Archive for the ‘neurotheology’ Category

Book Review: Zen-Brain Reflections

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

Zen-Brain Reflections is James H. Austin’s follow-up to his definitive Zen and the Brain. As always, Austin is learned and thorough. The book has great value. It is almost certainly the best survey of research in the field of neurotheology, or perhaps we should use Davidson’s term “contemplative neuroscience.” But ultimately it’s closer to a set of research notes than a book. It presents tantalizing ideas and intriuging possibilities, but few hypotheses or frameworks. We’re left with a lot of information, but little understanding.

According to the description:

Zen-Brain Reflections takes up where the earlier book left off. It addresses such questions as: can neuroimaging studies localize the sites where our notions of self arise? How can the latest brain imaging methods monitor meditators more effectively? How do long years of meditative training plus brief enlightened states produce pivotal transformations in the physiology of the brain? Austin reviews the latest studies on the amygdala, frontotemporal interactions, and paralimbic extensions of the limbic system. He then explores different states of consciousness, both the early superficial absorptions and the later, major “peak experiences.”

Dreaming of God

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

Do people see God in their dreams? If so, this could contribute to our understanding of how humans view the divine.

Let’s assume we understand the relationship between people’s view of the world when awake and when sleeping. If we then look at how people see God in their dreams, we can map that to a view of God during their waking consciousness.

Personally, I don’t experience the divine during my dreams. But I have some insight during my processes of perception while dreaming. I have an overall sense of what’s happening, but with a relatively vague focus. For instance, I may sense the presence of a group of people, but I don’t see their individual faces in detail. But if I decide to zoom in on them—much like a digital camera zoom—I can then see details. Recently I dreamt I saw a garden, but only vaguely the flower beds—until I zoomed in on them and saw individual petals. During my dreams I do not walk, but rather float. That’s rather convenient, since I can drift over walls and descend the sides of buildings. I also note that I am separate from myself in dreams; my character goes ahead of me, but then I follow it.

Let’s collect information on what people see of God during their dreams, and use our knowledge about the nature of dreams to map that back to equivalent non-dreaming divine experiences.

Scientific American Mind on the science of meditation

Thursday, January 19th, 2006

Scientific American Mind (website) has a brief article on the science of meditation in its February/March 2006 issue which may be worth a look. But gee, why can’t the editors find a writer who actually knows the field, and devote more than two pages to the topics?

Consider the following:

Neuroscientists have shown that by altering brain-wave patterns, meditation purges negative thoughts.

Umm, not exactly.

What if a person could add 20 minutes of meditation, twice a day, to his deaily routine of 309 minutes on the treadmill and achieve physical and mental harmony?

Well Gee whiz. Why did it take mankind 10,000 years to figure that out?

What is more, if he (Clifford Saron, a UC Davis researcher who wants to do a one-year “Biosphere”-like study of meditators) can identify a brain region that brings about inner peace…

Yep, if we could just find that region…it must be there somewhere!


This image, entitled Pathways of the Mind, was created at St George’s Hospital Medical School by Tom Barrick, using a magnetic resonance imaging scanner that measures the way in which water moves around the brain. It was one of the prize winners in the Visions of Science photographic awards.

Studying children's belief in the afterlife

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

Do kids naturally believe in an afterlife, or is it something they’re taught? Jesse Bering from the University of Arkansas has developed some clever experiments to find the answers to questions like these, described in a recent issue of American Scientist.

For instance, Bering would tell the kids a fable about a mouse eaten by an alligator, and then ask them what kinds of physical or mental functions they thought the dead mouse retained. He found the answers lay along a spectrum—almost none of the kids thought the mouse would be eating something after death (biological behavior), bur increasing numbers thought it might feel hunger, sense something, feel something, want something, or know something. Interestingly, it also took the kids longer to decide as they progressed down this spectrum.

