Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects

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Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects

In a neurocognitive approach to the study of religious and spiritual experiences, it is important to consider two major avenues towards attaining such experiences: (1) group ritual, and (2) individual contemplation or meditation. A phenomenological analysis reveals that the two practices are similar in kind, if not intensity, along two dimensions: (1) intermittent emotional discharges involving the subjective sensations of awe, peace, tranquility, or ecstasy; and (2) varying degrees of unitary experience correlating with the emotional discharges. These unitary experiences consist of a decreased awareness of the boundaries between the self and the external world, sometimes leading to a feeling of oneness with other perceived individuals, thereby generating a sense of community.

The experiences of group ritual and individual meditation overlap to a certain degree, such that each may play a role in the other. In fact, it may be that human ceremonial ritual provides the "average" person access to mystical experience ("average" in distinction to those who regularly practice intense contemplation, such as highly religious monks). This by no means implies that the mystic or contemplative is impervious to the effects of ceremonial ritual. Precisely because of the intense unitary experiences arising from meditation, mystics are likely to be more affected by ceremonial ritual than the average person. Because of the essentially communal aspect of ritual, it tends to have immeasurably greater social significance than individual meditation or contemplation. However, meditation and contemplation, almost always solitary experiences, typically produce unitary states that are more intense and more extended than the relatively brief flashes generated by group ritual.

Human ceremonial ritual is a morally potent technology. Depending on the myths and beliefs in which it is imbedded and which it expresses, therefore, ritual can either promote or undermine both the structural aspects of a society and overall aggressive behavior. In The Ritual Process (1969) Victor Turner uses the term communitas to refer to the powerful unitary social experience that usually arises out of ceremonial ritual. If a myth achieves its incarnation in a ritual that defines the unitary experience as applying only to the tribe, then the result is communitas tribus. It is certainly true that aggression within the tribe can be minimized or eliminated by the unifying experience generated by the ritual. However, this may only serve to emphasize the special cohesiveness of the tribe in relation to other tribes. The result may be an increase in intertribal aggression, even though intra-tribal aggression is diminished. The myth and its embodying ritual may, of course, apply to all members of a religion, a nation state, an ideology, all of humanity, or all of reality. As one increases the scope of what is included in the interpretation of the experience, the amount of overall aggressive behavior decreases. If indeed a ceremonial ritual gave flesh to a myth of the unity of all being, then one would presumably experience a brief sense of communitas omnium. Such a myth-ritual experience approaches meditative states, such as the "cosmic consciousness" described in 1961 by Richard Bucke, or even the "Absolute Unitary Being" described in Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg's Mystical Mind (1999). However, such grand scope is normally unusual for group ritual.

A neurocognitive perspective on spiritual experiences

It appears that there are a variety of spiritual experiences that may seem to be different, but actually have a similar neurocognitive origin, and therefore, lie along a continuum. This continuum might be thought of from a unitary experiential perspective. On one end of the spectrum are experiences such as those attained through participating in a church liturgy or watching a sunset. These experiences carry with them a mild sense of being connected with something greater than the self. On the other end of the spectrum are the types of experiences usually described as mystical or transcendent. This unitary element of spiritual experience should not be thought of as limiting the specific aspects and experiences associated with them. It simply appears to be the case that unitary feelings are a crucial part of spiritual experiences. Most scholars have focused on the more intense experiences because of ease of study and analysisthe most intense experiences provide the most robust responses, which can be qualitatively and perhaps even quantitatively measured. For example, in "Language and Mystical Awareness" (1978), Frederick Streng described the most intense types of spiritual experiences as relating to a variety of phenomena, including occult experience, trance, a vague sense of unaccountable uneasiness, sudden extraordinary visions and words of divine beings, or aesthetic sensitivity. In The Religious Experience of Mankind (1969), Ninian Smart distinguished mysticism from an experience of "dynamic external presence." Smart argued that certain sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism differ markedly from prophetic religions, such as Judaism and Islam, and from religions related to the prophetic-like Christianity, in that the religious experience most characteristic of the former is "mystical," whereas that most characteristic of the latter is "numinous."

