Thursday, March 1, 2012

Neuro-cognitive aspects of mystical experience


A vignette

A senior citizen of Hindu faith, aged 74, who recently has had mystical experiences and visions, was brought to me to rule out any psychological abnormalities. I interviewed the man for about 45 minutes and could not find any psychological abnormalities. He insisted that he experienced the presence of the Hindu God Mahavishnu during meditation, which he continued through the whole night some days. He started meditation a decade ago. He learned it from a guru in an ashram, a Hindu spiritual hermitage. After a few years of doing the meditation regularly he started experiencing the visions of God. At the time of visions he experienced oneness with the cosmos and it gave him intense joy.
The visionary man was at a loss to understand why others in his family were worried about his vigils, extending whole nights, in order to have godly visions and mystical experiences. He compensated the loss of sleep at night by sleeping in day time. I referred the old man to a scan centre to have an MRI scan to exclude any structural anomalies in the brain. The scan showed a normal brain with changes expected for his age. I assured the relatives of the man that his ‘visions’ and ‘mystical experiences’ were quite normal. Any normal person, who meditates, cutting off all the sensory inputs, may have such mystical experiences. A person without any religious faith also may have mystical experiences. Such experiences are called “mystical” because one cannot explain properly what it is.

What is mystical experience?

The term mysticism is derived from the Greek mystikos, meaning 'an initiate'. A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion. The Eleusinian Mysteries, initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, were held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period of Greek history and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The present meaning of the term mysticism evolved through Platonism and Neoplatonism—which referred to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the initiation to “spiritual truths”. It is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to inspire those experiences.

Many of the world's great religions have arisen around the teachings of mystics; and most religious traditions describe fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically.  

Mystical experience of Prophet Muhammad

One night Prophet Muhammad, while meditating in loneliness, in the Hira Cave situated in the vicinity of Mecca city, had visions and mystical experiences on two occasions which are well documented in the Koran, in the following verses:
I swear by the star when it goes down.
Your companion does not err, nor does he go astray;
Nor does he speak out of desire.
It is naught but revelation that is revealed,
The Lord of Mighty Power has taught him,
The Lord of Strength; so he attained completion,
And he is in the highest part of the horizon.
Then he drew near, then he bowed
So he was the measure of two bows or closer still.
And He revealed to His servant what He revealed.
The heart was not untrue in what he saw.
What! Do you then dispute with him as to what he saw?
And certainly he saw him in another descent,
At the farthest lote-tree;
Near which is the garden, the place to be resorted to.
When that which covers covered the lote-tree;
The eye did not turn aside, nor did it exceed the limit.
Certainly he saw of the greatest signs of his Lord.
(Koran: 53.001-018 English Translation by Muhammad Habib Shakir)

Mystical experience induced by drugs

An easy way to induce mystical experiences is consumption of psychedelic drugs. 
Aldous Huxley experimentally took mescaline and wrote about his experiences in the famous book Doors of Perception: 
Aldous Huxley
 The change which actually took place in that world was in no sense revolutionary. Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights. A little later there were sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life. At another time the closing of my eyes revealed a complex of gray structures, within which pale bluish spheres kept emerging into intense solidity and, having emerged, would slide noiselessly upwards, out of sight. But at no time were there faces or forms of men or animals. I saw no landscapes, no enormous spaces, no magical growth and metamorphosis of buildings, nothing remotely like a drama or a parable. The other world to which mescaline admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open. The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant.

Psychology of mystical experience 

William James
William James (1842 – 1910) a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher, who was trained as a physician, wrote two books on mystical experiences, viz. The Varieties of Religious Experience and Understanding Mysticism.  In these books, William James attempts to define mystical states of consciousness as "real" experiences, that is to say a valid topic of investigation and study, and to show them as available to most people. He stipulated four criteria for identification for identification of mystical experiences:
  1. Ineffability – the handiest of the marks by which he classified a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.
  2. Noetic quality – Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into the depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance … and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
  3. Transiency – Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seem to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day.
  4. Passivity – Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes grasped by a superior power.

A neuro-cognitive 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 neuro-cognitive origin. These experiences lie along a continuum. On one end of the spectrum are experiences such as those attained through participating in a church liturgy or watching sunrise and 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 as reported by the senior citizen presented in the vignette in the beginning of this blog-post.

A neuro-cognitive analysis of mysticism and other spiritual experiences might clarify some of the issues regarding mystical and spiritual experiences underlying brain structures and their related cognitive functions. In terms of the effects of ceremonial ritual, rhythmicity in the environment felt by the individual through vision, hearing or touch 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. Together, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems comprise the autonomic nervous system, the most primitive neuronal organization in the evolution of the nervous system of animals. This system regulates many body functions, including heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and digestion without awareness of the  individual. 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.
The upper portion of the hind part of the parietal lobe of brain's called posterior superior parietal lobule plays an important role in generation of the mystical experiences. 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.
Individual practices like prayer or meditation may also access a similar neuronal mechanism. 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 and tumors 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.
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 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.

New technology for studying spiritual experiences

fMRI pictures of brain in meditation
Studies of meditation have evolved over the years to utilize the most advanced technologies for studying neurophysiology. In the beginning, 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. But 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, neuro-imaging techniques have been used to explore cerebral function during various behavioral, motor, and cognitive tasks.

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