HOW THE BRAIN ‘CREATES’ GOD
The Emerging Science of Neurotheology
Iona Miller, Asklepia Foundation, 2003
“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger . . . is as good as dead.” --Albert Einstein
The Great Unknown
Imagine one of our ancient ancestors, suddenly stricken by illness or a near-fatal accident. Hovering near the brink of death, an ordinary person suddenly finds him or herself locked in an immersive visionary experience of shadowy figures, muted voices and blinding luminescence.
The cosmos opens its enfolding arms and infinity spreads out in a timeless panoply that dissolves all fear, all separation from the Divine. Fear of death vanishes in a comforting flood of bliss, peace and dazzling light – the ultimate ‘holy’ connection. Overwhelming conviction arises that this is the more fundamental Reality. The welcoming gates of a personal heaven open…
Suddenly back in the body, returned to ordinary reality, one is left to interpret that transcendent experience to oneself and others. This near-death experience may not have resulted in physical demise, but it has led to the death of the old self – the personal self -- and the rebirth, rapture, or resurrection of the soul or spirit. It brings a surge of emotions, conviction and even transformation in its wake. The soul has taken a journey from which one cannot return the same.
A descent into psychobiological hell can lead to a transcendent journey toward Heaven…or perhaps the yawning abyss of the Void. Shamans, priests, prophets, mystics, and gurus arose to show the Way of navigating these nether regions, of finding healing, the eternal moment, a peaceful heart, and unity.
Our human progenitors had to directly confront existential issues of survival, adaptation, stress, mating, birth, loss, and death. They gradually developed stories about the basics of life – social, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual existence. They created myths, beliefs about creation and our creation to give meaning to life. They developed rituals, ceremonies, and practices to heal body and mind, mark life passages, and placate forces beyond their control. These accounted for their origins as well as voices, visions and experiences that seemed to come from the great Beyond.
The brain is hard-wired for mystical experiences to modify the threat of our hostile existential reality (Alper). Metaphysical explanations developed for the essentially unknowable, for sudden and irresistible seizures of ecstasy. Some of these accounts were more sophisticated than others depending on their cultural background, but all shared a common core by defining the mystery of the relationship between mankind and the Unknown. It might be called a peak experience, spirit possession, epiphany, religious rapture, nirvana, satori, shaktiput, clear light, or illumination. The difference is only one of degrees of absorption, of fulfillment.
The god-experience is a process, a subjective perception, rather than an objectively provable reality. Distractions cease, replaced by the direct impact of oceanic expansion, sudden insight, childlike wonder, ecstatic exaltation above bodily and personal existence, dissolution in a timeless moment, fusion, gnosis.
It is direct perception coupled with high emotion and deep realization of what appears to be ultimate truth. It rips away the veil of illusion, revealing the pure ground state of our existence without any emotional, mental, or belief filters. Left with only pure awareness, the natural mind is finally free of earthly trappings. Bathed in emotions of joy, assurance and salvation, Cosmos becomes a living presence. Immortality is sensed, so fear of death vanishes.
Many called that numinous mystery God. In some sense, religion is a reaction to what actually is. But to many, when it comes to their religion, those are fighting words – for theirs is the true way, the only way. Heaven on Earth cannot be achieved so long as those two realms are separated. God comes down to earth in our own psychophysiology, dwelling within us.
Programmed for God?
Neurotheology is the marriage of brain science and theology, which systematically studies the relationship of God and the universe. Religion is the expression of theological attitudes and actions. Tradition says God created the heavens and earth, and God created man in his own image.
But did God create man and the brain, or does the brain create God? Revelation is the act of God manifesting, disclosing himself, or communicating truth to the mind. These subjective experiences are the basis of mysticism. Perhaps God hid mankind’s spirituality where we would least expect it and be least likely to look – within ourselves.
The religious element of our nature is just as universal as the rational or social one. Could altering brain chemistry by playing some visual and pleasure circuits, while quieting those governing self-image, cognition, orientation, and time sequencing give rise to a transcendental bliss, a god-experience? Can they give rise to the electrochemical supercharge described as kundalini, the serpent power that rises up the spine in illumination? How can we journey along the continuum from pleasure to enthusiasm, to joy, ecstasy and enlightenment?
