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Health, psychology & science stories


Sources of the religious impulse in the brain

29 October 2001

Published in The Age

When our species became reflective - that is, when we became human - life and all it contained must have seemed an endlessly marvellous thing. Lacking even the faintest notion of evolution, and its handmaiden of vast time, and noting our own ability to design a tool-kit, shelter and clothing, the logic of the age possibly suggested that everything around us also had a designer.

But if reflection carried us into the idea of the divine, further reflection might eventually have carried us out of it: in the last 200 years, Western thinkers have re-examined history, applied rational thought, and deconstructed God.

Then, in turn, just when atheists seemed to have won the intellectual high ground, the West's "new religions" burst upon the scene. These mostly Eastern-derived approaches threw out the need for logical or historical proofs - instead citing their adherents' personal, inner experience of God's reality.

For about 30 years, sceptics have been kept in check by these claims. It was easy enough to demonstrate an absence of historical evidence for the Resurrection, or that Krishna never existed - but "transcendent experiences" were harder to argue with. The cults of the early 1970s were the shock troops, but their emphasis on "experience", "consciousness" and gnosis (direct revelatory knowledge) soon permeated through to wider currents of thought, which saw "experiental" paths like Buddhism, yoga and meditation become widely popular.

But now the worm has turned again, and science has done some catching up. Neurologists have come up with evidence of what sceptics have suspected all along: that these "divine", "unitary" or "cosmic" experiences appear to be the result of some incredibly sophisticated brain chemistry.

Adelaide psychologist Michael Thalbourne has defined something he calls transliminality - a receptiveness to impulses and experiences whose sources are unconscious. He says:

"I found that people high in transliminality are also likely to be more religious and to have spiritual experience. So my guess is that the forerunners of spiritual experiences lie in unconscious regions, which are stimulated in some way that makes them 'cross the threshold' into consciousness."

So what kind of stimulation might be involved?

"[The] methods," says David Wulff - Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College in Massachusetts - "can be roughly divided into those that overstimulate the nervous system - dancing, drumming, etcetera - and those that reduce stimulation, such as prayer and meditation.

"The latter, which are often pursued in solitude, are often thought to be more profound than the former, which almost always are a group phenomenon, and may therefore exploit the mutually facilitating effects of 'emotional contagion'."
Can some of these experiences be traced to brain activity?

"Near-death experiences," Wulff says, "have been traced by at least one investigator to one very specific site - the Sylvian fissure in the right temporal lobe."

Last year the book "Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence" was published in the US. A chapter by Wulff outlined some well-accepted aspects of "spiritual" experience. These include ineffability (the experience being "beyond words"), and "a deep, authoritative knowledge or insight". Spiritual experiences also confer the feeling that one is in the grip of some superior power, and tend to fade in time (transiency). Other aspects include loss of fear, a loss of time awareness, a loss of self-consciousness; acceptance, oneness with others and the universe, and of course the astounding experiences of travel down tunnels and absorption into light sometimes described by those who have been near death.

Like most researchers in this field, Dr Wulff believes that sourcing spiritual experience in the brain is not proof for or against God's existence:

"Logically, I do not see how neurophysiology or neuropsychology can tell us anything about the reality or nature of the divine... One can speculate, of course, that our proclivity to have such experiences is evidence that there are 'objects' out there for that experience, but that would take us beyond what science can say."

Whether such experience be divine, or just neuronal, how else may it come about?

Dr Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has has hooked subjects in deep meditation up to a SPECT machine capable of high-quality brain imaging. Predictably, the images revealed that the prefrontal cortex (the seat of attention) illuminated. However another area, the superior parietal lobe, correspondingly darkened.

The latter - also known as the brain's "orientation association area" - is responsible for handling data about space and time, and the orientation of the body in space. Deprived of data - as it is in true meditation - this region will create the perception of infinite space, and will also delete the ability to distinguish oneself from the rest of the universe. This is a sound neurological explanation for the "cosmic oneness" so often claimed in spiritual experience.

Interestingly, Newberg has got the same results from both Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns at prayer - and also via chanting and singing.

Other scientists (many of them engaged privately in a spiritual practice) are pursuing related research into what is sometimes called "neurotheology".

Dr Michael Persinger of Canada's Laurentian University, for example, has produced what subjects described as supernatural or out-of-body experiences by hitting them with an electromagnetic field. The field created a small electrical "storm" in their temporal lobes.

James Austin is Professor of Neurology Emeritus at the Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver - as well as Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Idaho. On top of that, he is both a lifelong Unitarian and a Buddhist practitioner. Combining all these interests, in 1998 he wrote the book Zen and the Brain.

Professor Austin told The Age he believes that different parts the brain are responsible for the different aspects of spirituality - for example the loss of fear typical in spiritual experience "is related to inhibition of the amygdala [part of the cerebellum] and its projection pathways."

The psychologist William James - a pioneer in the psychology of religion - "documented many varieties of religious experience," Austin said. "I would think that a similar variety of networks, modules and pathways are involved".
Can spiritual experience lead to permanent changes in the psyche? Does the concept of "enlightenment" - supposedly a permanent thing - have any validity?

Professor Austin believes it does. "Isolated realisations of insight-wisdom are brief, extraordinary alternate states of consciousness, followed by a reflective afterglow," he says. "Some brief major states can be followed by permanent trait changes. 'Enlightenment' also has another meaning - an incremental process, ongoing, that leads toward sage wisdom."
Professor Austin believes these well-known peak experiences - Zen practitioners call them satori - can "re-boot" the brain. Thereafter, old practices and mental ruts - especially self-centred ones - can make way for a more elastic, responsive and compassionate mind.

David Wulff shares this sanguine view of the long-term benefits of peak experiences:

"Mystical or spiritual experiences of the striking variety are relatively uncommon, even in the lives of the great mystics, for whom such experiences may have occurred only a few times in their lives and lasted only an hour or so each time. What makes them mystics is the 'residue' of a changed outlook and commitment, if not also some enduring intimation of the greater reality they had experienced."

So perhaps some of the practices long associated with religion may yet outlive the descriptions "spiritual" and "mystical", and reincarnate in the scientific era simply as approaches to a better life.

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