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24 February 2007 @ 05:57 am
Religion and The Brain  
Been passing this link around because it is such an outstanding summary of neurotheology.
Religion and the Brain, reprinted from Newsweek, May 2001

You have probably noticed that atheists (and some religious folks) don't understand what is meant by holy communion. They have never experienced hearing God as "a still small voice in the dark," let alone in a moment of ecstatic religious trance. I think this is because not all faiths encourage the discipline it takes to develop the ability.

When folks who have never experienced it read "God spoke," they attribute the source to either deliberate fraud or misguided self-deception on the part of the speaker. We wind up with the atheists on one side saying: "There is no evidence of God," while the mystics reply: "What are you talking about? I spoke with Him last night." The atheists think naive people mistake their own internal voice for God, and the mystics get frustrated because they are not being understood. No progress is made.

Within the last few years, scientists have proved that profound brain changes go on when a person is in ecstatic trance. Whatever else is going on, it is not so simple as dense people who mistake the everyday voice of conscience for divine contact. I find atheists are interested in this. Not that they believe it was divine contact, but at least they understand folks aren't describing an everyday event.

For my own purposes, I like to note where science and tradition coincide. Every mystic path says that to hear God, we must silence our self. "Humility, selflessness, putting aside of ego, quieting of mind" -- all instructions that come from religious guides to practicing mysticism. And what do the scientists find? When seekers enter a state of ecstatic communion, the part of their brain that registers self as separate from its surroundings shuts down, resulting in an altered state in which the seeker experiences a sense of divine contact. Just as the instructions said, all along. It fascinates me.
gyntselagyntsela on February 24th, 2007 02:54 pm (UTC)
That is quite fascinating. Thanks for posting. :) It really makes me think.

Rose Rossroseross on February 24th, 2007 10:13 pm (UTC)
It's been a few years. I should get my hands on some of the books the experiments have produced. :-)
Blonde with Duende: Kannonqassandra on February 24th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
I've seen this before, and it works very well within my particular theological system. To me, when we're speaking of the sphere of mystical/religious experience, it makes no difference if it is just some internal chemical process or if it's something external; within the experience itself, it is the same thing, and that's enough. When it's not enough is when I try to force that experience, or the beliefs that rise from it, onto others.

This research also seems to fit in nicely with Julian Jaynes's hypothesis on The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Rose Rossroseross on February 24th, 2007 10:12 pm (UTC)
Yup -- the fact our brains seem to be built for the experience doesn't prove God exists but it certainly is food for thought. I liked the articles use of "The Pie Effect" as an example.

If scientists tickled the right part of my brain with electricity in the lab, I'd smell apple pie, or taste it, or see it. That doesn't mean that when I see, smell, or taste apple pie in normal circumstances, the pie doesn't exist... or does it? ;-)
Tigersong: earthtigersong on February 24th, 2007 08:15 pm (UTC)
I think it's pretty fascinating how our mystical experiences are programmed into our biology.

I also wonder if people there are certain groups of people more prone to this experience, which is what gives us mystics and religious folk like me who are absolutely convinced of the existence of the Divine.

Thanks for those thoughts. Peace.
Rose Rossroseross on February 24th, 2007 10:10 pm (UTC)
From what I can tell, there are some type folks who are prone to particular types of vision.

The folks who experience seeing figures or hearing voices outside of themselves seem to also have a form of epilepsy that causes little electrical storms in the areas of the brain that affect seeing/hearing. Whether that results in vision or illness, I cannot say. Those type experiences don't seem to be something everyone can have. (And I'm not sure I'd want to. ;-)

But when people are highly stressed or grieved or desperate, and they have a religious experience in which they are suddenly comforted and lifted into a sense of oneness and timelessness -- those sound very common in human experience.

And the state of ecstatic trance that Buddhist and Catholic monks and nuns experience definitely sound like it can be anyone who takes the trouble to train themselves. I'll bet many Hindu gurus would show the same results, if monitored. The studies showed this type experience is most common in 40-50-year-olds, and among those who easily let subconscious thoughts drift through the conscious mind. Maybe that's a head start on the discipline's training teaches? They teach us all to deliberately do what some can do naturally?

(And sometimes, these experiences hit people out of the blue, like the neurologist just minding his own business at the train station. And, yeah, I'm with you about it's persuasive nature. I've only experienced it briefly and it scared me when it happened, yet it is the most convincing personal evidence for the existence of a spiritual realm I've known.)