Spirituality and the Brain

By John T. Tennison, MD, Copyright 1999

Delivered at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio, Texas, Sunday, July 25, 1999

    Out of admiration for the work of George Lucas, I chose to begin today’s service with music from Star Wars. In his most recent Star Wars movie, George Lucas chose to provide a biological explanation for how the force runs strong in Jedi Knights. In similar fashion, I too, would like to explore the evidence which suggests an intimate connection between the biology of the brain and spirituality.

    There are numerous possible definitions for the word, "spirituality." However, for the sake of today's talk, I will define "spirituality" as the tendency towards having spiritual experiences. Moreover, I will use the terms "spirituality" and "mysticism" interchangeably.

    There are numerous examples in the literature of attempts to describe the fundamental characteristics of spiritual or mystical experiences. For the sake of today's discussion, I will recognize seven characteristics which W. T. Stace described in his classic text, "Mysticism and Philosophy" as being common to the mystical experiences of various religious traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Paganism.

    First, Stace described "Unitary Consciousness, from which all the multiplicity of sensuous or conceptual or other empirical content has been excluded, so that there remains only a void and empty unity."

    Secondly, "Being nonspatial and nontemporal," that is, existing outside of the realm of space and time.

    Thirdly, a heightened "sense of objectivity or reality."

    Fourth, "Feelings of blessedness, joy, peace, happiness, etc."

    Fifth, "Feeling that what is apprehended is holy, sacred, or divine."

    Sixth, "Paradoxicality."

    And Seventh, "Alleged by mystics to be ineffable," meaning that the experience is not describable in words.

    I hope to provide a few examples today, drawn from a vast sea of possible examples, to support the idea that particular processes in the brain are associated with the occurrence of these seven mystical experiences described by Stace.

    It was in approximately 400 BC that Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, wrote:

    "The brain, and the brain alone, is the source of our pleasures, joys, laughter, and amusement, as well as our sorrow, pain, grief, and tears. It is especially the organ we use to think and learn, see and hear, to distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, and the pleasant from the unpleasant. The brain is also the seat of madness and delirium, of the fears and terrors which assail by night or by day, of sleeplessness, awkward mistakes and thoughts that will not come, of pointless anxieties, forgetfulness and eccentricities."

    Despite this early insight into the brain, and despite evidence accumulated over subsequent centuries after the death of Hippocrates, vast numbers of people continue to believe that the brain is not required in order to have experiences, consciousness, or a sense of self. However, as we approach the new millenium, the fields of philosophy, biology, neurology, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, and others have converged more than ever before on the common conclusion that that every behavior, every emotion, every sensation, every thought, every memory, every mood, every state of consciousness, and every experience is associated with electrical and chemical events in the brain.

    The body of evidence in support of this conclusion is substantial, yet large numbers of people persist in under-appreciating the intimate connection between mind, brain, and spirit. Therefore, I hope the few examples that I present today might at least peak the curiosity, if not persuade, those who doubt the intimate and perhaps necessary unity of mind, brain, and spirit. I believe such unity exists, and after the service is over today, I hope to leave you with the conclusion that unity of mind, brain, and spirit is not an idea to be lamented or feared, but rather a realization to be celebrated, because such knowledge gives us more potential for freedom over our destinies than ever before in history.

    For example, if we learn that metabolic activity in a particular part of our brains is associated with spiritual experiences, we have every reason to believe that spiritual experiences could be made to happen by focusing electrical or chemical stimulation on that part of the brain.

    Certainly, one could imagine scenarios where such knowledge could be abused, such as in the nightmarish virtual-reality movie, "The Matrix", in which the total experiences of human lives are controlled by malevolent machines who directly stimulate the brains of captive humans with powerful computers and software to create the experience of a reality that feels as real as the one that you and I are experiencing right now.

    As with all new knowledge, there comes a responsibility of ethically and morally applying that knowledge. Through the ethical application of the knowledge of unity between mind, body, and spirit, we have the potential to achieve a state of democracy beyond our wildest dreams. We have the potential of giving the individual complete control over his or her experiences, and thus over his or her destiny.

    Some might argue that, if an experience comes from direct stimulation of the brain, rather than from events in the surrounding environment, that somehow the experience is not real, or not legitimate; that somehow we haven't earned or don't deserve to have the experience. I would maintain that experience is all we ever have. Everything that happens to us can be described in terms of having had an experience

    Some would argue that the process by which we arrive at an experience is as important, if not more important, than the experience itself. In such instances, I would maintain that the process is itself an experience.

