Spirituality and Mind Science

By Dave, the WM

Some Christians who come to this site testify to having experienced a significant mystical/spiritual experience, an experience so powerful that they know that they know that they know that their religion (typically some version of Christianity) is not only true, it is THE TRUTH. Although finding a rational way of explaining this experience to others eludes them, they still maintain that their faith is not based on any mental delusion, or odd quirk of their own mental chemistry, but on something more... something beyond this world... something more real than what most of us typically understand as reality.

I, for one, know exactly what these believers are talking about. I too have had my share of powerful, supposedly irrefutable spiritual experiences. For years no one could have convinced me that what I'd felt was anything less than the divine presence of God Almighty.

Obviously I no longer believe anything of the kind. The more that is learned about the inner workings of our brains, the less mysterious certain aspects of my own brushes with "enlightenment" have become.

The following video was originally broadcast last summer. The accompanying article segments appeared in Forbes magazine and on CNN around the same time.

Volunteers who tried the hallucinogenic ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms during a controlled study funded by the U.S. government had "mystical" experiences, and many of them still felt unusually happy months later.

The aims of the Johns Hopkins researchers were simple: to explore the neurological mechanisms and effects of the compound, as well as its potential as a therapeutic agent.

Although psilocybin -- the hallucinogenic agent in the Psilocybe family of mushrooms -- first gained notoriety more than 40 years ago, it has rarely been studied because of the controversy surrounding its use.

This latest finding, which sprang from a rigorously designed trial, moves the hallucinogen's effect closer to the hazy border separating hard science and religious mysticism.

"More than 60 percent of the volunteers reported effects of their psilocybin session that met the criteria for a 'full mystical experience' as measured by well-established psychological scales," said lead researcher Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

What's more, most of the 36 adult participants -- none of whom had taken psilocybin before -- counted their experience while under the influence of the drug as "among the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives," Griffiths said. Most said they became better, kinder, happier people in the weeks after the psilocybin session -- a fact corroborated by family and friends.


"I just know God is with me. I can feel Him always," a young Haitian woman once told me.

"I've meditated and gone to another place I can't describe. Hours felt like mere minutes. It was an indescribable feeling of peace," recalled a CNN colleague. "I've spoken in languages I've never learned. It was God speaking through me," confided a relative.

The accounts of intense religious and spiritual experiences are topics of fascination for people around the world. It's a mere glimpse into someone's faith and belief system. It's a hint at a person's intense connection with God, an omniscient being or higher plane. Most people would agree the experience of faith is immeasurable.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, neuroscientist and author of "Why We Believe What We Believe," wants to change all that. He's working on ways to track how the human brain processes religion and spirituality. It's all part of new field called neurotheology.

After spending his early medical career studying how the brain works in neurological and psychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, depression and anxiety, Newberg took that brain-scanning technology and turned it toward the spiritual: Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. His team members at the University of Pennsylvania were surprised by what they found.

"When we think of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, we see a tremendous similarity across practices and across traditions."

The frontal lobe, the area right behind our foreheads, helps us focus our attention in prayer and meditation.

The parietal lobe, located near the backs of our skulls, is the seat of our sensory information. Newberg says it's involved in that feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself.

The limbic system, nestled deep in the center, regulates our emotions and is responsible for feelings of awe and joy.

Newberg calls religion the great equalizer and points out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.

Interestingly enough, devout believers and atheists alike point to the brain scans as proof of their own ideas.

Some nuns and other believers champion the brain scans as proof of an innate, physical conduit between human beings and God. According to them, it would only make sense that God would give humans a way to communicate with the Almighty through their brain functions.

Some atheists saw these brain scans as proof that the emotions attached to religion and God are nothing more than manifestations of brain circuitry.

Scott Atran doesn't consider himself an atheist, but he says the brain scans offer little in terms of understanding why humans believe in God. He is an anthropologist and author of "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion."

Instead of viewing religion and spirituality as an innate quality hardwired by God in the human brain, he sees religion as a mere byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation.

