Extrasensory Science - Neurotheology
Our Innate Capacity for Spiritual or Mystical Experience
Iona Miller, ©2001
Institute for Consciousness Science & Technology
Neurotheology 101: Technoshamanism & Our Innate Capacity for Spiritual or Mystical Experience
God & the Brain
The Mystical Mind
Science's Elusive Realm: Life's Little Mysteries
QM and Consciousness
The Biological Function of the Third Eye
Intro to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS and rTMS)
"The Brain is just the weight of God." --Emily Dickinson
"You failed to go on the pilgrimage because of your ass's nature, not because you have no ass." --Rumi
"...that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature,
have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made." (Rom. 1:19)
"The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving force behind scientific research."
"Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." --Albert Einstein
"The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide." --Ralph Waldo Emerson
"What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite." --Bertrand Russell
The relationship between brain physiology and human behavior is notoriously difficult to understand and easy to misapply. Obviously consciousness, subjectivity and human religious experience isn't reducible merely to an explanation of neural pathways. It is a mystery whether our hard-wiring creates the God Experience, or whether God creates our psychophysical wiring. However, when I began writing this article and sharing it among my colleagues, I got negative feedback about the subject matter from some surprising sources, from physicists, psychiatrists and medical doctors to multimedia artists, about the futility and shallowness of "measuring meat," and the intrinsic value of the non-quantifiable aspects of subjective experience. While this value is obviously important to consider and uphold, it does not negate the beauty of the scientific search for truth through creativity and passion as genuine as any other artform.
Neurotheology has two primary technological aspects: 1). brain monitoring or imaging (EEG, CT, MRI, SPECT), and 2). brain stimulation, such as TMS and rTMS, which people find far more controversial and threatening, though a vast array of medical treatments, (neuroimaging for mapping functional connections in the brain, depression, blindness, movement disorders, epilepsy, schizophrenia), are on the horizon using pulsed magnetic fields. Brain stimulation with TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) is achieved from outside of the skull using pulses of electromagnetic field that induce an electric field in the brain. TMS can either excite the cortex or disturb its function. Clearly, there is much that remains to be learned about human response to modulated electromagnetic energy. It carries the promise of tailoring the site and nature of stimulation to individual needs, but the treatment role of neuromagnetic therapy remains to be proven, as does that of bioelectricity.
Today, many researchers pursue both science and spirituality ignoring dictates that they are mutually exclusive. Therefore, to me, antiscientific knee-jerk cries of 'reductionism' are a further perpetuation of the deeply ingrained bias of the mind-body dichotomy. It is an intellectual nostalgia we perhaps cannot afford to indulge: the old Dionysian vs. Apollonian split, holistic vs. cognitive. This false dichotomy undergirds the perception of a split in creativity between art and science, between intuition and logic, between spirituality and science. Neurotheology respects both science and spirit. It is a move toward holism, not a reductionistic analysis. Only when we embrace the functionally interconnected whole brain (dubbed 'Odyssean' by physicist Murray Gell-Mann), not one artificially split in its functions into right and left can we move beyond mere conceptualization of a seamlessly welded quantum mindbody wedded indissoluably with Cosmos. This, of course is the ineffable realm of mysticism and Mystery, reachable experientially only through the suspension of reason and intellect, and God's mercy and grace.
Presented by Iona Miller at CONSCIOUSNESS TECHNOLOGIES II Conference, Sisters, Oregon, July 19-22, 2001 as part of a co-presentation with Richard Alan Miller, Physicist from their forthcoming book ELECTRO-MAGICK.
HUMAN RESPONSE TO MODULATED ELECTROMAGNETIC ENERGY.
Pro: Neurotheology, Technoshamanism and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation;
Con: Synthetic Telepathy, Mind Wars and EM Pollution
"To discover that a particular feeling [including any feeling involved in responding to God] depends on activity in a number of specific brain systems interacting with a number of body organs does not diminish the status of that feeling as a human phenomenon. Neither anguish nor the elation that love or art can bring about [is] devalued by understanding some of the myriad biological processes that make them what they are. Precisely the opposite should be true. Our sense of wonder should increase before the intricate mechanisms that make such magic possible." (Antonio Damasio, 1994).
“Learn therefore, O Mind, to practice sympathetic love in regard to thine own body, by retraining its vain appetites, that it may be apt with thee in all things. To this end I shall labour, that I may drink with ye from the fountain of strength, and, when the two are made one, that ye find peace in their union. Draw nigh, O Body, to this fountain, that with thy Mind thou mayest drink to satiety and thirst no more after vanities. O wondrous efficacy of this fount, which maketh one of two, and peace between enemies! The fount of love can make mind out of spirit and soul, but this maketh one man of mind and body.” (Gerhard Dorn, 17th century alchemist).
There are three great stories in science. One of them is where the universe came from. One of them is where life came from. And the third is where we came from. We crave a deeper meaning to life, a more imaginative understanding of the mystery of existence. And out of that One Mystery, we have created many (E Unus Pluribum). Who are we; why are we here; where are we going? How did we get here; what is the mind for; why is it so big? How does the mind work; how do we know what we know? Why should the purely subjective aspect of experience exist at all? Why do we wonder?
Science readily admits there are many unsolved problems. Aspects of human transformation and subjective consciousness and where it comes from are deeply mysterious. In exploring these questions, science is not seeking to kill soul, but rather to provide an arena for imagination to systematically explore the realm of Spirit. Traditionally, theology itself is the science of God and his works while systematic theology is the systematizing of the findings of that science.
Three new sciences are now vividly rooting our mental processes in our biology, our seamlessly welded psychophysical self. Cognitive neuroscience attempts to relate thought, perception and emotion to the functioning of the brain's electrical, magnetic or metabolic signals. A second science, behavioral genetics shows there is a fascinating degree of specificity in our genome. Any adaptation is for the good of the genes which made that adaptation. The third science connecting mind with biology is evolutionary psychology which concerns why we have developed certain naturally-engineered organs connected to our brains.
Western science has traditionally considered matter as primary, but if you look at what the mystics report, you can also say that it's ultimately consciousness and awareness that are primary. Science has penetrated the quantum level of observation where events "function" as the source of a continual "creation" that sustains the universe at every instant. This has forever blurred any falacious distinction between mind and body (psyche and soma) or energy and matter.
Our consciousness emerges from the un-conceptualizable ground of existence as a tangled hierarchy of self-similar nested levels that contain a "strange loop" which leads to the unexpected result of inevitably bringing us back to our starting point. It is a model in which transcendence seems necessary. It brings up another question, "Dare I explore my inner world?" To explore or not to explore is a question we face every day. Who among us has not wondered what we would find if we began an earnest probe of the depths of our own being?
"In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true either is true or becomes true within the limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are beliefs to be transcended." --John C. Lilly
Yet, few of us have peered deeply into the fundamental operations of the information-processing system we call "the mind." Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness; sleep and dreams are another. There are other modes of conscious and subconscious experience that can enrich our lives. Visions, white light and the nirvanic raptures of religious ecstasy have been invested with ultimate value and devoutly sought. In exploring this field we are touching one of evolution's fundamental mechanisms of survival, for it is by knowledge that we orient ourselves in the world. Accurate knowledge of our two worlds--the so-called real world and the inner world--correctly informs us of the conditions we must cope with.
The scientific search for knowledge is the search for Truth and Beauty, appealing to both spirit and soul. To know facts is to survive; not to know, or to assess one's environment wrongly, is to lose the fight for survival. With the examination of the sources, nature, and accuracy of our knowledge, we begin to develop epistemic awareness, a more informed understanding of what we know and don't know. We are faced with two serious epistemological problems: (1) How can we determine which facts are true? and, (2) How can we determine which facts are important? Our minds are the comparator and interface between the internal and external realities we navigate through.
Research suggests that some people may be genetically or temperamentally predisposed to mystical ability. Those most open to mystical experience tend also to be open to new experiences generally. They are usually creative and innovative, with a breadth of interests and a tolerance for ambiguity and may be fantasy-prone and tend to dissociate. Over-rational, controlled individuals will probably resist the experience. In mystical experience, the content of the mind fades, sensory awareness drops out, and you are left only with pure consciousness which does not need an object. It is not a mere byproduct of sensory action.
Brain scans of a large sampling of people lost in prayer or deep meditation reveal certain common neurological underpinnings which correlate with religious states from transcendence, to visions, to enlightenment and feelings of awe. Attention in the frontal lobe is indicated by activation in this area of the brain during meditation. When the parietal lobes quiet down, a person feels an expansive oneness with the universe or cosmic unity. For a mystical experience to occur, brain regions that orient us in space and mark the distinction between self and world must go quiet.
In order to feel that time, fear and self-consciousness have dissolved, certain brain circuits must be interrupted. Which ones? Activity in the amygdala, which monitors the environment for threats and registers fear, must be damped. Parietal-lobe circuits, which orient you in space and mark the sharp distinction between self and world, must go quiet. The orientation area requires sensory input to do its calculations. Intense meditation blocks the brain from forming a distinction between self and world. Frontal- and temporal-lobe circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness, must disengage. When this happen what we think of as our 'higher' functions of self hood appear briefly to drop out, dissolve, or be deleted from consciousness.
Our response to religious words is mediated at the juncture of three lobes (parietal, frontal and temporal) and governs reaction to language. The "voice of God" probably emanates from electrical activity in the temporal lobes, important to speech perception. Inner speech is interpreted as originating outside the self. Broca's area, responsible for speech production switches on. Stress can influence one's ability to determine origin of a voice. The right anterior cingulate turns on whether a stimulus originates in the environment or is an auditory hallucination.
Hyperarousal by sensory stimuli, such as drumming, dancing or incantations, can amplify emotions and send the system into hyperdrive. The equilibrium of the hippocampus is overwritten, inhibiting the flow of signals between neurons. Certain regions are then deprived of neuronal inputs. When the orientation center is isolated with ritual and liturgy or meditation, the boundaries of the self begin to dissolve.
Sacred images are generated by the lower temporal which also responds to ritual imagery and is facilitated by prayer and meditation. Religious emotions originate from the middle temporal lobe and are linked to emotional aspects of religious experience, such as joy and awe. Yet neural correlates don't mean that these experiences exist "only" in the brain or are merely illusory; they are associated with distinct neural activity. There is no way to distinguish if the brain causes these experiences, or is actually perceiving spiritual reality.
Religious mystics the world over make a common assertion: no one can understand a profound religious experience until he has himself experienced it. No amount of description with mere symbols can touch or reveal its true meaning. Schopenhauer once remarked that "The exceptional man is like an archer who can strike a target other cannot, the genius is the one who can strike a target others cannot even see." The individual who lacks awareness of the depths and facets of the psyche is something less than whole, and considerably less that he could be. He is living a single-dimensional existence in a multidimensional psychic universe.