This is the question posed by both theistic and non-believing scientists alike, in an attempt to comprehend our spiritual urge. Religious division is still the global root of conflict in the modern world. Even within ourselves we can experience crises of personal faith, as our worldly outlook vies with our spiritual beliefs. Most religions or spiritual practices have a ‘salvivic” value – they “save” us from the banality of human limitation and limitless or meaningless suffering, lifting us up and often conferring a glimpse of the infinite, the Absolute.
In his 1962 utopian novel, Island, Aldous Huxley coined the term neurotheology to describe the territory where human “wetware” interfaces with the divine. Since then it has come to mean the emergent field that describes the neurological phenomena that underlie classical mystical experiences from all spiritual practices. It seems our nervous systems are “pre-programmed” to experience a variety of religious or spiritual experiences. We can journey within and explore our inner world, just as we can the outer world.
However, this human study of the phenomenology of the God-experience doesn’t reductively negate the possibly of a divine creative force. Rather, this transdisciplinarian science simply seeks to describe the mechanisms involved in that process. It explores how the divine is translated into the human realm, from the archetypal to the material world. It combines aspects of religion, psychology, and neurology. This new paradigm synthesizes the truths of both science and religion – giving birth to “neuroshamanism.”
Our “God-program” is the means through which humans have traditionally interpreted the meaning of major life passages such as stress, birth, identity, aging, death, and opening to a sense of infinity. It bears heavily on our image of our Self, our relationship with others, and our place in the cosmos and world. It is the source of our faith and the ground of our beliefs. Religious dogma has been created over eons to interpret or account for these dramatic personal encounters with spirit.
Taxonomies of religious experience have been created in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and religious studies. They form maps of the territory of spiritual experience from shamanism, to artistic expression and all forms of creativity including transcendent states of consciousness (Gowan; Tart; Grof; Wilber). But as mystics and scholars both admonish, “The map is not the territory.”
A spectrum or continuum of divine interplay is available as flow states induced through trance, creativity, and meditation. But knowing about them is not the same as direct experience of those states, purposefully induced or spontaneous. The former is a conceptualization, while the later is a grace, an epiphany. These states range from spirit possession to simple communion and nature-awe, to loss of self in awesome unitive cosmic consciousness.
The God Program
Belief and biology are entwined like mind and matter, like the twin serpents of the Caduceus, which represents enlightenment. Neurology, ritual and religion all join in what psychologist Carl Jung (pioneer of the collective unconscious) called a Mysterium Coniunctionis, or Royal Marriage with the divine. The soul becomes lost in the Self; all duality is erased.
We have a natural human capacity for spiritual experience, just as we have one for comprehension of language or mathematics. Transpersonal experience, myth, ritual, morals and ethics are undergird by a comprehensive religious ecology. The cognized environment is the stage of experience. Networks of neurophysiological structures orchestrate the play on the stage. Intricate electromagnetic and biochemical mechanisms underlie human ritual, myth, mysticism, and religious phenomena.
Whether God exists as an overarching cosmic entity or not, there are certain mechanisms in the brain which mankind has harnessed over thousands of years to facilitate the process of non-ordinary experience. They all manipulate the body’s nervous system either by over- or under-stimulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems of arousal. They lead us toward seeing, hearing, touching and feeling the Lord in an experiential, rather than conceptual way that culminates in fusion.
Biologically, heavenly states are dependent on the limbic system or emotional part of the brain, and hormonal secretions. Mystical states are not fantasies, delusions or intangible events – they are the end result of complex chemical and neurological processes. They begin with instinctive awe and indefinable thrills, floating sensations, and perhaps spiritual hunger.
Ego-death can occur when the hyperactive “I” submits or gives in to sensory overload, which overwhelms it. Hypoarousal leads to a characteristic silencing of the mind or emptying when the ego voluntarily submits to unification of subject and object, of “I” and Self. Cortical and subcortical activity become indistinguishably merged. There is no separate “I” left to perceive objective reality. Thus, dualism is paradoxically obliterated in the maximal excitation of both the hyper- and hypo-arousal systems.
Because they produce personal euphoria and creative inspiration, these initial states are common to poets, artists, and mystics. But mystics tell us these ecstasies may be nothing more than overloading of the emotional channels. Ecstasy is a desire for contact, a striving after union. Entering these regions in full consciousness indicates greater spiritual maturity. Stabilizing them at the personality level means the phase of emergence is over and enlightenment becomes a steady state. The neurological changes have become integrated and permanent.