"Just like we're not hardwired for boats, but humans in all cultures make boats in pretty much the same way, Atran explains. "Now, that's a result both of the way the brain works and of the needs of the world, and of trying to traverse a liquid medium and so I think religion is very much like that."

Atran points to the palms of his hands as another example of evolutionary coincidence. He says the creases formed there are a mere byproduct of human beings working with our hands -- stretching back to the ages of striking the first fires, hunting the first prey to building early shelter. Although, the patterns in our palms were coincidentally formed by eons of evolution and survival, he points out that cultures around the world try to find meaning in them through different forms of palm reading.

Anthropologists like Atran say, "Religion is a byproduct of many different evolutionary functions that organized our brains for day-to-day activity."
To be sure, religion has the unparalleled power to bring people into groups. Religion has helped humans survive, adapt and evolve in groups over the ages. It's also helped us learn to cope with death, identify danger and finding mating partners.


What do you think?


Telmi said...

"Religion has helped humans survive, adapt and evolve in groups over the ages. It's also helped us learn to cope with death, identify danger and finding mating partners"

I cannot agree with this statement. That's a lot more to be said about religion, about its negative aspects: for example,

1. Religion is harmful because it claims knowledge of an absolute truth about what it is to be human. By definition such a claim is dangerous. It leads to immoral decision-making and excludes new insights into what it is to be human.

2. Religion blocks the development of rationalism as the guiding principle of human development.

3. Religion hinders the development of scientific knowledge.

4. Religion gives a distorted view of reality by claiming false things to be true.

5. "Reality conflict" produces real emotional distress - with damage to individuals and their families. The faithful suffer stress because the evidence of their senses and experience conflicts with their relious beliefs. An extreme example of such a conflict: in theory religions welcome death as the ultimate salvation - in practice few of the faithful seem to be very keen on it.

6. Religion creates and reinforces rifts between different communities. It spreads from generation to generation like a computer virus and perpetuates these rifts over many generations.

7. Vices develop when people are forced to keep different aspects of their humanity in separate compartments. Vices are created when natural behaviour is defined as sin.

8. Religion discourages the development of democratic systems of government, freedom of expression and the evolution of society. Because religious organizations are hierarchical and the guys at the top are always right this encourages an undemocratic mind-set. Perhaps this is why so many religions are so tolerant of war - the ultimate imposition of power over others.

[Caveat: 1 to 8 being a transcript lifted from an email of which I was a recipient]

Anonymous said...

Well, I have to say that I am not sure what it is that you are getting at.

My question is, are mystical experiences wrong just because most people attribute them to a God?

Is your opinion, Dave, that just because the experience resides in our brain, it shouldn't be used at all because of the fact that some individuals call it religion or God?

Personally, I practice meditation because it makes me feel good. I don't atributte the nice feeling to God, but to a deep connection to myself and to the universe. Do you think I am nuts?

If so, then so are the Secular Humanists, who do practice meditation while, at the same time, they don't believe in a God.

I suppose I have a difficult time with the all-or-nothing attitude that many atheists take. Is it that just because the Judeo-Christian God turned out to be a fad, now we have to throw out all deep experiences which involve our feelings and our emmotions. Isn't that sort of like turning ourselves into robots?

But then again, I still like you, Dave, and all the others here. But just because you guys feel a certain way about mystical experiences, I am not going to follow suit.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I left Christianity so I could do whatever I wanted. If I want to have mystical experiences and that bothers other people, so be it. It is called taking back my life, not only only from the religious, but from EVERYBODY.

webmdave said...

Hi Lorena,

I wasn't really coming to any dogmatic conclusions that are absolutely applicable to every person. This is more for discussion. The topic interests me, that's all.

Several times in my life I honestly believed that GOD had met me, personally. These were powerful experiences that held longterm influence on a considerable portion of my life. For many years I considered these episodes as supernatural experiences.

I no longer think of those mountain-top experiences as supernatural, that's all. I think of those times as a chemical/physical reactions brought on by various stimuli that in retrospect are fairly easily identifiable to me. (Detailing my thoughts on this would make an entire discussion in itself, so I'll leave it here for now.)

