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How Does Neuroscience Explain Spiritual and Religious Experiences?

Lost in the awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness…It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself…Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. It was almost overpowering. —Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope

hese are the words famous primatologist Jane Goodall once used to describe a mystical experience she had while performing one of her celebrated studies on chimpanzee life in the far-flung country of Tanzania.

Mystical experiences are thought to be encounters with greater truths or powers, religious or not. Depending on how each of us uniquely interprets this puzzling concept, mystical experiences can take many shapes and forms. I asked different people about their own definition of sacred experiences. “Forging ties with God,” says George P., fisherman and devout churchgoer. “Entering a spiritual marriage,” adds Nadia D., an actress. “Transcending the mundane confines of reality,” was the reply of linguist Anthonia P., and “fusing with the world” is what track and field athlete Jonathan J. felt during a stressful game in a crowded stadium.

Scans of brains of Tibetan Buddhist meditators, during meditation and not. The scan on the right (meditation scan) shows decreased activity in the parietal lobe (lower right shows up as yellow rather than the red in the left image). The parietal lobe gives us a sense of orientation in space and time, thus the “spacelessness” and “timelessness” often reported in spiritual experiences, Newberg and team found.

“Mystical experiences are events that can shake up your world in a single moment,” Andrew Newberg tells me. He’s a physician, neurotheologist (neurotheology studies the intersection between neural events and subjective experiences of spirituality), and director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania. In his book “How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain,” Newberg says that these experiences have the ability to make us see the physical properties of the world around us in a much more vivid and intense way—almost as if our senses are suddenly heightened. They can also help us “on the way out”; we exit them “transformed,” meaning that the insights into our personal life or our very sense of being are deeper and sharper after them, says Newberg.

It would be virtually impossible for the exploding field of neuroscience to leave such profound and impactful but mysterious human experiences unexamined by brain scans. In 2006, researchers at the University of Montreal conducted one of the most referenced studies in the field. In the study, 15 Carmelite nuns, ages 23 to 64, were asked to relive the most spiritual moment in their lives while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanned their brains. The research team concluded that brain structures such as the brain stem or parietal lobe fired off or shut down when the nuns were immersed in feelings of rapture.

Since then, sophisticated forms of fMRI and more advanced neuroimaging techniques, such as single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) or tractography, have shed light on how transcendental experiences occur in the brain. Neuroscientists today are able to understand not only which parts of the brain orchestrate mystical experiences, but also the cognitive processes happening in various nodes and networks of the brain.

“We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode,’” says James Giordano, neuroscientist and professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Giordano has co-authored studies on the intersection of mysticality and the placebo effect—that is, on how spirituality might serve as a potential health resource—as well as on how spiritual practices affect pain. Attempting to both localize and conceptualize mystical experiences in the brain, Giordano first points to the brain stem, a network of loosely packed neurons that form the central core of our brain and attach our head to the rest of our body.

The brain stem is a tube-shaped mass of nervous tissue that evolved more than 500 million years ago. If you want to visualize the entire brain of present-day reptiles, look no further. The brain stem controls basic functions such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, speech, swallowing, and eye movement. Inside it sits the reticular activating system (RAS), one of the most important brain regions when it comes to human behavior — for starters, it may determine whether we become introverts or extroverts.

“These networks of the brain stem reticular system are initially activated when mystical experiences set in to produce a feeling of heightened arousal,” says Giordano. After the phase of heightened arousal, the smallest portion of the brain, called the midbrain, comes into play. The midbrain is balanced atop the brain stem and in the middle of the brain (between the forebrain and hindbrain). It is vital in motor function and plays a major role in receiving and integrating visual and auditory input. In the case of mystical experiences, midbrain networks have been found to release opioid peptides — a series of amino acid molecules that bind to opioid receptors in the brain and whose effect resembles that of opiates — intensifying pleasure and satisfaction and suppressing pain in the process.

“At the same time, midbrain dopaminergic pathways — key circuits in the brain that create and release the neurotransmitter dopamine — are activated to release dopamine in networks of the forebrain,” says Giordano. At this stage of the mystical experience, it is the abundance of dopamine in the brain that fills the person with unspoken satisfaction.

The other day, I witnessed a conflict between a cyclist and a driver; according to the cyclist, the driver had violated the green light. “Make sure you have more gray matter next time you apply for a driver’s license,” the cyclist yelled while pedaling forward in a frenzy. I thought to myself, “Road rage using neuroscience parlance? How evolved!”

Gray matter, the dark bundle of nerve cells and dendrites in the brain that connotes intelligence and has invaded human imagination as a synonym of the power of thought, is, in reality, encircled by an unfancy, wrinkly, outermost layer called the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the most highly developed part of the human brain and is pivotal in forming the few and select encounters an average human has with mysticism. It is composed of four lobes: the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobe, which combined together can regulate thoughts, language production, most information processing, and almost all superior cognitive functions.

According to Giordano:

When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe, which is a structure slightly above and behind our ears] or our prefrontal cortex [the section of the frontal cortex that lies at the very front of the brain] increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change. These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the “out of body” and “extended self” sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.

Scans of Franciscan nuns in prayer. Activity in the superior parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for our sense of orientation, decreases significantly during prayer, Newberg’s study found.

If “beings” join the mystical experience, we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed. Because this network processes sensory input, when its activity increases or decreases, visual or other sorts of sensory hallucinations of “others” are triggered.

The mystical experience peaks when the limbic system is set in motion. The limbic system is the most ancient set of brain structures mediating our emotions and memories, located somewhere above the brainstem and within the cerebral cortex. In the limbic system, networks integral to the amygdala (an almond-shaped structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response) aggravate the emotional intensity of the experience, while networks of hippocampus (a horseshoe-shaped structure involved in memory storage/retrieval and emotional responses) confer an otherworldliness to what we think has visited us.

In a study done on Brazilian mediums, Newberg found that activity in hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in emotions and memory changes; in the case of expert mediums, it decreases

Intrigued by the mosaic of brain areas teaming up to generate those ambrosial moments during which we swim in an ocean only a fearless and unjaded child can plunge into, I asked Giordano whether the brain mapping of the mystical experience takes place in the hierarchical way he just narrated. In some ways, yes, he says, but it’s better to picture this whole thing like a wave that moves in a general direction, and then ripples both across directions and back onto itself. A wave that shakes up your world in a single moment, as Newberg said.

But if neuroscience can confidently explain what happens inside the brain when it registers “superlative” experiences, what does it have to say about why we have them in the first place? Are we all universally made to face spiritually transformative experiences at some point in our lives? Or will prominent neuroscientists agree that some of us are born slightly more mystical?

Journalist (BBC and others). Columnist. Budding author.

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