Similar to Smart's distinction between mystical and numinous experiences is the distinction Walter T. Stace makes in Mysticism and Philosophy (1960) between what he calls "extrovertive" and "introvertive" mystical experiences. According to Stace, extrovertive mystical experiences are characterized by: (1) a "Unifying Vision" that all things are one; (2) a concrete apprehension of the "One" as an inner subjectivity, or life, in all things; (3) a sense of objectivity or reality; (4) a sense of blessedness and peace; (5) a feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine; (6) paradoxicality; and (7) that which is alleged by mystics to be ineffable. Introvertive mystical experiences are characterized by: (1) "Unitary Consciousness," or the "One," the "Void," or pure consciousness; (2) a sense of nonspatiality or nontemporality; (3) a sense of objectivity or reality; (4) a sense of blessedness and peace; (5) a feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine; (6) paradoxicality; and (7) that which is alleged by mystics to be ineffable. Stace then concludes that characteristics 3 through 7 are identical in the two lists and are therefore universal common characteristics of mystical experiences in all cultures, ages, religions, and civilizations of the world. Characteristics 1 and 2 ground the distinction between extrovertive and introvertive mystical experiences in his typology. There is a clear similarity between Stace's extrovertive mystical experience and Smart's numinous experience, and between Stace's introvertive mystical experiences and Smart's mystical experience.

A neurocognitive analysis of mysticism and other spiritual experiences might clarify some of the issues regarding mystical and spiritual experiences by allowing for a better typology of such experiences based on the underlying brain structures and their related cognitive functions. In terms of the effects of ceremonial ritual, rhythmicity in the environment (visual, auditory, or tactile) drives either the sympathetic nervous system, which is the basis of the fight or flight response and general levels of arousal, or the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the basis for relaxing the body and rejuvenating energy stores. Together, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems comprise the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many body functions, including heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and digestion. During spiritual experiences, there tends to be an intense activation of one of these systems, giving rise to either a profound sense of alertness and awareness (sympathetic) or oceanic blissfulness (parasympathetic). It has also been shown that both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic mechanism might be involved in spiritual experiences since such experiences contain both arousal and quiescent-like cognitive elements.

For the most part, this neurophysiological activity occurs as the result of the rhythmic driving of ceremonial ritual. This rhythmic driving may also begin to affect neural information flows throughout the brain. The brain's posterior superior parietal lobe (PSPL) may be particularly relevant in this regard because the inhibition of sensory information may prevent this area from performing its usual function of helping to establish a sense of self and distinguishing discrete objects in the environment. The result of this inhibition of sensory input could result in a sense of wholeness becoming progressively more dominant over the sense of the multiplicity of baseline reality. The inhibition of sensory input could also result in a progressive loss of the sense of self. Ceremonial ritual may be described as generating these spiritual experiences from the "bottom-up," since it is through rhythmic sounds and behaviors that rituals eventually drive the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and, ultimately, the higher order processing centers in the brain. In addition, the particular system initially activated depends upon the type of ritual. Rituals themselves might therefore be divided into the "slow" and the "fast." Slow rituals involve, for example, peaceful music and soft chanting to generate a sense of quiescence via the parasympathetic system. Fast rituals might include, for example, frenzied dancing to generate a sense of heightened arousal via the sympathetic system.

Individual practices like prayer or meditation may also access a similar neuronal mechanism, but from the "top-down." In such a practice, a person begins by focusing the mind as dictated by the particular practice, thereby affecting higher-level processing areas of the brain and ultimately the autonomic nervous system. For example, a meditation practice in which the person focuses on a visualized object of spiritual significance might begin with activation of the brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is normally active during attention-focusing tasks. The continuous fixation on the image by the areas of the brain responsible for high order visual processing begins to stimulate the limbic system, which is primarily involved in emotional processing and memory. Several scholars have implicated this area as critical for religious experience because of its ability to label experiences as profound or real and also because certain pathological conditions, such as seizures in the limbic areas, have been particularly associated with extreme religious experiences. The limbic system is connected to a structure called the hypothalamus, making it possible to communicate the activity occurring in the brain to the rest of the body. The hypothalamus is a key regulator of the autonomic nervous system, and therefore such activity in the brain ultimately activates the arousal (sympathetic) and quiescent (parasympathetic) arms of the autonomic nervous system. Part of the result of meditation and other spiritually oriented practices is also to block sensory input into the PSPL, resulting in a loss of the sense of self and a loss of awareness of discrete objects. Thus, a comparison of ceremonial ritual and individual practices like meditation suggests that the end result can be the same for both. It is, of course, difficult to attain the same degree of spiritual experience through ritual as through meditation, because the former requires the maintenance of the rhythmic activity necessary for the continued driving of neurocognitive systems. However, ceremonial ritual still can result in powerful unitary experiences.

