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Mystical Matters of the Mind

Meredith Sisson's picture

The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien… is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear… To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty… this knowledge, this feeling… that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men. --Albert Einstein (1)

Albert Einstein was not alone in this experience of “mystic emotion”. He was not alone in his wonderment of “highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty”. He was not alone in deeming himself “profoundly religious”. Religion and spirituality, both in concept and practice, have been constants throughout world history. However, it wasn’t until 1974, nineteen years after his death, that the American Psychiatric Association removed “strong religious belief” from the list of disorders in its diagnostic manual (2). It seems that this removal was one of society’s first steps toward understanding not only the compatibility of science and religion as Einstein saw it, but also, as more modern research may even suggest, the necessity of each to the other.

Over the past decade, scientists around the world have begun to take part in the evolving science of neurotheology, striving to better understand religious experience through observation and even reproduction. Using powerful brain imagining technology, studies of meditation, epilepsy, and certain hallucinogenic drugs, and magnetic stimulation, researchers are beginning to answer whether spirituality can be explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters, and brain chemistry. (3)

Much of recent neurotheological research has revealed that a “transcendental feeling of being one with the universe” could be created by decreased activity in the brain’s parietal lobe which regulates the sense of self and psychical orientation (3), allowing “the boundary between self and other [to] begin to dissolve” and creating “a sense of infinite space and eternity” (4). Unsurprisingly, the brain’s centers for attention were conversely intensely active, consistent with the heightened awareness and deep concentration of such mystic moments or deep religious “awakenings”. This research also reacts to the immense emotional charge, or the “wonderment” as Einstein recalled, of these experiences. Neuroscientists generally agree that this sensation originated in the limbic system of the temporal lobe. Often referred to as the “emotional brain”, this system is responsible for monitoring our experiences and weighing them with personal significance. During these moments, it is believed that the temporal lobe is highly active “tagging everything with special significance”. (4, 3)

While such findings do indeed represent great strides in science’s understanding of religious experience, this frontier of brain research has been viewed by many as a threat to societal conceptions of spirituality and of divinity. Though the most prominent scientists in the field claim that they are only trying to bridge the gap between science and religion, many believers are “offended by the notion that God is a creation of the human brain, rather than the other way around” (3). It is easy to see how these scientific enhancements could reinforce atheistic assumptions, even so far as proving spirituality to be “nothing more than a dysfunction of the brain” (5). However, because not everyone who meditates encounters these sorts of experiences, evidence may also suggest that some people may be not genetically or temperamentally predisposed to mystical ability. Theists use this scientific ambiguity to build their own confidence on the subject, presenting the argument that individuals who are atheists could simply have a “differently configured neural circuit” (6), further musing that if God existed and created the universe, our brains would indeed have the capacity to receive the divine through mystical experience--of course we’d be given a physical facility for belief. (3)

In whichever way this new information is processed, it seems that the most scientific answer to the debate brings the mystery back full circle. Andrew Newberg, a physician and fellow of the Division of Nuclear Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Centre, points out that “it is 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” (5). Thus, there is still no certainty as to whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experiences are simply a product of the brain or if the brain is truly perceiving a spiritual reality.

No matter the answer, it holds true that the human brain is indeed wired to experience these mystical and religious events. If these experiences are indeed a biological phenomenon, the next logical question we encounter is a simple “why?”. Does this capacity have an evolutionary survival value? Evolutionary scientists have suggested that belief in God, a common trait founding human societies throughout history and around the world, may be built in to the brain’s complex electrical circuitry as “a Darwinian adaptation to encourage co-operation between individuals” (6). Others suspect a less idealistic function. Theorizing that the capacity for mystical experience is a byproduct of sexual development in humans, they suggest that “the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from the same neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience” (2). These scientists believe the limbic systems evolved partly to link sexual activity to the pleasurable experience of orgasm, with clear evolutionary benefits. Despite the neurological obvious differences between meditation and sex, “mystical prayer and sexual bliss use similar neural pathways” (2).

The investigation into how spiritual experiences reflect across the human brain is far from conclusive; and the debates surrounding neurobiology and spirituality are far from complete. However, as new ground is broken in this dialogue between religion and science, we can but hope that the two begin to merge in ways that help to better the world’s understanding of its most ancient biological and theological roots.

WWW Sources

1. “Albert Einstein Quotes on Spirituality”

2. “Exploring the biology of religious experience”

3. “Tracing the Synapses of Our Spirituality”

4. “In search of God”

5. “God on the Brain: The Neurobiology of Faith”

6. “'God spot' is found in brain”