The oldest shamanic techniques include fasting, drumming, trance dancing, inner journeys, and mind-altering plants. The relaxation techniques for transcendence include meditation, imagery, prayer, postures, and chanting. All of them work on the physiology to change the chemistry of the mind/body and induce oceanic ecstasies that are either all-consuming or ultimately serene.
Any constant, rhythmic stimulus to the central nervous system will induce a trance-state and accompanying “high.” Driving the system toward either polarity of arousal or quiescence leads to a paradoxical reversal into its opposite, much like sexual arousal leads to post-orgasmic afterglow. Similarly, at some point, meditation can release an intense rush of energy and emotion, partly through the limbic system.
One methodology produces sensory overload, while the other empties the sensory field by withdrawing attention from sensory signals. There may be sensory melding – a phenomenon called synesthesia – where one can “see” music, or “taste “colors.”
When the mind/body is either exhausted or emptied of external input, the mind is free to process the endless loops of its own manifestation, its own internal processes. Fear and shame give way to grace, a sense of Presence, perception of sanctity, response to realization of the divine. Time, space and the separate ego seem suspended or transcended in the experience of cosmic consciousness. All is One. Beyond the unity experience is the nondual experience of the Void.
If perceptual intake is restricted or expanded beyond certain limits, the normal state of consciousness gives way to altered states, each of which has certain characteristics. This universal experience has nine typical qualities: 1) unity, 2) transformation of space and time, 3) deeply felt positive mood, 4) sacredness, 5) objectivity and reality, 6) paradoxicality, 7) alleged ineffability, 8) transiency, and 9) persisting positive changes in subsequent behavior. A direct and unmediated encounter with the source level of reality is felt as Holy, Awful, Ultimate and Ineffable. (Gowan, 1976).
Re-creational Ego Death
The alchemists sought eternal life by consuming the panacea (cure all), universal medicine, the elixir vitae. Paracelsus, the medieval alchemist and physician, said, “He who enters the kingdom of God must first enter his mother and die.” If God is the father, Nature is our mother. Death always sits on our shoulder, patiently awaiting each of us in turn. And we are acutely aware of that fact, more so as we age or experience loss and infirmity. We are self-consciously aware that we exist, and that one day we will not.
We can react to our knowledge of our own mortality with denial, pragmatism, or unshakeable faith in an afterlife, or reincarnated life. Death will come inexorably in any event at our journey’s end. We cannot directly know the nature of that experience until we have gone through it. But even before physical death, the soul can die gradually to outward things; the self is release and transcended. When the senses and mind stop actively functioning, the body becomes like a corpse. Ego-death mirrors the process of the near-death experience (NDE).
NDE phases include 1) subjective feeling of being dead; 2) peace and well-being; 3) disembodiment; 4) visions of material objects and events. The transcendental phase includes, 5) tunnel or dark zone; 6) evaluation of one’s past life; 7) light; 8) access to a transcendental world, entering in light; 9) encounter with other beings; 10) return to life.
Those who have been close to death, or experienced an initiatory death of the ego come back to show and tell what that indescribable experience might be like. They report pain and panic subsides in detachment from the body, bliss and contentment. Then comes entering the darkness, seeing the light, and entering that light. The same is true for mystics when they become dead to the outside world. The body is profoundly affected as breathing, heart rate, and skin conductance change.
When it is not sudden, death is a process where oxygen levels drop, carbon dioxide builds up, and neural firing rate decreases. This sequence recounts the stages of brain death -- the shutting down of sensory systems, mental dissociation, large dumps of pain-killing and euphoria-inducing endorphins and dopamine into the brain, the shut down of the visual cortex as nerve cells continue to die, and coma. Darkness descends.
Though it is a universal journey, near-death reports incorporate scenery and characters that coincide with cultural programming. For example, Tibetan Buddhists never report seeing Jesus in the “tunnel” during a near-death experience. In fact, according to the Dalai Lama, they don’t even tend to have near-death experiences, or they perceive them in completely different terms. Still, there are certain cross-cultural correlations to the process of loosening the bonds of space, time, and the ego whether death is initiatory or literal in nature:
These stages include 1). a return to the womb or unborn primal state, which happens in the death process as the sensory and visual centers shut down and we are left in the dull red glow of our fetal stage. 2). Dissolution, dispersal, dismemberment, or fragmentation loosens our ties to the sense of self, as we move beyond our sorrow, helplessness, rigidities, fear, and pain back toward the primeval unification before our ego emerged. 3). Containment of a lesser thing (personality) by a greater (pleroma).
