The Null Device
The neurology of mystical experience
A survey of recent research in neurotheology and the biology of mystical experience
, from the magnetic "God helmet" to the possibility of a gene that regulates propensity towards mystical/spiritual experience:
Newberg's scans showed that neural activity decreases in a region at the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg refers to this region as the orientation-association area, because it helps us orient our bodies in relation to the external world. Patients whose posterior superior parietal lobes have been damaged often lose the ability to navigate through the world, because they have difficulty determining where their physical selves end and where the external world begins. Newberg hypothesizes that suppressed activity in this brain region (prompted by an individual's willed activity) could heighten a sense of unity with the external world, thus diminishing a person's sense of subject-object duality.
Intriguingly, Newberg has found some overlap between the neural activity of self-transcendence and of sexual pleasure. This result makes sense, Newberg says. Just as orgasms are triggered by a rhythmic activity, so religious experiences can be induced by dancing, chanting, or repeating a mantra. And both orgasms and religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence, and unity; that may be why mystics such as Saint Teresa so often employed romantic and even sexual language to describe their raptures.
Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain's left hemisphere--specifically, by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted--by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure--our left-brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a "sensed presence." Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God.
In the 1980s, a team at the University of Minnesota carried out a study of 84 pairs of twins--53 identical and 31 fraternal--who had been raised separately. The study was the first to suggest a genetic component to what the researchers called "intrinsic religiousness," which includes the tendency to pray often and to feel the presence of God.
Eventually Hamer found a variant, or allele, of a gene called VMAT, that corresponded to higher scores for what he had defined as spirituality. VMAT stands for vesicular monoamine transporter. The gene manufactures a protein that binds monoamines into packages, called vesicles, for transportation between neurons. Hamer calls the VMAT variant "the spiritual allele," or more dramatically, "the God gene".
Rick Strassman has proposed a theory even more reductionist and far-fetched than Hamer's, yet one that has empirical support. Strassman, a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman proposes that DMT secreted by our own brains plays a profound role in human consciousness. Specifically, he hypothesizes that endogenous DMT triggers mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.
The article concludes speculating on the possibilities discovering the biological root of spirituality could open:
Researchers may persist at these efforts because such studies offer the potential to alter our lives. In principle, these findings could lead to methods--call them "mystical technologies"--that reliably induce the state of spiritual insight that Christians call grace and Buddhists, enlightenment. Already Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger, is marketing the "Shakti headset," a stripped-down version of Persinger's God machine, for "consciousness exploration." Electrodes implanted in the brain that electrically stimulate specific regions are now being tested as treatments for depression and other mental illnesses; conceivably this technology also could be used to induce mystical states.
Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence. Would we want that power? Before Timothy Leary touted LSD as a route to profound psychological and spiritual insight, the CIA was studying its potential as a brainwashing agent. Persinger warns that in the wrong hands, a truly precise, powerful God machine, capable of implanting beliefs or signals that seem to come straight from the Almighty, could be the ultimate mind-control device. "Just think of the practical impact," he says. "People will die for this."
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