Posts Tagged ‘Religious Experience’

What God does to your brain — Transcending the materialist universe — Spiritual Experience in the 21st Century

June 21, 2014

Prayer and Belief: The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?

religion, neurotheology, god helmet

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The ‘God helmet’ (left) is said to use electrical impulses to recreate religious experiences

When neuroscientist Andrew Newberg scanned the brain of “Kevin”, a staunch atheist, while he was meditating, he made a fascinating discovery. “Compared with the Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns, whose brains I’d also scanned, Kevin’s brain operated in a significantly different way,” he says.

“He had far more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area that controls emotional feelings and mediates attention. Kevin’s brain appeared to be functioning in a highly analytical way, even when he was in a resting state.”

Would Newberg find something similar if he scanned my brain? I, too, am an atheist. This is largely the result of my upbringing (my father is a theoretical physicist, who, as a former director general of Cern, set up the Large Hadron Collider that is searching for the Higgs boson, or so-called “God” particle – though many physicists loathe that phrase), but also of prolonged investigations into other religions to see if I was “missing” something central to billions of people worldwide.

In this spirit, several years ago, I attended an “Alpha” course, a 10-week introduction to evangelical Christianity. It utterly failed to convince me but, during a service, another “recruit”, Mark, fell to his knees, babbling “in tongues”. When he came round, he was convinced he had been possessed by the Holy Spirit. I watched, bemused. Why had he entered this transcendental state, while I was completely unmoved? Was he deluded, or was he genuinely a conduit of God? Or were our brains simply wired differently?

“When people speak in tongues, they’re gone, they’re in a completely altered state. But most of the time they’re ­normal people like us, with jobs and children – they don’t show any sign of being delusional,” says Newberg. “Scans of their brains – when they’re ‘possessed’ – show very different results to scans of Buddhist monks or Carmelite nuns in prayer or meditation. There you see increased frontal lobe activity in the areas concerned with concentration, but the speakers in tongues had decreased activity in the same area, which would give them the sensation that someone else was ‘running the show’.”

And what about me? “I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a harder time letting go of frontal lobe activity, so you tend to observe and take a more critical eye of events, while other people’s brains allow them to simply surrender to events around them.”

Newberg is director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine, in Philadelphia, and co-author of, among other books, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought. He is a leading neurotheologist, pioneering a new and highly controversial science that investigates whether – as many sceptics have long suspected – God didn’t create us, but we created God.

During brain scans of those involved in various types of meditation and prayer, Newberg noticed increased activity in the limbic system, which regulates emotion. He also noted decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for orienting oneself in space and time.

“When this happens, you lose your sense of self,” he says. “You have a notion of a great interconnectedness of things. It could be a sense where the self dissolves into nothingness, or dissolves into God or the universe.”

Such “mystical”, self-blurring experiences are central to almost all religions – from the unio mystica experienced by Carmelite nuns during prayer, when they claim their soul has mingled with the godhead, to Buddhists striving for unity with the universe through focusing on sacred objects. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry.

“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” Newberg says. This would explain why some type of religion exists in every culture, arguably making spirituality one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Depending on your religious views, such discoveries are either deeply fascinating or profoundly disturbing. Throughout history, spirituality has been viewed as something outside science, just as the soul is separate from the body; both ineffable essences, transcending the materialist universe.

No wonder, then, that neurotheology (or biotheology), with its implications that the brain is merely a “computer of meat”, is hugely contentious in the US, where only 1.6 per cent and 2.4 per cent of the population declare themselves “atheist” or “agnostic”, respectively.

Some theologians, however, welcome the research, seeing it as proof that God equipped our bodies with the ability to believe.

“I get attacked by everyone,” says Patrick McNamara, associate professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. “Atheists hate me because I’m saying religion has some basis in the brain and fundamentalist Christians hate me because I’m saying religion is nothing but brain impulses.”

Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and author of the forthcoming Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t, is sceptical about many neuroscientific attempts to explain God, pointing out that recent advances have weakened the theory that only one area of the brain is responsible for certain functions. “In any case,” he says, “the temporal lobes light up for any kind of excitement, not just religious experience.”

However, he agrees that it is imperative to examine religion scientifically. “Religion is at the root both of so many great civilisations and of so many wars, it has so much mythological power, we have to understand how it works and be alert to how dangerous it can be.”

If religion is merely a product of the mind, then perhaps its effects can be simulated artificially – with potentially powerful results. In the Nineties, Canadian cognitive neuro­scientist Michael Persinger invented a “God helmet”, which, he claimed, simulated religious experiences by directing complex magnetic fields to the parts of the brain that include the parietal lobe.