Anyway, these particular articles posted on this page are not the reason for my current position on my own experiences. Introspection and hard self-analysis and some humbling self-honesty gave me that. However, these articles present some interesting ideas that I thought worth sharing/exploring here.

As I've written at least a few times, I have no expectation that anyone will automatically agree with me about anything. When I post, it is simply a reflection of my own personal viewpoint on a particular topic, or a topic I haven't given much thought but that looks interesting and that might generate discussion. Of course, each person is always welcome to do with the information as he or she individually sees fit.

Anonymous said...

"it is simply a reflection of my own personal viewpoint on a particular topic, or a topic I haven't given much thought but that looks interesting and that might generate discussion."

Fair enough. However, I still ask you, and everybody, the question, is having those experiences wrong jut because they reside in the brain?

The mountain-top experiences you had did not come from god. But they were still good, weren't they?

Personally, I believe that anything I can do on my own and that it doesn't require being indoctrinated by anyone or giving away money is fair game.

My point is that mystical experiences do not have to be god- or religion-related. That's all.

BTW, this article was crashing my Firefox browser last night. I had to use Explorer.

webmdave said...


My point is that mental/emotional/ episodes of ecstacy, feelings, or supposed flashes of insight into reality are probably not evidence of the supernatural. Those kinds of experience are, at best, evidence of something going on in a person's brain, and those experiences are not necessarily good, bad or anything else. They are just part of being human.

Spirula said...

is having those experiences wrong jut because they reside in the brain

I don't think anyone here would ever suggest they are wrong. But they can be misunderstood and misapplied in ways that harm. A good example is the whole issue of teaching evolution in public schools and how the religious fundamentalists are trying to twart it claiming supernatural "truth".

jimearl said...

The thing about these experiences that bother me is that most of the time, "god" or religion will get the credit. I remember as a child having a hard time emotionally when I heard the pastor tell those sad stories that were meant to soften our hearts and get us "saved". I also remember being saved time after time because the emotional part of the service got to me everytime. I still cry when I hear sad stories and I am now an atheist. So for me, those experiences showed me that what matters most is the emotional state of our brains at certain times. Also, I don't need anything related to religion anymore as I can survive just fine without the delusions.

But also allow me to say that I don't care if anyone claims to have mystical experiences. I could well have claimed the very same thing years ago. I just think that it gives religious people false hope and justifies what they are doing. If it weren't for our emotions, religion would be a thing of the past.

Anonymous said...

My take on these mystical experiances are to compare them to the old stories/myths of a parent lifting a car off of their child etc.

They may be real,but have nothing to do with god or angels.They are just abilities of the human mind and body to experience extraordinary and unexplained powers,feelings and visions.
*They can all be explained naturally,just my two cents,....freedy

gimmeadrinkawater said...

I think the word "brain" deflates this whole question so sharply it feels like stepping out of a wonderful dream full of color and mystical hope into a laboratory with a brain sitting in a jar of formaldehyde, dull and unmagical.

I've had the kind of mystical experience Dave has claimed, and never related it to religion or faith. To me it was the ultimate capacity I had to be loving, honest, compassionate, and full of good humor, regardless of the source, out of the blue, and lasting for a good long time. It was truely a mystery, a wonderful event and what I call my own personal nirvana. What I wish is that I could get back to that state, because it was as joyous a place as I have ever been. If only the human race could focus on that kind of humanity, without the complications of religion, dogma, violence.

I don't care if it came from my brain or wherever. To me it proved that we human beings are capable of great compassion, and it's real, and it can happen, and nirvana is no myth. I understand that the research Dr. Newberg is doing is essential, both to bring religion to its fundamental knees, and also because we're impelled to. I just happened to have been there, and it's certainly bigger than "research". I'm trying to stuff a lot of thoughts, or one very big one, into a posting, but I hope I'm having some success in communicating the importance of that profound experience I had many years ago.


Unknown said...

I was born evangelical and my grandparents were ministers. I was full in faith until I was 16.