4). Rebirth, rejuvenation, immersion in the creative energy flow, as experiential contact with the psychedelic groundstate of being floods us with nourishing sensations of well-being. 5). Purification ordeal, as we struggle with any mental resistance, conflicts and remnants of earthly attachments; karmic purging. 6). Solution of problems as any conflicts resolve in the bliss of absorption; healing. 7). Melting or softening process, of final letting go and unification of subject and object; a spiritually healing immersion in the vast ocean of deep consciousness, (Miller, 1993).
Resurrection of the “dead” in the mystical sense thus takes on new meaning. Paradoxically, it describes both the transformation to heightened awareness, the soul becoming more and more absorbed in the contemplation of God, and also the return to ordinary awareness. Rapture, the “ascent to heaven”, also has the connotation of rising to spiritual heights in the mystic experience, which lifts or elevates one from normal states of awareness.
But what happens when the death process doesn’t follow through to its mortal conclusion or is merely simulated spontaneously or intentionally with meditation? The relationship between brain physiology and human behavior is notoriously difficult to understand and easy to misapply.
Obviously consciousness, subjectivity and human religious experience are not reducible merely to an explanation of neural pathways. We are accustomed to associating it with grace, mind-expansion, intuition, transcendence, ecstasy, metamorphosis and salvation.
It remains a mystery whether our hard-wiring creates the powerful God Experience, or our whether God creates our psychophysical wiring. Only soul-searching can provide any personally satisfying answer. It might seem sacrilege to some to conduct experiments in “measuring meat” to gauge spirituality. Still, this does not negate the beauty of the scientific search for truth through creativity and passion as genuine as any other artform.
Knowledge of which body parts are mobilized in this communion doesn’t detract from the experience, for the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. Neurotheology respects both science and spirit. It is a move toward holism, not merely a reductive analysis. Natural expansive experiences occur in a wide numbers of situations, but involve common elements:
1) The attention is gripped, and perception narrowed or focused through a single event or sensation; 2) which appears to be an experience of surpassing beauty or worth; 3) in which unrealized values or relationships are suddenly or instantly emphasized; 4) resulting in the emergence of great joy and an orgiastic experience of ecstasy; 5) in which individual barriers separating the self from others or nature are broken down; 6) resulting in a release of love, confidence, or power; and 7) some kind of change in the subsequent personality, behavior or artistic product after the rapture is over. (Gowan, 1976).
Can we pinpoint what regions of the brain turn off and on during religious, visionary or extraordinary states of consciousness? Yes; scientists are using dynamic brain imaging techniques such as SPECT and functional MRI to directly view the activation of brain circuitry. We can watch both blood flow and electrical activity in real time.
The roles of the amygdala, hippocampus, temporal lobes, parietal lobe, and pineal gland are fundamental to our sense of well-being, meaningfulness, expansion from personal identity and perception of inner Light. We can now directly see how the brain correlates both external and internal stimuli and our reactions to them. Rather than ancient rituals to placate the gods, our rituals are now scientific experimental protocols.
Brain scans of a large sampling of people lost in prayer or deep meditation reveal certain common neurological readings. These correlate with religious states ranging from transcendence, to visions, to enlightenment and feelings of awe. Attention or concentration in the frontal lobes is indicated by activation in this area of the brain during meditation. In meditative states, there is an attitudinal shift and detachment from thoughts other than perhaps love of God.
Sound and Vision
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, which are important to speech perception. Inner speech is interpreted as originating outside the self, when Broca’s area switches on.
Stress can influence our ability to determine origin of a voice. It is part of our fight-flight response, which can mobilize even when we try to relax. Unstressing phenomena can range from panic reactions, heaving sighs, excessive heat to shivers and bristling of the skin, throat constriction, watery eyes, light flashes or waves before the eyes, sudden muscular contractions, tingling sensations, and electric shocks.
The right anterior cingulate turns on whether a stimulus originates in the environment or is an auditory hallucination. A wide variety of mystical sounds have been described ranging from the buzzing of bees, to the sounds of bells, stringed instruments, thunder, distant echoes, ocean waves, wind, and muffled talk in unknown languages.
The ability to construct internal representations of sensory stimuli underlies perception and cognition. Viewed objectively, these mindscapes are perfectly concrete manifestations but also have a subjective aspect when we become aware of them. Our consciousness is experienced through our perceptions. Any individual perception of the universe can occur as an internal or external experience.
