In our most sublime moments, reaching the spiritual is sometimes within our grasp. Many varieties of spiritual experience can be realized, each sharing the quality of touching the divine. And the passions, so crucial to these brief but hallowed occasions, sweep a vast domain: elation, reverence, inspiration, grace, mercy, acceptance, joy, relief, awe, fear, love, forgiveness and power-are just a few. Although these sentiments are vital to what is an extraordinary event, by themselves they are not uniquely spiritual. These feelings most often find expression, perhaps more faintly, when we are removed from the spiritual during our ordinary everyday lives. Previously we found that even the dramatic out-of-body experience does not always possess a spiritual essence.
Yet there exists one variety of spiritual experience that is made supreme by the fact that it is always and exclusively spiritual. The master psychologist, William James, considered these "root and center" to our spirituality, and to which organized religions of nearly every stripe "... owed their power..." One morning the nearly unbearable force of this experience came to my neurological colleague, Reed.
After hiking along the sea at dawn on a strenuous trail, Reed found his heart racing with an adrenaline surge. He decided to take it easier and walk aside the water's edge. As he gazed at the sun rising over the ocean "a sudden expansive feeling of the infinite universe overwhelmed me". At the same time he felt "fused with the vast ocean and sky.." and this feeling immediately became some thing else; "I began to feel a terror..." and as he later said "the sensation would crush me if it didn't stop." Reed's entire experience "lasted for only a flash", but it transported him to the outer boundary of his endurance.
The Terror of Oneness
For Reed there was not a particle of doubt that he touch the divine, simultaneously combining both the knowledge and feeling of an ultimate unity. Fear was a vital trait. Sensing unity and sensing fear are tightly linked by experience and within the brain as well.
"Root and Center"
It is the mystical sense of unity or oneness that James considered the "root and center" of spiritual experience. In his work "Mysticism and Philosophy", W. T. Stace at Princeton elaborated on the mystical nature brought out by James and identified that the core feeling of oneness could be expressed in two forms. The extrovertive mystical experience, like Reed's, looks out-ward to the world through the physical senses and finds unity. On the other hand, the introvertive mystical experience turns inward, shuttering out the senses and transcending into a "pure" consciousness. This is what came upon Frank, a friend of mine from college.
One night Frank lay still in bed with his eyes closed and began drifting off to sleep when: "Without any premonition, I became a point of consciousness completely devoid of any physical form." Although this was only the beginning of his experience, this feeling alone left an indelible mark on Frank, convincing him that he touched the ultimate reality.
Some of the many words used to describe the mystical oneness includes: boundless, ceaseless, bottomless, nothingness, fathomless, infinite, empty, void, barren, abyss, abysmal, and absolute.
Both James and Stace believed these experiences were universal to humans. In other words there are no Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist mystical experiences. Instead there are Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist interpretations of mystical experience. And why can't there be pre-historical interpretations too?
The trail leading us to the mystical essence within our brain begins with ancient rituals, and eventually brings us on a path cleared by the latest neuroscience technology that points to our primal brain.
The Chemistry of Oneness
At the urging of S. Weir Mitchell, America's most eminent neurologist at the time, William James experimented with mescal used by indigenous peoples of the Southwest. James, himself a physician, possessed a curiosity and experimental daring that led him to explore and embrace "a wider world of being than that of our everyday consciousness". Today neuroscience uses hallucinogens like mescal, psilocybin, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) as probes, with the precision of a molecular scalpel, to identify brain regions and processes essential to mystical experience. And just what are these things in the brain? One of the most crucial is the neurochemical serotonin, known to most people for its role in depression. Serotonin is the foundation of a great neurochemical system important not only for depression but for many other brain functions including fear, memory and the regulation of consciousness itself.
Mystical oneness expresses its transforming power through a special quality of serotonin neurochemistry, specifically the serotonin-2a portion. If we chemically block serotonin-2a in the brain we also block the mystical effect of psilocybin. The limbic system is where our emotional brain resides; be they spiritual or be they ordinary emotions. And if parts of the limbic system containing serotonin-2a nerves are surgically removed, so too is the mystical effect of LSD.
Are They Real Spiritual Experiences?
Someone can rightly ask: Are mystical experiences authentic when they are brought on by intentionally manipulating serotonin-2a neurochemistry? Absolutely according to James, who made clear that it is "By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots"-as he said for all spiritual experiences. Using modern psychological tools like Hood's mystical scale, we know that psilocybin causes mystical experiences indistinguishable from spontaneous ones like Reed's. Frank's life altering experience was brought out by psilocybin.
Fear, Oneness and the Primal Brain
Fear, the primal survival emotion and the prime limbic emotion, often accompanies mystical experience. Reed felt terror with his extrovertive mystical experience. Frank felt a similar terror when he became "a point of consciousness", because soon he found himself being pulled into a "center of being" that brought "...a great fear that I would be lost if I reached the heart of this unbearably bright light."
If serotonin-2a is directly engaged, as with psilocybin, then some form of fear typically results. But even though the fear can be terrorizing, the experience is usually overshadowed by the power of sensing mystical oneness.
So it should not be surprising to find that fear and mystical experience are intertwined in the limbic system through the workings of serotonin-2a. For example, the medial prefrontal brain is a limbic area that governs the visceral response to things that frighten us. Serotoin-2a may help this area regulate our brain's survival "fight-or-flight" response.
The Great Mystery
Mystical experience is inextricably bound to our primal brain down to the molecular level. If we were to know what each brain molecule does during these experiences, would the mystery of spirituality live on? We can't escape from this question as it stands before us. So lets next explore the mystery, and see if we can find out what it means to have a spiritual doorway in the brain.
Dr. Nelson is the author of the recently published book "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain". More information can be obtained at thespiritualdoorway.org. If you wish to confidentially share your spiritual experience, Dr. Nelson can be contacted by email; email@example.com.