The cognitive state in which there is a unity of all things, including the self, the world, and objects in the world, is described in the mystical literature of all the world's great religions. When a person is in that state all sense of discrete being is lost and the difference between self and other is obliterated. There is no sense of the passage of time, and all that remains is a timeless undifferentiated consciousness. When such a state is suffused with positive affect there is a tendency to describe the experience, after the fact, as personal. Such experiences may be described as a perfect union with God, as in the unio mystica of the Christian tradition, or else the perfect manifestation of God in the Hindu tradition. When such experiences are accompanied by neutral affect they tend to be described, after the fact, as impersonal. These states are described in concepts such as the "abyss" of Jacob Boeme, the "void" or "nirvana " of Buddhism, or the "absolute" of a number of philosophical and mystical traditions. There is no question that whether the experience is interpreted personally as God or impersonally as the "absolute" it nevertheless possesses a quality of transcendent wholeness without any temporal or spatial division.

Techniques for studying spiritual experiences

Clearly, one of the most important aspects of a study of spiritual experiences is to find careful, rigorous methods for empirically testing hypotheses. One such example of empirical evidence for the neurocognitive basis of the spiritual experiences described above comes from a number of studies that have measured neurophysiological activity during states in which there is activation of the holistic operator. Meditative states comprise perhaps the most fertile testing ground because of the predictable, reproducible, and well-described nature of such experiences. Studies of meditation have evolved over the years to utilize the most advanced technologies for studying neurophysiology.

Originally, studies analyzed the relationship between meditative states and electrical changes in the brain as measured by electroencephalography (EEG). Proficient meditation practitioners have been shown to demonstrate significant changes in the electrical activity in the brain, particularly in the frontal lobes. Furthermore, the EEG patterns of meditative practice indicate that it represents a unique state of consciousness different from normal waking and sleep. Unfortunately, EEG is limited in its ability to distinguish particular regions of the brain that may have increased or decreased activity.

For this reason, more recent studies of meditation have used brain imaging techniques, such as single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Since about 1990, neuroimaging techniques have been used to explore cerebral function during various behavioral, motor, and cognitive tasks. These studies have helped to determine which parts of the brain are responsible for a variety of neurocognitive processes. These imaging techniques have also allowed for the uncovering of complex neural networks and cognitive modules that have become a basis for cognitive neuroscience research. Activation studies using these functional neuroimaging techniques have helped researchers determine the areas in the brain that are involved in the production and understanding of language, visual processing, and pain reception and sensation. In a typical activation study, the subject is asked to perform such tasks as reading and problem solving while being scanned, and the activation state during the task is then compared to some control state (usually resting). Since most spiritual practices and their concomitant experience might be considered from the perspective of an activation paradigm, functional brain imaging techniques may be extremely useful in detecting neurophysiological changes associated with those states. Researchers can also use PET and SPECT to explore a wide variety of neurotransmitter systems within the brain. Neurotransmitter analogues have been developed for almost every neurotransmitter system, including the dopamine, benzodiazepine, opiate, and cholinergic receptor systems.

There are limitations in each technique for the study of meditation. It is important to ensure that the technique is sensitive enough to measure the changes. Also, each of these techniques may interfere with the normal environment in which spiritual practices take place. Early data of meditative practices has generally shown increases in brain activity in the region comprising the PFC, consistent with focusing attention during meditation. Studies have also observed decreases of activity in the area of the PSPL, possibly consistent with inhibition of sensory input into this area. However, more studies, with improved methods will be necessary to elucidate the neurocognitive aspects of meditation and spiritual experiences. That the underlying neurophysiology of extreme meditative states can be considered at all allows for the conceptualization of many other spiritual experiences that lie along the spiritual continuum.

In all, these studies can provide a starting point to develop a more detailed neurocognitive model of religious and spiritual experience. This kind of analysis can also be utilized as the hypothesis for future investigations of such experiences.

See also Consciousness Studies; Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects; Mind-body Theories; Mind-Brain Interaction; Neurosciences


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andrew b. newberg

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