We may experience varying forms of an I-Thou dialogue along the continuum of extremely hyper- or hypo-arousal states. Sacred images are generated in the lower temporal lobe, which also responds to ritualistic use of imagery and iconography. Empathy needs a face. Fear and awesomeness originate in the amygdala. Religious emotions originate in the middle temporal lobe, generating bliss, awe, joy and other feelings of well-being, as well as a sense of Presence.
Beyond Space and Time
Einstein had a virtually mystical understanding of the nature of space and time, which he expressed in The N.Y. Times, March 29, 1972:
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe.’ A part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires, and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
A triple “prison” for the mystic, space, time, and personality define and specify the normal state of consciousness. Mystic ecstasy offers a glimpse of spiritual freedom, and escape from the prison of selfhood. Remaining as motionless as possible facilitates this effect. When the parietal lobes quiet down, a person first feels detachment from the tyranny of the perceptions, then an expansive oneness with the universe of cosmic unity.
Time distortion starts the personal escape from time, sign of an attempt to escape from the cocoon. Then the inner marriage between the personal and non-personal aspects of the psyche is consummated. Psychic conflicts are transcended, leaving a whole, complete being.
When the orientation area is deprived of neuronal input by gating from the hippocampus, sense of self expands. With no preferred position or direction in space, the local self dissolves in omnidirectional expansion. If one remains motionless, there is no external reference signal to orient in 3-space and no reason for this portion of the brain to activate. Continued meditation can over-drive certain other brain areas and seemingly transport us to another universe.
For a mystical experience to occur, perceptions narrow and brain regions that orient us in space and mark the distinction between self and world must go quiet. We give up the past and give up the future – we give up our defenses. All feelings cease as the self merges with the numinous element. The mind becomes tranquil, withdraws itself from all sides, becoming firmly established in the supreme Reality.
In order to feel that time, fear, and self-consciousness have dissolved, certain brain circuits must be interrupted. This includes damping activity in the fear-registering amygdala, which monitors the environment for threats. Parietal-lobe circuits that give us a sense of physical orientation and a distinction between self and world must quiet down.
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 happens, self-awareness briefly drops out and we feel like our boundaries dissolve.
The most immediate experience is that of always having been and being forever. The three illusions – space, time and personality – are obliterated in cosmic consciousness, as the soul completes its journey to its spiritual home. Human consciousness is eliminated, having been reabsorbed into the primordial essence. All becomes All without differentiation.
A Canadian neuropsychologist, Michael Persinger (1987) has spent years exploring the relationship of spiritual phenomena and electromagnetics with many subjects. Low intensity magnetic fields orchestrate communication between lobes of the brain, faster than biolelectrical or biochemical processes of neurons. He has developed a device, called the Octopus to test his theories.
“Underlying Persinger’s work is the conviction that anomalous electromagnetic fluctuations – produced by solar flares, seismic activity, radio and microwave transmissions, electrical devices, and other external sources or originating in the brain itself – can trigger disturbances resembling epileptic seizures. These ‘microseizures,’ he propses, generate a wide range of altered states, including religious and mystical visions, out-of-body experiences, and even alien-abduction episodes.”
“Persinger conjectures that our sense of self is ordinarily mediated by the brain’s lef hemisphere – more specifically by the left temporal lobe. When the brain is disrupted – by a head injury, epileptic seizure, stroke, drugs, psychological trauma, or external electromagnetic pulses – our left-brain may detect activity in the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a ‘sensed presence.’ Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive the sensed presence as extraterrestrials, ghosts, angels, fairies, muses, demons, or God Almighty.” (Horgan)
This technoshaman with his electronic art uses solenoids in a helmet for input; a computer controls the fluctuating fields. He sends vast depolarizing waves across millions of cells, releasing all types of memories and fantasies mixed and mashed together. 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. Though an atheist, he stops just short of saying the god-experience is just an electrical seizure. However, his research goal is to use his devise to trigger transcendental experiences in nonreligious people face with the fear of death. He admits there is scientific evidence that those with spiritual beliefs are better adapted and statistically healthier.
Persinger can artificially produce a wide range of anomalous experiences by driving the brain with his EM helmet and technology. He identifies the temporal lobes as the biological basis of the god-experience. Bombarding the brain with certain frequencies in certain regions produces different results. As impulses move through the temporal lobe and deep into the brain, they interfere and interact with the complex electrical patterns and neural fields.