The Nature of Theology
Theology has been defined as the science of God and his relations to the universe, (Thiessen, 1979). In the realm of systematic thought, the facts concerning God and his relations to the universe lead to theology; in the sphere of individual and collective life, they lead to religion. In other words, in theology we organize our thoughts concerning God and the universe, while in religion we express in attitudes and action the effects these thoughts have produced in us.
Both theology and philosophy seek a comprehensive world and life view, echoing the ancient dictum to "Know Thyself." Theology does not merely begin with the belief in the existence of God, but also holds that he has graciously revealed himself. The theologian is irresistibly driven by God and the revelation he has made of himself. The possibility of theology grows out of two things: the revelation of God and the endowments of man, which are of two kinds: mental and spiritual.
Revelation is the act of God which discloses himself or communicates truth to the mind, and makes manifest that which could not be known in any other way. It may occur in a single instantaneous act, or extend over a long period of time. This communication and experiential Truth may be perceived by the human mind in varying degrees of fullness. These subjective experiences are the basis of primordial mysticism. God reveals himself and we are capable of apprehending spiritual revelation, which is immanent in the Creation, nature and our nature. That which is known about God is evident within us, for God makes it evident to us. Paul wrote, "Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have beeen clearly seen," (Rom. 1:20).
History shows that the religious element of our nature is just as universal as the rational or social one. Religion or a belief system is categorized as one of the universals in culture. There are in man's belief everywhere, various forms of religious phenomena and awareness of the supernatural. Believers feels the existence of God is also necessary, in the sense that we cannot deny his existence without doing violence to the very laws of our nature. If we do deny it, the denial is forced and can only be temporary, just as the pendulum of a clock can be pushed off center by an internal or external force but will return to its original position once the pressure is removed. The "normal" belief in God or a spiritual force tends to return when we are not consciously under the influence of a false philosophy.
Assuming that God has revealed himself, we ask next, how does man come into possession of this revelation? To this we reply that neither the outer nor the inner world would disclose anything of God without the unique endowments of man, the natural capacity for spiritual experience. Science and Theology examine these endowments and their resulting phenomena from radically different models:
1. Models are grounded in theories which influence observations. Discordant data is often called an anomaly rather than a falsification. Paradigm shifts have as much to do with psychology as logic and data because of the paradigm's frame of reference.
2. Theory dominates in the form of laws rather than models.
3. Empirical testing is used to verify models and hypotheses.
4. No root-metaphor or original model is referred back to as primary guiding image; the process is emergent, self-organizing.
5. The purpose of models is to discover new phenomena and explain how the modeled systems function, ontological, phenomenologically, existentially.
6. There are few models in science and they are not related hierarchically nor are they all complementary such as the wave and particle models of light are.
7. Models can be translated into mathematical formulae which make general statements about relationships.
8. Relationships are primarily expressed in terms of quantity.
9. Models primarily impact reason.
1. Models grounded in sacred stories/myths which are transmitted by a faith community informing human imagination with images and patterns for behavior. Sacred stories enacted in rituals, drama, rites. The model is the enduring structural component the myth or parable dramatizes.
2. Models dominate theory. Doctrines (creation; redemption) are not translated into general laws.
3. Data neither falsifies nor verifies the truth value of models. Exemplars express ultimate values.
4. Personal deity is the root-metaphor relating to human beings and the natural world as source and transformer of both.
5. Purpose of models is comprehension of all reality to provide an ordering and evaluating action from an ultimate perspective at the edge of being and knowing.
6. Many models are related in complementary and hierarchical ways.
7. Models cannot be improved by translation into a different symbol system.
8. Relationships are primarily expressed in terms of quality.
9. Models primarily impact feelings.
** Chart Adapted from Life Maps (1985, Word Books, Waco, Texas) by Sam Keen, et al
The Birth of Neurotheology
"The exploration of the interior of the human brain will be as dangerous as that of the Antarctic continent or the depths of the oceans, and far more rewarding." --J.B.S. Haldane
Science has begun to exploring the basis of this phenomenology and these subjective spiritual experiences, apart from religious beliefs and scriptural dogma. The embryonic science of Neurotheology began in the 1960s when researchers from the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, first went to India to record the brain waves of Yogis with EEG machines. This gross measurement of brain activity has progressed through CAT and MRI imaging techniques, and researchers now use functional MRI (fMRI) and SPECT technology to map dynamic brain activation and function through time as well as space. Laurence O. McKinney claims his group coined the term 'neurotheology' in the 1980s, and then published the book Neurotheology in 1994.
Actually Aldous Huxley coined the term implying the interaction of cognitive science, experience and philosophy in a religious context. Neurotheology is now a generic term; a transdisciplinary specialty concerned with the innate hard-wiring of the brain for spiritual or mystical experiences and other altered states of consciousness. It includes practitioners from medicine, psychiatry, psychology, physics, complexity, chemistry, biology, philosophy, mathematics, computer science, genetics, theology, consciousness studies and several social sciences.
Looking at the neurological basis of spiritual and mystical experiences, researchers pinpoint which regions of the brain turn on and off during religious, visionary or extraordinary states of consciousness. Earlier research showed how brain waves change in meditation, but not why they change, or which specific regions are associated with the change. Recent studies identify the neural circuits that surge with activity when we encounter the divine or feel transported by intense prayer, uplifting rituals, or even sacred music. The cross-cultural consistency of spiritual experiences suggests the biological core which reflects this process in the human brain.
Scientists are using dynamic brain imaging techniques such as SPECT to directly view the activation of certain brain circuitry during such activities as meditation and prayer. Thus, this field is a synergy of neurology and theology: or the biological basis of spirituality, the brain's spirituality circuit, the neurological underpinnings of mystical experience. It revers both science and religious spirit. It leads, perhaps, to the prospect of intentionally inducing mystical experiences in a scientific manner. It leads definitely to questions about the open-ended nature of consciousness and the role of spirituality in our adaptation and evolution.
Subjectivity remains the "hard problem" in this study. Neuroscientist David Chalmers counters the positions of the so-called mysterians, who say we will never understand consciousness at all.
"Against mysterianism, I will hold that consciousness might be explained by a new kind of theory. The full details of such a theory are still out of reach, but careful reasoning and some educated inference can reveal something of its general nature. For example, it will involve a few fundamental laws, and the concept of information may play a central role. These faint glimmerings suggest that a theory of consciousness may have startling consequences for our view of the universe and ourselves." (SciAmer, 12/95, p80).
"The easy problems of consciousness include the following: How can a human subject discriminate sensory stimuli and react to them appropriately? How does the brain integrate information from many different sources and use this information to control behavior? How is it that subjects can verbalize their internal states? Although all these questions are associated with consciousness, they all concern the objective mechanisms of the cognitive system. Consequencly, we have every reason to expect that continued work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience will answer them. The hard problem, in contrast, is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This puzzle involves the inner aspect of thought and perception; the way things feel for the subject."
In 1990, the foundational BRAIN, SYMBOL & EXPERIENCE: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness was published by Shambhalla. Its authors, Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., John McManus and Eugene G. d'Aquili explored new territory uniting cognitive sciences with philosophy. It covered the structures of consciousness, consciousness and the symbolic process, consciousness and the limits of experience, and a summary of neural organization. It is a short-course in neurognosis: the genetically determined properties of sensing, perception, cognition, feeling, etc. Neurognosis produces our earliest experience of the world, the "already there-ness" of our pre- and perinatal lifeworld.
According to the bookcover:
This groundbreaking book relates consciousness to brain physiology, cultural symbols, and rituals, and the experiences of contemplatives. The authors first describe the structures of the brain in detail, suggesting how these structures are involved in making sense impressions meaningful. They then consider the way in which cultural groups assign meaning to objects as symbols, affecting the perceptions and behaviors of group members; in this context they discuss ritual, symbolic drama, and cosmology. This sets the stage for a scientific description of the alternate or transcendental phases of human consciousness and the ways in which meditation enables one to enter these phases. Maintaining that trained introspection is an important source of information for the science of consciousness, the authors offer a new description of human experience that unites the perspectives of the neurobiologist, the shaman, and the meditator.
Anthropologist Laughlin and psychatrist d'Aquili also wrote Science as Cognitive Process (Laughlin and McManus) and Biogenetic Structuralism (Laughlin and d'Aquili). Biogenetic structuralism is a body of theory and research strategies that works to integrate our understanding of consciousness, culture and brain in a single perspective. The approach is simultaneously neurobiological, phenomenological and sociocultural, incorporating all the avenues of scientific thought relevant to the study of religion, such as anthropology and depth psychology. This is a non-dualistic modeling of mind and body.
The structure of the body and the neural structures producing it are considered foremost. The human brain is inherently mystical; that is, the human brain is driven by its own inherent structure to know the hidden, to encounter with the transcendental nature of itself and the external environment. The mystical brain is an adaption which counters extremely unrealistic and maladaptive fears and anxieties; it strives to balance the tensions between environment and self, adaptive and conservative forces.
In 1997, neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran told the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience that there is "a neural basis for religious experience." Neurotheology pursues the exploration of this tangible connection, which yields some observable and measurable parameters and suggests ways of facilitating and/or reproducing the direct experience of transcendence or God. Ramachandran called the temporal lobes "The God Module."
In his 1998 book Phantoms in the Brain, he cities the prevalence of intense religious experiences among those with temporal lobe epilepsy. He hypothesizes that the emotional intensity may be the result of a strengthening or "kindling" of certain neural pathways between the temporal lobe and the amygdala, which regulates or filters emotional connections and creates significance. He concludes that there are neural structures in the temporal lobes that are specialized for religion and spirituality, which are selectively enhanced by the epileptic process. We might add there are other means of activating this phenomenon.
There are a wide variety of theories and mechanisms presented as influential spiritual transducers. Many of these biological systems work together in a variety of ways to create different experiences from deep meditation, to ecstatic trance, Near Death Experiences (NDEs) to Cosmic Consciousness. Cosmic Unity and a sense of Eternity (sacred or cosmic time) occurs when the parietal lobe quiets down; self-identity vanishes or expands to universal proportions. When the orientation area is deprived of neuronal input by gating from the hippocampus, sense of self expands.
The role of suspension of sense of orientation in 3 or 4 dimensions of spacetime is interesting in terms of the prevalance of systems of sacred geometry in mysticism to facilitate gestalt experiences. There are many ritualistic and meditational devices from Mandalas or Yantras, to Middle Pillar Exercise and the Diamond Body, to Merkabah mysticism which promote inner plane orientation. In parapsychology, such devises are known as Psychotronics and function as "time machines." This could imply that focusing or intense concentration on these internally-generated signals for orienting in sacred spacetime creates a paradoxical rebound which we feel as dissolving into cosmic consciousness, where beginning and end are cotemporaneous.