On a sunny June day, I ate 8 small, fresh, and quite tasty liberty caps. I spent 4 hours unravelling the mysteries of the universe, life, and the supernatural.

I came to the conclusion that not only did not the Abrahamic god exist, but neither did any other.

I am now an engineer, a hobby scientist, and live in Europe. I live a far better, happier, and moral life than anyone in my old family.

I strongly advise for each person of sound mind and body to go to Amsterdam and eat a half of a box of Hawaiians and sit in the Vondel park. It will change your life, and since you are in Amsterdam it will be legal and moral.

Anonymous said...

Can someone help? Every time I open up this page I get a window telling me I need to upgrade something in order to watch the video, but the link provided lists quite a few downloads and I certainly don't want to install all that stuff if I don't need to.

If I remain on the page too long then it locks up my browser and forces an alt-ctrl-del interupt. Anyone know which install I need to do to be up-to date?


Anonymous said...

Ok, IMHO, the first thing I would like to point out is that rationality and logic are also things that happen only in the brain.

And we can add humor, love, ingenuity, memory, consciousness, cognizance and the appreciation of beauty to this list as well.

Our whole experience of reality is nothing more than out mind's reactions to various stimuli, the origins of which we often just take for granted. And, so long as our experiences are simular to everyone else's and don't contradict each other, there isn't a need to question whether or not what we think is real, is real.

But our experience of reality is really just an assumption.

A good, safe, healthy and, for the most part, necessary assumption, but an assumption just the same.

So then, how can one say that supernatural experiences (which just happen in the brain) are any less real or important that any other experiences (which also just happen in the brain)?

Second (still IMHO) I think it is a mistake to put too much emphasis on the possible origins of supernatural experiences instead of on the results.

Take, for example, the fictional story of Scrooge in Dickens' 'A Christimas Carol'. Suppose for a moment that some skeptic were to sit down with old Ebeneezer after the first of the year and explain to him that the reason the ghosts were able to do all that they did in one night and not leave any evidence of their having visited him is that they simply did not exist - that there really was more gravy than grave to them. And that whole business of dying? Hey, we're all going to die sooner or later. And neither being nasty nor nice is really likely to add any years to a person's lifespan much less have any effect at all on them after they die. All in all, his whole 'life changing supernatural experience' was just a combination or some bad food and a guilty conscious, and he would be foolish and gullible to let it influence his lifestyle.

Would this conversation really do Scrooge any good?

Would it do anyone any good?

Now, if he were to decide to found the First Chuch of the Ghosts of Christimas, then maybe someone should have a talk with him. But as long as long as the results are positive why mess with the causes.

Lastly, (and this also is MHO) I don't think that we know enough yet about religion and the supernatural to be able to right them off. I don't think these are islands unto themselves adrift in our psyche. I think they are a derivative of our imagination and of sense of social order. They come from the same part of us that gave us our curiosity, our sense of romance, our wit, our common sense and most importantly, our need to learn and grow.

It is certainly unhealthy to let these experiences rule our lives, but I think we still need them just the same.

Just because god may be dismissed as the stuff of dreams, that should not diminish the importance of dreaming.

webmdave said...

I switched out the video from a Quick Time Movie to a Windows Media File. Those who were having a hard time viewing the video shouldn't have any more problems.


Logic and rationality occur in the mind, true enough. Without human minds, there wouldn't be much logic or rational discussion going on here on earth.

You said our "experience of reality is..." I think I know what you mean, but I might phrase it as "our interpretation of reality is..." I would say that our minds take the information received from our senses and interpret that information based on the tools at our minds' disposal. Since everyone has a unique set of tools for interpreting information -- acquired by genetics, education, upbringing, and a host of other influences -- we all tend to process and interpret information a bit differently from one another.

When it comes to the mystery and awe of life, the universe, and everything else, I still have that feeling about many things. I think it's fascinating that many people seem to have a compulsion to believe in extra-dimensional beings that are somehow magically communing with humans. Or, if you prefer, I'll call them gods, angels, demons, ghosts, etc. And if those beliefs, or even a portion of those beliefs, are openly challenged by someone, that person may become highly emotional, angry, irrational, frustrated... I find that these reactions make for an interesting study.