Evangelical Christians demonstrated outside the lab where Persinger tested the helmet, outraged at his suggestion that God could be replicated via a machine. But more than 80 per cent of those who wore the helmet reported sensing a presence in the room that many took to be their deity. They also became deeply emotional and, after the experiment, were filled with a sense of loss.

READ: Nuns prove God is NOT a figment of the mind

This led Persinger to conclude that divine visions – not to mention every other type of out-of-body experience, from the Virgin Mary being visited by the Holy Spirit to UFO sightings – were probably nothing more than people being subjected to energy fields connected to shifts in the Earth’s plates or environmental disturbances.

In 2001, Persinger tried the helmet on possibly the world’s most vocal atheist, Prof Richard Dawkins, who reported that his breathing and sensation in his limbs were affected, but insisted he had not seen God. Still upbeat, Persinger argued that earlier tests had shown Dawkins had far less sensitivity than others in the temporal lobes.

Persinger vs Dawkins: The God Helmet from Tommy Decentralized on Vimeo.

 

Or, perhaps Dawkins is simply lacking the “God gene” or VMAT2, to be precise, that controls the flow of mood-regulating chemicals, called monoamines, in the brain. According to US molecular geneticist Dr Dean Hamer, subjects with this gene were more susceptible to self-transcendent, spiritual experiences. Many neuroscientists now think spiritual tendencies involve genes relating to the brain’s dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters.

Another, more recent, study by researchers at Auburn University in Alabama showed that subjects who perceived supernatural agents at work in their daily lives tended to use brain pathways associated with fear when asked to contemplate their religious beliefs. Those with beliefs based on doctrine tended to use pathways associated with language. On the other hand, atheists tended to use pathways connected with visual imagery.

Perhaps, the team suggested, non-believers try visually to imagine a supernatural agent as a test of its existence and subsequently reject the idea as unlikely when that image does not fit with any known image in their memory.

The researchers also found individuals with a stronger ability to attribute mental states – such as beliefs, desires and intents – to themselves and to understand that others may have different mental states from their own. This ability, known as the “theory of mind”, is thought to have evolved in humans over thousands of years – suggesting religion is a by-product of human evolution.

Spirituality, after all, serves a vital human purpose. Numerous studies show that religious belief is medically and psychologically (not to mention socially) beneficial. Reports have shown that churchgoers live an average seven years longer than heathens. They report lower blood pressure, recover quicker from breast cancer, have better outcomes from coronary disease and rheumatoid arthritis, have greater success with IVF and are less likely to have children with meningitis.

Patients with a strong “intrinsic faith” (a deep personal belief, not just a social inclination to go to a place of worship) recover 70 per cent faster from depression than those who are not deeply religious.

Changes in brain chemistry can also make people lose their religion. McNamara has used MRI scans on people with Parkinson’s disease.

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” he says. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Buddhist monks say they feel at one with the universe, but it may just be a chemical shift in their brains

“When religion is operating the way it ought – when we’re not talking about fanatics blowing up non-believers – it strengthens the prefrontal lobes, which helps inhibit impulses better,” McNamara says. “Religious activities such as prayer, ritual, abstaining from alcohol, strengthen the ability of frontal lobes to control primitive impulses.”

Such advantages aside, religions give their followers the benefits of a supportive social network – since research has shown lack of social contact can be more harmful to health than obesity, alcoholism and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. “Being part of a group is very important psychologically. In times of prosperity, people tend to question large movements, but during periods of economic stress, fundamentalist movements flourish,” says McNamara.

Interestingly, those who describe themselves as born-again do not show any evidence of this particular benefit in experiments. On the contrary, recent research by the Centre for the Study of Ageing at Duke University, North Carolina, revealed that there was significantly greater hippocampal atrophy (brain damage associated with depression, Alzheimer’s and dementia) in people who reported a life-changing religious experience, compared to religious people who did not describe themselves as born again.

The human psyche hates any form of cognitive dissonance – or challenge to ingrained beliefs – and so scientists think the struggles through which born-again Christians go in order to overcome their old modes of thinking cause severe stress to their brains.

In general, though, it seems that, if I want to be psychologically healthy, I need to ape the faithful. And it turns out I’m already working along the right lines. A few years ago, conscious of lacking regular social ties (before I worked from home, an office provided that), I made an effort to join community groups. I’ve also, recently, like many other people become interested in subjects such as yoga and mindfulness, a secular type of meditation.

Sceptics such as me used to consider such fields flaky, but now their health benefits are proven – not least in the way they strengthen prefrontal lobes – it would be foolish to dismiss them.