This may be why meditators are urged to remain motionless to achieved the desired state. Mystics say that if you move during meditation, the attention will be drawn back down into the body and worldly attachment. When there is no movement there is no external reference signal to orient in 3-space and no reason for this portion of the brain to activate. Intensive meditation can over-drive certain other brain areas and seemingly transport us to another universe. And just as, in terms of symmetry principles, a complete description of the Universe contains no information that serves to define a preferred position or direction in space, the local self dissolves in an omnidirectional expansion.
Sacred images are generated in the lower temporal lobe which also responds to ritualistic use of imagery and iconography. Religious emotions originate in the middle temporal lobe, generating bliss, awe, joy and other feelings of well-being or sense of Presence. Fear or awesomeness originates in the amygdala. The frontal lobes help us form concentrative trances through focusing, often employing any constant rhythmic stimulus to the CNS, such as drumming or mantras to facilitate concentration and drive the process.
These mechanisms neither define nor limit God, per se, but describe the role of activation or cessation of activity in different areas of the brain on our spiritual awareness. Some focus on the neurochemistry or electromagnetic properties of the brain, while others describe quantum processes. The roles, for example of the amygdala, hippocampus, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and pineal gland are covered as fundamental to our sense of well-being, meaningfulness, expansion from personal identity, and inner Light.
The players in this field are each eminent in their own areas of expertise. Many are described in the popular article which recently appeared in
Newsweek (April, 2001): "Religion and the Brain," by Sharon Begley, http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/566079.asp?cp1=1
Begley includes the work of neurologist Dr. James Austin, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili, psychologist David Wolff of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, Dr. Michael J. Baine, and psychologist Richard Bentall of Manchester, England (Co-Editor with Dr. Stanley Krippner for The Varieties of Anomolous Experience, 2001).
Neuromagnetics and the God Experience
In the Newsweek article, the neuromagnetics research of neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Persinger is given a cursory review in regard to Temporal Lobe Transients (TLTs) which are implicated as miniseizures in producing a variety of perceptual anomolies combined with a sense of deep meaning. Persinger identifies the temporal lobes as the biological basis of the God Experience, "the God Module," in his 1987 book Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. He comments on the purpose of his research:
"As a human being, I am concerned about the illusionary explanations for human consciousness and the future of human existence. Consequently after writing [NBGB], I began the systematic application of complex electromagnetic fields to discern the patterns that will induce experiences (sensed presence) that are attributed to the myriad of ego-alien intrusions which range from gods to aliens. The research is not to demean anyone's religious/mystical experience but instead to determine which portions of the brain or its electromagnetic patterns generate the experience. Two thousand years of philosophy have taught us that attempting to prove or disprove realities may never have discrete verbal (linguistic) solutions because of the limitation of this measurement. The research has been encouraged by the historical fact that most wars and group degradations are coupled implicitly to god beliefs and to the presumption that those who do not believe the same as the experient are somehow less human and hence expendable. Although these egocentric propensities may have had adaptive significance, their utility for the species' future may be questionable."
His technique, using solenoids in a helmet for input, is fairly simple. A hand-held computer programs the predefined pattern at which the fields will fluctuate. The impulses move through the temporal lobe and penetrate deep into the brain, where they interfere and interact with the complex electrical patterns of the subject's neural fields. The new patterns spread through the limbic system, producing sensations that range from subtle to profound. Persinger's research goal is to use his device to trigger transcendental experiences in nonreligious people faced with the fear of death.
Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of around a 1000 people and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use -- Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammeed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one's grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.
Persinger has discovered that when he aims for the amygdala, his subjects experience sexual arousal. When he focuses the solenoids on the right hemisphere of their temporal lobes, they sense on the left side of their body a negative presence -- an alien or a devil, say. When he switches to left left hemisphere, his subjects sense a benevolent force: an angel or a god.
Focused on the hippocampus, the personal electromagnetic relaxation device will produce the sort of opiate effects that Ecstasy does today. So far, subjects report no adverse side effects. However, "if you interfere with the opiate pattern, people get very irritated," Persinger says. In fact, "they'll actually cuss you out."
Persinger asserts that, "God Experiences are products of the human brain. When certain portions of the brain are stimulated, God Experiences, tempered by the person's learning history, are evoked. They appear to have emerged within the human species as a means of dealing with the expanded capacity to anticipate aversive events. God Experiences contain common themes of "knowing," forced thinking, inner voices, familiarity, and sensations of uplifting movements." God Concepts are determined by verbal conditioning; perceptions are constructions. When multiple events occur within a week, they are usually given special labels, such as "revelations," "communions," or "conversions."
People with TLTs experience vivid landscapes or perceive forms of living things. Some of these entities are not humans, but are described as little men, glowing forms, or bright, shining sources. The modality of the experience, that is, whether it is experienced as a sound, a smell, a scene (vision), or an intense feeling, reflects the area of the electrical instability. The experiences, whether visual or auditory, may have actually happened or they may be mixtures of fantasy and reality. Sometimes they may be fixed in space and time, while in other cases they may be as dynamic as everyday experiences. However, whether they are dreamlike or vivid, they are experienced as real.
Persinger is not saying that the experiences of God are synonymous with temporal lobe epilepsy. However, when vast depolarizing waves spread across millions of cells, all types of memories and fantasies are mixed and mashed together. But the God Experience is a normal and more organized pattern of temporal lobe activity, precipitated by subtle psychological factors such as personal stress, loss, and anticipated death.
The gut feeling is a sense of familiarity, deep meaning, conviction and importance, even euphoria or mania (alternately fear and terror). The brain's chemical reaction is to release natural opiates and other mood elevating neurotransmitters. During TLTs, the person peers into another realm which has many names, heaven, the world of spirits, or the other dimension. Trained meditators, (employing rhythmic stimulus to the CNS such as a mantra or "emptying", changes in oxygen and blood sugar levels), can drive the temporal lobe into bouts of theta activity. Sometimes frank electrical seizures occur and the God Experience is reported.
Neuroscientist Todd Murphy, www.jps.net/brainsci/, has done a good job of summarizing Persinger's research in simpler language. He describes consciousness as a feedback interface of sensory and cognitive modalities. Low intensity magnetic fields orchestrate communication between lobes of the brain, at a speed much faster than the bioelectrical or biochemical process of neurons. Different signals produce different phenomena. The temporal lobes are the parts of the brain that mediate states of consciousness.
Multiple modalities are experienced simultaneously, with the implication that they are 'reset' all at once by neuromagnetic signals which come in pairs, running slightly out of phase with one another. In this way, neuromagnetic signals, like the two laser beams used to produce a hologram, might be able to store information. The speeds at which neuromagnetic signals are propagated and their capacity to recruit/alter multiple modalities suggests that they were naturally selected to make instant choices to alter states of consciousness, and to do so quickly to facilitate adaptive behavior.
Murphy's many articles include not only the production of consciousness and states of consciousness, the God experience, but deja vu, and the spiritual personality. Long-term memory is seated in the surface of the bottom of the temporal lobes in the para hippocampal cortex, closely connected to the hippocampus. Usually, there is seamless integration of past, present and future. We experience something in the present, compare it to the past and decide how to respond in a few seconds.
But once in a while, in Deja Vu, there is too much communication between short-term and long-term memories. Then the present can feel like the past. If present perceptions are shunted through the brain areas that process memories from the past, those perceptions feel like memories, and we feel we are re-living a moment stored in long-term memory.
The opposite happens in Jamais Vu: things seem totally unfamily because of too little connection between long-term memory and perceptions from the present. Nothing we experience seems to have anything to do with the past. If these experiences spill over into the amygdala they are highly emotional. If goes to the right it is unpleasant or fearful, to the left from ecstatic to beautific. Another experiential phenomenon is time distortion.
Murphy describes the phenomenon of the Sensed Presence and how it emerges from out of phase processes in different hemispheres of the brain. He also relates the sensed presence with the behavior and feelings of romantic love.
The 'self' is what we experience when a specific pattern of brain activity is happening. It is linked to the Forty Hertz Component which appears from the temporal lobes, and two of it's deeper structures, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The 40 Hz signal is only not there in dreamless sleep. The maintenance of the sense of self is repeated 40 times per second and each time it can manifest a new emotional response to changing circumstances every 25 milliseconds.
These structures on both sides of the brain yield two 'selves,' two senses of self. One is on the left, and one on the right, but they are not equals. The left-sided sense of self is dominant in most people; right side subordinatenon-verbal, introspective. The left is the one where language happens, maintaining our stream of inner words and thoughts about everything we experience or can imagine.
Each normal brain function involes a primary operative area on one side with a subordinate homologous or corresponding area on the other. On the other side of the brain, following the rule that each thing on one side of the brain does the opposite of what the same thing on the other side does, we get the conclusion that there is a non-linguistic sense of self on the right side of the brain. Usually the two selves work in tandem. But if the two fall out of phase, and the left-sided self manifests by itself, we experience our own, right-sided silent sense of self coming out where the left sided sense of self experiences it as "other," as not-self. This leads to the phenomenon of Sensed Presence, actually the Silent Self.
Electrical activity in the amygdala, hippocampus and temporal can 'spill over' into nearby structures. If it ignites the visual area, intense visions of an entity of some sort emerge (left amygdala-positive imagery; right side-negative images/entities). Kindling the olfactory region leads to unique scents; the somatosensory stimulation leads to buzzing, energetic, or tingly sensations or perceptions of being lifted or floating; language center activation produces coices, music or noise; long-term memory (lower portion of temporal lobes) access yields interactive virtual realities, complete with emotions, much like waking dreams. The thalamus is implicated in aura vision, and the reticular activating system in life reviews.
Because positive thoughts (involving the right hippocampus), and positive feelings (involving the left amygdala) are on opposite sides of the brain, prayer or meditation changes the balance of activity on the two sides. These structures have some of the lowest firing thresholds in the brain and are thus likely to mismatch their metabolic rates of activity. Whenever that's happening, chances of the activity of the two sides falling out of phase with each other increases. Then the 'right self' is experienced as an external presence.
Sensed presence experiences become more common until the day arrives when God's presence is something the person feels at all times. In mystical experience language fails, and a person's sense of themselves can be transformed. Since we can't experience two senses of self, one is projected as other, the Beloved, either romantic or spiritual. There is thus some truth to the saying that the beloved is God, and that when we love God we are loving ourselves. I and Thou are One. The other becomes the Self.
The monumental work of Dr. Rick Strassman focuses on the role endogenous chemistry plays in creating spiritual life. It is notably absent from the Newsweek article despite his seminal research on both Melatonin, which is influential in regulating our internal cosmic clock and DMT. He calls "DMT: the Spirit Molecule," an endogenous hallucinogen which he boldly asserts is an active agent in a variety of altered states including mystical experience. To learn all about the biological action of the pineal gland and its chemistry, visit Strassman's excellent site (and purchase his fine book), where you can find complete chapter summaries for the entire book.
