Friday, July 3, 2009
Fingerprints of God: A Review
Barbara Bradley Hagerty's recent book, "Fingerprints of God: the Search for the Science of Spirituality" is great and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Hagerty, a religion correspondent for National Public Radio, is a superb journalist who has brought her superior reporting skills to bear on the question, "Is there more than this?"
In this book, she presents evidence gleaned from countless journal articles, interviews and even experiments she participated in herself that address the question of whether there is a God and, if so, does that God leave any measurable traces, or fingerprints, on us when we have a spiritual experience that brings us into contact with that God.
The topics in this book cover a wide range, from neurochemistry to mystical experience, quantum physics to psychedelic drug use, epilepsy to scientific studies of meditation, and all are explored thoroughly and explained well. I especially liked her accounts of mystical experience and its effects on the lives of individuals who had this especially profound type of spiritual experience. Her explanation helped me understand my own life better and I experienced more than a few "Aha!" moments when reading through this section.
One of the more appealing parts of this well-researched survey of scientific studies of spiritual experience, is Hagerty's personal story which she weaves through the book, giving it a narrative thread that personalizes what could have been a dry presentation of facts. She seems to have been wary about doing this and writes, in an early chapter,
"Transforming insights usually come in small moments and pedestrian crises. So it was for me...I needed to cross the river and immerse myself in the unnerving questions about God, and reality, and whether what I instinctively believed was true--or rubbish.
"I was, to be honest, skittish. Skittish about ruining my reputation in a career where few people believe in God and fewer still bother to distinguish spirituality from religious politics. More than that, I was skittish about submitting my faith to scientific tests, exposing it to the possibility that the most profound moments of my life were nothing more than, say, electrical activity in my brain."
Hagerty's main focus in the book is the intersection of the spiritual with the brain as a material object comprised of cells and molecules. She leads us, using an engaging narrative technique, on her search for physical evidence that spiritual experience changes the brain. I found the emphasis on the need to find physical markers of spiritual experience a little excessive, but understandable in light of Hagerty's religious background in Christian Science.
I found it puzzling, at times, though, that she wanted to draw a sharp line between our bodies and our spiritual selves. At one point she even asks, "Can one's thoughts affect one's brain states? Can thoughts affect matter?" without addressing the everyday example of just this: learning. Every time we learn something new, our thoughts affect our brain states. When we study, synapses are formed or strengthened and a real, physical effect is the result of all that studying. Her insistence that only a spiritual explanation would suffice for the influence of the mind on the physical brain was not consistent with the rest of the book.
Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble and I highly recommend this book. Hagerty is a great reporter, an excellent science writer and an intrepid explorer of some of the most intriguing aspects of the universe we find ourselves in.