LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The golden rule of journalism decrees that reporters take nothing on faith. Back up every story with hard evidence and question everything.
NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty kept that rule in mind when she decided to explore the science of spirituality. She was searching for answers to the questions: Is spiritual experience real or a delusion? What happens when we pray? And does consciousness depend on the brain or can it operate when the brain doesn't? Her research and what she discovered can be found in her new book "Fingerprints of God." And Barbara Bradley Hagerty is in our studios. Nice to see you.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thanks, Liane.
HANSEN: Your quest began with your own spiritual experience. Can you briefly tell us what happened?
HAGERTY: Yeah, it happened really about 15 years ago. I was doing a story for the L.A. Times Sunday magazine. And I was interviewing a woman about her life. And it turned out that her melanoma had returned. And she was talking about how she felt that this melanoma was allowed by God not to kill her, but to give her a transcendent purpose.
And as I listened to her story - we were sitting outside, it was nighttime -literally I kind of felt the air grow warm and moist about us. It was kind of as if someone were breathing on us. And it wasn't just me imagining this because she stopped mid-sentence. And about maybe 30 seconds later, the feeling just kind of receded.
And that moment kind of launched me on a journey to find out, was I imagining something? Is there something other than this world? Is there potentially, you know, a god who can kind of step in there and breathe on you?
HANSEN: You were raised in the Christian Science tradition. Did that present any challenges to your objectivity?
HAGERTY: You know, in a way Christian Science actually really helped me with my research. And the reason is that Christian Science believes that prayer and thoughts really, really count for something - that you pray and you heal your body. And what I began to find in looking at all this research is that actually Christian Science is kind of onto something in some of these areas.
Like, for example, when you look at the studies on prayer and healing, you realize that Christian Science was about 100 years ahead of its time. Mary Baker Eddy talked about thoughts affecting your body. That's now called psychoneuroimmunology. And so, instead of kind of derailing me or hurting my objectivity, in a way, Christian Science informed me about the science.
HANSEN: I think we have to make it clear that you're not exploring religious beliefs and organized religion.
HAGERTY: That's right.
HANSEN: It is the idea of something spiritual, something other than our material bodies. And is it caused in the brain to make us do this or is there something that can't be explained, a mystery?
HANSEN: You participated in an experiment using what is called the God Helmet. First, what was the God Helmet?
HAGERTY: Well, the God Helmet is a modified motorcycle helmet made by a fellow named Michael Persinger up at Laurentian University in Canada. You know, it's got these little electrodes in it and they put electrodes on your head. And then what they try to do is activate your right temporal lobe. His theory is that the right temporal lobe, when activated, will create a sensed presence, this feeling that someone else is in the room. So, I went up there and, you know, he sat me in this overstuffed, overused chair, slapped this God Helmet on me and then, you know, took it away.
HANSEN: Let's hear some of your tape.
HAGERTY: It's kind of a roiling darkness, like a battle of darkness.
Dr. MICHAEL PERSINGER (Laurentian University): Okay.
HAGERTY: It's off to my left.
Dr. PERSINGER: You've just reported the actions on your left. And now you...
HANSEN: Wow. So, what happened?
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: I mean, no presence? Did the experiment work? I mean...
HAGERTY: Well, you know, it was really interesting, Liane, I thought it was a complete failure. I didn't sense a presence. I grew very sleepy sitting there for half an hour. But then interestingly, about six months later, I was going through all my tape and placed a microphone where he was at the control booth. He was talking into the microphone and what I found is that he would say to me, okay, I'm going to activate a different part of your brain. You should be seeing faces pretty soon.
And sure enough I'd see a face off to my left. He predicted several things that I then saw. What that told me is that, yes, in fact, you know, your brain can be manipulated to see certain things. That doesn't mean that I saw God. I didn't feel that presence at all. But it was an interesting revelation when I went through the tape.
HANSEN: Did the research and the experience of writing this book change you in any way?
HAGERTY: You know, I used to wonder if an intelligent person and a well-educated person could reconcile faith and science. I actually think that God is a choice and a very rational choice. You can look at the evidence and you can say, yep, it's all brain chemistry. And you can look at the same evidence and say, no, that's how we're wired by a divine creator. And science is agnostic on that issue. What changed for me is I felt like it's legitimate to believe.
HANSEN: NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Her new book is called "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality." And you can hear her series on the emerging science of spirituality this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Barbara, thank you so much.
HAGERTY: Thank you, Liane.
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