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Biology 202
2001 Third Web Report
From Serendip

The Presence of Trance Induction in Religious, Spiritual, and Medical Practices Due to the Function of the Prefrontal Cortex

Mel Rohall
Although trances can be seen as plot twists for comics books or sensational tabloid headlines, trance induction occurs regularly for the average person. For example, driving down the highway for hours may include periods in which the driver was not actively aware of the experience of driving on that road or anything else that may have occurred in the car during the period. This self-awareness adds a unique dimension the human species possibly basing humans as "masters of their own domain" or "enlightened beings." Those phrases, however trait, may hold the meaning for those actively seeking something with the aid of trances.

Trances are achieved in numerous cultures through methods which appear to be specialized and unrelated; however, the participant performs similar actions resulting in like brain activity. These sequences of electric pulses are apart from most other activities. Supposing that meditation, hypnosis, and certain prayer rituals are trace induction techniques, parallels between the ideology of the process and the methodology to further investigate the theory of the unconscious.

From Eastern religion to Western medical clinics, the unconscious can be found latent in trance induction techniques. The outward appearance of each is individualized; moreover, this is true for each practice, though generalizations are useful in observing the amorphous unconscious. Two meditations, the traditional Zen Buddhist meditation and the corporately promoted and taught Transcendental meditation, constitute a sample of spiritual pursuits. Medical help can be sought in Dr. Herbert Benson's relaxation response and in hypnosis. Religious practices sanctioned by a standardized church is presented by the praying of the rosary and the speaking in tongues in Catholicism. The mechanisms of each are relatively simple.

Zen Buddhist meditation has been practiced by millions for thousands of years ever since a 29-year-old Siddharta was sitting under a fig tree when enlightenment suddenly struck. After experiencing the aforementioned epiphany, he outlined philosophies for living, The Way. The ultimate goal described as achieving a state of bliss most closely found in silent meditation.

Transcendental meditation has been practiced for thousands of years as well. In Vedic Indian culture, the practice was taught to generation by oral tradition until Maharishi Mahesh Yogi transformed it into a corporate venture during the 1960s and brought it to the United States to students like John Lennon and Paul McCartney (3). The actual practice is simple containing minimal effort. While sitting in a chair with eyes closed, the participant breaths deeply and focuses a mantra given by the instructor not to be shared with anyone else (3). The process is recommended to be performed twice a day for twenty minutes each time (3).

Catholicism employs two obvious methods of trance induction. The first of which, is the process of saying the rosary. Essentially, the rosary is a beaded necklace with a crucifix marking the end and containing beads in groupings of ten and one. While praying, Catholics move their fingers on each bead while saying one or more well known prayers for each bead on the rosary. Perhaps more esoteric than the rosary, speaking in tongues is elevated to the status of gift from the Holy Spirit to a selected population according to the church. The recipient simply opens one's mouth and allows nonsensical sounds to emit. It is considered desirable for the purpose of acquiring a new way in which to communicated to the Holy Spirit who in turn, connects with God the Father.

Herbert Benson, MD, a cardiologist, began prescribing periods of rhythmically breathing to patients decades ago. Those with high blood pressure were the initially recipients; however, he recommends the practice for everyone regardless of their states of health (4). Benson has since opened a mind-body center to continue to promote the practice (4).

Hypnosis is a therapeutic technique administered by licensed hypnotists to an individual seeking relief from a phobia, an anxiety, certain acute pain, or any other malady not satiated with an aspirin. During the session, the patient is tricked into displacing themselves from the current situation using logical binds and confusion. While in this new situation, the problem is addressed and approached from this new location.

From prayer time in a Buddhist Monastery to a quiet break in a living room chair, the practice is basically the same. Each practice includes two universal characteristics, namely the participant engages in a rhythmical breathing sequence while removed from common disturbances. Activity in the brain follows the rhythmical breathing for some new insight to an ancient experience. In brief terms, while practicing rhythmical breathing or trance induction, SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) images revealed intense activity in the prefrontal cortex with a noticeable dearth of activity occurring in the superior pariental lobe (1). With regards to that, a religious experience is merely a black out in the brain.

The combination blackout and frenzy, specially situated, may give meaning to the practices of trance induction. Kai Vogeley of the University of Bonn creates a helpful metaphor for consciousness and brain activity likened to that a theatrical production. A spotlight shining on a stage is the viewed activity or conscious experience (2). Such is achieved as the reticular thalamic nucleas signal designated thalamic nuclei that signal specific cortical regions (2). The signaling to only certain regions create the contrasting activity resulting in awareness with the aid of the cortical regions (2). As any action is a motor symphony, consciousness, too, is a process. A sequence of such signaling produce a moving production- a stream of consciousness (2). No play can occur with only actors, a stage, and a spotlight. There are participants such as the stage crew, the technical manager, the choreographer, and the director who are essential to the production; however, these components, although working during the consciousness production, work without being on stage (2). The parts, therefore work unconsciously (2). Without this ability, the entranced driver could not have driven and the cryptic prayer could not be uttered by the Catholic. During the unconsciousness, moreover, the spotlight has dimmed, but the production continues (2).

The prefrontal cortex is thought to house the image of one's self. Heavily active during periods of intense concentration from delicate motor operations to meditation (1), the prefrontal cortex would present a sense of being. Unconsciousness does not appear to change this. The conditions of being, however, are not controlled by the prefrontal cortex (2). In basic terms, the area feeding the space and time orientation is located in the superior temporal lobe (1) which contained the blackout thus suppressing relevant memory of contextual information relating to the past (2). As the brain cannot assimilate space and time, its boundaries run together with everything else (1). This is an obvious collapse of the ego boundary.

While this euphoria manifests, the prefrontal cortex with its directors and choreographers are still busy. Thought to be the "highest-order association cortex area in the hierarchy of sensory-motor integration for the purpose of maximum efficiency" . It seemingly transforms sensory information into the most useful products. It also performs coding processes through cortical oscillation which might allude to the prefrontal cortex as a self-organizer (2). Another significant discovery about the functions of the prefrontal cortex is its ability to integrate cross temporarily resulting in the reception and response to quasi-delayed information rather than immediate stimulation (2).

The prefrontal cortex perhaps provides most everything desired from the participant from each practice. The Buddhists, the Transcendental Meditation practitioners, and those speaking in tongues and praying on the rosary, may achieve a feeling of one with the environment and possibly the self organizing ability of the prefrontal cortex. Those practicing the relaxation response might share in the self organization. Those hypnosis patients riddled with anxiety are taken out of the trouble space and placed in a new one from which they may not hold the same fears. In all of the cases, there is one common result, they are given the opportunity to change their frames of references. Whether it is a fear of spiders or a desire to reach Nirvana, a reframing is necessary and available in trance induction.

WWW Sources

1 "Religion and the Brain" Newsweek

2)"The Prefrontal Cortex and the Self" commentary containing solid anatomy

3) The Transcendental Meditation Homepage biographical information provided

4) Healing and the Mind Page by Herbert Benson information on practice