Neurotheology, Hypnosis Neural Basis of Mystical Experiences
by Neil Rosenberg, M.D. Neurologist
During uncertain times people tend to seek solace in their religion or spiritual beliefs to try to make understandable that which is otherwise inexplicable. While almost all times since the beginnings of recorded history have some element of uncertainty and fear of what the future might bring, some times have brought more unrest than others. Now is one of those times.
The horrific events of 9/11 brought to everyone in the world the uncertainty of the times we now live in. Even before that date, we had questions about the growing violence and unrest, especially among our youth, the violence and moral content of the media, wars, genocide and human kind’s general inhumanity throughout the world.
After 9/11 churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship noted an increase in attendance. That increase in attendance is now just a memory and with the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, it may be awhile before many people rediscover their faith. Hopefully, it will not take another tragedy of the magnitude of 9/11 to accomplish that.
We all want answers and many of us want them directly rather than explanations from others. We pray, ask for assistance, seek wisdom from above, but often do not seem to receive answers. We rely upon words from those who we feel are wiser or more holy to have the answers that we seek. We ask for signs or to receive words of wisdom or solace from above so that we can better understand our lives upon earth or why we are here.
These common practices have formed the basis for much in the way of development of religious belief. But even more than religious doctrine, “belief” has come through and been sustained by the mystical experiences of others – prophets, shamans, mystics, Saints, and other holy people – who throughout the ages have had the experiences that have formed the cornerstone of religious belief – the affirmation that what God says and does is real.
What makes those individuals different from any one of us? Recent scientific research suggests that they are no different from you or I and that all of us have the capacity to experience the divine reality in a way that will fortify your beliefs and strengthen them in ways that you cannot even imagine.
A new field of neuroscience, called neurotheology, is making inroads into the understanding of such mystical experiences. Some recent studies, utilizing relatively new technology, are beginning to unravel the mysteries of mystical experiences.
In a series of fascinating research studies that utilized sophisticated brain-imaging techniques, it appears that there exists a part of the brain that seems to be involved in the generation of feelings of infinity or mystical transcendence that occurs during times of deep meditation or intense prayer. This state may be similar to the deeper sense of spirituality and mystical experiences that spiritual and holy people have described throughout recorded history.
In one of these studies Tibetan meditators were examined with a brain imaging technique called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT for short). The SPECT camera is able to detect and take pictures of radioactive emissions within the brain.
The meditators underwent baseline SPECT scanning where they were injected with a radioactive material that measures brain metabolism by then taking pictures of the brain for the detection of the radioactive material. Since the radioactive material is carried by the bloodstream to the brain and then locks almost immediately to the brain cells and remain there for hours, it gives a freeze-frame of blood flow patterns in the brain just moments after the injection.
The rest of the experiment required that they meditated until they achieved the state of mystical transcendence. When this state occurred, they tugged on a string attached to their finger, and the experimenter reinjected them with the same radioactive material, and performed another SPECT scan to see if there were any changes in the brain activity from the baseline.
Interestingly, all of the meditators developed the same type of alteration in the brain pattern, where there was a decrease in blood flow to a particular area in the right side of the brain in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe is primarily involved in orientation of the body in space, but even more so for identification of self. Individuals who have suffered a stroke or other type of injury to this part of the brain often cannot identify parts of their bodies as belonging to themselves. This would seem to correlate to the feelings that these meditators would experience during those times of deep meditation where they felt connected to everyone or everything in existence, rather than focusing on self.
A similar experiment was performed with a group of Franciscan nuns at prayer. The SPECT scans revealed similar changes to the Tibetan meditators during the sisters’ most religious moments. The only difference was the description of those moments, which were described more as a closeness to God and similar to those Christian mystics of the past.
So what does this all mean to the average individual? It means that all of us, merely because we have human brains, have the capacity for spiritually transcendent experiences like the mystics, Saints and prophets of times past. It means that we are ourselves mystics! We only have to find the time to achieve that state, through whatever means can work for us, be it prayer, meditation or just being quiet and relaxed.
There are two possible explanations for this human ability. For those who put all their faith in the sciences of evolution and biology, the most appealing explanation is that all mystical or transcendent experiences arise from within the brain. In other words there is a part of the brain that independent of any external force or power generates these experiences and that God does not exist as an outside or external reality.
For those of us who have faith in a Power greater than ourselves; however, the best explanation of these studies is different and more logical. In other words, we have been created with the capacity to experience the divine by being given a part of ourselves – if you will, the “God-Potential” part of our brain – that allows these experiences to be perceived.
These scientific studies – as well as others in recent years mapping the functions of the brain – also suggest the possibility that many of the phenomena observed in hypnosis are related to activation/deactivation of neural structures. No matter one’s professional background or personal beliefs, one must always have at the core of a theory of hypnosis, a neurological foundation. At its core, hypnotic effects are elicited directly from the nervous system, and understanding neuro-anatomical, neurophysiological, and neurochemical correlates of the hypnotic state are essential in eventually understanding how to better utilize hypnosis. While you must be careful in what significance is applied to these data, it is critical in truly understanding the hypnotic state.
Beginning at the dawn of modern clinical neurology in the latter part of the 19th century and progressing through Penfield’s work in the 1950s, neuro-anatomical correlates for the hypnotic state have been noted. More recent work, such as the ones described above, utilizing functional imaging techniques have extended those observations and suggested several possible neuro-anatomical structures that likely play a role in the development of clinical states that are similar to the hypnotic trance state.
Several areas of the brain have been identified as being involved in hypnosis and other similar states (e.g. meditation, prayer, visualization studies, etc). This involvement has been identified through neurophysiological studies such as EEG and evoked potential studies; neuroimaging studies such as positron emission tomography (PET) looking mostly at cerebral glucose utilization and tissue oxygen extraction and single photon emission tomography (SPECT) looking at cerebral blood flow; and neurochemical studies looking primarily at cerebrospinal fluid measurement of neurotransmitters or their metabolites. While there has been a wealth of data generated from these studies, reproducibility has been a problem. More recent studies may lead to data that will solidify a better understanding of hypnotic, mystical and similar states.
Because the hypnotic state is characterized by the identification of multiple ego states, identification of “self” – or what constitutes self – is a critical factor. This would suggest that the right (non-dominant) parietal lobe is critical in being able to induce the hypnotic state, just as it was critical in producing the transcendent states in the Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns. It has been recognized for some time that good hypnosis subjects function more out of or are more able to shift more easily to function from the right hemisphere. This however, is hardly localizing enough to develop a strong theory for neuroanatomical localization for hypnosis.
While other structures in the brain have also been noted to be involved in similar states – including the frontal and temporal lobes and reticular activating system, among others – these are more likely to represent epiphenomena rather than being primarily involved in causation of the experience. The right parietal lobe effects seen in these studies are subtle enough that they are not easy to measure and could have easily been missed in the numerous EEG studies that have been performed in the past.
It also makes sense that an effect that may be so ubiquitous as to be involved in the hypnotic and similar states should also be relatively subtle; otherwise other studies would have found these effects in the past. Unlocking the ability to alter function – whether through activation or perhaps deactivation – of this or other portions of the brain could lead to a more unified theory of hypnosis as well as development of an improved understanding of mystical phenomena.
Neil L. Rosenberg, M.D. Colorado
Clinical Member APMHA