“We’ve granted quasi-religious status to well-being pursuits such as mindfulness; it’s like soft Buddhism, and it’s no bad thing,” says Ward. “We are so busy, so wound up, so the recognition that we are not machines and need to find therapeutic ways to deal with our stress is very welcome, however it comes about.”

Amen to that.

How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg is available here

Related:

 

Prayer, Salah in desert

Here’s a Muslims guide to prayer:

http://www.wikihow.com/Pray-in-Islam

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Most experts say any form of prayer is better than no prayer at all!

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Saint Francis Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;And where there is sadness, joy.

Related:

“The Catholic Guide to Depression,” by Aaron Kheriaty, MD and Fr. John Cihak, STD.

Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

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Obama meets Dalai Lama, defies China
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The Dalai Lama prays as he arrives at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to hold a discussion on “Happiness, Free Enterprise, and Human Flourishing” in Washington, DC, February 20, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)
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God, I offer myself to Thee –
to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self,
that I may better do Thy will.
Take away my difficulties,
that victory over them may bear witness
to those I would help of Thy Power,
Thy Love and Thy Way of Life.
May I do Thy will always!
Thank You God, AMEN!

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Who can suggest some ways of seeking and finding God?

St. Francis de Sales, author of “Introduction to the Devout Life.”

“Live well and you will not fear death.”

“Everything in Christianity binds us closer to God.”

“God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”

As no sensible person would make a long road trip without first consulting a map, so the person intent upon gaining Heaven should turn to a competent guide to reach that most important goal. An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is addressed as a personal letter to Philothea, the “lover of God.” This book instructs us in our approach to God in prayer and the Sacraments, the practice of 16 important virtues, remedies against ordinary temptations, and becoming confirmed in our practice of devotion. TAN-CLASSICS Edition; paperback.

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Jean Pierre de Caussade (7 March 1675 – 8 December 1751), advice on people having great troubles, anxiety, depression:

“We have only to fulfill the simple duties of the Christian Faith and of their state of life, to accept with submission the crosses that go with those duties, and to submit with faith and love to the designs of Providence in everything that is constantly being presented to them to do and to endure, without searching for anything themselves.”

“God instructs the heart, not by ideas, but by pains and contradictions.”

From: “Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence,” (also sometimes called “The Value of the Present Moment), TAN Books edition, 1987.

See also:

The Struggle of Ego and Self-Esteem

http://www.barefootsworld.net/aaegostruggle.html

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Buddhist monks pray for new year in Thailand

 

Buddhists monks pray at a temple in Suphan Buri province, Thailand, Jan 9, 2013. [Photo/Agencies]

 

 

 

 

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Religious Experience that Transformed Woman with Borderline Personality Disorder

November 19, 2012

The Power of Rescuing Others: Marsha Linehan, a therapist and researcher at the University of Washington who suffered from borderline personality disorder, recalls the religious experience that transformed her as a young woman.  Damon Winter/The New York Times

By Benedict Carey
The New York Times

HARTFORD — Are you one of us?

The patient wanted to know, and her therapist — Marsha M. Linehan of the University of Washington, creator of a treatment used worldwide for severely suicidal people — had a ready answer. It was the one she always used to cut the question short, whether a patient asked it hopefully, accusingly or knowingly, having glimpsed the macramé of faded burns, cuts and welts on Dr. Linehan’s arms:

“You mean, have I suffered?”

“No, Marsha,” the patient replied, in an encounter last spring. “I mean one of us. Like us. Because if you were, it would give all of us so much hope.”

“That did it,” said Dr. Linehan, 68, who told her story in public for the first time last week before an audience of friends, family and doctors at the Institute of Living, the Hartford clinic where she was first treated for extreme social withdrawal at age 17. “So many people have begged me to come forward, and I just thought — well, I have to do this. I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward.”

No one knows how many people with severe mental illness live what appear to be normal, successful lives, because such people are not in the habit of announcing themselves. They are too busy juggling responsibilities, paying the bills, studying, raising families — all while weathering gusts of dark emotions or delusions that would quickly overwhelm almost anyone else.

Now, an increasing number of them are risking exposure of their secret, saying that the time is right. The nation’smental health system is a shambles, they say, criminalizing many patients and warehousing some of the most severe in nursing and group homes where they receive care from workers with minimal qualifications.

Moreover, the enduring stigma of mental illness teaches people with such a diagnosis to think of themselves as victims, snuffing out the one thing that can motivate them to find treatment: hope.