    In fact, everything that has ever happened, is currently happening, or will happen, is irrelevant unless we think of these events as experiences for someone. Love, community, understanding, meaningfulness, and happiness are ALL experiences.

    Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology and religion, once said: "People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."

    The Dalai Lama has stated simply, "The purpose of life is to be happy."

    Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds -- it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

    A common thread that connects the statements of Campbell, the Dalai Lama, and Einstein is their emphasis on the desirability of meaningful and/or happy experiences, as opposed to painful and/or unhappy experiences. Although, it is obvious that we can grow from painful experiences, most people would not choose to have painful experiences if such experiences were not necessary.

    The emphasis that I have placed on experience brings us back to regard in more detail the evidence we have about how the brain works. Those who study the brain have come to accept the notion that every experience we can have is associated with particular electrical and/or chemical events in the brain.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that by changing the electrical and/or chemical activity of the brain, we can also cause changes in our behavior, emotions, sensations, thoughts, memories, moods, states of consciousness, and thus, experiences. That is, changes in the brain have been associated with a change in what one is experiencing, and conversely, a change in what one is experiencing has been associated with measurable changes in the brain.

    For example, in 1952, Canadian neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, described responses of patients who underwent electrical stimulation of their brains at various locations. During stimulation, patients exhibited such behaviors as hand clenching and arm raising. When stimulating certain areas of the temporal lobe, Penfield found that he could set off whole trains of relived experiences involving vivid recollections of past events accompanied by sudden feelings of fear, loneliness, and elation, with a deja vu familiarity about them.

    More recent technologies, such as MRI and PET brain scanning, are able to measure the activity of the brains of living, breathing human beings, without the need for surgical or other invasive techniques. We know that when someone sees an object, that the back part of the brain, known as the occipital lobes, becomes active. By "active," I mean that that brain cells in that area of the brain begin to show increased electrical and chemical activity. We know that hearing sound causes the brain cells in the temporal lobes on the sides of our head to become active. We know that, when we contract our muscles, brain cells in the front part of our brain, our frontal lobes, become active. And we know that when something touches our skin, brain cells in the areas of our brains known as the parietal lobes become active.

    In terms of spiritual and religious experience, interesting evidence comes from those who study epilepsy. In particular, epilepsy involving the temporal lobes of the brain has been associated with increased religiosity and heightened experience of emotions. According to psychiatrists Kaplan and Sadock, those with epilepsy of temporal lobe origin may exhibit "A striking religiosity....manifested not only by increased participation in overtly religious activities but also by unusual concern for moral and ethical issues, pre-occupation with right and wrong, and heightened interest in global and philosophical concerns."

    Since the brain is an electrical and chemical organ, it is no surprise that electrical and chemical stimulation can cause experiences in the person whose brain is so stimulated. For example, in their 1990 book, titled Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman? authors Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi discuss the work of neuroscientist, Michael Persinger, of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Persinger has conducted experiments in which subjects wear a helmet which beams low-level magnetic fields to the temporal lobes of the brain. Subjects who have worn the helmet have reported ecstatic, mystical, and visionary experiences, including "feelings of floating, leaving their bodies, and a sense of great meaningfulness." Persinger notes that "electrical activity within the temporal lobe is associated with such mystical experiences." Persinger's goal is to use his device "to trigger transcendental experiences in nonreligious people faced with the fear of death."

    In terms of chemical stimulation of the brain, physician and father of American psychology, William James, gave a series of lectures in 1901 and 1902 in which he spoke of effect of breathing ether and nitrous oxide. James stated that these gases "stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree." Moreover, he noted, "....I know more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance, we have a genuine metaphysical revelation."

    Perhaps the most famous chemical that has come to be associated with spiritual and mystical experiences is LSD. LSD was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938, and discovered to have mind-altering properties on April 19, 1943. Even before this time, indigenous peoples had used botanical sources containing naturally occurring psychoactive chemicals as sacraments in their religious ceremonies. In particular, the Native American Church still uses the mescaline-containing peyote cactus in their religious ceremonies. So-called Magic Mushrooms, containing psilocybin, have also been used for hundreds of years by Native American shamans. Such mushrooms were brought to popular attention after researcher Gordon Wasson participated in a shamanistic ceremony in 1955.