Dr. Rick Strassman: DMT: The Spirit Molecule, (2001)
Endogenous DMT is described as the source of visionary Light in transpersonal experiences. Its primary source, the pineal, has traditionally been refered to as the Third Eye. DMT production is particularly stimulated, according to Strassman, in the extraordinary conditions of birth, sexual ecstasy, childbirth, extreme physical stress, near-death, and death, as well as meditation. Pineal DMT also plays a significant role in dream consciousness.
"All spiritual disciplines describe quite psychedelic accounts of the transformative experiences, whose attainment motivate their practice. Blinding white light, encounters with demonic and angelic entities, ecstatic emotions, timelessness, heavenly sounds, feelings of having died and being reborn, contacting a powerful and loving presence underlying all of reality--these experiences cut across all denominations. They also are characteristic of a fully psychedelic DMT experience. How might meditation evoke the pineal DMT experience?"
"Meditative techniques using sound, sight, or the mind may generate particular wave patterns whose fields induce resonance in the brain. Millennia of human trial and error have determined that certain "sacred" words, visual images, and mental exercises exert uniquely desired effects. Such effects may occur because of the specific fields they generate within the brain. These fields cause multiple systems to vibrate and pulse at certain frequencies. We can feel our minds and bodies resonate with these spiritual exercises. Of course, the pineal gland also is buzzing at these same frequencies. . .The pineal begins to "vibrate" at frequencies that weaken its multiple barriers to DMT formation: the pineal cellular shield, enzyme levels, and quantities of anti-DMT. The end result is a psychedelic surge of the pineal spirit molecule, resulting in the subjective states of mystical consciousness." (Strassman, 2001).
Strassman (1990) has suggested that the pineal gland is a possible source of endogenous hallucinogens and this gland is also associated with sleep cycle rhythms, and traditionally with mystical states of consciousness. Besides the production of melatonin, the pineal may synthesize endogenous hallucinogens in response to certain psychophysical states, and raise serotonin levels in the brain..
These hallucinogens may belong to the tryptamine or beta-carboline family of compounds. One compound (6-methoxy-1,2,3,4-tetra-hydro-beta-carboline) has been proposed as the producer of rapid eye movement sleep. It is concentrated in the retinae of mammals which may be related to its visual effects.
There are several ways in which either psychoactive tryptamines and/or beta-carbolines may be produced within the central nervous system (and possibly within the pineal) from precursors and enzymes that are known to exist in human beings. In addition, nerve fibers leave the pineal and make synaptic connections with other brain sites through traditional nerve-to-nerve connections, not just through endocrine secretions.
Serotonin or tryptamine levels are higher in the pineal than any other organ in the brain. 5-methoxy-tryptamine is a precursor with hallucinogenic properties which has a high affinity for the serotonin type-3 receptor. Gucchait (1976) has demonstrated that the human pineal contains an enzyme capable of synthesizing both DMT and bufotenine-like chemistry. These compounds are prime candidates for endogenous “schizotoxins,” and their production may be related to stress and/or trauma, and has been implicated in the etiology of schizophrenia.
Strassman notes that both the embryological rudiments of the pineal gland and the differentiated gonads of both male and female appear at 49 days. Melatonin is a time-keeper for gonadal maturation and/or competence so the pineal is implicated again. He suggests this may be the ontological source of the tension between sexual and spiritual energies. The pineal gland, as source of both psychedelic compounds and the gonads, source of physical immortality, may work in concert (or oppositon) in the individual’s development through time.
Stress-related hormones are implicated in pineal activation to activate normally latent synthetic pathways, creating tryptamine and/or beta-carboline hallucinogens. When we face stress or potential death, or in meditative reveries, we “tune back” into the most well-developed motif of such experiences--the birth experience. Perinatal themes and memories re-emerge.
Those with Cesaerean deliveries report greater difficulty in attaining transcendent states of breakthrough and release during drug-induced states. Maybe less fetal (or maternal) hallucinogens were released at the time of birth. They may not, according to Strassman, have a strong enough “template of experience” to fall back on, to be familiar enough with to let go without fear of total annihilation, because lesser amounts of pineal hallucinogens were produced during their births.
The pineal may be modulated in its activity by meditative practices, to elicit a finely-tuned standing wave through resonance effects and other techniques. It creates the induction of a dynamic, yet unmoving, quality of experience. Such harmonization resynchronizes both hemispheres of the brain.
Dysynchrony is implicated in a variety of disorders. Such a standing wave in consciousness can induce resonance in the pineal using electric, magnetic or sound energy, and may result in a chain of synergetic activity resulting in the production and release of hallucinogenic compounds.
Thus, the pineal may be the physical representation of an attractor, or “lightning rod” of consciousness. Pineal function may profoundly affect consciousness at the time of birth, death, near-death experiences, and during unusual psychophysical states such as shamanic or psychotherapeutic experiential journeys or meditation.
Our present understanding of neurobiology stops short of explaining subjectivity, what an experience is like. We express 'how we know what we know' through epistemological metaphors, a sensory-based language rooted in the dimensionality of spacetime. What experience is like is always necessarily couched in terms of visionary, auditory, olfactory, and kinesthetic metaphors. Perception = construction.
Perceptual cycles can be initiated by either external or internally generated stimuli. Internally generated images vary enormously in vividness and detail from person to person. Artists and mystics all in their separate ways have exceptional image-generating abilities. Sensory-based imagery is also the primary focus of process-oriented psychotherapy; when the image changes, the feelings and real-world outcomes associated with it change also. Construction = perception.
Dreams have been an integral aspect of spirituality since the dawn of shamanism. It has long been argued that the gods or God speaks to mankind through dreams. They are also one of our most subjective expressions. Process-oriented therapy, particularly when focused on dream imagery, often leads into spontaneous mystical experience, with attendant phenomena such as sense of expansion, ego loss, timelessness, infused knowledge, sense of Presence or divine contact or immersion, and often self-organized spontaneous healing. For more on this relationship of dreams, REM, mystical experience and healing see Dreamhealing by Graywolf Swinney and Iona Miller (1991) or Holographic Healing, (2001) by Graywolf Swinney and "Technoshamanism," this article:
Asklepia Foundation; Dreamhealing, and Holographic Healing,
There is communication between cortices in the brain during REM sleep. This communication or information processing in the brain could be termed dreaming.
The latest neurological findings about dreams and the source of their mysterious qualities are summarized in "Wild Dreams," by Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, (Discover, April 2001, p. 37-43). Among other functions, dreams may be a means of keeping under-utilized neural pathways active by giving a workout to neurons that don't get exercised during the day.
Dreams are characterized by rapid transitions, heightened sense of emotionality and irrationality. Researchers use positron emission tomography (PET) to read blood flows in the brain during slow-wave sleep and REM to discover which areas are active. In slow-wave sleep the reticular activating system (RAS) and motor areas shut down. Regions involved in the consolidation and retrieval of memories don't shut down, but the pathways that transmit to and from them do. This is metabolic isolation of the area. Sensory areas shut down as do areas that integrate and give meaning to these signals.
During REM, when most dreams occur, metabolic rates leap upward throughout various subregions. Muscle movement, breathing and heartrate increase. The limbic system, or emotional center shows increases, as well as memory and sensory processing areas, especially vision and hearing. The visual cortical region does not show much metabolic increase, but the downline regions that integrate visual information turn on. In REM, we start with the downstream integration of visual patterns producing the imagery of dreams.
Dreams may be dreamlike because of the absense of most activity of the prefrontal cortex. During REM most of the prefrontal cortex is off-line. Only one of the four subregions increase in activity in REM. This area plays a central role in self-discipline and gratification postponement, in reining in impulses. Meanwhile, there are high rates of activity in the complex sensory processing parts of the brain concerned with emotion and memories. Therefore, dreams are filled with uninhibited actions and labile emotions.
PGO waves fire synchronously during REM sleep. A prominent feature of REM sleep is the presence of these large PGO (pontine-geniculate-occipital) spikes which originate in the brainstem, travel up to the lateral geniculate bodies of the thalamus, and on to stimulate the occipital lobes. This is interpreted by the visual brain as sensory stimulation. An increase in the excitability of the brain's internal communication system occurs between the cortices of the brain. The communication between cortices is orchestrated by synchronous firing of action potentials--evoked potentials.
External sensory pathways are blocked during REM sleep. If an internal auditory stimulus is given then synchronous PGO waves appear in the auditory cortex. The PGO waves act as a high amplitude electrical potential which is a self-organizing internal pattern generator. The intensity for producing the stimulus in REM is relatively small compared to Non-REM sleep or waking. PGOs occur simultaneously through all cortices during REM sleep.
This cortical bombardment by PGO spikes might act as a perturbation to the dreaming visual cortex, changing dream content. Even subtle changes might lead to sizable effects on patterns of neural activity (Combs & Krippner, 1998). Such effects are felt experientially as the conscious flow of the dream. Pelting the cortex with PGO waves "heats up" the entire process, creating resonance effects which keep the system from stagnating--it keeps the dream narrative in motion.
However, the subjective, specific content of dreams remains a mystery. Sapolsky speculates that the more prefrontal metabolism remains suppressed during REM, the more vivid and disinhibited dream content will be. Especially when dreams appear "big," exceptionally vivid, or spiritual in nature, from our other research, we might also suspect a role for the temporal region, and the naturally-occuring hallucinogen DMT, whose blood-levels typically peak around 3:00 AM.
Psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson (The Dreaming Brain, 1988) considers both waking and dreaming states to be characterized by "narratively coherent awareness."
"The brain/mind organizes its percepts, thoughts, and emotions of whatever provenance, in the form of a scenario. It extracts from and/or imposes upon sensorimotor data certain structures or frames that give them order. These include orientation, intention, and tone.. In dreaming the constructive activity persists, but regulation and control are relaxed. . .not only is internal information generated in REM sleep but that information has a high degree of spatial specificity."
Elsewhere he states, "The cardinal feature of all dreaming--detailed sensory imagery [largely visual, auditory, and kinesthetic], the illusion of reality, illogical thinking, intensification of emotion, and unreliable memory--constitute its form, as opposed to and irrespective of the content of a particular dream."
Hypnosis and the Brain
Mystical experiences, dreams, and hypnosis share a broad spectrum of phenomena, including dissociation, multisensory hallucinations, psychophysical manifestations, the illusion of reality, intensification of emotion, loss of sense of self, unreliable memory, sensed presence, confabulation, time distortion, etc.
