Dr. Andrew Newberg – cited as one of the 30 most influential neuroscientists alive today – sat down with the Kyiv Post to give his perspective on Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

As a neuroscientist, what is an angle on the war in Ukraine-Russia that you see that others may have missed?  

Conflicts such as the Ukraine-Russia war were the types of issues that always intrigued me since I could not understand why two different people or groups of people would look at the world so differently if we are all looking at the same world.

That is why I started to study the brain but then also realized the importance of philosophy and religion. As to this specific conflict, the main issues are related to how different people believe different things about the world in terms of what is right and wrong and what is a threat and what is not. What we have found in our study of communication is that negative words carry a powerful effect on the brain, leading to strong feelings of anger and hatred.


Can feelings of hatred and anger be changed?

It is hard. It is challenging to change those beliefs into more positive ways of thinking and more compassionate ways of understanding someone who is diametrically opposed to you.

Albeit hard: How can they then be changed?
It ultimately starts with listening to each other and trying to understand the other side of such conflicts, but this is certainly not an easy thing to do, especially when there is little if any trust. Sometimes seeing others as fellow human beings who ultimately share the same limitations and fears that we do can be a starting point towards building compassion and empathy.

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Dr. Andrew Newberg.

How do you study what’s in people’s minds?

In short, I study the human brain using functional brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). My more specific area of research interest is neurotheology which seeks to understand the link between the brain and religion and spirituality. This field is not specifically a scientific study of religion nor a religious analysis of science, but a true hybrid approach that seeks to understand humanity by using the combined aspects of science and spirituality.


Do you see any similarities between how nationalist and patriotic sentiments are experienced in people’s lives?

I think the most important similarity between religion and nationalism is that through specific beliefs and rituals, a group of people comes to feel deeply interconnected. Rituals in particular use rhythmic activities – singing a national anthem or prayer, reflecting on key ideas in a sacred text or constitution, telling stories of great triumph or adversity. The rhythmic elements not only connect the individual to these concepts (i.e. the religious belief or the nationalistic belief) but also engender a deep feeling of connectedness among the participants. You become one with each other. It reduces intragroup aggression, but can increase aggression towards others. It strengthens the us vs. them mentality. This fosters strong feelings towards a religious system or country.


Putin is powerful and has a massive ego: How can he be dissuaded? 

Most people in powerful positions have established their own belief system about the basis of their power, how they can use that power for themselves and perhaps even for what is perceived to be the greater good. For example, Putin may truly feel that he is trying to uplift or restore that ideal of Russia. In that sense, he might see himself as a kind of savior. This is probably the case for many highly powerful people in many areas, political or otherwise. In terms of trying to redirect such an individual, this is likely quite hard given the strong neuronal connections that support this belief system. Perhaps trying to show them how they can use their power in a constructive way, for example uplifting not only Russia, but the rest of the world – even Ukraine as its own country – might be a starting point.

I have heard that once Hitler was kaput “the national trance dissipated immediately” as millions of people realized he had left them a destroyed nation. How or will Russians see past the narratives that Russian TV shows them and begin to wake up? 

Highly charismatic and powerful people can influence thousands or millions through the use of rituals, control of information and fear, to engender a deep sense of connection with that sacred leader. The sacred leader becomes the cornerstone of the belief system and the leader is a kind of symbol for that system. When that symbol is removed or destroyed, the belief system that is intimately tied to that leader is likely to quickly unravel.


How so?

It is sort of like the game Jenga. When you remove the right block, the whole system collapses. If the brain cannot hold onto the primary element of the belief system, the rest of the elements of that belief system will likely need to be reworked. For example, during the U.S. Civil War, once the primary leaders of the South were defeated the broader belief of secession from the Union went away. On the other hand, many elements of racism continued to last for another hundred years or more even though they took on new forms.

Perhaps we need to publicly shame them for what their country is doing?

Usually, negativity just drives people to more negative beliefs and behaviors. If you ever had an argument with someone, usually yelling at them doesn’t make the situation better. They just yell back even louder. While very difficult to do, usually, trying to educate and forgive ends up being a more effective way of bringing people together. Realizing that both sides mostly just want to live a normal life, raise their families and go to work, can often be the best way to foster peace. In other words, realizing that they are people just like us with the same fears and dreams can potentially be more beneficial than fomenting fear, anger and hatred.


Why Ukrainians support Ukraine in this war is clear: It is existential survival. But how does the average Russian process his support for Russia?

Without knowing exactly what is being said in Russia, the most likely answer is that the information that Russian people have access to ends up supporting feelings of nationalism for Russia. So there are positive patriotic feelings and then there is also the us vs. them mentality that is fostered both in terms of information, and also in terms of the emotions of fear and anxiety that are powerful motivators. Like most political and religious systems, repetition and ritual help drive various ideas home in the brain so that people not only understand certain aspects of the situation, but feel it deep in their body as well.

People are notoriously “touchy” about their political and religious beliefs, as well as about their country. It is not hard to offend someone! Why are people like that?

When a person has a strongly held belief, it is part of the overall belief system that supports their survival. Our brain creates all sorts of beliefs since we never know for sure if we understand the world correctly. Those beliefs give us an idea of how to behave and think effectively in order to survive (what we have called self-maintenance in our book Why God Won’t Go Away).  If those beliefs are challenged, we either have to accept the new belief or maintain the old belief. But accepting new beliefs is scary because it means we don’t understand the world accurately and this could threaten our survival.


