Years of research, however, have led Gene and me to believe that experiences like Roberts are real, and can be measured and verified by solid science. Thats exactly why Im huddling, beside Gene, in this cramped examination room, holding kite string between my fingers: Im waiting for Roberts moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture.
We wait one hour, while Robert meditates. Then I feel a gentle jerk on the twine. This is my cue to inject a radioactive material into a long intravenous line that also runs into Roberts room, and into a vein into his left arm. We wait a few moments more for Robert to end his meditation, then we whisk him off to a room in the hospitals Nuclear Medicine Department, where a massive, state-of-the-art SPECT camera awaits. In moments, Robert is reclining on a metal table, the cameras three large crystal heads orbiting his skull with a precise, robotic whir.
The SPECT camera (the acronym stands for single photon emission computed tomography) is a high-tech imaging tool that detects radioactive emissions. The SPECT camera scans inside Roberts head by detecting the location of the radioactive tracer we injected when Robert tugged on the string. Because the tracer is carried by blood flow, and because this particular tracer locks almost immediately into brain cells and remains there for hours, the SPECT scans of Roberts head will give us an accurate freeze-frame of blood flow patterns in Roberts brain just moments after injection-at the point of his meditative climax.
Increased blood flow to a given part of the brain correlates with heightened activity in that particular area, and vice-versa. Since we have a good idea of the specific functions that are performed by various brain regions, we expect the SPECT images to tell us a lot about what Roberts brain was doing during the peak moments of his meditation.
We arent disappointed. The finished scan images show unusual activity in a small lump of gray matter nestled in the top rear section of the brain. The proper name of this highly specialized bundle of neurons is the posterior superior parietal lobe, but for the purposes of this book, Gene and I have dubbed it the orientation association area, of OAA.
The primary job of the OAA is to orient the individual in physical space-it keeps track of which end is up, helps us judge angles and distances, and allows us to negotiate safely the dangerous physical landscape around us. To perform this crucial function, it must first generate a clear, consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. In simpler terms, it must draw a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.
It may seem strange that the brain requires a specialized mechanism to keep tabs on this you/not-you dichotomy; from the vantage point of normal consciousness, the distinction seems ridiculously clear. But thats only because the OAA does its job so seamlessly and so well. In fact, people who suffer injuries to the orientation area have great difficulty maneuvering in physical space. When they approach their beds, for example, their brains are so baffled by the constantly shifting calculus of angles, depths, and distances that the simple task of lying down becomes an impossible challenge. Without the orientation areas help in keeping track of the bodys shifting coordinates, they cannot locate themselves in space mentally or physically, so they miss the bed entirely and fall to the floor; or they manage to get their body onto the mattress, but when they try to recline they can only huddle awkwardly against the wall.
In normal circumstances, however, the OAA helps create such a distinct, accurate sense of our physical orientation to the world that we hardly need to give the matter any thought at all. To do its job so well, the orientation area depends on a constant stream of nerve impulses from each of the bodys senses. The OAA sorts and processes these impulses virtually instantaneously during every moment of our lives. It manages a staggering workload at capacities and speeds that would stress the circuits of a dozen super computers.
Excerpted from Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause Copyright 2001 by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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