Why are some people able to ‘connect’ with the mystical? Is mysticism a special gift, or is it just the way our brains are wired?
Meditation is widely recognised as a valuable therapeutic exercise – the focus and relaxation of meditation is undoubtedly of benefit to those who practice it and for many, a way of achieving peace with the world and one’s inner self. But is meditation also a way of connecting with a higher power, or is the mystical experience merely the brain’s ability to freewheel into the realms of fantasy for short periods of time?
Mystical experiences are usually spiritual (and vice-versa) and sometimes so much so that they can be life changing. For most people, inhibitory mechanisms in the brain prevent the mind freewheeling, but according to scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, our ability to enter into mystical experience is governed by one of two theories.
The first assumes that a single area of the brain, sometimes called the God-spot, is responsible, when activated, for fantasy and religious belief [is there a difference?]
The second theory argues that it is the suppression of inhibitory functions that opens up the brain to mystical experiences.
Using CT scans and questionnaires, researchers were able to predict how likely a person was to have a mystical experience. To test the theories, they examined activity in the brains of more than 100 patients who were veterans of the Vietnam War, and who had undergone a series of cognitive tests both before the war and after they had returned. All these patients had sustained damage to regulatory regions of the brain, located in the frontal and temporal lobes.
These veterans were found to be more likely to report mystical experiences compared to those who had sustained no damage. In other words, those who had sustained damage to their regulatory regions seemed to be more prone to the mystical.
So the reasons for these mystical experiences are in reality extremely complex because they also involve lots of other areas of the brain rather than just the activation of a specific area – it is also the suppression of the brain’s regulatory functions that boost the chances of individuals of experience of the mystical.
Participants in the tests were asked to answer how true or false a number of set statements were. These included their experiences of feelings such as unity, profound joy, and even being able to transcend time and space. The scores were then tallied up to give a quantifiable measure of how mystic the respondents perceived themselves to be. As with all serious research projects, a scale was devised (the Hood Mysticism Scale, or M-Scale) was used to quantify the abstract individual perceptions of mysticism.
People who have taken psycho-active drugs such as LSD or magic mushrooms nearly always report some kind of altered perception of life, the Universe and everything. This is no surprise as these drugs do suppress the brains’ regulatory function. Users also report the experience as mystical (or at least bordering on it) often describing the drug experience of ‘having a veil lifted from their eyes’ and profound changes in perception of colour, time and distance.
Looking at the CT scans that showed damage to the regulatory regions of the brains of the veterans, the researchers were able to predict how likely they were to have a mystical experience.
The frontal lobes, involved in planning and organisation, are the most evolved areas of the brain – they help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world. The research suggests that if the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, a ‘door of perception’ can open, increasing the chances of a mystical experience.
If these areas were linked to inhibitory cognitive functions, or able to suppress these functions, which help us regulate and resolve our perceptual experiences, opening up a ‘door of perception’, it would explain a lot about individuals’ perceived mystical experiences.
But this is by no means the full story – other brain states associated with stress or distress, extreme circumstances, prior strongly held beliefs, heightened emotion, not to mention exposure to mind altering substances – could all lead to a higher probability of having a mystical experience since all of these states may affect the key frontal lobe regions involved in moderating peak experiences.
Searching for a neurological centre of mysticism or ‘God spot’ is nothing new. Some previous searches have been specifically commissioned [in the main by religious fruit loops] to prove the existence of God.
In 2009, a study of multi-faith groups showed the same areas lit up when they were asked to ponder religious and moral problems.
In this study, volunteers were asked to ponder statements about whether God intervenes in the world, such as ‘God’s will guides my acts’. These statements activated the lateral frontal lobe regions of the brain normally involved with empathy for others. The participants were then asked to dwell on God’s emotional state [I could have had a lot of fun with this!]
When it came to statements such as ‘God is wrathful’ the areas that lit up were the medial temporal and frontal gyri, which help us to judge the emotions of others. The MRI scans revealed the regions that were activated were also those used every day to interpret the feelings and intentions of other people.
But is mysticism the same as spirituality? Other research has shown that spirituality is more complex, and that multiple areas of the brain are responsible for many aspects of spiritual as well as mystical experiences. For instance, researchers at Missouri University replicated the initial findings, but also determined that other aspects of spirituality were related to increased activity in the frontal lobe. This study found that the participants with more significant injury to their right parietal lobe showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.
The search for the answer to the Great Question of life, the Universe and everything continues…
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.