In its July, 2001 issue, Scientific American (p. 47-55) reviewed hypnosis and its neurological correlates Psychology professor Michael R. Nash, Ph.D. tells us that studies show an individual's hypnotizability according to the Stanford Scale remains consistent over time, suggesting hypnotic responsiveness may have a hereditary component. Responsiveness remains consistent despite variations in the hypnotist, motivation, relaxation, or therapeutic setting. But, negative attitudes and expectations can interfere, so hypnotherapists are taught to induce positive expectations in the client.
Several studies have also shown that hypnotizability is unrelated to personality characteristics such as gullibility, hysteria, psychopathology, trust, aggressiveness, submissiveness, imagination or social compliance. The trait has, however, been linked tantalizingly with an individual's ability to become absorbed in activities such as reading, listening to music or daydreaming, (is this perhaps a temporal lobe link?).
In hypnosis, subjects are active problem solvers, but don't perceive their experience that way. It seems to be happening to them, and is typically deemed effortless--as something that just happens. These types of disconnections are at the heart of hypnosis. Using hypnosis, scientists have temporarily created hallucinations, dissociation, compulsions, certain types of memory loss, false memories, and delusions in the laboratory. These must take place in the same portions of the brain which produce these same phenomena in spiritual experience and dreams or process oriented psychotherapy, or at least some of those circuits.
PET scans, conducted by Henry Szechman at McMaster University in Ontario revealed that an auditory hallucination and the act of imagining a sound are both self-generated and that, like real hearing, a hallucination is experienced as coming from an external source. The brain can hallucinate a sound mistakenly 'tagged' as authentic and originating in the outside world.
Imagining hearing a voice can create auditory hallucination if the expectation of reality is there. Tests show that a region of the brain called the right anterior cingulate cortex is just as active during hallucinating as it is when we actually hear a stimulus. In contrast, tthe brain area is not active while we simply imagine we hear the stimulus. Somehow hypnosis tricks this area of the brain into registering the hallucinated voice as real.
Examining hypnosis and pain, researchers find that the analgesic effect of hypnosis occurs in higher brain centers than those involved in registering the painful sensation. Using PET, they distinguish the suffering component of pain as distinct from its sensory aspects. They found that hypnosis reduced the activity of the anterior cingulate cortex--and area known to be involved in pain--but did not effect the activity of the somatosensory cortex, where the sensations of pain are processed.
Hypnosis can produce false memories which have the ring of truth to the subject, because of the confabulation process. The distinction between reality and imagination is the experience of effort. Apparently, at the time of encoding a memory, a "tag" cues us as to the amount of effort we expended. If the event is tagged as involving a good deal of mental effort on our part, we tend to interpret it as something we imagined. If it is tagged as involving relatively little mental effort, it is usually interpreted as something that actually happened to us.
According to Nash, "given that the calling card of hypnosis is precisely the feeling of effortlessness, we can see why hypnotized people can so easily mistake an imagined past event for something that happened long ago. Hence, something that is merely imagined can become ingrained as an episode in our life story." An individual need not be under the influence of formal hypnosis, since most of us exist in a limited number of walking trance states most of the time--the trances people live, from inadvertent autohypnosis to our belief systems, to media programming. We live a great deal of our lives on "autopilot."
Hypnosis Research: Intl Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis:
Hypnosis video session:
The Mystical Mind
Thought in its widest sense is a constructive process utilizing internal representations, and so is inner spiritual life. These representations may be visual images, speech images, or musical images, even scents, which classically are reported in spiritual experiences. Thus consciousness is a self-organizing, emergent property of living organisms.
The ability to construct internal representations of sensory stimuli, which underlies perception and cognition, is also an emergent property. Viewed objectively, internal representations are perfectly concrete entities, even though we can't yet characterize them precisely. But internal representations also have a subjective aspect: in certain situations we are aware of them. Consciousness is central to being and directly accessible by intuition. But it is not beyond perception; it is the very stuff of perception.
In 1979, Charles Laughlin and d'Aquili wrote The Spectrum of Ritual, which was elaborated upon by d'Aquili and Newberg in The Mystical Mind, (1999). They assert that ritual accomplishes two important biological feats: 1) coordinating the neural systems and functions of ritual participants into group action, leading to a sense of unity among participants, and 2) entraining and transforming the structure of neuromotor subsystems in developing individuals.
The imperative toward ritual arises in the interaction in the brain of the left frontal lobe and the left orientation area, which forces us to look for causes in any chain of events; to create meaningful narrative stories about experience. What really maintains the force and persistence of religious ritual, however, is ineffable experience, the intense positive affect experienced by participants.
D'Aquili and Newberg propose that certain religious practices can so stimulate the body's calm system or its flight system that activity in the related brain circuit starts to "reverberate," while simultaneously shutting down ever more of the other system. Depending on whether the ritual is fast (as in the spinning dance of Sufi whirling dervishes) or slow, as in Zen meditation, different parts of the brain are activated, perceived by the mind as a higher state of consciousness.
Within the brain, the autonomic nervous system regulates and adjusts baseline body function and responds to external stimuli. It consists of two mutually inhibitory subsystems: the sympathetic or arousal system and the parasympathetic or quiescent system. The arousal system is the source of our fight or flight response, and is connected to the adrenal glands, the amygdala, and reaches into our left cerebral hemisphere. It is sometimes called the "ergotropic" system because it releases energy in the body to react to the environment.
The parasympathetic or quiescent system (sometimes called the "trophotropic" system), on the other hand, conserves energy, promotes relaxation and sleep, and maintains basic body function and growth. It includes the endocrine glands, parts of the hypothalamus and the thalamus, and reaches into the right cerebral hemisphere. Although this material is highly complicated, the most important relationships to keep in mind here is that the dominant (analytical) mind is connected to the arousal system and involves the amygdala, and the non-dominant (holistic) mind is connected with the quiescent system and involves the hypothalamus and hippocampus.
Psychologist Roland Fischer (1967) developed a map of inner space and states of consciousness based on the dynamics of the ergo- and trophotropic systems. He postulated that all knowledge is innate, being an interpretation by the cerebral cortex of sub-cortical information. He contends that each level of arousal contains certain types of information which one can “know” only at that level. This is similar to other theories of state-related learning and memory, (Tart, 1975; Rossi, 1986).
Fischer also postulated that at extreme levels of hyper- or hypoarousal there is a paradoxical shift from one physiological system to the other, automatically. He declared boldly that the extremes in either direction create mystic experiences of the Self, which are interpreted either as an experience of the Plenum (hyper-arousal) or the Void (hypo-arousal).
Fischer summarized his theories by creating a consciousness map, a 'Cartography of Meditative and Exalted States.' Increased states of arousal were graphed to the left of center (which indicates “normal awareness”), while increasing tranquility was mapped to the right. Movement of an individual’s consciousness to the Left brings increasing motor excitation, while that to the right brings almost total lack of sensory input. In Fischer’s own words:
“What I propose is that normality, creativity, schizophrenia, and mystical states, though seemingly disparate, actually lie on a continuum. Furthermore, they represent increasing levels of arousal and a gradual withdrawal from the synchronized physical-sensory-cerebral spacetime of the normal state. Specifically, there is a retreat first to sensory-cerebral spacetime and, ultimately, to cerebral spacetime only. The gradual withdrawal from physical spacetime is an expression of the dissolution of ego boundaries, that is, the fusion of object and subject, and it implies that an existence solely in spacetime is an oceanic experience, the most intense mirroring of the ego in its own meaning.”
In summary, we can see that for any individual perception of the universe (as Self or mind) can occur as an internal or external experience. It is our rich internal experiences that have puzzled researchers in consciousness as the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. At the extreme parameter in either direction, we experience an encounter with the Absolute. Along the continuum, we may experience varying forms of an I-Thou dialogue uniting extremely hyper- or hypo-arousal states.
Hyperarousal, or mania, may result from psychoactive drugs, or a bipolar or schizophrenic episode. It results, sometimes in “ego-death” when the “I” becomes so freaked-out it submits or gives in to the sensory overload which overwhelms it. Hypoarousal leads to a characteristic state of silence or emptying when the ego voluntarily submits to unification of subject and object, of “I” and Self. In either case, cortical and subcortical activity become indistinguishably merged; there is no separate “I” left to perceive an objective reality. Thus, dualism is obliterated.
Paradoxical physiological mechanisms operate in the body under most conditions to chemically prevent the attainment of higher states of arousal on either end of the spectrum. They function somewhat like the switchover from arousal to repose which occurs at the point of orgasm. But it is possible, with repeated exposure to the paradoxical situation to function effectively at higher levels of arousal.
In fact, there is always a complementary component of the opposite arousal system functioning even in the mystical state. If there were no ergotropic arousal in mediation, for example, we would fall asleep. Thus in some sense, our task becomes falling asleep as much as we can while remaining awake. REM sleep, or the dream state, is another example of physiological paradox where there is extreme cerebral excitation coupled with little muscular activity.
We can characterize the physiological condition of an experience of the Self as remaining trophotropically relaxed while ergotropically alert. The mystic achieves his goal when he learns to short-circuit the homeostatic mechanism of negative feedback. The negative feedback system perpetuates the experience of duality between the “I” and Self.
D’Aquili and Newberg outline "four basic categories of arousal/quiescent states that may occur during extraordinary phases of consciousness": The Hyperquiescent state; the Hyperarousal state; the Hyperquiescent state with Eruption of the Arousal System; and The Hyperarousal State with Eruption of the Quiescent System. In addition they propose a fifth state where both systems are maximally aroused, the absolute unitary state (AUB). The Mystical Mind, 25-16; see also d’Aquili and Newberg, "Liminality, Trance and Unitary States in Ritual and Meditation," Studia Liturgica 23 (1993):2-24.
D’Aquili and Laughlin report research that shows that when either the arousal or quiescent system is maximally stimulated it results in a "spillover effect" or a stimulation of the other system. That is, experts in meditation may experience a "rush" or a release of energy during a hyperquiescent state. From the other side, those who engage in rhythmic rituals that engage the arousal system, such as energetic dancing and singing, may experience states of bliss, tranquility, and oneness with others. Hyperarousal and hyperquiescent states seem to stimulate the limbic system, which regulates our emotions. Hence, these states are experienced as being emotionally intense, and often pleasurable.
In summary, in states of very high activity around one circuit, there can be a "spillover" such that the dormant system activates and goes "on line" simultaneously with the other. Although rare, this dual state can lead to a sense of "tremendous release of energy" that may feel like "oceanic bliss" or absorption into the object of contemplation.
And in extreme cases there is a "maximal discharge" of both systems, inducing brain activities perceived by the mind as the Absolute Unity of Being or AUB, which brings the abolition of any discrete boundaries between beings, by the absense of a sense of time-flow, and by the elimination of the self-other dichotomy. A mystic in the AUB state will experience either a divine being, such as God, or the cosmic void of Nirvana, depending on whether there has been a predominantly ergotropic or trophotropic involvement. Yet we cannot reduce religious awe, numinous vision or mystical experience to merely a neurochemical flux.
