Saturday, May 23, 2009

The origins of religion

Karen Armstrong is the author of nearly 20 books on religion. When her breakthrough book, "A History of God" appeared in 1993, she quickly became one of the world's leading historians of spiritual matters.

Her work displays a wide-ranging knowledge of religious traditions -- from monotheistic religions to Buddhism. That expertise is on full display in her latest book, "The Great Transformation," which charts the origins of many of the world's religions, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. What's remarkable is that all these spiritual traditions emerged in the same historical era -- the "Axial Age" -- from 900 to 200 B.C.

Armstrong tells "To the Best of Our Knowledge's" Steve Paulson that these traditions emerged as responses to the rampant violence of their time. And she says our own time has a lot in common with that age:

"It was one of the great, interesting discoveries to me. I couldn't believe it when I was researching this against the backdrop of our own time, when religion is often used to justify atrocious acts. But in every case the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion, a disciplined turning away from violence."

The spiritual message that rejected violence: "First of all they all insisted in very different ways, but they came to the same conclusion, that you must give up and abandon your ego. That the cause of violence, hatred and human evil is very largely rooted in desperation about the ego. We are egocentric creatures, and so the sages said that the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call ... God, Nirvana or the Tao."

According to Armstrong, this common message is what we now call the "Golden Rule."

Armstrong says that we should really think about how we define God and religion: "Religion is a search for transcendence, but transcendence isn't necessarily sighted in an external God, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality that could not be defined in words.

"And the trouble is that we define our God too closely, we say God is the Supreme Being. Well in my book ... "A History of God," I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said that you couldn't think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God."

"I think sometimes the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious ... because people very often talk about Him as if He's some kind of acquaintance whom they can second-guess. People will say, 'God loves that, God wills that and God despises the other,' and very often the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with that of the speaker."

As for the assertion by some that Islam encourages violence, Armstrong says "That' simply not true ... this kind of inflammatory talk ... about Islam is convincing Muslims all over the world who are not extremists that the West is incurably Islam-phobic, and will never respect their traditions.

"I would say there are more passages in the Bible than in the Koran that are dedicated to violence. And I think what we all ought to do, religious people in this day and age, is to look at our own sacred traditions -- our own -- not just pointing a finger at somebody else's, but our own. Christians should look hard and long at the Book of Revelations, and they should look at those passages ... that speak of the destruction of the enemy. It is not enough to point an accusing finger at another faith ...".

For Armstrong, the proper practice of religion requires some work: "Basically religion is hard work, it's an art form, it's a way of finding meaning -- like painting, like music, like poetry -- in a world that's violent and cruel and often seems meaningless."

Closing the health food gap

Many low-income neighborhoods in the United States lack access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables. Residents in these so-called "food deserts" rely on neighborhood corner stores and fast food chains as their main sources of food. But, as "Living on Earth's" Jessica Ilyse Smith reports from New York City, a number of programs are working to close the food gap by bringing healthy foods close to home.

When Michelle Obama rolled up her sleeves and started digging a garden on the White House lawn, advocates for healthy local food cheered. The First Lady set a powerful example by inviting Washington, DC schoolchildren to garden along with her.

The message: the inner city, too, can have access to fresh, organic food. And in these tough times this is especially important. Government figures show that some 36 million people live in households that have trouble just putting food on the table.

It's Saturday morning at the Cemalyn Grocery in Brooklyn. Cesar Rodriguez tends to his customers. Soda, cookies, chips and canned foods line the walls of Rodriguez's bodega. But, among the sea of processed foods and packaged goods, stands a small outpost of fresh fruits and green leafy vegetables.

Rodriguez recently added these fresh foods to his store. He's one of almost 1,000 bodega owners taking part in New York City's Healthy Bodegas Initiative.

Rodriguez through translator: "Through the program, we're trying to improve people's health and the health of the neighborhood, have people eat healthier products, and lose weight because obesity is a sickness here in our community."

Low-income neighborhoods like Rodriguez's have few supermarkets or other options for fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet there are many places to buy fast food, candy and alcohol.