Aimed at the amygdala, Persinger’s device produces sexual arousal. Focused on the hippocampus it produces an opiate effect without adverse side effects, other than irritation upon withdrawal. Targeting the right hemisphere temporal lobe creates a sense of a negative presence, while stimulating the left hemisphere creates a benevolent presence.
Sensed presence becomes more common until the day arrives when God’s presence is something a person feels at all times. In mystical experience language fails. Since we can’t experiences two senses of self, one is projected as other, the Beloved, either romantic or spiritual. Thus there is truth in 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.
Electrical activity in the amygdala, hippocampus and temporal can ‘spill over’ into nearby structures. If it ignites the visual area, intense visions emerge. Kindling the olfactory regions leads to unique scents. Somatosensory stimulation leads to buzzing, energetic, or tingling sensations or perceptions of being lifted or floating. Language center activation produces voices, music, or noise. Long-term memory in the lower part of the temporal lobes yields interactive virtual realities, waking dreams. The thalamus is implicated in aura vision; the reticular activating system in life reviews.
New patterns spread through the limbic system, producing sensation ranging from subtle to profound. Usually there is seamless integration of past, present and future. But in déjà vu, there is too much communication between short-term and long-term memories. Then the present can feel like the past. Present perceptions are shunted through areas that process memories, and we feel we are re-living a moment stored in long-term memory. The opposite happens in jamais vu, when nothing we experience seems to have anything to do with the past. Time distortion is another experiential phenomenon stimulated with the electromagnetic gear.
The impulses can induce anything from sleep to “alien abductions”, including a profound sense of presence or the uncanny, auditory and visionary experiences, or a sense of deep meaning. He notes these experiences are tempered by the person’s learning history. God concepts are determined by verbal conditioning; perceptions are constructions. Imagery ranges from vivid landscapes to forms of living things. Sounds, smells, scenes or intense feelings all reflect areas of electrical instability.
The Biology of the Inner Light
Illumination has been described as being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence. This brightness has no relation to any visible light. Visionary experience, which has symbolic or religious content, may give way to this dazzling light, which is reported in eastern and western religions. No wonder it is called illumination, and it can confer a palpable glow to the person that is perceptible after the return to ordinary awareness.
Imagine suggesting the body makes it own psychedelic drug! This is just what psychiatrist Rick Strassman contends in DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2001). He asserts it is an active agent in a variety of altered states, including mystical experience. This chemical messenger links body and spirit. Pineal activation may awaken normally latent synthetic pathways.
Meditation may modulate pineal activity, eliciting a standing wave through resonance effects that affects other brain centers with both chemical and electromagnetic coordination. Resonance can be induced in the pineal using electric, magnetic, or sound energy. Such harmonization resynchronizes both hemispheres of the brain. This may result in a chain of synergetic activity resulting in the production and release of hallucinogenic compounds
If this is true, it is easy to see how much this mind-altering chemical could amplify all of the tendencies toward mystical apprehension originating in other parts of the brain, as we have described above. To explore his theory, Strassman conducted extensive testing, injecting volunteers with the powerful psychedelic, synthetic DMT. DMT is so powerful it is physically immobilizing, and produces a flood of unexpected and overwhelming visual and emotional imagery. Taking it is like an instantaneous LSD peak.
He suggests the mysterious pineal gland is implicated in the natural production of this mystic molecule, as metaphysical teachers have long claimed. The pineal has been called the spirit gland and may be the biological basis of spiritual experience. The only solitary, or unpaired gland in the brain may initiate and support a variety of altered states of consciousness.
The pineal is known to contain high levels of the enzymes and building-blocks for making DMT, and it may be secreted when inhibitory processes cease blocking its production. It may even produce other chemicals, such as beta-carbolines that magnify and prolong its effects.
The pineal sits, well-protected in the deep recesses of the brain, bathed in cerebrospinal fluid by the ventricles, the fluid-filled cavities of the brain that feed it and remove waste. It emits its secretions to the strategically surrounding emotional, visual and auditory brain centers. It helps regulate body temperature and skin coloration. It secretes the hormone melatonin. Generally, after the more imaginative period of childhood, the pineal calcifies and diminishes.
Endogenous DMT is described as the source of visionary Light in transpersonal experiences. Its primary source, the pineal, has traditionally been referred to as the Third Eye. Curiously, this gland is light sensitive and actually has a lens, cornea, and retina.