That’s why, when we are first confronted with an alternate belief that we disagree with, we might use our cognitive processes to present arguments supporting our beliefs and refuting others. If this does not work, we turn to our emotional responses which can escalate rather quickly, especially if both people think they are right. We use emotions all the time for our beliefs. When we come across a new idea, our emotions help us decide what to do with it. If it feels right to us, we accept it, and if it feels wrong we reject it. One of the greatest scientific minds, Albert Einstein, never liked quantum mechanics because it didn’t feel right to him even though all of the data pointed to its success as a scientific concept.

Was Marx right: Is religion the “opiate of the masses”? 

Interestingly the data does not specifically relate religion to the opiate system in the brain. However, religion does provide many positive experiences and emotions for people and religion can be an important source for coping. Most likely, religion involves many different neurotransmitter systems including dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and the opioid system. Religion is obviously highly complex and involves emotions, cognitions, and experiences.

What predictors exist for why one guy is super patriotic or very religious, and the next guy is totally apathetic? Does it relate to intelligence?
That is a great question with no clear answer. I really do not think that it is just pure intelligence. People have made that argument for many years about religious people not being as smart as atheists or agnostics. But if you ever spent an evening with a theologian, you would be pretty impressed at how smart they are.

I think it is more about how each person constructs their sense of reality. We use our thoughts, feelings, and experiences to shape our overall beliefs about the world. Some have a greater or lesser impact on us depending on our genetics, parents, friends, personal experiences, etc. Based on all of these factors, we construct a belief system using a highly limited brain trying to understand an infinite universe.

Given all of these factors, it should not be a surprise that we come to different conclusions. It might just come down to what infinitesimal part of the universe we actually have access to. Much like the old allegory of flies buzzing around an elephant – to one it is a trunk, one sees a tusk, one sees an ear, etc. They are all correct, but they are all way off in understanding the entire elephant.

So, in your own life: Have these studies into the brain and spiritually made you more or less religious?

Overall, my neurotheological investigations have been a combination of scientific and spiritual pursuits. So I don’t think it has made me more or less religious. But it has certainly encouraged me to continue to study the brain and religion. The ultimate goal, which underlies many of your questions above, is what is the true nature of reality and how can we know it? I have always felt that the most likely way of getting to an answer is to combine science and the spiritual (or religious). We will see if it does lead to an answer to this fundamental question.

Some countries, like the United States, are politically hyper-partisan. At times, it seems to me that folks support a political party like fans root for a sports team: They just blindly cheer for their team and shout at the other team. Would you agree?
There is certainly a lot of truth to that, especially when you see ‘gotcha’ TV shows that will tell people a political opponent said something, when in reality it was someone from their own party. However, when the person being interviewed thinks it came from the other party, they reject it out of hand. On the other hand, there is something that makes sense or feels right about a given party’s ideas and beliefs that resonates with the people that follow them. I think another, broader issue is that a singular party or group ends up having a position on virtually every aspect of life and it is almost impossible to agree with every one of them. So we pick the one that most closely is consistent with our beliefs about the world. Once we do that, since the brain likes to think it’s right, we tend to follow and support that party or political system even when there are strong and real oppositional ideas that are encountered.

Why do people do bad things? I once knew a Jesuit who said that “people sin because they wish to be happy. However, the sinning is a temporary and false joy that will ultimately make them less happy.” What’s your take?

I suppose that this is one way to think about sin: In an effort to be happy, people end up turning to actions that are not moral. Of course, there are many circumstances in which people seem to pursue sinful behavior because they find it stimulating or because they hope it will gain them power or money, etc. I am not sure if this is someone wanting to be happy, at least not in the deeper sense. But it is likely that many negative behaviors occur with better intentions in mind.

Are there clinical examples of otherwise normal people doing horrible things?

Other studies have also revealed a scary possibility that almost anyone can be turned to doing very bad things. In famous experiments such as the Stanford Prison Study in which random people were made to be prisoners or guards, psychological abuse of the prisoners by the guards became so brutal that the study needed to be halted. This abuse occurred even though these people were randomly selected and had no prior relationship with each other. Simply by placing them into two groups the “us vs them mentality” took over.

The other interesting study, by Stanley Milgram, encouraged people to (deliver a high-voltage electric) shock (to) study counterparts, which many people did with limited influence by the investigators. So it seems that almost all of us can be influenced to do bad things if put into specific environments.

You have studied the brains of thousands of people: What’s the secret to happiness in this life?

Our research suggests that happiness is fostered by consciously focusing on positive emotions and ideas. Try to spend each day finding one or two things to be grateful or thankful for. Try to smile and do something nice for someone. Meditate on being empathic and compassionate about others, even those who don’t believe what we believe. All of these types of positive beliefs, practices and attitudes make the brain focus on that positivity. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together. So the more you engage positive thoughts, the more they become part of your brain’s functions.

If you could convey a message to the people of Ukraine right now, what would you say to them?

Since I have not been in such a circumstance, I don’t really know what to say to people engaged in such an existential problem.

However, from the perspective of beliefs, two quotes come to mind. One is from Albert Einstein: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

The other is from my book Why We Believe What We Believe: “In the end, we must always return to our beliefs. From the mundane to the mystical, they inform us about reality and they shape the future of our lives.  And if the ultimate reality remains a mystery, so much the better, for it is the questions that give us meaning, that drive us forward, and fill us with transcendent awe [even in times of great suffering].”

Andrew B. Newberg, M.D. is currently the Research Director at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and Professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia  He has published over 250 peer-reviewed articles and chapters on brain function, brain imaging, and the study of religious and mystical experiences.  He has published 12 books which have been translated into 17 different languages including the best sellers, Why God Won’t Go Away and How God Changes Your Brain, along with his latest book entitled The Varieties of Spiritual Experience.

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