Back in November I posted a blog called Buddhism and Your Brain, in which I explored a possible scientific explanation for the feeling of timelessness experienced in Buddhist meditation. A comment thread commenced about whether certain kinds of brain activity might cause mystical experiences, or whether they’re just correlations—secondary physical results of truly spiritual breakthroughs.
This radical question followed: If spirituality is just biochemical, could Nirvana be achieved by swallowing a pill? Could enlightenment come over-the-counter?!
Liberation by prescription! Pharmacists as the new clergy!
I didn’t know it in November, but brain/religion questions are being actively researched by scientists around the world, theorists in a new subspecialty of brain science called neurotheology. This emerging field is also capturing the attention of religious scholars, to mixed reactions. Many find it overly reductionistic—a new way for science to try to discredit religion, diminishing divine revelation to just the strange misfirings of neurons and synapses. Others find it affirming, considering the blotches of bright red and orange in SPECT scans taken at the climax of ecstatic prayer to be the physical, viewable footprint of God—religious iconography for the 21st century!
Last week I delved deeper into neurotheology, reading a wonderful book called Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. In the text, the authors explain that there is a place in the brain called the ‘orientation association area’ that’s located in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex—the part of our brains where all our most advanced cognitive functioning happens. There are technically two orientation association areas, actually: one in each brain hemisphere. The left area is responsible for creating our felt sense of having a discrete physical body, limited in space. The right area generates our sense of surrounding space in which our body moves and lives.
Turns out, when running brain scans of Buddhist monks at the peak of their meditations, scientists have observed that the orientation association areas of their brains go dark—they become deprived of stimuli. Essentially, a monk’s intention to dull his or her senses to achieve meditative quiet results in a lack of electro-chemical flow to these areas in the brain that give us a sense of having a physical body separate from the space around us. Thus ‘disoriented’, a monk becomes literally unable to tell where he or she stops and the rest of the universe begins.
Throughout history, mystics who’ve achieved transcendent states have commonly reported a feeling of merging with an infinity of space and time in which nothing individual exists—including themselves. The feeling is always described as profound, and deeply pleasurable.
And so the questions are asked and re-asked: Have mystics been reaching God, or inventing God—interpreting unusual brain activity as divinity? And shocking as the contention sounds, does it even matter? Is there any deeper Truth than what we feel anyway? Or, what if this is just how the divine chooses to reveal itself?
This neurotheology dialogue is just beginning, and I find it captivating. It elevates poetic interconnections between spirituality and science to a whole new level. Accordingly, I’d be thrilled to moderate any small part of the debate, via this blog.