DMT production is particularly stimulated, according to Strassman in the extraordinary conditions of birth, sexual ecstasy, childbirth, extreme physical stress, near-death, psychosis, and physical death, as well as meditation. Pineal DMT may also play 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 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’ worlds, 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 or 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.” (Strassman).
Become Your Own Technoshaman
Want to take an active role in your own spiritual life, a safe and easy mind trip? Would you like to glimpse some of the experiences outlined here? Or even just get the mental health benefits of deep relaxation and increased inner focus? Intimidated by the prospect of spending 15 to 20 years learning to meditate to attain life-enhancing benefits?
Haven’t had a near-death experience and don’t want one? Too busy to devote your life to alchemy, or spend endless years in transpersonal therapies, or too afraid to allow a “mad scientist” to zap your brain with EM frequencies, hook your brain up to a high-tech scanning machine, or inject you with psychedelic substances?
Modern technology offers an easy, “passive” alternative. Anyone can employ a safe and easy technique that automatically puts you in the “zone.” A form of “yogatronics” is available using a simple CD and headphones with input from subsonic frequencies. This audio technology creates a harmonization of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and automatically drives the brain harmlessly into the Alpha or Theta brainwave range.
This resonance phenomenon, a form of entrainment, is called the frequency-following response, or binaural beat technology. Entrainment is the process of synchronization, where vibrations of one object will cause another to oscillate at the same rate. It works by embedding two different tones in a stereo background. Continuous tones of subtlely different frequencies (such as 100 and 108 cycles per second) are delivered to each ear independently via stereo headphones. The tones combine in a pulsing “wah wah” tone.
External rhythms can have a direct effect on the psychology and physiology of the listener. The brain effortlessly begins resonating at the same rate as the difference between the two tones, ideally in the 4-13 Hz. (Theta and Alpha) range for meditation. All you have to do is sit quietly and put on the headphones. The brain automatically responds to certain frequencies, behaving like a resonator.
You may not become immediately enlightened, but hemispheric synchronization helps with a whole host of problems stemming from abnormal hemispheric asymmetries. Problems, often resulting from stress or abuse in early life, include REM sleep problems, narcissism, addictive and self-defeating behaviors. Communication between hemispheres correlates with flashes of insight, wisdom and creativity.
Split brain experiments have shown we are of “two minds” -- one rational, linear, time-bound, and cognitive while the other is emotional, holistic, intuitive, artistic. Even when we know what we should do we do what we want. The main distinction is between thinking and feeling, objective analysis and subjective insight. Each half has its own way of knowing about our being and perceiving external reality. Either mode can lead or follow, or conflict, keeping knowledge such as traumatic memories, from the other.
The hemispheres are meant to work in concert with one another. Interactive hemispheric feedback is used to treat disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, ADD, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and a host of other dysfunctions. Disorders of under-arousal include depression, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), chronic pain and insomnia. Overarousal includes anxiety disorders, problems getting to sleep, nightmares, ADHD, hypervigilance, impulsive behavior, anger/aggression, agitated depression, chronic nerve pain, and spasticity.
Because the brain is functionally “plastic” in nature, creating and exercising new neural pathways can retrain neural circuitry. In meditation, the halves of the brain become synchronized and exhibit nearly identical patterns of large, slow brainwaves. Rhythmic pulses can modulate collective neuronal synchrony. Then, both lobes automatically play in concert.
Rhythm regulates the entire spectrum of activation and arousal by kindling, or pulling more and more parts of the brain into the process. Disorders related to under- and over- arousal, including attentional and emotional problems, can be stabilized by self-organizing restructuring. Depressions, anxiety, worry, fear, and panic can be moderated. Stimulating neglected neural circuitry creates new pathways, improving equilibrium and long-term change, essentially “tuning” the nervous system.
There are many companies promoting this self-regulation technology, both in “active” clinical neurofeedback programs, and as “passive” home programs. Perhaps the oldest is the Monroe Institute <monroeinstitute.org>, which calls its trademarked method Hemi-Synch. Another program offered by Centerpointe Research Institute <centerpointe.com> is called Holosynch. Another variation uses light pulses from goggles to drive the process, and is marketed as Alpha-Stim <alpha-stim.com>.
