10 Questions Series: Dr. Andrew Newberg

August 29, 2013 by Chris Grosso

Andrew Newberg


NAME: Dr. Andrew Newberg

BIO: Dr. Andrew Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine. He is considered a pioneer in the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field frequently referred to as – neurotheology. His work attempts to better understand the nature of religious and spiritual practices and experiences. This has been compiled into his latest book, Principles of Neurotheology, which reviews the important principles and foundations of neurotheology. 


Q: Who and or what, do you attribute the person you are today to?


A: My parents had the probably the biggest impact on me as a person today. They always encouraged me to ask questions and explore the world in all the ways that I could. And yet, they also asked me to be practical in my approach. This has been important in my own thinking since I am always trying to tie whatever theoretical or philosophical ideas into something that has relevance in people’s lives. In addition, they raised me in a spiritual environment, but one that was open to many possibilities. This has helped me to keep my mind open to all of the new ideas that I either come up with or come across. My wife has also been absolutely essential to making me the person I am today. Her love and support have allowed me to pursue my goals and dreams in a very robust way and she too, makes sure that I proceed with care and always reflect on the importance of whatever I discover in the more global context of the human world.


Q: What are some of the musical albums or musicians/bands that have impacted your life and in what way?


A: I grew up in the 1970’s so was generally influenced by that type of music and thought. One of the albums I listened to over and over as a child was John Denver’s greatest hits. The songs created very powerful feelings in me about the interconnectedness of life, the importance of compassion and love, and never ceasing to be amazed at the human spirit or the universe. The Beatles Let It Be had a strong impact on me due to its fundamental message. But I have also always been amazed at the universality of some music and the Beatles definitely falls into that category. It always makes me think about how some things can affect so many of us and why that is the case. In a similar way, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to me is essentially hearing perfection in music. It is rare that such a perfect balance in every note is achieved, but I think Mozart does this in so much of his music, especially this piece. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon always made me think about the nature of reality, how we perceive it, and how right and how wrong we can be. Woody Allen’s Stand Up Routines from the 60’s reflected his fascination with death, his ability to bring humor to such a complex and disturbing issue. His humor was an important part of my realization about how seriously we take ourselves and how funny we act when we take ourselves seriously.


Q: What is one of the most shocking experiences you’ve ever had?


A: I think one of the most shocking experiences I have had was as a resident when I saw my first person die in front of me. It is a terrible thing to watch someone die, especially when you can do nothing to stop it, even with all of our knowledge and technology. It is a very sobering experience and one that makes you greatly appreciate the remarkable beauty of life.


Q: What is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ve ever had?


A: Shortly after college, I was struggling with a lot of inner issues regarding who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. I was very distraught about what to do on a very fundamental level. I was on vacation in Florida and was walking on the beach at dusk very upset about these issues when suddenly the full moon rose up over the ocean. It was so beautiful and made me suddenly realize the beauty of the universe and how I fit into it. It was so beautiful to see nature in this way, I felt deeply connected to the world around me. And I suddenly realized that what was troubling me so much, and causing me such pain, was something that I could deal with and work through. There were answers to be found, even if they were only in the form of questions.


Q: What is one of the most defining moments in your life and why?


A: Aside from my wedding and my child being born which are always the most defining moments in a person’s life, I would say that the most defining period of time in my life was my third year of medical school when I decided to take an extra year and pursue research. This year launched my entire career since it was in that short period of time that I met and began working with the two mentors who tremendously influenced my life and career. Dr. Abass Alavi was the Chief of Nuclear Medicine, and taught me everything about research and specifically brain imaging. It was this training in brain imaging that I used to study all different types of neurological and psychological conditions as well as the wide variety of religious and spiritual phenomena. Dr. Eugene d’Aquili was the other mentor who enabled me to fully understand the link between brain science and religion. His exploration of ritual, meditation, prayer, and mystical experiences was something that I found deeply interesting and we collaborated on a variety of ideas that greatly pushed forward our research and scholarship in the field of neurotheology. I have always thought that most people consider themselves lucky if they find one mentor who truly helps them in their career and life. I was incredibly fortunate to find two.


Q: What do you believe are the benefit, if any, vs. the dangers of mind-altering drugs?


A: I personally have never used any illicit drugs. While they do provide some people with extraordinary experiences, I think that the potential risks generally outweigh the benefit, especially since I think such experiences, or at least other powerful experiences can be attained without the use of drugs. That being said, I do understand why such experiences are so strong and transformative. But for myself personally, I don’t believe that they will take me closer to finding truth, since I believe that reality is so difficult to ascertain that any experience, on or off drugs, only provides another type of experience without providing clear evidence for anything absolute.


Q: What are some films you’ll never forget seeing for the first time and why?


A: I do not have the most elaborate taste in films since I primarily like science fiction and comedy films. I have always been a big Star Trek fan so I have enjoyed all of their movies. I always liked the positive outlook of the future of humanity. Further, I felt that the ideas often reflected the basic ideas and issues facing humanity. Similarly, Star Wars was simply the classic battle between good and evil with so many great ideas about how to live one’s life. 2001 A Space Odyssey was also a great thought experiment. Just trying to figure out what it meant was challenging, but it was fascinating to consider the cycle of life and death and the influence of forces unknown on the development of humanity. On the comedy side, I love most of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks movies. They are hilarious, irreverent, but make you think in the midst of their silliness. And I suppose the last movie I have always been partial to is the original Muppet Movie. At its core, it is about making people happy and persistently pursuing your dreams – two great messages.


Q: Does God exist and if so, in what capacity? If not, why not?


A: I suppose the answer has to start with a subsequent question: How do you define God? Depending on the answer to that question, it becomes slightly easier to answer the question as to whether God, as specifically defined, exists. Plus, it also depends on how you define existence. If existence and God are defined broadly, then God definitely exists. The idea of God clearly exists in the minds of many people. So it stands to reason that God, at least as an idea, definitely exists. And in fact, God exerts influence on the world via the ideas of human beings. If we are trying to determine if God as an entity exists, then the answer becomes murkier. Some have argued that God is the universe and hence God exists, as does the universe. Others have argued that God exists separate from the physical universe, but in the laws of nature or in the interconnectedness of all things. Of course, we also have to think about the religious definitions of God. Here the issue is whether there is any way to prove that one view about God is correct or not. Obviously, this is very difficult. I always like to use the analogy of how different flies buzzing around an elephant perceive the elephant. One fly thinks and elephant is a tail, another thinks it is a trunk, and another thinks it is a tusk. All of these ideas are right, but they are also limited. Whatever God or the universe might ultimately be, I suppose the one thing I believe is that they are too big for any one person to know for sure what they are like. Hence, trying to answer the question of whether God exists is somewhat of an impossibility.


Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to humanity is?


A: I hope that when I am through, my greatest contribution will be to provide humanity with a little more insight into the true nature of reality. To that end, I hope that I have challenged people to recognize the limitations of their beliefs and biases, to have a passion for inquiry and knowledge, to be integrative and inclusive in their approach, and above all, to be compassionate to others since we are all on the same fundamental journey.


Q: What does the human experience mean to you?


A: The human experience to me is the search for truth, knowledge, and meaning. It is a wonderful journey that we can all follow and take part in. We can find meaning and truth via almost any avenue, from our jobs to our families to our thoughts. I do believe however, that everyone should always strive to be something a little bit more than they are right now and that this happens by continually pursuing new ideas and new questions. It is the journey itself that is important. We can learn so much along the way, and mostly we learn how much we don’t know, but as long as we keep on that path of discovery, we keep experiencing what it means to be human.

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.