It is also during these "spillover" experiences that the paradoxes presented to the brain through myth become resolved by the simultaneous functioning of both hemispheres of the brain. In ritual stimulation of the arousal system, for example, the presentation of what is an unresolvable logical problem in the left brain (the wafer is both bread and the Body of Christ), is experienced as unified in the holistic operation of the right brain.
Ritual participants therefore may experience a resolution of the problems presented by the myth and a deep unity with other participants: "The simultaneous strong discharge of both parts of the autonomic nervous system creates a state that consists not only of a pleasurable sensation, but, also, under proper conditions, a sense of union with conspecifics and a blurring of cognitive boundaries." Similarly, those who engage in meditation may report that they experience resolution of paradoxes during some meditative states, hence the famous use of such paradoxes by Zen practitioners.
Both meditation and ritual can lead to the spillover effect and the simultaneous discharge of the arousal and quiescent systems. But they come at the experience from different directions. Meditation begins with the quiescent system and by its hyperactiviation can achieve spillover into the arousal system (from trophotropic to ergotropic). Ritual approaches from the opposite system (from ergotropic to trophotropic). But there are other differences as well:
The difference between meditation and ritual is that those who are adept at meditation are often able to maintain an ecstatic state for prolonged periods of time. The ecstatic state and sense of union produced by ritual are usually very brief (often lasting only a few seconds) and may often be described as no more than a shiver running down the back at a certain point. This experience, however, may be repeated at numerous focal points during the ritual. Furthermore, the ecstatic states produced by ritual, although they are usually extremely brief, seem to be available to many or most participants. The ecstatic states attained through meditation, although they may last for hours or even days, require long practice and intense discipline.31
So ritual is more accessible and effective than meditation for large groups of people as a system for stimulating both hemispheres of the brain and thereby bringing mythic conundrums to resolution. In The Mystical Mind, d’Aquili and Newberg elaborate on the difference between these approaches, describing a complex continuum of unitary or mystical states that may arise from different types of ritual or meditation, but the basic principles remain intact.
Ritual is here described as a "bottom-up" technology for activating the autonomic systems; its rhythmic qualities stimulate either the arousal or quiescent systems that then affect the higher brain functions. Slow rhythms in ritual, like chant and read liturgy, primarily stimulate the quiescent system, while rapid "driving" rituals involving loud noise and body movement stimulate the arousal system.
Either approach may lead to a "filling up" of the autonomic system and then a spillover effect and an altered state of consciousness. Slow ritual may lead to a hyperquiescent state and a feeling of peace or unity, and occasionally result in a spillover into the arousal state or a sense of profound energy. Similarly, fast ritual may provoke a hyperarousal state of attention and intention, sometimes spilling over into the quiescent state and a sense of bliss.
They hypothesize that ritual could theoretically lead to the maximal discharge of both systems, causing hallucinations, mystical visions, or a state of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). Finally, they note that marked ritual behavior tends to draw the attention of the amygdala, as does strong smell, which may be the biological source of the experience of religious awe. Ritual actions and the presence of incense may help neurologically for ritual to promote altered states of consciousness in its participants.
In The God Part of the Brain, yet another author Matthew Alper alleges that the brain is hard-wired for mystical experience to modify the threat of our hostile existential reality. "Based on social, psychological, and anthropological confirmation as well as the latest genetic and neurophysiological research, The "God" Part of the Brain explores the apparent correlation between spirituality/religiosity and the human brain. Just as honeybees are compelled to construct hexagonal shaped hives, perhaps humans are compelled to perceive a spiritual reality...as a reflex, an instinct. And why would we have evolved such an instinct?"
"With the dawn of human intelligence, for the first time in the history of terrestrial life, an organism could point its powers of perception back upon its own being; it could recognize its own self as an object. For the first time, when an animal knelt down to drink from the watering hole, it recognized its own reflection. Only humans possess the advanced capacity for self-awareness. Though, in many ways, this capacity has helped to make our species the most versatile and powerful creature on earth, it also represents the source of our greatest affliction. This is because once we become aware of the fact that we exist, we ecome equally aware of the possibility that one day we might not...even moreso, that it's certain that one day we will not. With the advent of our species, with the emergence of self-conscious awareness, a life form became cognizant of the fact that it is going to die. All we had to do was to look around us to see that death was inevitable and inescapable. More terrifying yet, death could befall us at anytime. Any moment can be our last."
Are there things we should not know? There are many responses to the impulse toward experience, therefore, we pass through the essential stage of experience on the way to widom. But it remains a stage, not an end in itself. Religion generally answers yes to the question, while philosophy answers no. But before philosophy and the dogma and dictates of religion, before forbidden knowledge and forbidden fruit, there was shamanism.
Shamanism was the primordial spirituality of humankind. Evidence of our spiritual evolution is at least 50,000 years old, and is implied by the earliest ritual burials. Shamanism is still practiced throughout the world, particularly in third-world countries, which might more properly be referred to as first-world countries. The drive to experience the inner realm of being is universal and reflected in the myriad ways the majority of human cultures find to incubate alternative phases of consciousness. Technoshamanism is the integration of futuristic technology with ancient pathways of the past. It implies access to full-immersion experiences, virtual realities which have consequences in the real world.
The world of the shaman is the world of the spirits, uncanny powers, psychic phenomena, initiation, altered states, dreams, death, rebirth, and healing. It is the realm of body, faith, trust, disruption, dissolution, intuition, mysticism, transcendence, psychedelia, cosmic consciousness, sex and madness vs. intellect, morality, dogma. Under the influence of a shaman, an initiate may attain direct transpersonal experience that vivifies multiple realities. Shamanism means mastery of the sensorium, the symbolic world. To the extent that the shaman has great power, he penetrates deeply into the basic roots of the structuralizing process, and brings that information back.
Shamanic personalities work at the edge of chaos where it is often difficult to distinguish spiritual emergence from spiritual emergency, bloom or doom. Technoshamanism is connecting contemporary society with the mythic roots of humanity. Shamanism is beyond time; it's a primal spirit. Anything that is created is linked into that spirit. Technology is the interface between what exists now and what is coming into existence.
We are all capable of transcendent awareness, of becoming shamans. The shaman is a shaman because he has been empowered by treading the road others wish to follow. The shaman is a symbol to others of their projection of a degree of personal insight and growth. The shamanic principle is ubiquitous to religion, healing, and transpersonal activities simply because its activity is essential to neurocognitive and physiological development. The inner shaman is a percept which penetrates to our neurocognitive intentionalities: exploration of self and multiple worlds, transformation, and social flow.
Shamanism has enjoyed a resurgence in the West from a variety of sources including raves, yoga, fen shui, martial arts, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Amazonian shamanism, Sufism to Voodoo, and more. All these technologies, (a primary hallmark of modern humans), involve ritualistic forms for altering states of consciousness, with and without psychotropic drugplants. Like traditional magick and ritual, they rely heavily on accessing multisensory cues, emotions, dreams and imagination. They range from temporary rites of passage to stabilized lifestyles.
Art and music have played a big role in emergence of this technoshamanic spirit, especially explicitly shamanic artists, such as performance artist and musician Genesis P-Orridge whose outlandish role in magick, psychedelics, sexual freedom, and organizing raves led to his being the first person exiled from his homeland England in 250 years. The electronic occulture is dancing through the doors of perception into a hyperspatial reality. It is a pilgrimage into the mind out of time, the body out of space, and the universal spirit that beckons beyond. This story is told through ceremony and ritual, music and dance, sight and source, science and religion. Written with living light, it fosters a reunion with the sacred, the Divine, the Other.
Technoshamanism is the process of altering consciousness through technology. It implies using the healing and mind altering techniques of ancient shamanism combined with modern technologies for altering consciousness, and the holistic mindbody. An archetypal example of a highly developed technology is the Asklepian Dream Temples of ancient Greece, where the afflicted went for cures through healing dream incubation when medical treatments had failed. The cures came not from the priests or any interpretations, but from direct contact with the divine in the dream.
It hardly matters whether these technologies emerge from disciplines such as shamanism (inner journeys), hypnotherapy (neuralfeedback, frequency-following response), psychology (process work), psychiatry (neuropsychology), neurology (TMS; Persinger's 'Relaxit,'; Murphy's 'Shakti', shock-ti), or anthropology (biogenetic structuralism). The ends are often the same whether the aim is explicitly mystical, spiritual or psychotherapeutic.
Not all technologies necessarily involve hardware, wet ware or ars electronica, though in the future technoshamanism will undoubtedly evolve to include cybernetic enhancements. A variety of research (Charles Tart's altered states; John Lilly's sensory deprivation tanks; Mantak Chia's 'Darkroom' technique), and the administration of psychedelics in laboratory situations (Grof; Strassman) can be included.
Postmodern process oriented experiential psychotherapies also fall under this rubric. Among the notables are Marshall McLuhan (Media; "The medium is the message"), Buckminster Fuller (whole systems; Spaceship Earth; Synergetics), Stanislov Grof (LSD therapy; Holotropic Breathwork), techno-shaman Terrence McKenna (Alien Dreamtime), stand-up philosopher Timothy Leary (Chaos & Cyber Culture), Jungian analyst Arnold Mindell (process-oriented psychotherapy), shaman/therapist Graywolf Swinney (Consciousness Restructuring Process), Ernest Rossi (Ideodynamic Healing), neurologist Antonio Damasio (Proto-Self Model), and RET (Rapid Eye Treatment, formerly EMDR) Therapies.
All begin to alter consciousness with a variety of traditional shamanic techniques, and proceed through an experiential journey, again in the shamanic tradition. The commonality among the therapies is facilitation and exploitation of natural process in the stream of consciousness, the 'waking dream,' or REM state. Waking dreams can be induced through techniques which function to drive the state, such as ritual, hypnosis, intense breathing, drumming, dancing, chanting, imagery, meditation, etc. In neurological terms, they facilitate neural plasticity and exercise or reprogramming of neural circuits.
Intuition is the common link between science and art. None of us live in a vacuum; we exist within a sensorium composed of self, others and world all of which impinge on us and ceaselessly redefine us. We can be sure that the inspired artivity of the neuro-shamans will continue to be an influence. Physicians, chiropractors, dentists, psychotherapists, counselors, spiritual healers, priests, rabbis and ministers all practice by virtue of shamanic projection. Our shared voyage through the stream of consciousness is far from over. Our relationship to humanity, earth, and cosmos is one of a relationship to the Other. Our first formative influences is the experience of empathy. And empathy needs a Face. If we find that face in our experience of God, who shall say Nay?
