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ConverJent melds Jewish Wisdom with New Media through live events, digital games and simulations, and digital narratives. ConverJent uses today’s vernacular of New Media to connect and engage Jews of all kinds, share core Jewish narratives, and teach 21st century Jewish skills.  ConverJent is incubated at Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, in NYC.  Now… a PresenTense Fellow!

Neurotheology: This Is Your Brain On Religion : NPR

The effect of meditation on the brain activity in Tibetan meditators: frontal lobes

Andrew Newberg

… And This Is Your Brain On Buddha: As part of his research, Andrew Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced Tibetan Buddhists before and during meditation. Newberg found an increase of activity in the meditators’ frontal lobe, responsible for focusing attention and concentration, during meditation. He found similar results in a similar study of older individuals experiencing memory problems.

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December 15, 2010

For thousands of years, religion has posed some unanswerable questions: Who are we?  What’s the meaning of life? What does it mean to be religious?

The Principles of Neurotheology

Principles of Neurotheology
By Andrew B. Newberg
Paperback, 284 pages
List price: $29.95

Read An Excerpt

In an effort to address those questions, Dr. Andrew Newberg has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists. He studies the relationship between the brain and religious experience, a field called neurotheology. And he’s written a book, Principles of Neurotheology, that tries to lay the groundwork for a new kind of scientific and theological dialogue.

Newberg tells NPR’s Neal Conan that neurotheology applies science and the scientific method to spirituality through brain imaging studies.

“[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer,” Newberg says. He and his team then compare that with the same brains in a state of rest. “This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices.”

Newberg’s scans have also shown the ways in which religious practices, like meditation, can help shape a brain. Newberg describes one study in which he worked with older individuals who were experiencing memory problems. Newberg took scans of their brains, then taught them a mantra-based type of meditation and asked them to practice that meditation 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, they came back for another scan, and Newberg found some dramatic differences.

“We found some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention,” he says.

Is This Your Brain On God? (4x3)

Is This Your Brain On God?

More than half of adult Americans report that a spiritual experience has changed their lives.

According to Newberg, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things after eight weeks of meditation. Remarkably, the new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims.

“They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent,” Newberg says. “This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.”

Andrew Newberg

Enlarge Courtesy of Andrew Newberg

Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.

Andrew Newberg
Courtesy of Andrew Newberg

Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.

Newberg emphasizes that while neurotheology won’t provide definitive findings about things like the existence of a higher power, it will provide a deeper understanding of what it means for a person to be religious.

“For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion,” Newberg says. “But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.”

Because of that, Newberg says the success of neurotheology hinges on open-mindedness.

“One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that,” Newberg says. “For neurotheology to really work as a field it needs to be very respectful and open to both perspectives.”

The Shivah – Digital Game

Rabbi Stone Has a Crisis of Faith

Before we go any farther, please notice the headline. When was the last time you heard a game described in remotely similar terms?

Shivah is the Jewish mourning ritual. For a week after a family member’s death, the family stays at home, receiving visitors, and mourning the deceased.

Rabbi Stone, this game’s protagonist, leads a small and declining congregation on the Lower East Side. He receives word that a somewhat disreputable former congregant has died, and left his small estate to the synagogue. Though he himself is close to losing faith in God, he views it as his duty to investigate, and perhaps to comfort whatever family members this man may have as they sit Shivah.

To go farther into the story would be to provide spoilers; let us talk, therefore, about gameplay. Yes, this is a point-and-click adventure–but your “inventory” consists not of items, but of clues, as this is a murder mystery. The puzzles involve combining clues, and using them on other characters and objects–uncovering new clues and ultimately solving the mystery.

One other charming aspect of gameplay; Gilbert has taken the “insult swordfighting” of the Monkey Island series (a game mechanic originally devised by Orson Scott Card–a devout Mormon, oddly enough) and twisted it to match the backdrop of his own game. The Talmudic tradition is traditionally one of questioning and analysis, and by tradition (and stereotype), a Rabbi is likely to answer any question with another question. We don’t want a spoiler here, either, so we won’t detail this too much, but: why would a Rabbi not answer with a question? Could you maybe then figure out how to win?

The Shivah is an adventure game. It’s an adventure game that looks like it might have been implemented in the SCUMM engine, which LucasArts used for its games in the late 80s and early 90s. It isn’t; it’s implemented using Adventure Game Studio. But it looks like something you’d see on an older PC with 8-bit graphics and a processor in the double-digit megahertz range.

It is a point-and-click adventure, in an old school mold (although it has nice voice acting, so speech isn’t purely pixelated text). But the writing, and the story, aspire to the level of art–and there are a number of clever game design ideas that distinguish it clearly from other adventures.