Sabrina Baronberg of the City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene wanted to find ways to address the many health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease found in poorer areas. She found that 80% of the food markets in these neighborhoods were small corner stores.

Baronberg: "These areas have many more bodegas than supermarkets and very few supermarkets in fact. That really inspired me to work to make these large environmental changes to make it easier for people to eat healthier."

So, in 2006 Baronberg began to work with bodega owners and kicked-off the Healthy Bodegas Initiative. She saw that residents wanted to change what they ate but needed help: "Nobody wants to live a life of chronic disease. So people would say to me I really want to make these changes, I want to switch to 1% milk, I want to eat more fruits and vegetables, I want to be healthier but I can't. My bodega only sells junk food and there aren't any supermarkets. So what am I supposed to do? And, you know, there is nothing more frustrating than that."

New York City's neighborhoods are not the only areas with limited access to healthy food. These so-called food deserts are found across the country in rural and urban locations.

Mark Winne has looked at food deserts for years: "It's relative based on how far somebody has to go to get to any kind of decent, affordable food store, and the means that they have to get there. And do they in fact have the means?"

Winne is the author of "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty." In the book, he chronicles the rise of food deserts in the 1960's, alongside the growth of the American suburb. With scores of people leaving downtown areas, inner cities were drained of wealth. Supermarket chains followed the wealthier client base and moved to the suburbs.

Winne: "They simply began to walk away from urban America. And these were communities that needed those stores more than others. They were communities that were being challenged by poverty, and challenged by some of the worst socioeconomic conditions that we've had perhaps in the 20th century."

It wasn't just the lack of supermarkets that led to the growth of food deserts, but also the lack of public transportation to bring urban residents to suburban grocery stores. Winne says nearly 70% of the households in low-income neighborhoods do not own a car.

As an example he highlights the 8th ward of Washington D.C., which is close to the U.S. Capitol building. In this area, nearly 70,000 residents live with slim access to grocery stores.

Winne: "About 38% of those people are considered poor using U.S. poverty standards. If you look at the landscape we see almost no supermarkets and we also see another characteristic of a food desert, which is a tremendous number of fast food joints. And that's what people have to choose from for food. And as a result we see very high levels of obesity."

Costs from obesity and related chronic diseases are increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. spends over 117 billion dollars a year on healthcare related to obesity. And in low-income neighborhoods with lots of fast food and few healthy options, the obesity rate is rising.

Over in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Eugene rakes leaves that he'll add to one of the compost piles lining the side of an urban farm: "We have our compost beds over here that we've been processing for a long time. We have one that was built two months ago, and it's almost done but it's not all the way done. It's almost broken itself down, all of the nutrients and stuff like almost broken down and created our soil that we use."

Eugene is one of about ten neighborhood teens who work at the Red Hook Community Farm. The farm - run by the non-profit group Added Value - was built literally from the ground up. Soil was brought in to cover an old abandoned ball field. If you look closely on the outskirts of the rows of onions, lettuce and beets you can still see home plate and the faint white lines that mark the field's boundaries.

This farm has not only increased the community's access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, but also has helped change the neighborhood.

Eugene: "Before the farm I'd say it was pretty much a little badder, because there was still a lot of gang violence and stuff like that going around here. I'm just basically proud of being here and helping out and being able to bring healthy food to my neighborhood that I live in."

Eugene and other teens plant seeds, harvest crops and sell their bounty at a farmer's market in the neighborhood. Before the farm started, residents went through a lot to get fresh food.

Kate and many other Red Hook residents who buy their produce from the farm understand that fresh fruit and vegetables are important for their health: "I took two buses or a car service to get food back to Red Hook. I mean you couldn't even get a quart of milk, or vegetables."

William Lewis is a longtime resident who didn't like what he found in the neighborhood before the farm: "Well, it was dull, there was nothing you could buy. Not fresh anyway – just regular stores, you know. When the farm came, I just started coming here because I know it's fresh food, and I like fresh, it's better for me—it's better for everyone as a matter of fact, you know?"