Other researchers can be included for their contributions, though neurotheology is not necessarily their main line of pursuit. Nobel laureate neurobiologist Gerald Edelman (A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination); Candace Pert for her work on identifying endorphins and other neurotransmitters (Molecules of Emotion); Charles Tart, Stanislav Grof, John Gowan and Ken Wilber for their cartographies of altered states of consciousness; physicist Fred Alan Wolf for such works on post-quantum consciousness as the Spiritual Universe; Stanley Krippner (Varieties of AnomolousExperience. 2001) for his foundational work in consciousness, parapsychology, dreams, and complexity.
Neurologist Karl Pribram for his work in Languages of the Brain and holographic memory storage; Stuart Hameroff for his research on microtubules and their role in consciousness; Charles D. Laughlin for his neurophenomenology of consciousness and cybernetic models; Jeffrey Satinover, physicist, psychiatrist, and Jungian analyst (The Quantum Brain, 2001); Itzhak Bentov for work on resonance effects in physical and biological systems and mystical experience.
Robert Monroe for accounts of Out Of Body Experiences (OOBEs) induced by the Frequency Following Response or Binaural Beat Technology, www.monroeinstitute.org; Deepak Chopra for his models of quantum healing; Ben Goertzel, Allan Combs, Robin Robertson, and Ervin Laszlo for Dynamical Psychology www.goertzel.org/dynapsych; and physicist David Bohm for his explications of quantum metaphysics (Wholeness and the Implicate Order).
Have I missed or forgotten research you consider important? Email me a clue.
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
--Antoine de Saint Exupery
Graywolf Swinney, Iona Miller and Dr. Stanley Krippner
"Is God a State of Mind?" Explore radiologist Newberg's work further at WebMD:
In God & the Brain, Newberg and d'Aquili explore the dynamics of meditation with SPECT technology:
God & the Brain
Eugene d'Aquili, M.D., Ph.D., was a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania for twenty years. His numerous books include Biogenetic Structuralism; Brain, Symbol and Experience; and The Mystical Mind. Dr. d'Aquili died in August 1998, before the completion of this book.
Andrew B. Newberg, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology in the Division of Nuclear Medicine and an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has spent more than six years studying brain physiology and function, with focus on the neurology of religious and mystical experiences. The co-author, with Dr. Eugene d'Aquili, of The Mystical Mind, Dr. Newberg has presented his work at scientific and religious conferences around the world.
A Photograph of God? An Introduction to the Biology of Belief
Brain Machinery: The Science of Perception
Brain Architecture: How the Brain Makes the Mind
Myth-making: The Compulsion to Create Stories and Beliefs
Ritual: The Physical Manifestation of Meaning
Mysticism: The Biology of Transcendence
The Origins of Religion: The Persistence of A Good Idea
Realer Than Real: The Mind in Search of Absolutes
Why God Won't Go Away: The Metaphor of God and the Mythology of Science.
From the book jacket:
Why have we humans always longed to connect with something larger than ourselves? Why does consciousness inevitably involve us in a spiritual quest? Why, in short, won't God go away? Theologians, philosophers, and psychologists have debated this question through the ages, arriving at a range of contradictory and ultimately unprovable answers. But in this brilliant, groundbreaking new book, researchers Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili offer an explanation that is at once profoundly simple and scientifically precise: the religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain.
Newberg and d'Aquili base this revolutionary conclusion on a long-term investigation of brain function and behavior as well as studies they conducted using high-tech imaging techniques to examine the brains of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns at prayer. What they discovered was that intensely focused spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in the activity of the brain that leads us to perceive transcendent religious experiences as solid and tangibly real. In other words, the sensation that Buddhists call "oneness with the universe" and the Franciscans attribute to the palpable presence of God is not a delusion or a manifestation of wishful thinking but rather a chain of neurological events that can be objectively observed, recorded, and actually photographed.
The inescapable conclusion is that God is hard-wired into the human brain.
In Why God Won't Go Away, Newberg and d'Aquili document their pioneering explorations in the field of neurotheology, an emerging discipline dedicated to understanding the complex relationship between spirituality and the brain. Along the way, they delve into such essential questions as whether humans are biologically compelled to make myths; what is the evolutionary connection between religious ecstasy and sexual orgasm; what do Near Death Experiences reveal about the nature of spiritual phenomena; and how does ritual create its own neurological environment. As their journey unfolds, Newberg and d'Aquili realize that a single, overarching question lies at the heart of their pursuit: Is religion merely a product of biology or has the human brain been mysteriously endowed with the unique capacity to reach and know God?
Blending cutting-edge science with illuminating insights into the nature of consciousness and spirituality, Why God Won't Go Away bridges faith and reason, mysticism and empirical data. The neurological basis of how the brain identifies the "real" is nothing short of miraculous. This fascinating, eye-opening book dares to explore both the miracle and the biology of our enduring relationship with God.
A Photograph of God? An introduction to the Biology of Belief
In a small, dark room at the lab of a large university hospital, a young man named Robert lights candles and a stick of jasmine incense; he then settles to the floor and folds his legs easily into the lotus position. A devout Buddhist and accomplished practitioner of Tibetan meditation, Robert is about to begin another meditative voyage inward. As always, his goal is to quiet the constant chatter of the conscious mind and lose himself in the deeper, simpler reality within. It’s a journey he’s made a thousand times before, but this time, as he drifts off into that inner spiritual reality-as the material world around him recedes like a fading dream-he remains tethered to the physical here and now by a length of common cotton twine.
One end of that twine lies in a loose coil at Robert’s side. The other end runs beneath a closed laboratory door and into an adjoining room, where I sit, beside my friend and longtime research partner Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, with the twine wrapped around my finger. Gene and I are waiting for Robert to tug on the twine, which will be our signal that his meditative state is approaching its transcendent peak. It is this peak moment of spiritual intensity that interests us.
For years, Gene and I have been studying the relationship between religious experience and brain function, and we hope that by monitoring Robert’s brain activity at the most intense and mystical moments of his meditation, we might shed some light on the mysterious connection between human consciousness and the persistent and peculiarly human longing to connect with something larger than ourselves.
In earlier conversations, Robert has struggled to describe for us how he feels as his meditation progresses toward this spiritual peak. First, he says, his conscious mind quiets, allowing a deeper, simpler part of himself to emerge. Robert believes that this inner self is the truest part of who he is, the part that never changes. For Robert, this inner self is not a metaphor or an attitude; it is literal, constant, and real. It is what remains when worries, fears, desires, and all other preoccupations of the conscious mind are stripped away. He considers this inner self the very essence of his being. If pressed, he might even call it his soul.
Whatever Robert calls this deeper consciousness, he claims that when it emerges during those moments of meditation when he is most completely absorbed in looking inward, he suddenly understands that his inner self is not an isolated entity, but that he is inextricably connected to all of creation. Yet when he tries to put this intensely personal insight into words he finds falling back on familiar clichés that have been employed for centuries to express the elusive nature of spiritual experience. "There’s a sense of timelessness and infinity," he might say. "It feels like I am part of everyone and everything in existence."
To the traditional scientific mind, of course, these terms are useless. Science concerns itself with that which can be weighed, counted, calculated, and measured-anything that can’t be verified by objective observation simply can’t be called scientific. Although individual scientists might be personally intrigued by Robert’s experience, as professionals they’d likely dismiss his comments as too personal and speculative to signify anything concrete in the physical world.
Years of research, however, have led Gene and me to believe that experiences like Robert’s are real, and can be measured and verified by solid science. That’s exactly why I’m huddling, beside Gene, in this cramped examination room, holding kite string between my fingers: I’m waiting for Robert’s moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture.
We wait one hour, while Robert meditates. Then I feel a gentle jerk on the twine. This is my cue to inject a radioactive material into a long intravenous line that also runs into Robert’s room, and into a vein into his left arm. We wait a few moments more for Robert to end his meditation, then we whisk him off to a room in the hospital’s Nuclear Medicine Department, where a massive, state-of-the-art SPECT camera awaits. In moments, Robert is reclining on a metal table, the camera’s three large crystal heads orbiting his skull with a precise, robotic whir.
The SPECT camera (the acronym stands for single photon emission computed tomography) is a high-tech imaging tool that detects radioactive emissions. The SPECT camera scans inside Robert’s head by detecting the location of the radioactive tracer we injected when Robert tugged on the string. Because the tracer is carried by blood flow, and because this particular tracer locks almost immediately into brain cells and remains there for hours, the SPECT scans of Robert’s head will give us an accurate freeze-frame of blood flow patterns in Robert’s brain just moments after injection-at the point of his meditative climax.
Increased blood flow to a given part of the brain correlates with heightened activity in that particular area, and vice-versa. Since we have a good idea of the specific functions that are performed by various brain regions, we expect the SPECT images to tell us a lot about what Robert’s brain was doing during the peak moments of his meditation.
We aren’t disappointed. The finished scan images show unusual activity in a small lump of gray matter nestled in the top rear section of the brain. The proper name of this highly specialized bundle of neurons is the posterior superior parietal lobe, but for the purposes of this book, Gene and I have dubbed it the orientation association area, of OAA.
The primary job of the OAA is to orient the individual in physical space-it keeps track of which end is up, helps us judge angles and distances, and allows us to negotiate safely the dangerous physical landscape around us. To perform this crucial function, it must first generate a clear, consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. In simpler terms, it must draw a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.
It may seem strange that the brain requires a specialized mechanism to keep tabs on this you/not-you dichotomy; from the vantage point of normal consciousness, the distinction seems ridiculously clear. But that’s only because the OAA does its job so seamlessly and so well. In fact, people who suffer injuries to the orientation area have great difficulty maneuvering in physical space. When they approach their beds, for example, their brains are so baffled by the constantly shifting calculus of angles, depths, and distances that the simple task of lying down becomes an impossible challenge. Without the orientation area’s help in keeping track of the body’s shifting coordinates, they cannot locate themselves in space mentally or physically, so they miss the bed entirely and fall to the floor; or they manage to get their body onto the mattress, but when they try to recline they can only huddle awkwardly against the wall.
In normal circumstances, however, the OAA helps create such a distinct, accurate sense of our physical orientation to the world that we hardly need to give the matter any thought at all. To do its job so well, the orientation area depends on a constant stream of nerve impulses from each of the body’s senses. The OAA sorts and processes these impulses virtually instantaneously during every moment of our lives. It manages a staggering workload at capacities and speeds that would stress the circuits of a dozen super computers.
So, not surprisingly, the baseline SPECT scans of Robert’s brain taken before his meditation, while he was in a normal state of mind, show many areas of Robert’s brain, including the orientation area, to be centers of furious neurological activity. This activity appears on the scans in vibrant bursts of brilliant reds and yellows.