    We now know that chemicals, such as LSD, interact with proteins, called receptors, which lie on the surface of our brain cells. This interaction is much like a key coming into contact with a keyhole. Sometimes, this contact causes the brain cell containing the receptor to become metabolically more active, while at other times, the interaction of a chemical and a brain-cell receptor causes the brain cell to become less active. Whether a brain cell becomes more or less active depends on the particular combination of chemical and receptor. Chemicals which occur naturally in our bodies and interact with receptors are known as neurotransmitters. However, ingested chemicals can occasionally have an even stronger effect on receptors, than chemicals which occur naturally in our bodies.

    We now know that LSD inhibits cells which contain receptors for the neurotransmitter, serotonin. We also know that LSD activates cells containing receptors for the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Since LSD acts like dopamine at certain receptors, we say that LSD is "dopaminergic" at those receptors. Increased dopaminergic activity can be associated with psychosis. In fact, some anti-psychotic drugs used in psychiatry are believed to have their anti-psychotic effect because they limit the activity of dopamine at certain places in the brain. The ability of LSD to mimic dopamine at certain receptors probably contributes to its production of states of consciousness with characteristics resembling schizophrenic states of consciousness, such as loss of the sense of boundaries between self and non-self. In psychiatry, such a state of mind might be regarded as pathological. However, in many mystical traditions, loss of the sense of self, or merger with a larger self or reality, is often a primary goal.

    Perhaps it makes the most sense, therefore, to avoid letting the characteristics of a state of consciousness be the criteria for labeling that state of mind as "pathological" or in need of being changed, but rather letting the existence of distress on the part of the individual, or those who interact with that person, be the determinant of whether or not that individual's state of mind is labeled as "pathological."

    There is no doubt that chemicals, such as LSD, can cause profound experiences, but the question is often asked, "Should such experiences be regarded as legitimate religious experiences?"

    Religious scholar, Houston Smith, commented that psychedelics, "....seem on occasion to offer direct disclosures of the psychic and celestial planes as well as (in rare instances) the Infinite itself."

    When considering hallucinogenic substances such as mescaline, mushrooms, and ergot of barley [of which LSD is related], Joseph Campbell remarked, "There can be no doubt today that through the use of such sacramentals, revelations indistinguishable from some of those reported of yoga have been experienced."

    In 1962, physician, Walter N. Pahnke, conducted what has come to be called the Good Friday Experiment. The experiment involved twenty divinity students who attended a service at Marsh Chapel at Boston University on Good Friday in 1962. Ten of the divinity students were given 30 mg of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, while the other 10 were given a placebo. All of the students were asked to write a detailed account of their experience during the service. Pahnke compared the written descriptions of experiences with the seven mystical characteristics described by W. T. Stace, as well as two other characteristics, "transiency" and "subsequent improvement in life." More than half of the subjects taking psilocybin described to some degree all nine of the mystical characteristics used by Pahnke, while the percentage of mystical experiences for those who took the placebo was much lower.

    In his influential 1957 book, Drugs and the Mind, Robert S. DeRopp comments:

    "The cruelty of the tyrant, the compassion of the saint, the ardor of lovers, the hatred of foes all are based on chemical processes. However hard we may try, however earnestly we may wish to do so, we cannot separate mind from matter or isolate what we call man's soul from his body. Were this not so, the action of drugs on the mind could never be understood. It is precisely because all mental and emotional processes have a chemical basis that these drugs exert an action. If mind existed in a vacuum apart from matter, we would not be able to influence it by drugs."

    It is interesting to note that the drugs which have produced the most profound religious experiences usually become classified as illegal to ingest or prescribe. Yet, sedating and addictive drugs such as alcohol remain legal, despite knowledge of the extensive damage that alcohol causes to the body. Moreover, cigarette manufacturers have only recently begun to admit and take responsibility for the addictions and damages caused by smoking.

    Because of the history of western medicine, and because of the laws which currently exist, many people persist in thinking in terms of a restrictive medical paradigm, which insists that medical, pharmacological, or other biological techniques, should not be used on the human body unless illness, disease, or pathology is present. Yet, there are some physicians and non-physicians alike who believe that the sum of our medical and biological knowledge should be used to help not just to cure or prevent disease, but to enhance the quality of life for all humankind. Such a full-spectrum approach already exists in K-through-12 education, in which we have special-education classes, standard classes, enriched classes, honors classes, and advanced placement classes.

    Make no mistake: I am not endorsing any sort of illegal activity, yet I am a physician who believes we should work to apply the totality of our medical, pharmacological, biological, and scientific knowledge in such a way not only to keep us alive, but to maximize our quality of life. And what more is Quality of life than the sum of the experiences we have? At the end of our lives, all any of us will have had is an experience. I hope you have a good one.

Copyright 1999 John T. Tennison, MD. All rights reserved.


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