The deeper one penetrates into nature’s secrets, the greater becomes one’s respect for God.
– Albert Einstein
Meditation and prayer have been around since we humans first asked the questions: “Who are we, where do we come from, and where are we are going?”
For thousands of years and across all cultures, intense spiritual transcendence has been described variously as feeling “a sense of presence,” or of “unity with the universe.” This sense of connectedness is often accompanied by visions, the perception of comforting words, even sudden revelation. Whatever the person feels, there is usually a sense of awe, peace and calmness afterwards. One feels centred. Often the moment is remembered as being highly significant – sometimes with life changing intensity.
These experiences are not as rare as one would have thought a few years ago. Somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of people (depending upon the statistics you select) report having had a profound spiritual or religious experience. With the spiritual awakening we are witnessing today, that percentage is bound to increase!
But what is meditation, anyway? How does it work? How do we feel this oneness with everything? Is it all a trick of the mind? After all, everything we see, feel, hear and think goes through the brain. Disconnect the brain, and you are left with a lump of meat and bone.
On a spiritual level, the answers to some of these questions will probably be somewhat different for each person. They will depend on personal belief, culture, upbringing, and individual experience. On a physical level though, the answers are not quite as subjective.
Images of Transcendence
Around the middle of the last century, scientists conducted some basic research monitoring brain waves, but the results were not very enlightening – technology wasn’t advanced enough to allow researchers a snapshot of a meditating brain.
About eleven years ago, Andrew Newberg a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and a colleague and psychiatrist, Eugene d’Aquili (who died in 1998) started collaborating on an investigation into the biology of religion – a field that was to become generally known as neurotheology. They were interested in studying perceptions unique to religion, for example: What causes the feeling of being timelessly one with the universe during deep prayer or meditiation?
From the beginning, Newberg was conscious of the tension between science and religion, and concerns that he is either a religious man out to prove the existence of God, or a cynic trying to disprove the existence of God. In the end, he doesn’t draw any conclusions about the existence of God – his research only concerned the biology of spiritual transcendence.
Newberg and d’Aquila enlisted the help of a group of Tibetan Buddhists, all experienced at meditation, who were willing to undergo brain imaging. One at a time, the volunteers came to the laboratory and began meditating as usual. This time, however, each had an intravenous tube attached to carry a radioactive dye into the bloodstream. When the meditator felt the sense of oneness developing, a tug on a piece of string would alert the researchers in an adjoining room of this.
The dye was then injected. It reached the brain soon after, leaving a residue where the blood flowed – in greater amounts where the flow was stronger, indicating more brain activity. A SPECT scanner was later used to measure the distribution of the dye, providing a snapshot of the brain in transcendence. These images were compared with images produced while the subject was simply at rest.
As expected, the comparisons showed that the centre of attention (the prefrontal cortex) showed increased activity – the subjects had all been deeply focused. What the scientists found more exciting, was that the area associated with processing information about time and space and the body’s orientation in space (the parietal lobe) showed much less activity than usual.
With this region cut off from input, it cannot provide its usual sense of boundary between the physical body and everything else. In addition to this, the linear perception of time disappears. This results in a feeling of infinite connectivity and timelessness.
Newberg later conducted a similar experiment with Franciscan nuns at prayer. Because the prayers are based on words, the brain’s language region showed increased activity. Once again, as a sense of unity was reached, their “self” regions also shut down, leading to a feeling of peace, quieting, and nothingness.
Another characteristic of intense spiritual experience being studied is this: Why is a feeling of awe and sense of importance attached to mystical experiences?
Over many years, studies of patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy have shown a propensity for vivid visions of a religious or mystical nature, which leave a profound impact. Some believe that many religious figures such as St Paul, Joan of Arc and St Theresa may have suffered from epilepsy.
It has also been suggested that perhaps the founders of many religions received their initial enlightenment by way of a temporal lobe seizure.
We will never know the truth about these speculations, but evidence of the effect of these seizures led Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger to develop a helmet which sends a very weak magnetic field in a complicated pattern around the temporal lobes.
Eighty percent of volunteers, lying alone in a room wearing this helmet, feel a presence nearby and sensations they describe as spiritual, divine, out-of-body, supernatural. Persinger, an atheist, claims that with his helmet, almost anyone can meet God; that religion is a property of the brain and has little to do with what is out there.
Life Changing Effect
But how does mystical experience affect people’s lives? In a study involving twenty Protestant seminarians in 1962, Walter Pahnke randomly gave half of them the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin, and the other half a vitamin placebo shortly before they attended a Good Friday service. Afterwards, the psilocybin group described classic mystical experiences such as a feeling of oneness with God and ecstatic visions. The other group reported more ordinary reactions.
Immediately after reporting their reactions, each person was told whether they had received the drug or the placebo. The group was surveyed six months later, and then after twenty-five years, sixteen of them were found and questioned again. In both surveys, the psilocybin group reported far more positive changes in their lives that they attributed to that service than the other group.
This study indicates that positive mystical episodes have a lasting, positive effect on those experiencing them.
What Does It Mean?
It seems that the neurobiology of meditation has been uncovered. The physical cause of the sense of oneness with the universe can be explained. We can reproduce visions, the sense of wonder, even out-of-body trips in a laboratory.
Does all this mean that there is no God?
It is not likely that this will ever be either proved or disproved, but the battle lines have been drawn.
Those who don’t believe in God maintain that the scientific findings prove that there is no God; that in fact man created God, not the other way around. All religious and spiritual experiences are nothing but a trick of the mind, a figment of our imagination.
Those who believe in a Supreme Being on the other hand, maintain that the findings do not actually prove anything about God. They make the logical point that to allow us to have an intimate relationship with our creator; it would make sense for God to include in the design a means of interaction, and to make it a satisfying experience to use it. It has been said that to say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music. Religion and spirituality is a lot more than the biology of the brain.
Then there are the views of Eleanor Rosch and Christine Skarda (a psychologist and neuroscientist respectively) who put forward the Zen view that people initially perceive the world as a seamless whole, where there is no separation between self and what surrounds it. According to them, the brain then sifts through this seamless input and manipulates the “image” we perceive the world as a group of separate objects. They go on to suggest that if this is the case, then the moments of oneness (or “no-I”) seen as enlightenment, are merely a return to the reality we initially perceived before the brain performed its tricks.
Whatever your views, this research plainly does no more than give us an insight into what happens biologically during transcendent experiences. The conclusions drawn, if any, will be influenced by existing beliefs, and these beliefs together with mystical experiences can have positive, life changing effects.
As with all scientific research, it seems sensible to accept what is proven even if it knocks one’s preconceptions for a loop. We should not fall into the trap of denying evidence – as the Catholic Church did when it excommunicated Galileo, but we should be cautious about blindly accepting the conclusions that are drawn from these facts. As evidenced by the interpretations of the three groups mentioned above (none of whom contradict the actual findings), conclusions are often more opinion than fact.