Dr Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and medical doctor and is Director of Research at the Myrna Bring Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Andrew is a leading American neuroscientist and is the author of many best-selling books including How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, (Ballantine Books 2010). He has conducted ground-breaking research into how brain function is associated with various mental states with particular reference to the relationship between brain function and religious or mystical experiences. This new interdisciplinary field is known as neurotheology and has led him to conduct research on subjects as diverse as psychic mediums, Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns.
Andrew talked to jobs.ac.uk about his exciting work in the United States, combining university teaching, academic research and practising as a medical doctor.
“My primary role as Director of Research at the integrative medical centre involves creating, developing and executing different research projects. Integrative medicine encompasses a wide range of approaches including alternative and complementary medicine, nutritional supplements and meditation. I conduct research to find out how these various approaches work, in the context of their physiological and clinical effects. For example, we are currently investigating the benefits of antioxidants such as vitamin C in the treatment of breast cancer and the effectiveness of meditation in stress reduction.”
Within the realm of neurotheology Andrew’s research subjects are wide-ranging and can include nuns in prayer and Buddhist monks practising meditation. He has looked at the long-term effects of meditation, and how these practises might change the brain. The results of his work have been quite surprising.
“When we were looking at how prayer might change the brain, I scanned the brains of a group of Franciscan nuns before and during their prayers. We found that certain physiological changes took place in the brain, and research into other forms of meditation has shown similar effects. The brain’s frontal lobe was activated and the parietal lobe was de-activated, leading to a loss of the sense of self and a sense of connectedness with God. My work is all about understanding the nature of these practises and looking at clinical uses. I want to know if people can use these techniques to reduce anxiety and depression.”
Andrew heads up a medium-sized team of researchers at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, comprising two other primary research co-ordinators and around five or six research assistants.
“We are conducting our research in the context of a medical centre. So the scans I am doing might become part of the project. I work closely with other medical experts in the hospital, such as oncologists, neurologists, and other specialists. I also undertake clinical work for about five or six days each month – within integrative medicine. So if someone came to see me with gastrointestinal symptoms or chronic fatigue syndrome I might modify their diet or I might send them on a meditation programme. However if they need drugs then I will also prescribe them.”
As well as conducting research and working as a medical practitioner Andrew also finds time in his busy schedule to teach at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I teach neuroscience and psychology undergraduates about brain imaging and behaviour in a course entitled “Imaging the Brain” which is part of the University’s Biological Basis of Behaviour program. As well as teaching for around five hours a week, I also have additional contact time with students and all the usual preparation and marking. My teaching is seminar-led and involves lots of student-participation.
“For me, ensuring that the students get to learn about all the different topics on the course is very rewarding. Seeing enthusiastic and interested students is what I love most about my job. I really enjoy teaching, as it’s all about the future of neuroscience. It’s also very rewarding to be able to help my students on their career path, whether that’s towards medical school or postgraduate training in psychology, or whatever. I’m not a tutor in the traditional sense, but I make myself available to my students whenever I can.
“The creativity of my students is vital, as life is all about learning, growing and developing. There is always something new to think about. As a kid I was always asking how things worked and this is how I became interested in neuroscience. I loved science and chose medical school, but I’m equally interested in philosophy, religion and culture, and how these all interrelate. During my medical school training I took another year to do research into spiritual practises and religious experiences and it was then that I realised what I wanted to do. Being a doctor has enabled me to create the life that I want, combining medical practise, research and teaching.”
Not surprisingly, this heavy workload does not fit neatly into a nine to five routine, something for which Andrew is thankful.
“Working straight nine to five would drive me crazy! I work the hours that are best for me, and in this way my whole life is integrated. I sometimes leave work early, perhaps to keep fit or to spend time with my family, in which case I usually work again late in the evening once the family are in bed. I love my work and it does not feel like work for me as I really enjoy what I do. In this way I am more effective and my life is in balance. For me, family life and working life are integrated – it is all about putting the different pieces together.
“My advice for anyone interested in an academic career is not to get too bogged down, and to maintain a very positive approach. Your research won’t always go well, and things will need fixing from time to time. So you have to be flexible and creative.
“Always aim to develop an expertise in something that is well-recognised. Because I am an expert in brain imaging, this has enabled me to have sufficient credibility in the world of academic research. And remember that you have to do the things that you have to do in order to do the things that you want to do and enjoy. Be ambitious and utilise all the skills you have. There’ll be lots of hard work along the way, but it will pay off in the end. And never get consumed with negativity.”
Dr Andrew Newberg graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1993. He then trained in internal medicine at the Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia serving as chief resident in his final year. Dr Newberg then completed a fellowship in nuclear medicine in the Department of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr Newberg has written numerous research articles and bestselling books including Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief with Mark Waldman, (Ballantine/Random House, 2002). He is also co-author (with Eugene G. D’Aquili, MD of the award-winning book The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress Press 1999).