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Metaphysics & Psychology

What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences?

What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences? 90

Lynne Blumberg

The field of neurotheology uses science to try to understand religion, and vice versa.

“Everyone philosophizes,” writes neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg in his latest book, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought. We all speculate about the meaning of all kinds of things, from everyday concerns about dealing with a co-worker to our ultimate beliefs about the purpose of existence. Accompanying solutions we find to these problems, there’s a range of satisfied feelings, from “ah-ha” or light-bulb moments upon solving an everyday problem to ecstatic feelings during mystical experiences.

Since everyday and spiritual concerns are variations of the same thinking processes, Newberg thinks it’s essential to examine how people experience spirituality in order to fully understand how their brains work. Looking at the bigger questions has already provided practical applications for improving mental and physical health.

Newberg is a pioneer in the field of neurotheology, the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences. In the 1990s, he began his work in the field by scanning what happens in people’s brains when they meditate, because it is a spiritual practice that is relatively easy to monitor.

Since then, he’s looked at around 150 brain scans, including those of Buddhists, nuns, atheists, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and Brazilian mediums practicing psychography—the channeling of messages from the dead through handwriting.

As to what’s going on in their brains, Newberg says, “It depends to some degree on what the practice is.” Practices that involve concentrating on something over and over again, either through prayer or a mantra-based meditation, tend to activate the frontal lobes, the areas chiefly responsible for directing attention, modulating behavior, and expressing language.

What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences? 91
Dr. Andrew Newberg/The Atlantic

In contrast, when practitioners surrender their will, such as when they speak in tongues or function as a medium, activity decreases in their frontal lobes and increases in their thalamus, the tiny brain structure that regulates the flow of incoming sensory information to many parts of the brain. This suggests that their speech is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.

What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences? 92
Dr. Andrew Newberg/The Atlantic

Believers could say this proves that another entity is speaking through the practitioner, while nonbelievers would look for a neurological explanation. Newberg takes into account both perspectives. When he defines neurotheology in his book, Principles of Neurotheology, he writes, “An ardent atheist, who refuses to accept any aspect of religion as possibly correct or useful, or a devout religious person, who refuses to accept science as providing any value regarding knowledge of the world, would most likely not be considered a neurotheologian.”

Newberg believes everyone can benefit from some type of meditation practice. If one practice isn’t working for an individual, she should try something else. As a general rule, these practices lower depression, anxiety, and stress. He adds that at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, where he is director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, researchers have found that meditation can improve memory and concentration.

It’s debatable whether these practices are more effective when founded on religious or spiritual beliefs. Dr. Dean Hamer, author of the book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, discovered that research subjects with a particular variation of a certain gene were more susceptible to self-transcendent, spiritual experiences.

In a lecture given at Marlboro College titled, “Gays, God, and Genes,” Hamer compares the effects of this variation to an enhanced capacity for natural highs. This spiritual tendency also depends on a person’s environment, according to Hamer, which can direct their innate spirituality to particular religious beliefs, and/or steer them away from religion altogether. He says that science will never replace spirituality because a reliance on facts will never have the same emotional appeal.

Newberg agrees that spiritual beliefs are influenced by a person’s genetics and environment, and that meditation practices are more effective when they reinforce a practitioner’s belief system. However, he says researchers are still investigating whether religious beliefs in general make healthier and happier people. He considers atheism to be a belief system as well, and says that a possible a mental health benefit of belonging to a religious denomination could be not just belief, but the built-in social network.

If the euphoria a person experiences during a meditation practice can’t be integrated into their preexisting belief system, these feelings may become disturbing. Newberg gave as an example a meditator who sought out a clergy member to talk about his practice and felt a bit brushed off by the cleric. When meditation practices enhance a rigid, authoritarian belief system, Newberg said they can lead to more intolerance and violence towards those of different beliefs. In the book he co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe, he writes that due to some overlap between spiritual beliefs and psychological disorders, patients with obsessive compulsive disorders often develop rigid religious beliefs.