The farmer's market has become a neighborhood gathering place, and teens at the farm not only earn money and learn how to grow food, they also learn how to be stewards of their community...a community that is focusing on changing the circumstances of its health.

Efforts like this inspire author Mark Winne: "So it's the human innovation, creativity, willingness as a community in some sort of organized social way, and political way of trying to change the circumstances that they live in—and that really inspires me."

Programs like the Added Value farm and the Healthy Bodegas Initiative operate from the ground up to improve the health of people living in food deserts. They also help to close what Winne calls the food gap that severely divides Americans.

Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality

Scientists are making the first attempts to understand spiritual experience — and what happens in the brains and bodies of people who believe they connect with the divine.

The field is called "neurotheology," and although it is new, it's drawing prominent researchers in the U.S. and Canada. Scientists have found that the brains of people who spend untold hours in prayer and meditation are different.

I met Scott McDermott five years ago, while covering a Pentecostal revival meeting in Toronto. It was pandemonium. People were speaking in tongues and barking like dogs. I thought, "What is a United Methodist minister, with a Ph.D. in New Testament theology, doing here?"

Then McDermott told me about a vision he had had years earlier.

"I saw fire dancing on my eyelids," he recalled, staring into the middle distance. "I felt God say to me, 'You be the oil, and I'll be the flame.' Then [I] began to feel waves of the Spirit flow through my body."

I never forgot McDermott. When I heard that scientists were studying the brains of people who spent countless hours in prayer and meditation, I thought, "I've got to see what's going on in Scott McDermott's head."

Focusing Affects Reality

A few years later, Andrew Newberg made that possible. Newberg is a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books, including How God Changes Your Brain. He has been scanning the brains of religious people like McDermott for more than a decade.

On a spring day in Newberg's laboratory, the neuroscientist settles McDermott in a darkened examination room and asks the pastor to pray for someone else — that is, intercessory prayer. A few minutes later, at the moment Newberg believes McDermott has reached the peak of his prayer, the researcher injects the minister with a dye that shows the blood flow in his brain.

Twenty minutes later, McDermott emerges beaming. He has enjoyed intense spiritual moments like this ever since he was in his 20s.

"The first thing that got me was I could hear God's voice," the pastor said. "And it so enamored me — I mean, it changed me dramatically. I couldn't wait to pray!"

McDermott has prayed at least two hours a day for the past 25 years.

I ask Newberg what kind of impact that would that have on the pastor's brain.

"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain," Newberg says.

'I Think We're Wired For The Supernatural'

Now it's time for Newberg to take a peek at McDermott's neural connections, sliding him into a SPECT scanner, which will create an image of which parts of McDermott's brain lit up and which went dark while he prayed.

A few minutes later, Newberg has preliminary results on his computer screen. He notes some areas of increased activity in the frontal lobes, which handle focused attention — precisely what Newberg would expect from a person praying intently. But he adds that this needs further analysis — and he'll need to find more volunteers to do this kind of interpersonal prayer before he can come to any conclusions.

Afterward, I ask McDermott if any of this challenges his beliefs. Not at all, he says.

"I think we're wired for the supernatural," he says. "I think we're meant to sense a world beyond our five senses. Come on! Taste and see that God really is good."

Newberg says he can't prove that McDermott or anyone else is communing with God, but he can look for circumstantial evidence.

"What we need to do is study those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain, and understanding what's happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective," he says.

Then he'll compare the mystical feelings with the brain physiology.

A Sense Of Oneness With The Universe

Newberg did that with Michael Baime. Baime is a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.

"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity," he explains, "that there has never been anything but this eternal now."

When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.

"This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world," he explains. "When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area."

Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience.

"There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one," Newberg says.

A little theological dynamite there — but, remember, the research is just beginning.

'You Can Sculpt Your Brain'

So far, scientists have focused on people who pray or meditate for one, two or more hours a day. They think that studying spiritual virtuosos will offer clues to the brain workings of more typical believers. But now Newberg and others are turning their attention to people who want to enrich their spiritual lives, but don't have that kind of time.

And there's hope for people with jobs and kids.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says you can change your brain with experience and training.