“There’s a tremendous need to implode the myths of mental illness, to put a face on it, to show people that a diagnosis does not have to lead to a painful and oblique life,” said Elyn R. Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Law who chronicles her own struggles with schizophrenia in “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.” “We who struggle with these disorders can lead full, happy, productive lives, if we have the right resources.”

These include medication (usually), therapy (often), a measure of good luck (always) — and, most of all, the inner strength to manage one’s demons, if not banish them. That strength can come from any number of places, these former patients say: love, forgiveness, faith in God, a lifelong friendship.

But Dr. Linehan’s case shows there is no recipe. She was driven by a mission to rescue people who are chronically suicidal, often as a result of borderline personality disorder, an enigmatic condition characterized in part by self-destructive urges.

“I honestly didn’t realize at the time that I was dealing with myself,” she said. “But I suppose it’s true that I developed a therapy that provides the things I needed for so many years and never got.”

‘I Was in Hell’

She learned the central tragedy of severe mental illness the hard way, banging her head against the wall of a locked room.

Marsha Linehan arrived at the Institute of Living on March 9, 1961, at age 17, and quickly became the sole occupant of the seclusion room on the unit known as Thompson Two, for the most severely ill patients. The staff saw no alternative: The girl attacked herself habitually, burning her wrists with cigarettes, slashing her arms, her legs, her midsection, using any sharp object she could get her hands on.

The seclusion room, a small cell with a bed, a chair and a tiny, barred window, had no such weapon. Yet her urge to die only deepened. So she did the only thing that made any sense to her at the time: banged her head against the wall and, later, the floor. Hard.

“My whole experience of these episodes was that someone else was doing it; it was like ‘I know this is coming, I’m out of control, somebody help me; where are you, God?’ ” she said. “I felt totally empty, like the Tin Man; I had no way to communicate what was going on, no way to understand it.”

Her childhood, in Tulsa, Okla., provided few clues. An excellent student from early on, a natural on the piano, she was the third of six children of an oilman and his wife, an outgoing woman who juggled child care with the Junior League and Tulsa social events.

People who knew the Linehans at that time remember that their precocious third child was often in trouble at home, and Dr. Linehan recalls feeling deeply inadequate compared with her attractive and accomplished siblings. But whatever currents of distress ran under the surface, no one took much notice until she was bedridden with headaches in her senior year of high school.

Her younger sister, Aline Haynes, said: “This was Tulsa in the 1960s, and I don’t think my parents had any idea what to do with Marsha. No one really knew what mental illness was.”

Soon, a local psychiatrist recommended a stay at the Institute of Living, to get to the bottom of the problem. There, doctors gave her a diagnosis of schizophrenia; dosed her with ThorazineLibrium and other powerful drugs, as well as hours of Freudian analysis; and strapped her down for electroshock treatments, 14 shocks the first time through and 16 the second, according to her medical records. Nothing changed, and soon enough the patient was back in seclusion on the locked ward.

“Everyone was terrified of ending up in there,” said Sebern Fisher, a fellow patient who became a close friend. But whatever her surroundings, Ms. Fisher added, “Marsha was capable of caring a great deal about another person; her passion was as deep as her loneliness.”

A discharge summary, dated May 31, 1963, noted that “during 26 months of hospitalization, Miss Linehan was, for a considerable part of this time, one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.”

A verse the troubled girl wrote at the time reads:

They put me in a four-walled room

But left me really out

My soul was tossed somewhere askew

My limbs were tossed here about

Bang her head where she would, the tragedy remained: no one knew what was happening to her, and as a result medical care only made it worse. Any real treatment would have to be based not on some theory, she later concluded, but on facts: which precise emotion led to which thought led to the latest gruesome act. It would have to break that chain — and teach a new behavior.

“I was in hell,” she said. “And I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”

Radical Acceptance

She sensed the power of another principle while praying in a small chapel in Chicago.

It was 1967, several years after she left the institute as a desperate 20-year-old whom doctors gave little chance of surviving outside the hospital. Survive she did, barely: there was at least one suicide attempt in Tulsa, when she first arrived home; and another episode after she moved to a Y.M.C.A. in Chicago to start over.

She was hospitalized again and emerged confused, lonely and more committed than ever to her Catholic faith. She moved into another Y, found a job as a clerk in an insurance company, started taking night classes at Loyola University — and prayed, often, at a chapel in the Cenacle Retreat Center.

“One night I was kneeling in there, looking up at the cross, and the whole place became gold — and suddenly I felt something coming toward me,” she said. “It was this shimmering experience, and I just ran back to my room and said, ‘I love myself.’ It was the first time I remember talking to myself in the first person. I felt transformed.”