The scans taken at the peak of Robert’s meditative state, however, show the orientation area to be bathed in dark blotches of cool greens and blues-colors that indicate a sharp reduction in activity levels.
This finding intrigued us. We know that the orientation area never rests, so what could account for this unusual drop in activity levels in this small section of the brain?
As we pondered the question, a fascinating possibility emerged: What if the orientation area was working as hard as ever, but the incoming flow of sensory information had somehow been blocked? That would explain the drop in brain activity in the region. More compellingly, it would also mean that the OAA had been temporarily "blinded," deprived of the information it needed to do its job properly.
What would happen if the OAA had no information upon which to work? we wondered. Would it continue to search for the limits of the self? With no information flowing in from the senses, the OAA wouldn’t be able to find any boundaries. What would the brain make of that? Would the orientation area interpret its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that such a distinction doesn’t exist? In that case, the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.
This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments. In the words of Hindu Upanishads
As the river flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting that they were ever separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into
Robert was one of eight Tibetan meditators who participated in our imaging study. Each was subjected to the same routine, and in virtually every case, the SPECT scans showed a similar slowing of activity in the orientation area, occurring during the peak moments of meditation.
Excerpted from Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause Copyright 2001 by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpt from The Mystical Mind : Probing the Biology of Religious Experience
The Mystical Mind is the culmination of almost twenty-five years of research on the relationship between the brain and religious experience. It strikes at the heart of questions such as: What makes something spiritual? Why are religious experiences so powerful? How can we understand religious experience from a biological perspective? What can religious and mystical experiences tell us about the mind and reality?
Eugene d'Aquili initiated this groundbreaking research with an analysis of religious experiences in ancient cultures. As human beings and human culture developed, he found so did religions and associated religious experiences. Today there is a tremendous amount of information about the myriad varieties of religious experience. We also have a much greater understanding about how the brain and mind work. The Mystical Mind uses this knowledge to forge an integrated approach toward understanding religious and mystical experiences. It explores what biology can tell us about religious experience and examines the implications that such experiences have for the study of biology as well as theology.
This book is based, in part, on brain imaging and other neuroscientific research that have investigated how the brain works under a variety of circumstances. These studies have advanced our understanding of how different parts of the brain work together. Research over the past two decades has also begun to explore the relationship between brain function and body physiology. As a result, we can describe what is happening in the brain and measure the changes in the rest of the body that accompany various brain states. With this information, we can begin to explore, in detail, how religious and mystical experiences affect our minds and bodies.
It should be mentioned with sadness that Dr. d'Aquili passed away prior to the publication of The Mystical Mind and so could not enjoy the completion of this book. The ideas he expressed here, however, reflect his creativity and intelligence. He was a true pioneer in the field of science and religion, particularly in the study of the biological experience of religious phenomena. Fortunately, Dr. Newberg will continue to pursue these issues and seek an even greater biological understanding of religious experience.
The implications of this research are far-reaching and profound. They allow us to consider religious experience in new ways that will present challenging issues for biology, religion, and theology in the twenty-first century. ---from the Preface
The Mystical Mind is the culmination (to date) of a line of research and scholarship that begin in 1975 when Eugene d'Aquili and Charles Laughlin published "The Biopsychological Determinants of Religious Ritual Behavior" in Zygon: The Journal of Religion and Science. Their thesis was that all religious phenomenology arose from neuropsychology, but in a way that was much more complex than simple materialistic reductionism. The first ten years of this scholarly movement were very difficult indeed. The attempt to integrate neurospsychology and theology was extremely controversial in the mid-1970s and was often dismissed as an attempt to integrate incommensurables.
Among those who became involved in relating neuropsychology to religious phenomenology were, in addition to d'Aquili and Laughlin, John McManus, the Nobel laureate Roger Sperry, Colwyn Tevarthen, Solomon Katz, Victor Turner, James Ashbrook, and several others, including James Austin and Laurence McKinney. Indeed, Ashbrook first used the term neurotheology in an article he published in 1984, also in Zygon, titled "Neurotheology: The Working Brain and the Work of Theology." Ashbrook painted neurotheology with broad strokes in terms of the split-brain research being conducted at that time. His was a vision begging to be realized, not an accomplished fact. We hope that Ashbrook's vision is realized here some fifteen years later by a substantive integration of neuropsychology and what we might call theological phenomenology.
THE PRESENTATION OF THE MYSTICAL MIND
We will begin our exploration of the nature of the human mind and brain and how they relate to religion, ritual, mysticism, and traditional theologies by considering how the brain works. This will require a review of the basic structure of the brain from its most primitive to its most highly advanced parts. While the structure of the brain is quite complex, we will try to focus our analysis on the parts of the brain that are most relevant to the study of human experience, emotion, and cognition. In particular, we will begin to explain how the brain allows us to have mystical experiences. The study of mystical experiences has particular relevance because these are what ultimately lead us to an understanding of the relationship between human beings and any higher state of being.
Once we have established an understanding of the function of the brain, we can begin to explore how the mind functions in a mystical way. It is important to note that the brain and the mind may be considered together in a "mystical union." As a whole, this mind/brain functions to give us our advanced methods of experiencing and interpreting the external world. We will also examine the significance of the mind in relation to intelligence. In the end, this overview of how the mind functions will allow us to explore in greater detail the mystical mind.
Once there is an understanding of the basic function of the mind/brain, we will consider the more complex function of the mind/brain, we will consider the more complex function of myth formation. Myths themselves play a significant role in our overall understanding of the universe. Therefore, myth formation is an integral part of the functioning of the mystical mind. Furthermore, myth formation is not only a crucial aspect of the development of religion and theology, but also, as we shall describe, is necessary for the development of science.
With a new insight into the workings of the mystical mind, including how the brain and mind function and how myth formation occurs, we can begin to explore specific aspects of theology and religion from this new neuropsychological perspective. This will likely have profound implications for theology in particular since the very basis of specific theology will be rethought from this new vantage point. We will consider the basic components of liturgy and ritual to try to ascertain why these play such an important part in religious practice. We will attempt to unravel the neuropsychological mechanisms that underlie ritual behavior. We will explore why ritual has the effects that it does and why it is so important to the development of religion. We will also consider how future ritual and liturgy might be modified according to its possible effects on the human mind/brain.
While ritual and liturgy pertain to more mundane practices within religion, meditation with its associated mystical phenomena also relies on neuropsychology. In fact, it may be that profound mystical experiences deriving from meditation involve neural pathways very similar to those involved in ritual and "lesser" mystical states. To that end, we will present a neuropsychological model for meditation, focusing particularly on the attainment of the highest levels of unitary conscious awareness. This model will also refer to the experiences attained during "lesser" mystical states. All of these mystical states have significant implications for religion and theology in general. Thus, a thorough understanding of how the mind/brain functions to generate mystical states will be extremely useful in considering theology from the neuropsychological perspective.
In addition to mystical experiences attained through meditation or ritual, it is important to understand other types of mystical experiences in reference to neuropsychology. These other mystical experiences in reference to neuropsychology. These other mystical experiences, which are often spontaneous, throw an interesting twist into the study of religion and theology. It is difficult, at times, to incorporate the mystical experiences of an individual or group of individuals into the overall framework of a given religion or theology. In order to explore these types of experiences, we will focus on the near-death experience (NDE). These NDEs have received much publicity in recent years, and there has been a growing body of literature regarding their nature and cause.
We will present a review of the relevant literature of NDEs and also propose a possible neuropsychological mechanism as their cause. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to make any conclusive statements about an afterlife based on the phenomenology of the NDE, we feel that we can analyze what the human mind/brain experiences when a person is near death and perhaps make some tentative conclusions. An analysis of the NDE will also help emphasize several of the points made regarding the nature of the mystical mind and mystical experiences in general. Again, with the new neuropsychological perspective, we can rework the meaning of such experiences into an overall theological framework.
In the last section of this book, we will integrate many of the concepts that were developed regarding the mind./brain into a new approach to theology, that of neurotheology. By neurotheology, we mean that we will examine how the mind/brain functions in terms of humankind's relation to god or ultimate reality. We will consider the significance and necessity of ritual and myth in terms of the function of the mind/brain and the implications of this analysis for the study of religion and the formation of specific theologies.
We will also explore how mystical states, as experienced by the mind/brain, have altered religion and theology. Given the nature of the mystical mind to have such experiences, we will see how they must be fundamentally integrated into religion. We will also explore traditional approaches to theology and put them in the perspective of neurotheology. This will show how theological and religious principles may be understood somewhat differently when considered from this new perspective.
We will demonstrate the intriguing paradox that although God or pure consciousness is generated by the machinery of the brain, nevertheless a strict phenomenological analysis can logically and coherently see absolute unitary being or pure consciousness not only as primary over external material reality but as actually generating it. We will present the paradox of two very different approaches to the nature of fundamental reality actually being complementary and not opposed. We will explore how a phemonenological approach to various levels of reality is not only compatible with neurotheology but actually demanded by it.
Based on the concept of neurotheology, we will explore theology in a greater context, incorporating some traditional theological concepts with new ones based on our neuropsychological approach. This metatheology will incorporate various aspects derived from both Eastern and Western traditions and integrate them with neuropsychology. It sill be based both on the mundane aspects of everyday life, rituals, and myths developed in religion, and on more intense mystical phenomena that arise either spontaneously of through meditation.
We should mention that many of the concepts pertaining to the mind/brain are based on existing research in neurology, psychology, and psychiatry. Furthermore, experiments on animals and human subjects have also yielded information regarding how the mind/brain works. Recently, imaging technologies have been developed that are capable of observing the brain while it works. Although a tremendous number of studies have explored the inner workings of the mind/brain, there remains an ever larger amount of information that is unknown.
For this reason, it is difficult to describe with absolute certainty the intricate neurophysiological mechanisms underlying human ritual, myth, mysticism, and religious phenomena in general. It is therefore, important to state at the outset that the mechanisms we present are models of how the mind/brain functions in such instances. There is good empirical evidence to support these models, but they are far from proven. We suspect that some aspects of these models will be proven true while others may be shown to be incorrect. It is our purpose, however, to show that the function of the mind/brain is a significant factor in the development of religions and theologies. We strongly encourage the continued study of how the mind/brain is related to theology and religion so that the concept of neurotheology can become a rigorous study of how human beings relate to God and to the world in the context of an Absolute.
In this book, we will explore a nontraditional approach to religion and theology that is based not so much on highly abstract concepts or ancient texts as on that part of human beings that allows us to study all of these concepts and to contemplate, and perhaps experience, the higher being or state of being---the mystical mind. ---from Chapter 1
--From The Mystical Mind : Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, by Eugene G. D'Aquili, Andrew B. Newberg. © August 1999 , Fortress Press, used by permission.
Neurotheology Part II
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