Newberg had always wanted to be a medical doctor, but didn’t realize he could combine that with his interest in searching for answers to metaphysical questions until he attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and worked with Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, a psychiatrist whose research focused on religion.

Newberg has studied Eastern and Western thinkers to understand their differing perspectives on whether or not an objective reality exists outside of human perception. What fascinates him about mystical experiences—the goal of many meditation practices—are the reports of experiencing a higher reality that is “more real” than everyday perceptions.

Newberg said it’s “the only description that I’ve ever seen where somebody will say ‘I got beyond my brain, I got beyond my ego self, I got beyond the subjective and objective nature of the world;’ and then they see the universe, and they experience the universe in a very, very different kind of way.”

He added, “I think these experiences need to be taken very seriously. I think they tell us something about the nature of reality and how we perceive that reality.”

When Newberg scanned the brains of nuns and Buddhists undergoing mystical experiences, they reported feelings of timelessness, spacelessness, and self-transcendence. Newberg believes a cause of these feelings is the reduced activity he saw in their parietal lobes, the orientation area of the brain responsible for perceiving three-dimensional objects in space. A meditator may experience a sense of oneness with all living things or unity because the reduced activity blurs the perceived lines between the meditator and other objects.

When the parietal lobes are damaged, patients have distorted beliefs about their own bodies and are sometimes confused about their spatial orientation to outside objects. In an example from Why We Believe What We Believe, patients think one of their own legs is not theirs, and have been found trying to throw this other leg out of their bed. In his new book, Newberg cites a study led by Dr. Brick Johnstone that found that damage to the right parietal lobe caused patients’ self-transcendent experiences to increase.

Newberg suggests in his new book that mystical experiences are described as blissful or ecstatic because they share many of the same neural pathways in the parietal and frontal lobes that are involved in sexual arousal.

To take his scans, Newburg uses functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), and single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) imaging. The book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, lists their technological limitations. The authors, Drs. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, write that one limitation of brain imaging is that researchers can’t make a neat map of the brain centers for different activities like phrenologists once did. Even if most people process language expression in one particular area, this processing is highly dependent on connections to other brain activities. The brain is also plastic, so if the usual area for speech is damaged, other areas in the brain may reorganize and take over the function.

While locating the appropriate brain centers, researchers must also break down the steps involved in a seemingly unified mental task. The authors provide a simple arithmetic problem as an example. Researchers must consider that one section of the brain enables a person to visually recognize the numbers, another section registers the magnitude of the numbers, and a third section computes the sum. If neuroscientists are trying to understand attitudes or emotions, they have to take into account more complicated steps. Furthermore, the technology isn’t advanced enough to pick up all the rapid neural changes that occur during a mental process.

When e-mailed to comment specifically on Newberg’s work, Satel responded that today’s imaging is enabling researchers to make clinical inroads into dementia and other major mental illnesses, but she’s skeptical that knowing a person’s neurochemical and other physical processes will ever provide a detailed understanding of someone’s subjective beliefs. Even with advances in technology, “we can’t predict the real world contexts in which perceptions, cognitions, or emotion will manifest. The interaction of these dimensions with environment is crucial to understanding behavioral outcomes.”

Asked about the technological challenges, Newberg said that “it’s not easy doing this research.” However, “up until the last 20 years, we’ve never been able to see anything. So it’s certainly a vast improvement over nothing, but it’s still not nearly as ideal as what we would like.”

Supplementing the scans, Newberg and his team interview meditators about their subjective experiences in order to get a better understanding of what is happening to them physically. For this method, a challenge has been figuring out precisely what interviewees mean when they use concepts like God or spirituality. Newberg has found that everyone defines God a little bit differently even when they belong to the same religion. When describing spiritual experiences, some report that these experiences enhance their religious beliefs, and others turn away from religion and engage in individual practices.

Given the challenges of the technology and the multitude of beliefs and practices, I asked Newberg if he ever gets overwhelmed.

