explaining religious experience by brain function
(From the MSNBC web site)
|Religion And The Brain|
|In the new field of "neurotheology," scientists seek the biological basis of spirituality. Is God all in our heads?|
|By Sharon Begley
|May 7 issue One Sunday morning in March, 19 years ago, as Dr. James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks toward the river Thames. The neurologistwho was spending a sabbatical year in Englandsaw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about the Zen Buddhist retreat he was headed toward. And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him, evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things "as they really are," he recalls. The sense of "I, me, mine" disappeared. "Time was not present," he says. "I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death and insinuations of selfhood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things."|
|CALL IT A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE, a spiritual
moment, even a religious epiphany, if you likebut
Austin will not. Rather than interpret his instant of
grace as proof of a reality beyond the comprehension of
our senses, much less as proof of a deity, Austin took it
as "proof of the existence of the brain." He
isn't being smart-alecky. As a neurologist, he accepts
that all we see, hear, feel and think is mediated or
created by the brain. Austin's moment in the Underground
therefore inspired him to explore the neurological
underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experience. In
order to feel that time, fear and self-consciousness have
dissolved, he reasoned, 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. Frontal- and temporal-lobe
circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness,
must disengage. When that happens, Austin concludes in a
recent paper, "what we think of as our 'higher'
functions of selfhood appear briefly to 'drop out,'
'dissolve,' or be 'deleted from consciousness'."
When he spun out his theories in 1998, in the 844-page
"Zen and the Brain," it was published not by
some flaky New Age outfit but by MIT Press.
Since then, more and more scientists have flocked to "neurotheology," the study of the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. Last year the American Psychological Association published "Varieties of Anomalous Experience," covering enigmas from near-death experiences to mystical ones. At Columbia University's new Center for the Study of Science and Religion, one program investigates how spiritual experiences reflect "peculiarly recurrent events in human brains." In December, the scholarly Journal of Consciousness Studies devoted its issue to religious moments ranging from "Christic visions" to "shamanic states of consciousness." In May the book "Religion in Mind," tackling subjects such as how religious practices act back on the brain's frontal lobes to inspire optimism and even creativity, reaches stores. And in "Why God Won't Go Away," published in April, Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania and his late collaborator, Eugene d'Aquili, use brain-imaging data they collected from Tibetan Buddhists lost in meditation and from Franciscan nuns deep in prayer to ... well, what they do involves a lot of neuro-jargon about lobes and fissures. In a nutshell, though, they use the data to identify what seems to be the brain's spirituality circuit, and to explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move believers and nonbelievers alike.
OUTSIDE OF TIME AND SPACE
There was a feeling of energy centered within me ... going out to infinite space and returning ... There was a relaxing of the dualistic mind, and an intense feeling of love. I felt a profound letting go of the boundaries around me, and a connection with some kind of energy and state of being that had a quality of clarity, transparency and joy. I felt a deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there never was a true separation at all.
That is how Dr. Michael J. Baime, a colleague of Andrew Newberg's at Penn, describes what he feels at the moment of peak transcendence when he practices Tibetan Buddhist meditation, as he has since he was 14 in 1969. Baime offered his brain to Newberg, who, since childhood, had wondered about the mystery of God's existence. At Penn, Newberg's specialty is radiology, so he teamed with Eugene d'Aquili to use imaging techniques to detect which regions of the brain are active during spiritual experiences. The scientists recruited Baime and seven other Tibetan Buddhists, all skilled meditators.
FOR THE TIMELESS AND INFINITE
The SPECT images are as close as scientists have come to snapping a photo of a transcendent experience. As expected, the prefrontal cortex, seat of attention, lit up: Baime, after all, was focusing deeply. But it was a quieting of activity that stood out. A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of the brain, had gone dark. This region, nicknamed the "orientation association area," processes information about space and time, and the orientation of the body in space. It determines where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. Specifically, the left orientation area creates the sensation of a physically delimited body; the right orientation area creates the sense of the physical space in which the body exists. (An injury to this area can so cripple your ability to maneuver in physical space that you cannot figure the distance and angles needed to navigate the route to a chair across the room.)