This game is not for everyone; no game is. But if you adore old-school adventure games; are willing to overlook antiquated graphics for the sake of a story with actual emotional impact; or, perhaps, if you are intrigued by the notion of a game that explores territory that no game has entered before–then downloading the demo is a mitzvah.

(Oh, by the way–the game contains a Yiddish dictionary, to explain some of the terms for the goyim among us.)

Bubbeleh! Five dollars. This you have to think about?

The Developer Says:

In this graphical adventure game, Russell Stone works as a Jewish Rabbi at a poor synagogue in New York City. He is a devout man with a problem. Membership is way down and he lacks the funds to keep his synagogue open. Things are looking very bleak, and he has grown progressively more cynical and bitter with the passage of time.

Just as he is on the verge of packing it all in, he receives some interesting news. A former member of his congregation has died and left the Rabbi a significant amount of money.

A blessing? Or the start of something far more sinister? Can Rabbi Stone just accept the money and move on? His conscience says no. Step into his shoes as he travels all over Manhattan in his attempt to uncover the truth.

Features rabbinical conversation methods, a unique method of fighting, an original score, and three different endings!


  • A full voicetrack!
  • A professional soundtrack!
  • A dvd-style audio commentary!

Also, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you have supported independent adventure games (and, more importantly, me).


“It’s in games like this that gaming really starts to measure up to conventional literature for emotional and intellectual integrity.”

   – PC Gamer

“The Shivah is a nifty little independent game, one I had a lot of fun playing. It is strong in its design and has excellent voice acting…. I expect big things are in store from [Wadjet Eye] games. I can’t wait!”

   – Just Adventure

“The story is dense and compelling and the main character has a surprising amount of psychological depth…”

   – Abandonia Reloaded

“The final confrontation is a showcase of excellence in design…”

   – Indygamer Blogspot

“The Shivah shows a side of sincerity…asking questions of faith and forgiveness.”

   – Jewish Week


Via the inimitable Katya Hott! Aims for Young Readers and Writers

“I really went into it and thought, ‘We’ll be the social network for young-adult fiction,’ ” said Mr. Lewis, a former managing editor of The New Yorker. “But it became clear early on that people didn’t want a new Facebook.”

The young people on the site weren’t much interested in “friending” one another. What they did want, he said, “was to read and write and discover new content, but around the content itself.” will be unveiled on Monday as an experiment in online literature, a free platform for young people to read and write fiction, both on their computers and on their cellphones. Users are invited to write novels, short stories and poems, collaborate with other writers and give and receive feedback on the work posted on the site.

The idea for Figment emerged from a very 21st-century invention, the cellphone novel, which arrived in the United States around 2008. That December, Ms. Goodyear wrote a 6,000-word article for The New Yorker about young Japanese women who had been busy composing fiction on their mobile phones. In the article she declared it “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age.”

Figment is an attempt to import that idea to the United States and expand on it. Mr. Lewis, who was out of a job after Portfolio, the Condé Nast magazine, was shuttered last year, teamed up with Ms. Goodyear, and the two worked with schools, libraries and literary organizations across the country to recruit several hundred teenagers who were willing to participate in a prototype, which went online in a test version in June.

“We wanted people to be able to write whatever they wanted in whatever form they wanted,” Mr. Lewis said. “We give them a piece of paper and say, ‘Go.’ ” He added that so far contributions had included fantasy, science fiction, biographical work and long serial novels. “There’s a very earnest and exacting quality to what they’re doing.”

Teenagers and their reading habits have been the subject of much fascination in the publishing industry lately. They were a huge driving force behind best-selling books like the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer and the crop of paranormal-romance books that followed. Publishers are eager to learn more about their reading habits and introduce books to them.

Mr. Lewis said he hoped Figment would eventually attract more than a million users and serve as an opportunity for publishers to roam the Web site looking for fresh young talent, or promote their own authors by running book excerpts. “For publishers this is an amazing opportunity to not only reach your consumers but to find out really valuable information about how they are reading,” he said.

Several publishers have already signed on. Running Press Kids, a member of the Perseus Books Group, will provide an excerpt from “Purple Daze,” a historical novel for teenagers written by Sherry Shahan. (Figment charges a small fee to publishers for the privilege.)

David Steinberger, the chief executive of Perseus, said he saw Figment as an opportunity to get the company’s content in front of teenagers.

“The teen culture is a constantly moving target,” Mr. Steinberger said. “We’re looking for partners who are deeply embedded in the way teens interact.”