“It’s a little overwhelming. You sort of take one thing at a time and just proceed slowly, and I try very hard not to get too far ahead of myself or too ahead of the data,” he said. “But I guess it’s somewhat of a calling for me. I’ve always felt like I’ve got to go down this path, and I’ll keep going down it, and maybe someday I’ll figure something out that will really be helpful to everybody.”

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Psilocybin mushrooms sprout in the blood of an ‘experimental’ patient

Psilocybin mushrooms sprout in the blood of an 'experimental' patient 105
Image: Giphy.com

US doctors described the story of a man who tried to relieve depression with psilocybin mushrooms in an unconventional way. He injected an intravenous infusion of mushrooms, causing the mushrooms to continue to multiply in his blood and cause multiple organ failure. The case was reported in the Journal of the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry.

Many drugs that people traditionally use as psychedelics are increasingly becoming the focus of medical attention. Some of them have already been repurposed and started clinical trials: for example, micro-doses of LSD have proven to be at least safe in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, and psilocybin has helped patients with  migraines and  depression. Often in such experiments we are talking about microdosing – that is, the mass of the substance is not enough for a psychoactive effect.

The story of an American who decided to experiment on his own was described by doctors led by Curtis McKnight of Creighton University School of Medicine. According to relatives, the 30-year-old American suffered from bipolar disorder, but shortly before the incident stopped taking his prescribed medications and suffered from alternating states of mania and depression.

When he stumbled upon research on the potential benefits of psychedelics, he boiled psilocybin mushrooms and injected the filtered solution into his vein. A few days after this experiment, relatives found him in a lethargic state with jaundice, diarrhea and bloody vomiting and took him to the hospital.

Doctors discovered the patient had a problem with multiple organs at once: acute renal failure, liver damage, tachycardia, and low blood saturation and ionic imbalance. He was prescribed droppers to normalize the composition of the blood, vasoconstrictors to raise blood pressure, antibiotics and antifungal drugs. Despite this, he developed septic shock and DIC (excessive blood clotting) and needed plasmapheresis. Only eight days later he was discharged from the intensive care unit, and at the time of publication of the article he had already been in the hospital for 22 days.

In the patient’s blood tests, in addition to the Brevibacillus bacteria , there were also Psilocybe cubensis fungi  – the same ones from which he injected himself intravenously. Apparently, due to insufficient filtration of the solution, the fungi entered the bloodstream and multiplied there, causing intoxication and multiple organ failure.

Psilocybin mushrooms sprout in the blood of an 'experimental' patient 106

The authors of the work note that this is not the first such case – at least in the 80s of the 20th century, doctors already described a patient with similar symptoms after an intravenous injection. Therefore, McKnight and coauthors warn their colleagues: since psychedelics are increasingly used as a medicine (at the end of 2020, they began to legalize it in the United States), it is important to remind patients of the inadmissibility of self-therapy. Intravenous administration can be dangerous – doctors still do not know if it has the same psychoactive effect as the classical methods of administration.

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Metaphysics & Psychology

A part of a person’s essence accompanies him throughout his life: this is confirmed by a brain scan

A part of a person's essence accompanies him throughout his life: this is confirmed by a brain scan 107
Photo: pixabay.com

A new method of scanning the human brain has produced amazing results. It turns out that in every person there is a certain part of his essence, which accompanies him all his life from the moment of birth to death.

Scientists believe that this is the core of a person’s self-awareness. It combines memories of the past with fleeting sensations of reality and provides a basis for anticipation of events in the future.

It turned out that a certain part of a person’s consciousness is consistent as they grow older and older.

For centuries, scientists and philosophers have been interested in the question: can this sense of “personal self” be stable throughout life? A new psychological study with the results of a brain scan made it possible to conclude that a certain part of a person’s consciousness really accompanies him throughout his life.