I felt communion, peace, openness to experience ... [There was] an awareness and responsiveness to God's presence around me, and a feeling of centering, quieting, nothingness, [as well as] moments of fullness of the presence of God. [God was] permeating my being.
This is how her 45-minute prayer made Sister Celeste, a Franciscan nun, feel, just before Newberg SPECT-scanned her. During her most intensely religious moments, when she felt a palpable sense of God's presence and an absorption of her self into his being, her brain displayed changes like those in the Tibetan Buddhist meditators: her orientation area went dark. What Sister Celeste and the other nuns in the study felt, and what the meditators experienced, Newberg emphasizes, "were neither mistakes nor wishful thinking. They reflect real, biologically based events in the brain." The fact that spiritual contemplation affects brain activity gives the experience a reality that psychologists and neuroscientists had long denied it, and explains why people experience ineffable, transcendent events as equally real as seeing a wondrous sunset or stubbing their toes.
I could hear the singing of the planets, and wave after wave of light washed over me. But ... I was the light as well ... I no longer existed as a separate 'I' ... I saw into the structure of the universe. I had the impression of knowing beyond knowledge and being given glimpses into ALL.
That was how author Sophy Burnham described her experience at Machu Picchu, in her 1997 book "The Ecstatic Journey." Although there was no scientist around to whisk her into a SPECT machine and confirm that her orientation area was AWOL, it was almost certainly quiescent. That said, just because an experience has a neural correlate does not mean that the experience exists "only" in the brain, or that it is a figment of brain activity with no independent reality. Think of what happens when you dig into an apple pie. The brain's olfactory region registers the aroma of the cinnamon and fruit. The somatosensory cortex processes the feel of the flaky crust on the tongue and lips. The visual cortex registers the sight of the pie. Remembrances of pies past (Grandma's kitchen, the corner bake shop ...) activate association cortices. A neuroscientist with too much time on his hands could undoubtedly produce a PET scan of "your brain on apple pie." But that does not negate the reality of the pie. "The fact that spiritual experiences can be associated with distinct neural activity does not necessarily mean that such experiences are mere neurological illusions," Newberg insists. "It's no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations are caused by brain activity than it is to say that the neurological changes through which we experience the pleasure of eating an apple cause the apple to exist." The bottom line, he says, is that "there is no way to determine whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experience mean that the brain is causing those experiences ... or is instead perceiving a spiritual reality."
Temporal-lobe epilepsyabnormal bursts of electrical activity in these regionstakes this to extremes. Although some studies have cast doubt on the connection between temporal-lobe epilepsy and religiosity, others find that the condition seems to trigger vivid, Joan of Arc-type religious visions and voices. In his recent book "Lying Awake," novelist Mark Salzman conjures up the story of a cloistered nun who, after years of being unable to truly feel the presence of God, begins having visions. The cause is temporal-lobe epilepsy. Sister John of the Cross must wrestle with whether to have surgery, which would probably cure herbut would also end her visions. Dostoevsky, Saint Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Proust and others are thought to have had temporal-lobe epilepsy, leaving them obsessed with matters of the spirit.
Although temporal-lobe epilepsy is rare, researchers suspect that focused bursts of electrical activity called "temporal-lobe transients" may yield mystical experiences. To test this idea, Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada fits a helmet jury-rigged with electromagnets onto a volunteer's head. The helmet creates a weak magnetic field, no stronger than that produced by a computer monitor. The field triggers bursts of electrical activity in the temporal lobes, Persinger finds, producing sensations that volunteers describe as supernatural or spiritual: an out-of-body experience, a sense of the divine. He suspects that religious experiences are evoked by mini electrical storms in the temporal lobes, and that such storms can be triggered by anxiety, personal crisis, lack of oxygen, low blood sugar and simple fatiguesuggesting a reason that some people "find God" in such moments. Why the temporal lobes? Persinger speculates that our left temporal lobe maintains our sense of self. When that region is stimulated but the right stays quiescent, the left interprets this as a sensed presence, as the self departing the body, or of God.