"You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym," he says. "Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly."

It's called neuroplasticity. For years Davidson, who is at the University of Wisconsin, has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks who have logged years of meditation. When it comes to things like attention and compassion, their brains are as finely tuned as a late-model Porsche. Davidson wondered: Could ordinary people achieve the same kind of connection with the spiritual that the monks do — without so much effort?

I wondered that, too. And when I heard his lab was launching a study lasting two weeks, I said, "Sign me up."

It turned out I was too old for the study. But they let me see what it was about. For 30 minutes every morning, I settled into my chair to the soothing tones of a meditation CD. The voice of a University of Wisconsin graduate student urged me to shower compassion on a loved one, a stranger, myself.

The trouble came when I was asked to visualize someone I had difficulty with in life. I became surly, as I reflected on the minor tragedies in my life and the people who caused them. When I saw Richard Davidson, I didn't mention how ill-tempered I had grown.

"Is there a capacity to change my brain if I continue with this?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he responded enthusiastically. "I would say the likelihood is that you are already changing your brain."

I hope not. Others, however, were far more successful in cultivating a spiritual mind-set. Davidson couldn't tell me about the results of my study, which have yet to be published. But he could say there were detectable changes in the subjects' brains within two weeks. Another similar study, where employees at a high-tech firm meditated a few minutes a day over a few weeks, produced more dramatic results.

"Just two months' practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions," he said.

For example, they developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate.

Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

Ninety percent of Americans say they pray — for their health, or their love life or their final exams. But does prayer do any good?

For decades, scientists have tried to test the power of prayer and positive thinking, with mixed results. Now some scientists are fording new — and controversial — territory.

Mind Over Body

When I first meet Sheri Kaplan, she is perched on a plastic chair at a Miami clinic, holding out her arm as a researcher draws several vials of blood.

"I'm quite excited about my blood work this time," she says. "I've got no stress and I'm proud of it."

Kaplan is tanned and freckled, with wavy red hair and a cocky laugh. She is defiantly healthy for a person who has lived with HIV for the past 15 years.

"God didn't want me to die or even get sick," she asserts. "I've never had any opportunistic infections, because I had no time to be down."

Kaplan's faith is unorthodox, but it's central to her life. She was raised Jewish, and although she claims no formal religion now, she prays and meditates every day. She believes God is keeping the virus at bay and that her faith is the reason she's alive today.

"Everything starts from a thought, and then the thought creates a reaction," she says. "And I have the power to control my mind, before it gets to a physical level or an emotional level."

For the past decade, Kaplan has been coming every few months to see Gail Ironson, a professor at the University of Miami. Ironson, an AIDS researcher, runs down a battery of questions.

"During this time have you had any HIV- or AIDS-related symptoms?" Ironson asks.

"Nope," Kaplan says. "Nothing."

"What percent of your well-being do you think is due to your own attitudes and behaviors versus medical care?" Ironson continues.

Kaplan laughs: "110 percent."

Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS (and she is not part of the population that has a mutation in the CCR5 gene that prevents progression of HIV to AIDS). In the mid-1990s, when having HIV was akin to a death sentence, Ironson noticed that a number of patients like Kaplan never got sick. Ironson wanted to know why. And she found something surprising.

"If you ask people what's kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality," she says. "It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that's why I decided to look at it."

Spirituality And Health

Ironson began to zero in on a patient's relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress.

She focused on two key indicators. She measured viral load, which tells how much of the virus is present in a person's body, and immune cells called CD-4 cells, which help fight off the AIDS virus.

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.

"In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality," Ironson says. "That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date."

"Just so I understand it," I confirm, "if someone weren't taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?"

"Yes," she says. "Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people don't take their meds," she adds quickly, laughing. "This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above."

Can My Prayers Affect Your Body?

Ironson calls the finding extraordinary. She was one of the first researchers to connect a patient's approach to God to specific chemical changes in the body.

Of course, mind-body medicine — the idea that my thoughts and emotions can affect my own health — has been standard teaching at many medical schools for years. But does that mean my thoughts can affect another person's body?

