it's not only that feeling of surrender, but that's a feeling of connectedness and oneness as well. So they kind of go hand in hand, we're beginning to think as part of that process of these sort of enlightenment or mystical experiences.

Jonathan Levi: Really, really cool. So, Dr. Newberg, I know we're coming up on time here. This might be a really hard question, but I want to ask because we always try to give people actionable tips. What's something that people can do to leverage what they've learned today, and should they maybe learn the Shema and read it, or should they maybe just pick up a book on Abrahamic religions or how can people kind of utilize what we've talked about here today?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, I think part of the answer, it goes back to some of the early things that we were talking about today, which is that no part of it is looking within yourself and figuring out what does have meaning to you. If someone is Jewish and they feel like reconnecting or connecting further with their Jewish tradition would be helpful, Then all of this information can become very helpful because we can say, Oh, well, the more you engage with the more you do the Shema, the more you go to synagogue. These are all going to be things that are going to change your brain and bring you to a deeper spiritual experience. On the other hand, for people who might feel that the Jewish religion is not necessarily for them, there are obviously many other traditions that can also result in a variety of different kinds of changes going on in the brain. So part of it is to find the things that have meaning to each person to kind of explore within themselves. What that means, and then to do their best, to embrace them as effectively as possible.

And so, you know, in the context of Judaism doing the rituals, engaging, as we talked about earlier, uh, engaging mitzvah and doing charitable work and trying to be the good person, trying to study and learn and engage the brain. These are all wonderful things that help the brain function better and help people be more compassionate and more empathic.

So, uh, you know, again, focusing on those positive qualities and Judaism and Jewish thought and experience, they really can carry people a long way and help people to optimize their own way of being, and hopefully optimize the world around them.

Jonathan Levi: I love it. I love it. Dr. Newburgh, your book already out, coming out soon, The Rabbi's Brain.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yes, it's going to be coming out actually in a few weeks, the end of October. So we're very excited about it. And, uh, to me, you know, especially in the context of the Jewish tradition, I love to get the feedback from people, and, uh, I think there are just so many things in there for them to learn about Judaism, but also about themselves. You know, every question that we ask is a valid question to ask each person, uh, you know, how much do you use emotions? How much do you use your thoughts? What types of experiences have you had? You know, these are all questions that every person can ask for themselves and the people in their families and around them to really explore it.

And to, you know, the more that we don't just take things for granted, the more we actually look into what people believe and think that I think is going to be very, very important for us going forward. To truly understand who we are as human beings and what this relationship is between the brain and our religious and spiritual selves.

Jonathan Levi: Awesome. And if people want to reach out to you and share feedback, share experiences, where should we send them?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: They can go to my website, which is just Andrew Newberg,, information on the rabbi's brain book and other books are there research articles, and there's also a place to get in touch with me as well, and so I'd love to hear from people.

Jonathan Levi: Awesome. Dr. Andrew Newberg. Thank you very much. Always a pleasure chatting with you and just learning a little bit more about neuroscience is sort of my favorite topics. So I appreciate your time and I appreciate your work.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: My pleasure, thanks again.

Jonathan Levi: All right, my friend, you take care.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Okay. Bye. Bye.

Jonathan Levi: All right, superfriends. That is all we have for you today, but I hope you guys really enjoyed the show and I hope you learned a ton of actionable information tips, advice that will help you go out there and overcome the impossible. If you've enjoyed the show, please take a moment to leave us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, or drop us a quick little note on the Twitter machine @gosuperhuman.

Also, if you have any ideas for anyone out there who you would love to see on the show, we always love to hear your recommendations. You can submit it on our website, or you can just drop us an email and let us know. That's all for today, guys. Thanks for tuning in.

Closing: Thanks for tuning in to the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. For more great skills and strategies, or for links to any of the resources mentioned in this episode, visit  We'll see you next time.



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The Basics of Total Personal Transformation W/ Stephan Spencer