I was alone upon the seashore ... I felt that I ... return[ed] from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is ... Earth, heaven, and sea resounded as in one vast world encircling harmony ... I felt myself one with them.
Is an experience like this one, described by the German philosopher Malwida von Meysenburg in 1900, within the reach of anyone? "Not everyone who meditates encounters these sorts of unitive experiences," says Robert K.C. Forman, a scholar of comparative religion at Hunter College in New York City. "This 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 (as determined by questionnaire). They also tend toward fantasy, notes David Wulff, "suggesting a capacity to suspend the judging process that distinguishes imaginings and real events." Since "we all have the brain circuits that mediate spiritual experiences, probably most people have the capacity for having such experiences," says Wulff. "But it's possible to foreclose that possibility. If you are rational, controlled, not prone to fantasy, you will probably resist the experience."
Yet many people seem no more able to have such an experience than to fly to Venus. One explanation came in 1999, when Australian researchers found that people who report mystical and spiritual experiences tend to have unusually easy access to subliminal consciousness. "In people whose unconscious thoughts tend to break through into consciousness more readily, we find some correlation with spiritual experiences," says psychologist Michael Thalbourne of the University of Adelaide. Unfortunately, scientists are pretty clueless about what allows subconscious thoughts to pop into the consciousness of some people and not others. The single strongest predictor of such experiences, however, is something called "dissociation." In this state, different regions of the brain disengage from others. "This theory, which explains hypnotizability so well, might explain mystical states, too," says Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society, which debunks paranormal phenomena. "Something really seems to be going on in the brain, with some module dissociating from the rest of the cortex."
NEURAL BASIS FOR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Stress and emotional arousal can also interfere with the brain's ability to find the source of a voice, Bentall adds. In a 1998 study, researchers found that one particular brain region, called the right anterior cingulate, turned on when people heard something in the environmenta voice or a soundand also when they hallucinated hearing something. But it stayed quiet when they imagined hearing something and thus were sure it came from their own brain. This region, says Bentall, "may contain the neural circuits responsible for tagging events as originating from the external world." When it is inappropriately switched on, we are fooled into thinking the voice we hear comes from outside us.
Even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual can be moved by religious ceremonies and liturgy. Hence the power of ritual. Drumming, dancing, incantationsall rivet attention on a single, intense source of sensory stimulation, including the body's own movements. They also evoke powerful emotional responses. That combinationfocused attention that excludes other sensory stimuli, plus heightened emotionis key. Together, they seem to send the brain's arousal system into hyperdrive, much as intense fear does. When this happens, explains Newberg, one of the brain structures responsible for maintaining equilibriumthe hippocampusputs on the brakes. It inhibits the flow of signals between neurons, like a traffic cop preventing any more cars from entering the on-ramp to a tied-up highway.
OF THE BOUNDARIES OF THE SELF'
Researchers' newfound interest in neurotheology reflects more than the availability of cool new toys to peer inside the working brain. Psychology and neuroscience have long neglected religion. Despite its centrality to the mental lives of so many people, religion has been met by what David Wulff calls "indifference or even apathy" on the part of science. When one psychologist, a practicing Christian, tried to discuss in his introductory psych book the role of faith in people's lives, his publisher edited out most of itfor fear of offending readers. The rise of neurotheology represents a radical shift in that attitude. And whatever light science is shedding on spirituality, spirituality is returning the favor: mystical experiences, says Forman, may tell us something about consciousness, arguably the greatest mystery in neuroscience. "In mystical experiences, the content of the mind fades, sensory awareness drops out, so you are left only with pure consciousness," says Forman. "This tells you that consciousness does not need an object, and is not a mere byproduct of sensory action."
It does seem that the human mystical experience is a side effect of our brain physiology. Occam's razor means that that is all the explanation we need.