Don't get me wrong. I was one of those people for a long time, and I recognize that this "need to believe" seems to be a deeply embedded part of most people's psyche.

So, for me, this is a mysterious aspect to human existence. It is every bit as mysterious as the stars and galaxies. It is as fascinating as the odd creatures who live at the bottom of our oceans.

These are all fascinating and mysterious parts of reality, but I still think they are all part of the natural universe -- natural reality.

I tend to agree that imagining gods and goddesses is closely linked with our ability to dream, imagine things that don't exist, write stories, invent, build, and so on.

My personal, non-scientific opinion is that our minds are still evolving.

Anonymous said...

I had a "mystical" experience. It was a dream I had. It filled me with a calm sorta everythingsgonnabeallright kinda feeling. I still think about it from time to time, even though it's been over a decade since I had this dream. I had thought that a mystical experience could only come from god but the closest thing up to that point was the "HOLY ZAPP"! You know, go get whacked on the forehead and fall over. I didn't feel a zap, or the holy ghost, or anything but the guy pushing me over. I didn't even want to go up in front but he was the pastor of our church. Who was I to resist. I remember lying on the floor wondering how much time should pass before it was resonable for me to get up and take my seat. Did I mention I was only ten or eleven years old at the time? And I wasn't pressured or anything. Just the threat of getting my ass yelled at and embarrassing my parents in the church. Then accompanied by my dad kickin' my ass at home for their embarassment. So no pressure or anything.

I was later asked about the experience by a member of the church who wasn't there that day. I thought about telling her the truth and saying it was just for show but my mom was right there. I also felt real guilty for not really getting the zapp. I mean the pastor said god told him to call me up. I was sure that it hurt and it did look kinda scary from my young perspective. So I go up and he gets me all worked up for it and then...nothing. So I fell over with a case of "blue balls for the holy zapp". Was my faith not strong enough? Was it my fault? Ask any fundie and he'll tell you yes it was me who failed god and not the other way around. O.K. I was ten and really beleived. Now I'm Older and stronger now. I still have a spelling problem and can't type well, but Twenty five years after at least I'm starting to get over my guilt. Hey webmaster dave, I bet others have a lot of stories like this floating around. I'd like to hear them.

stronger now

gimmeadrinkawater said...

Hey Stronger now,

On a related note, I went into a false hypnotic state to see how gullible some people were. A student in my college claimed he could hypnotize me (although another time I was truely hypnotized by someone else) and I thought I'd pull the wool big time over his eyes. I faked an alpha state and started repeated the German and Latin I knew from my choir rehearsals. When I "came out of" it he told me what I'd done and I acted amazed. Granted, I wasn't being intimidated by some clergyman, but the degree of deception on behalf of rationality was the same. It would be good to hear from other people how they faked their religion to save their skin.

(oh - actually, I did once, as a little kid, when a teacher came into our classroom and demanded to know who believed in god. I raised my hand, of course, and so did everyone else.)


Anonymous said...

Hey, Dave.

Yeah, that's pretty much what I meant.

And I don't cling too tightly to the 'super' in supernatural either. I just wanted to avoid confusion.

Bill B said...

I've never had the supernatural religious mental rush, but last summer I learned exactly how it felt. I had nearly front row tickets to an outdoor Beach Boys concert. Despite the fact that only the lead singer remains, the assembled group sounded exactly like the 8 track tape of the Beach Boys Endless Summer I listened to 7000 times in my youth. As they came on stage and performed their first number, the harmony was so perfect and it instantly transformed me back to the wonderful carefree days of my childhood.

Soon this uncontrolable uplifting emotional rush came over my entire being. It's like some external force took over my body. I had to do everything I could to hold back the flow of tears, and I felt like I was going to drop to the floor. At that very moment I said to myself. "This must be exactly what those who say they experience the so called holy spirit feel," and it had nothing to do with any holy spirit. It was just a pure raw inner emotional experience.

Now if I were down on my knees praying to God and felt this emotional rush, my life may have been completely different today.