The high lasted about a year, before the feelings of devastation returned in the wake of a romance that ended. But something was different. She could now weather her emotional storms without cutting or harming herself.

What had changed?

It took years of study in psychology — she earned a Ph.D. at Loyola in 1971 — before she found an answer. On the surface, it seemed obvious: She had accepted herself as she was. She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.

That basic idea — radical acceptance, she now calls it — became increasingly important as she began working with patients, first at a suicide clinic in Buffalo and later as a researcher. Yes, real change was possible. The emerging discipline of behaviorism taught that people could learn new behaviors — and that acting differently can in time alter underlying emotions from the top down.

But deeply suicidal people have tried to change a million times and failed. The only way to get through to them was to acknowledge that their behavior made sense: Thoughts of death were sweet release given what they were suffering.

“She was very creative with people. I saw that right away,” said Gerald C. Davison, who in 1972 admitted Dr. Linehan into a postdoctoral program in behavioral therapy at Stony Brook University. (He is now a psychologist at the University of Southern California.) “She could get people off center, challenge them with things they didn’t want to hear without making them feel put down.”

No therapist could promise a quick transformation or even sudden “insight,” much less a shimmering religious vision. But now Dr. Linehan was closing in on two seemingly opposed principles that could form the basis of a treatment: acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality and because of it. The only way to know for sure whether she had something more than a theory was to test it scientifically in the real world — and there was never any doubt where to start.

Getting Through the Day

“I decided to get supersuicidal people, the very worst cases, because I figured these are the most miserable people in the world — they think they’re evil, that they’re bad, bad, bad — and I understood that they weren’t,” she said. “I understood their suffering because I’d been there, in hell, with no idea how to get out.”

In particular she chose to treat people with a diagnosis that she would have given her young self: borderline personality disorder, a poorly understood condition characterized by neediness, outbursts and self-destructive urges, often leading to cutting or burning. In therapy, borderline patients can be terrors — manipulative, hostile, sometimes ominously mute, and notorious for storming out threatening suicide.

Dr. Linehan found that the tension of acceptance could at least keep people in the room: patients accept who they are, that they feel the mental squalls of rage, emptiness and anxiety far more intensely than most people do. In turn, the therapist accepts that given all this, cutting, burning andsuicide attempts make some sense.

Finally, the therapist elicits a commitment from the patient to change his or her behavior, a verbal pledge in exchange for a chance to live: “Therapy does not work for people who are dead” is one way she puts it.

Yet even as she climbed the academic ladder, moving from the Catholic University of America to the University of Washington in 1977, she understood from her own experience that acceptance and change were hardly enough. During those first years in Seattle she sometimes felt suicidal while driving to work; even today, she can feel rushes of panic, most recently while driving through tunnels. She relied on therapists herself, off and on over the years, for support and guidance (she does not remember taking medication after leaving the institute).

Dr. Linehan’s own emerging approach to treatment — now called dialectical behavior therapy, or D.B.T. — would also have to include day-to-day skills. A commitment means very little, after all, if people do not have the tools to carry it out. She borrowed some of these from other behavioral therapies and added elements, like opposite action, in which patients act opposite to the way they feel when an emotion is inappropriate; and mindfulness meditation, a Zen technique in which people focus on their breath and observe their emotions come and go without acting on them. (Mindfulness is now a staple of many kinds of psychotherapy.)

In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere tracked the progress of hundreds of borderline patients at high risk of suicide who attended weekly dialectical therapy sessions. Compared with similar patients who got other experts’ treatments, those who learned Dr. Linehan’s approach made far fewer suicide attempts, landed in the hospital less often and were much more likely to stay in treatment. D.B.T. is now widely used for a variety of stubborn clients, including juvenile offenders, people with eating disorders and those with drug addictions.

“I think the reason D.B.T. has made such a splash is that it addresses something that couldn’t be treated before; people were just at a loss when it came to borderline,” said Lisa Onken, chief of the behavioral and integrative treatment branch of the National Institutes of Health. “But I think the reason it has resonated so much with community therapists has a lot to do with Marsha Linehan’s charisma, her ability to connect with clinical people as well as a scientific audience.”

Most remarkably, perhaps, Dr. Linehan has reached a place where she can stand up and tell her story, come what will. “I’m a very happy person now,” she said in an interview at her house near campus, where she lives with her adopted daughter, Geraldine, and Geraldine’s husband, Nate. “I still have ups and downs, of course, but I think no more than anyone else.”

After her coming-out speech last week, she visited the seclusion room, which has since been converted to a small office. “Well, look at that, they changed the windows,” she said, holding her palms up. “There’s so much more light.”