It is consistent as it gets older and older. Miguel Rubianes, a neuroscientist at the Complutense University of Madrid, says the aim of the study was to answer the question: Are we the same person throughout life? In combination with the results of other studies, scientists have concluded that there is a certain component that remains stable from birth to death.

The other part of consciousness remains susceptible to current changes. The scientists recognized independence as the basis of identity. And every time a person uses the word “I”, he means a thread that connects together all the events and experiences that have occurred in life.

Experience gained over the years changes a person, changes the components of his identity. Each case associated with personal experiences, a broken heart, a successful career step, expected or unexpected failure lead to the fact that a person compares himself to himself before and after these events. It is a neurological programming scheme that involves visual self-knowledge as an indicator of connection with your impressions of yourself.

This effect makes it possible to cope with memories and recognition of information when it is associated, for example, with one’s own photograph of an infant. Although this principle has a lot of evidence, scientists believe that the very mechanism of the brain involved in this remains a mystery.

This study was published in the journal Psychophysiology.

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop 108

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we sometimes do not notice how time flies past us, what miracles surround us. We do not have time to listen to the rustle of leaves in the wind and we miss those minutes when the crimson moon hangs at the very horizon.

Below are 10 films that reflect the beauty and diversity of our world. You watch such a movie and forget about everything.

Kytice

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

7 fairy tales-ballads based on Czech folklore are filmed colorfully and poetically. 

They endure a time when people were closer to nature, believed in miracles and the spirits of the forest, when the terrible and the beautiful were merged together.

Ashes and snow

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

Gregory Colbert’s documentary has no plot, but it attracts with its stunning, unrestrained beauty, reflecting the unity of man with nature.

The film was shot for 13 years in the most exotic corners of our planet: Burma, Ethiopia, India, Antarctica, Sri Lanka, Tonga islands and many other picturesque places.

The fountain

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

The main character Thomas tries to find a cure for his wife Isabelle. Every day she gets worse, and he cannot be near, because he puts experiments in the laboratory. In his soul, love, the desire to be with Isabelle and the desire to extend her life are fighting. 

Darren Aronofsky’s philosophical drama was filmed in vivid colors, despite the fact that the director did not use computer special effects.

Samsara

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

This is a beautiful one and a half hour trip to the most amazing places on the planet. 

Director Ron Fricke showed the inextricable connection of all people and events on earth, the cycle of death and birth, the versatility of our world, where beauty coexists with nondescriptness, and the end means the beginning.

The Bear

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

The story of a bear cub that lost its mother and nailed to a large wounded bear. Together they have to go through many trials, the worst of which is meeting the hunters. 

The wonderful plot of the film is combined with stunning music that helps you immerse yourself in the world of nature and feel it with your whole body.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

The harsh Siberian nature, untouched by man, the majestic Yenisei River and the small village of Bakhta with a simple way of life. 

People live and survive in these parts, rely only on themselves and also ask only themselves. Four seasons – four lifestyles for each of them.

August Rush

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

Young musician August Rush does not know his parents, but he really wants to find them and for some reason is sure that if he plays, they will hear and recognize him by his music. 

Mesmerizing music permeates the entire film and works wonders to dispel the evil spell of separation.

Baraka

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

A documentary masterpiece, a philosophical essay accompanied by superb cinematography and music, goes without words. The only and main actor here is life in all its diversity and unity. 

The gaze of a monkey sitting in a hot pond is equal to all the depths of cold space, and the dances of the aborigines are synchronized with the movements of the forest.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

This is a beautiful and unhurried philosophical parable about a wheel of time moving into infinity. Each time, with the beginning of a new cycle of rotation, life on earth is renewed, and everyone has the opportunity for a new rebirth. 

The film by Korean director Kim Ki-dook tells about two monks – a teacher and his student – and the obstacles that must be overcome on the way to finding harmony.

Chronos

Beauty and diversity of our world: 10 movies that will make time stop

The main characters of the documentary narration are cultural and historical monuments. 

They absorbed the life of the people who created them, and have remained for centuries as an imprint of bygone eras.

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