"The answer is pretty unequivocally no," says Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

Sloan notes that studies in the 1980s and '90s seemed to show that praying for a patient in a hospital sped up his recovery. But he says those studies were flawed. More recent, more rigorous studies, he argues, showed prayer either had no effect, or the patients actually grew worse.

Sloan says science understands how a person's thoughts can influence his own body — for example, through chemical changes in the brain that affect the immune system.

"There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody's thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person," Sloan says. "None. We know of nothing."

A few renegade scientists aren't satisfied with that. For years, they say, no one knew how morphine or aspirin worked. They just knew it worked. These researchers say typical prayer studies, in which a stranger prays for a stranger from a script, miss the critical element: a personal connection. So they're asking a different sort of question. Can a husband's love for his wife affect her body?

Or, as Marilyn Schlitz puts it: "Does our consciousness have the capacity to reach out and connect to someone else in a way that's health-promoting?"

The Love Study

On a bright spring day, Schlitz is leading Teena and J.D. Miller down a path to the laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco. Schlitz is the president of the institute, which conducts research on consciousness and spirituality. The Millers have been married a decade and their affection is palpable — making them perfect for the so-called Love Study.

Schlitz takes Teena into an isolated room, where no sound can come in or go out. Teena settles into a deep armchair as Schlitz attaches electrodes to her right hand.

"This is measuring blood flow in your thumb, and this is your skin conductance activity," the researcher explains. "So basically both of these are measures of your unconscious nervous system."

Schlitz locks Teena into the electromagnetically shielded chamber, then ushers J.D. into another isolated room with a closed-circuit television. She explains that the screen will go on and off. And at random intervals, Teena's image will appear on the screen for 10 seconds.

"And so during the times when you see her," she instructs, "it's your opportunity to think about sending loving, compassionate intention."

As the session begins, Dean Radin, a senior scientist here, watches as a computer shows changes in J.D.'s blood pressure and perspiration. When J.D. sees the image of his wife, the steady lines suddenly jump and become ragged. The question is: Will Teena's nervous system follow suit?

"Notice how here … see, there's a change in the blood volume," says Radin, pointing to a screen charting Teena's measurements. "A sudden change like that is sometimes associated with an orienting response. If you suddenly hear somebody whispering in your ear, and there's nobody around, you have this sense of what? What was that? That's more or less what we're seeing in the physiology."

An hour later, Radin displays Teena's graph, which shows a flat line during the times her husband was not staring at her image, but when her husband began to stare at her, she stopped relaxing and became "aroused" within about two seconds.

After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner's blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were 1 in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.

The 'Quantum Entanglement' Of Love

So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as "quantum entanglement" may offer some clues.

Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships — couples, siblings, parent and child — also be "entangled"? Not just emotionally, and psychologically — but also physically?

"If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don't understand," he says, "if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch."

This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

But it infuriates others — like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.

"Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."

Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

Decoding The Mystery Of Near-Death Experiences !

We've all heard the stories about near-death experiences: the tunnel, the white light, the encounter with long-dead relatives now looking very much alive.

Scientists have cast a skeptical eye on these accounts. They say that these feelings and visions are simply the result of a brain shutting down.

But now some researchers are giving a closer neurological look at near-death experiences and asking: Can your mind operate when your brain has stopped?

'I Popped Up Out The Top Of My Head'

I met Pam Reynolds in her tour bus. She's a big deal in the music world — her company, Southern Tracks, has recorded music by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to REM. But you've probably never heard her favorite song. It's the one Reynolds wrote about the time she traveled to death's door and back. The experience has made her something of a rock star in the near-death world. Believers say she is proof positive that the mind can operate when the brain is stilled. Nonbelievers say she's nothing of the sort.

Reynolds' journey began one hot August day in 1991.

"I was in Virginia Beach, Va., with my husband," she recalls. "We were promoting a new record. And I inexplicably forgot how to talk. I've got a big mouth. I never forget how to talk."

An MRI revealed an aneurysm on her brain stem. It was already leaking, a ticking time bomb. Her doctor in Atlanta said her best hope was a young brain surgeon at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona named Robert Spetzler.