And the younger the children, the more behaviors and feelings they attributed to the dead mouse. The implication here is key: belief in supernatural things is not simply based on cultural indoctrination but is somehow intrinsic in the kids’ young minds. More acculturation—and/or just growing up—actually reduces the tendency to supernatural belief.

Bering’s overall stance on the origin of religion and belief in the supernatural is that it was originally a natural outgrowth of humans systems for making inferences about intentional agents (compare this to Boyer, who emphasizes that the idea of dead people doing things is “memorable” due to its counterintuitiveness). The belief in the supernatural was then found adaptive and selected for due to its effect in preventing people from engaging in destructive behaviors even when they would not be caught.

Julian Jaynes: Gods and voices

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

Last week, I proposed 25 research topics for neurotheology . The underlying theme was to find phenomena somehow related to religion—for instance, speaking in tongues occurs in explicitly religious contexts, while some schizophrenics display quasi-religious behavior—and then inquire as to the neural bases of those phenomena.

There is a single researcher who has addressed many more of these topics than any other: Julian Jaynes (picture; Wikipedia entry).

Jaynes was a psychology professor most noted for his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, where he laid out his astonshing thesis that consciousness is of recent origin (three millennia ago), and replaced internal voices as the basic means of human self-control. These internal voices were what were referred to as gods, and, he claims, the predecessors of the variety of gods people worship today.

Of course, many people think Jaynes is simply a crackpot; see this Salon article by Mark Wallace for an example. But these critics really need to come up with better attacks. For instance, Wallace says that “Jaynes displays a hallmark trait of the crackpot authority in drawing from widely disparate disciplines to back up a hypothesis that would never even occur to most scientists.” That’s supposed to be bad?

The illustrious Daniel Dennett, for one, is a Jaynes fan, and in his article about Jaynes reprinted in Brainchildren ) he provides a highly succinct summary of Jaynes’ hypothesis: that the human brain has gotten a “software upgrade” in recent millennia, while suggesting that many of the details of Jaynes’ theory—even the supposed centerpiece involving auditory hallucinations—are optional.

It is not at all surprising that Jaynes covers nearly half of the issues in my list of 22 research topics for neurotheology: mental illness, brain pathology, hallucinogens, polytheism, hypnosis, music, genetics, speaking in tongues, and at least one I omitted, poetry. Not surprising because Jaynes, in a way, is the original neurotheologist par excellence. In spite of its title, his book is not really about consicousness; indeed, Jaynes spends the entire first chapter making the point that consciousness, appropriately defined, is basically just a tool we humans use to do some things more effectively, but is hardly at the core of our experience.

Instead of consciousness, what the book is really about is God, or god, or gods, how they functioned before the advent of consciousness as we know it today (as verbalized messages from the right brain to the left), and how their vestiges constitute what we think of as religion today. In other words, “Breakdown” is really the “Bible”, so to speak, of neurotheology.

Love Jaynes or hate him, his theory remains, after 30 years, indisputably the single most comprehensive, wide-ranging, imaginative hypothesis available.

Reading this book, I had the uncanny feeling that perhaps our country is slipping back into bicamerality—by which I don’t mean having two houses of Congress, but rather Jaynes’ pre-conscious state. After all, we now have a President who said he was “told” by “God”—a voice, in other words—to invade Iraq, and a country which responded by electing him to another term.

How meditation enhances brain function

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

What is the mechanism by which meditation enhances brain function ? At the Investigating the Mind conference held in Washington DC in November 2005, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute , Dr. Wolf Singer (picture), Director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, presented an intriguing hypothesis.

Dr. Singer’s research focus is the so-called binding problem: how are processes integrated within the distributed cortical architecture? His theory is that precisely calibrated neural clocks serve to coordinate the massive number of parallel, distributed subprocesses in the brain . Stated differently, various parts of the brain work together—talk to each other—by operating at the same frequency, sort of like neural walkie-talkies.