Fretbuzz said...

Ok - this is something I have investigated for some years now.

To start, I'm not even sure what most people mean when they say "mystical experience". What is this, and does the experience differ from being a mystic in general? (hopefully, that was a rhetorical question ..)

For me, a mystical experience has some definite characteristics. For one, there is sense of unity I have experienced, or some sort of unifying principle that is "realized". There is also a sense of incredible peace, bliss, and complete lack of anxiety or tension (when I'm smack in the middle of it). I'm a musician, and like Bill above, I tend to get "it" when I hear music - usually accompanied by some sort of natural scene I'm looking at at the same time. I also had a funny "prolonged" sense of it when I was studying the Platonic dialogues on love, and found that whomever I looked at (in supermarkets, banks, malls), I was filled with a deep sense of connection with them - and a love I hadn't felt before.

Now what does get my unloving, is when I read crap about mystical experience - particularly when it's dismissed as some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain, or just a high from consuming certain substances. From my experiences with chemicals, herbs etc., the mystical experience I had was nothing like being stoned or drunk. I felt alive and not deadened to life (which is what drugs did to me). I'm not dismissing the potential for interesting experiences through drugs, but to me, there is absolutely no precedent for them to give someone a "mystical experience". You can get high and experience states of euphoria, but for me there is no need to induce the mystical sense in any way.

I have a friend who appears to really want such an experience, and can't for the life of himself understand how I "get it". I think there are many blocks that can obstruct an individual from opening up to it - perhaps that's why some people try drugs .. to trick themselves that they are open to it. I don't know.

What I do know, is that Mystical experience is not a sickness. It happened to me in my youth in the church, I gave glory to big papa for it then. Now, I'm just as open as I always was, but am simply happy to be alive. I suppose many people would love to get such a feeling, but upon being P.O'd that they can't (probably because they try to ..), they go on a sort of scientific vendetta against it as a mental imbalance or some other nonsense.

And yes, many of the most profoundly influencing people in the world's history of religion, were mystic in nature (Gautama, Jesus, Lao-Tzu etc.). And contrary to many people's disgust and absolute dismissal of religion, I still feel it has a potentially great place in our world. It could be a center for contemplation, wisdom and balance instead of the bloodbathing war camps that stupid people have turned it into.

So in conclusion - yes I have mystical experience. Yes, I think it has a place in our lives. No, I don't think it is a sickness. No, I don't think you need drugs to get it. Yes I think we should support people who have a way a marrying wisdom to it - because it is exactly these people that have profoundly influenced my life.

My 2 cents - off the soapbox now.

webmdave said...

I made my daily bread as a musician for 21 years. I know exactly what you mean about a music high, and in my experience it can be very similar to a religious high.

The point here is to de-supernaturalize supposed "mystical" experiences. The human capacity for a variety of kinds and types of "moments of clarity," uplifting insight, and euphoric states of mind is not in contention here. What is in contention is that any of these natural human experiences is in any way supernatural.

I would heartily agree that hallucinogenics are not required to have these experiences. What the drug experiments do, in my mind, is lend support to the contention that such experiences can be triggered by chemicals. This may further indicate the naturalness of these experiences. That's all.

Anonymous said...

What's a mystical experience, anyway?

I've never seen spirits, or seen white-light beings, or had any out of body experiences, or spoken in tongues for that matter.

Also, I have never used drugs or drunk more than a swallow of alcohol (not proud of that).

But I have experienced elation at worship services, or when I prayed on my own, or listening to classical music. It was a strange feeling of happiness, a sensation that everything was going to be alright.

So to me, the feeling is so non-religious! I can just play some Mozart and fly out to cloud nine. Sometimes I feel that way when I watch a perfect figure skating performance.

It definitely is, I think, a nervous system response which has been proven to help in physical and emotional matters.

In fact, the very non-religous book, The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, explains the benefits of achieving such a state through meditation. But many say it can also be achieved through walking meditation which in nothing else than walking in nature paying attention to what we see and dismissing any other thoughts. How much more non-religious can the experience get?

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