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 those brain states are just correlated with them—secondary physical results of true 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. Their new subspecialty of brain science is called neurotheology. This emerging field is also capturing the attention of religious scholars, to mixed reactions. Many find it too reductionistic, a new way for science to try to discredit religion, demoting revelation to just 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 visible footprint of God, religious iconography for the 21st century.
Last week I delved deeper into neurotheology, reading a great book called Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. In it, the authors explain that there’s 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 cognition 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 physical body, distinct from surrounding space. The right area generates our sense of that 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. A monk’s intention to dull his or her senses to achieve meditative quiet results in a lack of electrochemical 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 unable to feel where he or she stops and the rest of the universe begins. Nirvana.
Throughout history, mystics of all faiths 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 by interpreting unusual brain activity as divinity? And shocking as the question sounds, does it even matter? Is there any deeper truth than what we feel anyway? Or, looked at upside down, what if this is just how the divine chooses to reveal itself?
This neurotheology dialogue is just beginning and I find it captivating. Don’t you?