Most people will agree that spiritual experience happens the brain. Neuroscience now understands a great deal about how the brain works during a variety of spiritual experiences, ranging from near-death to mystical "oneness". So it seems only natural to turn to neuroscience for guidance about how to live with our spiritual brain. Astonishingly, many of our spiritual moments are tightly linked to "fight-or-flight" survival responses. The brain structures underlying our survival impulses evolved long before other structures made the human brain capable of language and reasoning. Spiritual thoughts, feelings, and sensations may not be so much beyond language as before language.
Natural and Unnatural Spirituality
There is strong evidence that the brain pathways used during "natural" spiritual experiences are the same pathways used by spiritual drugs whose effects are indistinguishable from otherwise genuine religious conversions, and transforming lives long after the drug is flushed clear from the body. Clinical neurology shows these same pathways are distorted by diseases of the brain that produce spiritual experience. In the operating room, at the neurologist's command, a flicker of electrical current to the brain gives the strongest impression that consciousness has been lifted from the body and is floating freely in space. There is no reason to neurologically doubt that cats and dogs can also have out-of-body experiences if their brains are similarly stimulated.
Dismissing Cold Hard Spiritual Facts
Do these cold hard clinical facts suck the divine nectar from our spiritual lives? The answer is an empathic NO! Instead we are poised on the threshold of an era holding promise for a new kind of spiritual exploration.
Regardless of what we now know, we must still ask: What can neurologists, like myself, really tell us about the spiritual? After all, we need to be wary of our left hemisphere, the explainer and confabulator in our brains. It has led us astray throughout history, giving us a plethora of gods, including mathematical ones, to explain the natural world around and within us. The left hemisphere gives some people the reasons to explain away and dismiss our spiritual essence. Dismissing spirituality also dismisses the mistakes the left hemisphere has made from ancient to modern ages. After more than 100,000 years of evolution, the brain's basic nature hasn't changed recently. The speaking half of our brain is compelled to seek explanations and is all too willing to look for natural and supernatural answers even when none exist.
Living with a spiritual brain brings many challenges. What if there is a particular brain locale or system, a genesis for divine experiences like the mystical? And when we find it, will we try to nurture, destroy, or control it? Undoubtedly the power of knowing how to stimulate the spiritual brain will bring temptations of the darkest sort. It is one thing to know the brain's machinery for language or how it puts sensation together and quite another thing to be capable of opening the brain to searing experiences of touching ultimate Truth. This knowledge brings with it a Faustian deal with the devil, potentially transforming us from god to God. This opens the box for terrors many times greater than Jonestown.
What if we had a drug that acted on a specific part of the brain and caused us to experience the miraculous? Or imagine another drug which precisely stimulated the mystical, bringing us to a state of "oneness," or even closer to the divine than we can now imagine.
As doctors, how should we use that drug? In what crisis should divinity be administered? These questions are being raised right now within the medical profession.
A New Birth of Wisdom
These possibilities and so much more lies ahead, still out of reach but getting closer. And I believe in possibilities that are inconceivable now. Knowing the brain as the spiritual organ strengthens our quest for meaning and complements a mature spirituality. My deepest hope is that this quest will ultimately bring us a new birth of wisdom and grace.
For first time we can clearly see how spiritual experience of many varieties is inextricably bound to our primal brain. Yet even if we knew what each brain molecule does during these treasured moments, the mystery of spirituality will always live on.
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; firstname.lastname@example.org.