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What Turns People Into Spiritual Virtuosos?

One mystery about spiritually inclined people is this: What turns people into spiritual virtuosos? I have come to think that people like Scott McDermott are to prayer what Tiger Woods is to golf. From an early age, their natural talents channeled them toward golf, or toward God, and once they felt the rush of watching that ball fall into the hole or sipping the unearthly wine of transcendence, they pursued their passions. They trained because the reward was so sweet and so constant. Nature and nurture, genes and sweat, schemed to create these masters.

Scott was sixteen when he says he first "encountered" God directly. From that time on, prayer became the central habit of his life, around which all other events orbited. Scott has prayed one to two hours a day for more than thirty-five years. On Fridays, his day off, he is often on his knees for four. During those sessions, Scott feels peace and joy. He says he often hears a voice and receives visions.

"I begin early," he told me. "I begin at five-thirty. I'm not a morning person. I stumble down to my basement. My study's down in my basement. I have a recliner down there. I walk down, turn the lights on, and say, 'God, it's just me. I just want to spend some time with you.' And I sit in that chair and we begin to have a conversation."

I turned to Andy Newberg, who was standing with us in a small examination room at the hospital. Newberg was listening intently.

"I'm curious, Andy, what would that kind of practice do to the brain?" I asked.

"Well, some of the research we have been doing suggests that when people are engaged in practices over a long period of time, it does ultimately alter how the person's brain functions," Newberg responded. "As one does a particular practice or a particular task over and over, that becomes more and more written into the neural connections of the brain. So the more you focus on something, whether it's math or auto racing or football or God, the more that becomes your reality."

I glanced at Scott to see if he picked up the ambivalence in Newberg's response: God may be "your reality" and still be imaginary. The belief in God may shape your worldview, and your brain, in the same way Harry Potter books shape the brains and imaginations of children. But no one would argue that a wizard like Harry Potter actually exists.

I put the question to Newberg more explicitly: "When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?"

Newberg was prepared with a careful answer.

"Well, it comes down to belief systems," he said. "When a religious person looks at our brain scans, they say, 'Ah, that's where God has an interaction with me.' An atheist looks at the data and says, 'There it is. It's nothing more than what's in your brain.' Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they've seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn't tell me whether or not they actually did see God."

In fact, Newberg is undecided as to whether brain images reveal there is a God or not. Materialists would say that brain scans prove that prayer is a physical process, nothing more; there is no need to bring an external being into the equation. But Newberg points out that brain scans do not necessarily exclude an external being. Say you are eating a piece of apple pie, just out of the oven, topped with melting vanilla ice cream. If Newberg took a brain scan of you as you bit into the pie, various parts of your brain would light up—the areas that register smell, taste, form, and shape, as would the area that recalls the memory of the time you tasted pie this good, at the county fair when you were six years old. The parts of the brain not involved with the task would go dark. Who knows? You may even lose a sense of self in this ecstatic culinary moment. But just because your brain is activated in a certain way, does that mean the apple pie isn't real? Of course it's real. And just because Scott McDermott's prayers correlate to brain activity, does that mean God is mere illusion?

Courtesy of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA)

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.