"The aneurysm was very large, which meant the risk of rupture was also very large," Spetzler says. "And it was in a location where the only way to really give her the very best odds of fixing it required what we call 'cardiac standstill.' "

It was a daring operation: Chilling her body, draining the blood out of her head like oil from a car engine, snipping the aneurysm and then bringing her back from the edge of death.

"She is as deeply comatose as you can be and still be alive," Spetzler observes.

When the operation began, the surgeons taped shut Reynolds' eyes and put molded speakers in her ears. The ear speakers, which made clicking sounds as loud as a jet plane taking off, allowed the surgeons to measure her brain stem activity and let them know when they could drain her blood.

"I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business, seriously unconscious, when I started to hear a noise," Reynolds recalls. "It was a natural D, and as the sound continued — I don't know how to explain this, other than to go ahead and say it — I popped up out the top of my head."

A Tunnel And Bright Light

She says she found herself looking down at the operating table. She says she could see 20 people around the table and hear what sounded like a dentist's drill. She looked at the instrument in the surgeon's hand.

"It was an odd-looking thing," she says. "It looked like the handle on my electric toothbrush."

Reynolds observed the Midas Rex bone saw the surgeons used to cut open her head, the drill bits, and the case, which looked like the one where her father kept his socket wrenches. Then she noticed a surgeon at her left groin.

"I heard a female voice say, 'Her arteries are too small.' And Dr. Spetzler — I think it was him — said, 'Use the other side,' " Reynolds says.

Soon after, the surgeons began to lower her body temperature to 60 degrees. It was about that time that Reynolds believes she noticed a tunnel and bright light. She eventually flat-lined completely, and the surgeons drained the blood out of her head.

During her near-death experience, she says she chatted with her dead grandmother and uncle, who escorted her back to the operating room. She says as they looked down on her body, she could hear the Eagles' song "Hotel California" playing in the operating room as the doctors restarted her heart. She says her body looked like a train wreck, and she said she didn't want to return.

"My uncle pushed me," she says, laughing. "And when I hit the body, the line in the song was, 'You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.' And I opened my eyes and I said, 'You know, that is really insensitive!' "

A Vision That Matches The Record

Afterwards, Reynolds assumed she had been hallucinating. But a year later, she mentioned the details to her neurosurgeon. Spetzler says her account matched his memory.

"From a scientific perspective," he says, "I have absolutely no explanation about how it could have happened."

Spetzler did not check out all the details, but Michael Sabom did. Sabom is a cardiologist in Atlanta who was researching near-death experiences.

"With Pam's permission, they sent me her records from the surgery," he says. "And long story short, what she said happened to her is actually what Spetzler did with her out in Arizona."

According to the records, there were 20 doctors in the room. There was a conversation about the veins in her left leg. She was defibrillated. They were playing "Hotel California." How about that bone saw? Sabom got a photo from the manufacturer — and it does look like an electric toothbrush.

How, Sabom wonders, could she know these things?

"She could not have heard [it], because of what they did to her ears," he says. "In addition, both of her eyes were taped shut, so she couldn't open her eyes and see what was going on. So her physical sensory perception was off the table."

An Alternative Explanation?

That's preposterous, says anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee.

"This report provides absolutely no evidence for survival of any sort of consciousness outside the body during near-death experiences or any other such experiences," he says.

Woerlee, an Australian researcher and near-death experience debunker who has investigated Reynolds' case, says what happened to her is easy to explain. He says when they cut into her head, she was jolted into consciousness. At that point, they had not yet drained blood from her brain. He believes she could hear — despite the clicking earplugs.

"There are various explanations," Woerlee says. "One: that the earphones or plugs were not that tightly fitting. Two: It could have been that it was due to sound transmission through the operating table itself."

So Reynolds could have heard conversations. As for seeing the Midas Rex bone saw, he says, she recognized a sound from her childhood.

"She made a picture in her mind of a machine or a device which was very similar to what she was familiar with — a dental drill," Woerlee says.