The frequencies Singer has identified as serving the integrative function are in the beta- and gamma frequency range . That’s interesting because gamma frequencies have also been identified as those enhanced by meditative practice (previous post).

This leads to a radical new hypothesis for how meditation enhances brain function: it improves synchronization, boosting the efficiency with which the parts and processes of the brain can work together.

Can drugs contribute to enlightenment?

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

Clearly drugs cannot contribute to enlightenment. Right? According to James Austin’s new book, “Zen-Brain Reflections,” which I posted on here, zig-zag Zen is a “cultural aberration”, the term “entheogen” “camouflages” “ungodly hallucinations”, LSD causes bad trips, which studies such as Pahnke’s ignored, drugs amplify delusion, LSD is dangerous because it promotes the idea that reality is something to be maninpulated rather than accepted…and may leave you nuts, and on and on. He quotes Blake negatively, saying that his statement that “if the doors of perception were cleaned” involves a “very big if”.

The biology of religion, however, provides a different perspective. It says that meditation or other spiritual practices cause plasticity-based changes in the brain which promote well-being and/or happiness. There should be no difference if those same changes are occasioned by drugs. There are no a priori grounds for asserting that drugs could not produce equivalent changes in the brain, behavior, and state of life.

Leaving aside arguments along the lines of “I meditated for 20 years to get where I am and I’ll be damned if someone can get there overnight by ingesting psilocybin,” we must examine carefully the arguments for or against drugs being a positive element in spiritual development.

One counterargument is that drugs produce a one-time effect which quickly wears off. But kensho is also a one-time effect, which must be built upon, and there is no obvious reason why drug-induced experiences could not be similarly built upon. Indeed, all of our experiences are “one-time.”

Others argue that drug-based enlightenment experiences simply cannot, by definition, measure up to the “real thing.” But why not, if they are functionally or descriptively identical?

Let’s approach this scientifically. Assume that there is an inherent temporal limitation in the ability of the brain to adapt. In other words, certain types of brain changes require a specific, finite amount of time to take effect. This would seem to support a model of only meditation one, two, four, eight, or sixteen hours a day over years or decades being capable of causing those changes. That may well be the case. But people making this argument provide no neuroscientific evidence whatsoever concerning such required durations for neural modifications. It could just as easily be the case that drugs could in fact accelerate such structural changes in the brain. Or, perhaps extended, incremental drug use could yield equivalent neural restructuring: four pills a day instead of four meditation periods.

An argument with which I can agree is that some people may view drugs as a shortcut, and imagine that they can achieve happiness and understanding through their weekly trip, without bothering to take responsibility to work through issues and manage their own spiritual development. But that is certainly not an indictment of a drug-based approach per se, only of how a certain subset of people try to take advantage of it.

At the end of the day, it seems counterintuitive that selective, disciplined use of psychopharmaceuticals could not play a role in a program of spiritual evolution. Dogen’s zazen has been passed on nearly unchanged for close to a millenium; certainly there is room for the blessings of modern science now to make their contribution.

Image of James Fadiman.

Mirror neurons and neurotheology

Wednesday, January 11th, 2006

Mirror neurons (Wikipedia) are magical brain cells that fire both when performing some act and watching someone else perform it.

In this sense, they can be viewed as the key to learning and sharing behavior, tying the acts we perform to those of others and vice versa. Scholars such as M. Arbib have even proposed that they lie at the heart of language.

Now the NYT, in a Jan. 10 article entitled Cells That Read Minds , has given us a competent, if brief, overview of the field. This has been quite widely blogged.

What’s the neurotheology connection? Normally we think of mirror neurons as being activated via everyday motions such as reaching for a cup, or sticking out your tongue—something even one-day-old babies can imitate.

But what about religious behaviors? Such as bowing, prostrating yourself, or placing your hands together in prayer? If such motions stimulate mirror neurons, especially in young children, there may be grounds to argue that these are hard-wired physical behaviors.