Are there things we should not know? We are innately geared to crave ecstasy, “escape reality,” and seek extraordinary or novel experiences on our way to wisdom. The history of mankind recounts the stages of that journey. Religions and mysticism arose from the accounts of spontaneous spiritual experiences. In shamanism, our ancestors sought them in an instinctual or animalistic way. In art, myth and ritual we sought them in a human, if narcissistic and self-expressive reactionary way.
In creativity and meditation we seek in a fully conscious way, willfully cooperating and facilitating the process not only of connecting with God, but experiencing oneself in the process of “becoming” god. The ego no longer perceives itself as a separate expression of consciousness, but as the same essence as All.
Of course, we can never fully complete that process. No one can fully embody God, but we can move toward it. The succession of conscious states is toward higher integration, not toward lower dissociation. The process of integration in growth toward positive values has the complementary virtues of being obvious in fact and transcendental in implications. It means we evolve from reactive creatures into an integrated part of the spiritual dimension.
As sociologist Eliade described, “The ideal of yoga . . . is to live in an eternal present, outside of time. The man, liberated in his life, no longer possesses a personal consciousness . . .but a witnessing consciousness, which is pure lucidity and spontaneity.” Meditation is essentially emulation of creation and practice for a lucid passing at death into the Eternal Now.
We are all capable of transcendent awareness. What we believe in becomes real in an existential sense. Paradoxically, pure consciousness both generates and is generated by the processes of the brain. Becoming soul journeyers, we can explore self and multiple worlds, transformation, and social flow.
We can all become technoshamans, using the process of altering our consciousness through spiritual technologies. Even “lesser” mystical experiences have significant implications for religion and theology. It is the nature of the mystical mind to have such experiences and they have altered religion. So, a thorough understanding of how the mind/body functions to generate them is extremely useful.
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. But it is possible, with repeated exposure to the paradoxical situation to function effectively at higher levels of conjoined sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal. The brain can be “re-wired” to connect more and more areas together as links in the spiritual chain, which leads to so-called enlightenment. The brain seems to hunger for ecstasies to enhance characteristics of our normal way of being, creativity, problem-solving, spirituality, and so on.
The task of meditation is essentially letting the body fall as deeply asleep as possible while the mind remains focused. In fact, if it were not for the opposite function’s presence, even in the mystical state, we would fall asleep. The REM or dream state is similar: there is extreme cerebral excitation, even though muscular activity is inhibited. Hemispheric synchronization producing long, slow alpha and theta brainwaves with high amplitude is another factor. The deeper the meditation, the slower and stronger the waves.
The energy “rush” of meditation comes when either the arousal or quiescent state “spills over” into stimulating its complementary system. When both parts of the autonomic nervous system go online simultaneously, the limbic system goes wild with emotion, absorption and oceanic bliss. This is reflected in the gender based, male-female imagery of the kundalini serpent power and the yin and yang of the Tao.
When both systems go into maximal discharge, this neurochemical flux is subjectively perceived as Absolute Unity of Being, boundlessness, timelessness, and sacredness. Our relationship to humans, earth, and cosmos is one of a relationship to the Other. Our first formative influence is the experience of empathy. And empathy needs a face. If we find that face in our personal experience of God, who shall say nay? Beyond that lies only the yawning infinity of the Void.
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Andresen, Jensine (Editor). Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps: Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious Experience.
D’Aquili, Eugene and Newberg, Andrew ( ). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.
Giovannoli, Joseph et al. The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions.
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Grof, Stanislav (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.
Horgan, John (2003). Rational Mysticism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Krippner, Stanley, Etzel Cardena, Stephen Jay Lynn [Eds.] (2000). Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence. American Psychological Assn., Washington D.C.
McKinney, Laurence O. (1994). Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the21st Century. American Instit. For Mindfulness.
Milkman, Harvey and Sunderwirth, Stanley (1987). Craving for Ecstasy: Consciousness and Chemistry of Escape. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.
Miller, Iona (1993). “Chaos as the universal solvent.” Chaosophy ’93. Wilderville: Asklepia Press.
Miller, Iona (2001). “Neurotheology 101”
Newberg, Andrew and D’Aquili, Eugene (2001). Why God Won’t Go Away. New York: Ballantine Books.
Persinger, Michael A. (1987). Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. New York: Praeger.
Ramachandra, Vilayanur (1998). Phantoms in the Brain.
Strassman, Rick (2001). DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Rochester, Vermont: Park St. Press.
Tart, Charles. Altered States of Consciousness.
Wilber, Ken (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.
Last update: 4-27-03
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