What is it that triggers the brain to produce a religious experience? Jerome Burne investigates

Jim lives in California and he’s into an extreme sport. But he’s not testing his limits with gravity or exhaustion. His equipment consists of a darkened room, a blindfold, heavy-duty earplugs and eight magnetic coils, linked to a PC and attached to his head with a Velcro headband.

Jim’s arena is inner space. The envelope he’s pushing is consciousness, using a set of experiences more commonly thought of as religious or spiritual. The coils and computer program, known as a Shakti headset, transmit magnetic pulses that stimulate regions of his brain linked with altered states of consciousness. At various times over the past year, Jim claims to have had out-of-body experiences, felt a state of “oceanic bliss” and sensed presences near by.

Next weekend the inventor of the Shakti headset, Todd Murphy, will be one of the speakers at the Religion, Art and the Brain festival in Winchester, along with Sufi dancers, the music of John Tavener, psychologists, neuroscientists and pharmacologists. The focus of their talks will be: “The evolution, experience and expression of the religious impulse — what triggers the brain to produce it and why?"

For years brain researchers shied away from exotic experiences such as hallucinations, near-death experiences or “intimations of the divine”, on the grounds that there was no way to study them scientifically. But as consciousness has become an academically respectable topic, it has become harder to ignore “altered states”. If memory and imagination can be linked to the activity of groups of neurons, couldn ’t the experience of being “at one with the universe” just be the result of brain cells firing?

Traditionally, one of the ways to stimulate these experiences has been with hallucinatory or psychedelic herbs and drugs — a route that has been declared legally off-limits for individuals and researchers since the 1960s. But that is changing, too. Recently licences have been granted in the USA to study the medical benefits of using such outlawed drugs as Ecstasy and the peyote mushroom to treat psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It may be a sign of the times that just before Christmas the US Supreme Court ruled that members of the New Mexico branch of a Brazilian church, Uniao Do Vegetal, should be allowed to use the hallucinatory herbal concoction ayahuasca in ceremonies. Ayahuasca has long been used by South American shamans and is renowned for the snake visions it induces.

The poet Allen Ginsberg tried it in the 1950s in an attempt to expand his consciousness. “I rushed out and began vomiting,” he wrote, “all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, coloured serpents in an aureole around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe.”

Uncovering how a complex chemical stew triggers something as specific as serpentine visions would be a daunting scientific challenge, let alone identifying precisely which regions of the brain were involved. But for at least 100 years neurologists have been recording the bizarrely detailed altered states produced by very specific activity in the brains of epileptics. Recently, observations on epileptics have provided clues to the neural mechanism underlying out-of-body experiences (OBEs).

“I was in bed and about to fall asleep when I had the distinct impression that I was at ceiling level looking down at my body,” began an article in the British Medical Journal last December. According to the author, Olaf Blanke, a the Swiss neuroscientist, 10 per cent of people experience OBEs but because epileptics, who have them as part of their seizures, keep on having them, it is possible to identify the brain regions involved. He concluded that they are the results of “an interference with the tempro-parietal junction of the brain”. This is the place, on both sides of the head, where two brain regions controlling vision and spatial awareness meet.

The discovery that the uncontrolled firings of neurons in epileptics’ brains can trigger a range of altered states inspired Dr Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at the Laurentian University in Ontario, to see if he could replicate them in his laboratory by stimulating subjects’ temporal lobes with magnetic impulses. He designed and built Room C002B, otherwise known as the “Heaven and Hell” chamber, back in the mid-Eighties , in which over 1,000 subjects have now been induced to experience ghostly presences.

Persinger’s chamber — one of whose visitors was the British arch-atheist Professor Richard Dawkins (he experienced nothing) — is what might be called a “mainframe” version of the portable Shakti equipment that Todd Murphy will be demonstrating at the conference.

What others have experienced in Room C002B depended on their cultural or religious beliefs. Some saw Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Muhammad, or the Sky Spirit. Others, with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell of something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

The radical element of the Shakti headset is that it puts brain stimulation back in the hands of the individual rather than being something done to people in a lab. This may be the way of the future. As an American chronicler in this field, John Horgan, has remarked: “Trying to understand mystical experiences without having one, is like a eunuch trying to understand sex.”

So far Murphy has sold about 100 headsets at about £130 each, including accessories, mainly to men aged 40 to 60 who are interested in “general consciousness exploration”. Most of them are not looking for extreme experiences like Jim. Instead, Murphy says: “They just want to feel better or to deepen regular spiritual practices like meditation.”

Apparently, this particular route to religious experience isn’t so popular with women, who make up only about 15 per cent of his clients.

Now that religious experiences are edging into mainstream neuroscience, theories about what is going on are coming thick and fast. Dr Andrew Newberg, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, for instance, believes that the patterns of activity that show up on the brain scans of people praying or meditating fit well with the sort of experiences they report.

The deeper the meditation, he says, the more active are the areas involved with both attention and powerful emotions. At the same time, an area at the back of the brain that orients you in time and space quietens down. “The result is that the boundaries of the self fall away, creating an intense feeling of being at one with the universe,” he says.

So the big question for the conference becomes: Is the whole human range of spiritual and paranormal experiences no more than unusual patterns of brain activity? Persinger and Murphy seem to disagree on this one.

Persinger was quoted recently in Time magazine as saying that: “God is an artefact of the brain,” while Murphy, interviewed for this article, was keen to emphasise that his aim was to “enhance spirituality, not to replace it”.

Rita Carter, a scientific advisor to the festival and author of a popular book on neuroscience entitled Mapping the Mind, has described an occasion when she became “at one” with the gas fire and then the whole room and finally the entire universe. So was this no more than unstable temporal lobes in the same way that epilepsy is thought to be caused by instability in the brain — or was there more to it than that?

“What researchers are finding is that there seem to be common brain pathways underlying all transcendental experiences,” she says. “It’s the cultural interpretations that vary. But what’s really challenging is that the research evidence is very strong that what we think of normal everyday reality is actually a construction of the brain.

“However, it is quite clear that the brain is also able to construct a version of reality that is quite unlike the survival-orientated ‘normal’, one. Now why on earth should it have evolved to do that and why is our culture so dead set against exploring it?”

Religion, Art and the Brain is at Theatre Royal, Winchester, March 10-13; 01962 840440, www.artandmind.org

Further reading: Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border between Science and Spirituality, by John Horgan (Mariner Books)


source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/features/article418611.ece?token=null&offset=12&page=2



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