Sagan on neurotheology

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

I’m having huge fun reading Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience. These are the Gifford lectures (website) he gave in 1985. Even after more than two decades, this is one of the most cogent, engaging, lucid, approachable, modest, insightful, and encompassing approaches I have seen to the science vs. religion debate.

He summarizes the key neurotheological issues far better than I could ever hope to:

People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them world-wide, and there are some interesting similarities in the religious experiences tha are had worldwoide. They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens…But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods? … Large numbers of people can have experiences that can be profound and movnig and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality.

I note also that religious experiences can be brought on by specific molecules. There are many cultures that consciously imbibe or ingest these molecules in order to bring on a religious experience. It’s a very long list of materials. This suggests that there is some molecular basis for the religious experience and that it need not correspond to some external reality.

Let’s say there’s a molecule that produces a religious experience, whatever the religious experience is. How does that come about? Virtually every time someone takes that molecule, he or she has a religious experience. Does that not suggest that there is a natural molecule that the body produces whose function it is to produce religious experiences, at least on occasion? What could that molecule be like? Let’s give it a name, since nobody’s discovered it yet, and of course it may not exist—let’s call it “theophorin”.

What could the selective advantage of a theophorin be? How would it come about? Why would it be there? Well, what is the nature of the experience? The nature of the experience has, as I say, many different aspects. But one uniform aspect of it is an intense feeling of awe and humility before a power vastly greater than ourselves. And that sounds to me very much like a dominance-hierarchy molecule or part of a suite of molecules whose funcdtion it is to fit us into the dominance hierarchives.

I think there is as much difference between the religious experience and the bureaucratic religions as there is, say, between sex with love and sex without love. And of course humans have added something profound and beautiful in both cases to the molecular reflex. Perhaps this account will sound tasteless or unpalatable to many, and if so I apologize. But if we treat the question of the origin of religion and the religious experience as a scientific question, then we must ask, “What essential aspects of the religious experience are left out by this hypothesis?” and note that it is at least in principle testable by finding the theophorin, and you could then of course see a large number of controlled experiments to test that out in great detail.

Ketamine and God

Monday, January 9th, 2006

How does the drug ketamine bring on visions of God?

Ketamine (Wikipedia) is a veterinary anesthetic. It is also a well-known party drug, known as “Special-K”, related to angel dust. But the drug, developed in the ‘60s, can also send users into other worlds or gave them visions of God, as soldiers in Vietnam discovered when administered the drug as a battlefield anesthetic. Austin quotes one researcher who describes ketamine as yielding a model near-death experience. Some patients report hearing voices , having out-of-body experiences, or losing their sense of self and connection to reality. Large doses can send the users into a so-called K-hole where they perceive, deep inside the mind, ineffable other worlds and dimensions.

An article in the NYT caught my eye when I saw it talked about a study showing that ketamine was a quick-acting antidepressant as well. Scientists had known that it had antidepressant effects in animals (how do you tell a cat is depressed or not?), but had not tried it on humans until now. The study showed immediate (as little as two hours) antidepressive effects, which lasted a week, when the drug was given at sub-anesthetic doses. Apparently the subjects first went off on a little mini-trip, then found themselves undepressed when they got back. This research was done under the auspices of the NIMH; here is the press release

The neurological mechanisms underlying the effect of ketamine are relatively well-known. It is an NMDA receptor antagonist, meaning it blocks the NMDA receptors, found mainly in the hippocampus (which is why it affects memory; many ketamine users cannot remember their trips), and the prefrontal cortex (hence its profound impact on thought). Normally NMDA receptors receive signals of glutamate, the most common neurotransmitter. Irregularities in glutamate function are associated with epilepsy , among other disorders, and may also be responsible in part for depression .

What is missing is any overarching theory of how ketamine could simuiltaneously cause God-like hallucinations and assuage depression, or what the relationship, if any, between the two effects might be. Such a theory would be a key contribution to the biology of religion.