Woerlee says Reynolds experienced anesthesia awareness, in which a person is conscious but can't move. He figures back in 1991, that happened in 1 out of every 2,000 operations.

That doesn't convince cardiologist Sabom or neurosurgeon Spetzler. They believe the combination of anesthesia and the sluggish brain activity caused by hypothermia meant that Reynolds could not form or retain memories for a significant part of the operation. At the very least, Sabom says, Reynolds' story raises the possibility that consciousness can function even when the brain is offline.

"Is there some type of awareness that occurs from a nonfunctional, physical brain?" Sabom asks. "And if there is, does that mean that there's a soul or spirit?"

Re-Creating Near-Death Experiences

In the end, Reynolds' story is just an anecdote. And in fact, that's the problem with all the studies of near-death experiences. After all, you can't do clinical trials where you kill Mrs. Smith and tag along as she passes through the tunnel to the light, just to verify her story.

Except in Hollywood, of course. In the 1990 movie Flatliners (starring Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland), five medical students try to peer into the next world by stopping their hearts and returning to tell the tale.

The movie inspired Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. What if he could do the next best thing? Since stopping people's hearts is a research no-no, he is asking people who have had near-death experiences to relive them while he looks to see what's happening in their head.

"And it seems that these people have a different sort of brain," Beauregard says in his soft French accent. "It's like there's a shift in their brain, and this shift will allow these people to stay in touch with the spiritual world more easily, on a daily basis."

Beauregard recruited 15 people who had a near-death experience. One of those was Gilles Bedard. In 1973, Bedard's heart stopped, and in the moments before he was resuscitated, he was greeted by what he describes as 12 beings of light.

"And I felt it was like the breath of the universe. Because it was like …" he says as he blows out his breath, slowly, like a low wind, "very, very peaceful."

Since then, Bedard has meditated every day, and he says he often reconnects with the light. The research question is, how will his brain respond when he does?

A Permanent Change In Brain Activity?

For the experiment, Bedard is shut into an isolation chamber at Beauregard's Montreal lab. Bedard's head sprouts 32 electrodes, which will record his brain wave activity. He's told to relax for a few moments. Then he'll be instructed to imagine his near-death experience.

A few minutes later, Beauregard and his research assistant are peering at a computer screen recording Bedard's brain waves. They cluck happily at the slow, large-amplitude Delta waves undulating across the screen — typical of a person in deep meditation or deep sleep.

Afterward, the researcher asks Bedard if he was able to connect with the light.

"Yeah, it was coming from within," he says. "It was loving, intelligent … very powerful."

It would take Beauregard a year to complete his research on near-death experiences. A few weeks ago, I called to ask him what he had found.

"It's like the near-death experience triggered something at a neural level in the brain," he said. "And perhaps this change, in terms of brain activity, is sort of permanent."

Beauregard says it's as if touching death jump-started the spiritual lives of these people. Their brains in the spiritual state look a lot like those of Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks who have spent tens of thousands of hours in prayer and meditation. Both groups showed extremely slow brain wave activity.

The researchers also saw significant changes in brain regions associated with positive emotions, attention and personal boundaries, as subjects who had had near-death experiences lost their sense of their physical bodies and merged with God or the "light."

Brain Chemistry Or A Trip To Heaven?

Skeptic Woerlee says there's nothing remarkable — and certainly nothing spiritual — about these findings.

"The brain function of many of these people who have undergone a near-death experience is altered," Woerlee says. "That's correct. It is altered. Extreme oxygen starvation does change brain function — because it causes brain damage to the larger cells in the brain."

It's brain chemistry, he says, not a trip to heaven.

In other words, Woerlee and Beauregard looked at the same images and came to opposite conclusions.

I found that dichotomy everywhere as I interviewed experts about the emerging science of spirituality. It's kind of like a Rorschach test: Some researchers look at the data and say spiritual experience is only an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, or a brain gasping for oxygen — all fully explainable by science. Others say our brains are reflecting an encounter with the divine.

And almost invariably, where a scientist stands on that issue has little to do with the clinical findings of any study. It has almost everything to do with the scientist's personal beliefs.