Browsing through my collection of half-read books, recently I came across The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.
Starting in where I left off quite a few years ago (the book was published in 1999), I can tell that I'm going to be reading this baby straight through this time.
Because the question marks I left in the margins next to statements that questioned whether any mystical experience occurs outside of the physical brain now would have my personal version of exclamation marks next to them (a round dot made with my highlighter).
Back in my religiously devoted days I was resistant to any suggestion that the body is all that we are. After all, my goal was to rise to spiritual regions with my soul – if not now, then after death.
Older and hopefully wiser now about unsupported metaphysical claims, I'm a lot more open to scientific conceptions of spirituality. Which is why The Mystical Mind is more interesting to me the second time around.
This morning I read the first part of Chapter Two about the brain and central nervous system. Fascinating. As a long time daily meditator, for more than thirty-five years, I'd always wondered about the difference between active and passive approaches to meditation.
Some people sit quietly and try to reduce brain activity. Others engage in walking meditation, or dancing – if you're a Sufi.
The authors of this book are both medical doctors, so they're well qualified to explain goings on in the brain, which they consider to be the source of the mind.
The brain is the substantive underlying part of human thought, experience, and emotions. In other words, it is the bodily organ that allows us to think, feel, and receive input from the external world. The mind is generally considered to be the thoughts and feelings themselves. Thus, the mind is the product of the functioning of the brain.
OK, I already knew that. But what Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg then reminded me of was stuff that I hadn't thought about much since high school science classes: how the autonomic nervous system, which helps connect the brain to the rest of the body, is composed of two subsystems – the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.
The sympathetic system causes a sense of arousal (yes, the kind you're thinking of, along with opening airways in the lungs, increasing heart rate, dilation of the pupils, and such). The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, maintains homeostasis and conserves the body's resources and energy.
In short, we've got arousal and quiescent systems in our body and brain. And the point of this book, which I know because I jumped ahead and read the final chapters years ago, is that mystical experiences are the product of different sorts of arousal/quiescent states.
Reductionist? Sure. But like the authors say, point out any human experience that occurs in the absence of a body and brain. If that were to occur, the person would be dead, incapable of pointing.
What's interesting is that if you push either the arousal or quiescent systems far enough, they can cause an "eruption" in the other system.
Such a function may occur when one of these systems is driven to maximal activity despite the protective antagonistic mechanism. When this occurs, one can induce a "reversal" or "spillover" phenomenon.
This spillover effect occurs when continued stimulation of one system to maximal capacity begins to produce activation responses (rather than inhibitory) in the opposite system. This state is relatively rare and requires intense driving of one of the systems, beyond its normal capacity and beyond the inhibitory effects of the other system.
They give examples.
The hyperquiescent state "may be experienced as a state of oceanic tranquility and bliss in which no thoughts or feelings intrude on consciousness and no bodily sensations are felt."
The hyperarousal state is associated "with keen alertness and concentration in the absence of superfluous thoughts and feelings. The person may feel as if they were channeling vast quantities of energy effortlessly through their consciousness." (as when athletes feel they're in the zone or going with the flow)
The hyperquiescent state with eruption of the arousal system "is usually accompanied by the sense of a tremendous release of energy. Thus the meditator may experience an 'active' bliss or energy rush."
The hyperarousal state with eruption of the quiescent system may involve experience of "an orgasmic, rapturous, or ecstatic rush arising from a generalized sense of flow and resulting in trancelike states."
They add about the latter:
This experience may occur as a result of practices such as Sufi dancing and marathon running and even occurs briefly during sexual climax.
Ah, finally. A form of meditation that I'm good at.
Avery nice post indeed. Go through the following and related links to know more about mistics.
Posted by: Rakesh bhasin | October 22, 2007 at 01:54 AM
That is indeed an excellent book! You may also enjoy Zen and the Brain by J Austin, if you enjoy that one? It is a lot more detailed and longer though, with a lot of scientific research etc, so be-warned if you don't like over exerting the old grey matter! :-)
Posted by: Manjit | October 22, 2007 at 02:14 AM
“The authors of this book are both medical doctors, so they're well qualified to explain goings on in the brain, which they consider to be the source of the mind.”
Brian you may want to reflect on those paradigms. Doctors well qualified to explain the goings on in the brain? From my point of view we know very little about the source of consciousness and the brain. Many call consciousness the hard problem.
Also once we “know” the brain to be the source of the conscious mind or that we “know” consciousness is not a function of the brain, the rational intellectual mind shuts down. Paradigm paralysis sets in and we humans will defend our paradigms in spite of the evidence.
Religious, materialists, and atheists’ beliefs are classic examples of this phenomenon.
Posted by: william | October 22, 2007 at 11:01 AM
"But like the authors say, point out any human experience that occurs in the absence of a body and brain. If that were to occur, the person would be dead, incapable of pointing."
Isn't that like trying to find the radio-broadcast - inside the radio?
There is something I find interesting about the doctors interpretation of these brain effects. Surely it is an assumption to view them as a result of meditation; rather than a symptom of something else (un-measurable) occurring?
Or to put it another way - perhaps the doctors could point to a more solid link between the brain and the mind, (as opposed to consciousness and the mind)?
Posted by: Marcus | October 22, 2007 at 12:36 PM
Fascinating topic: I have not read the books, but, correlation between recorded brain activity and human experience is perhaps one way to discover the existence or otherwise of spirituality. Just as it is possible now to map physical traits to genomes, is it possible to map and correlate the signals measured within the brain to all aspects of human experience. If this mapping can be consistently known, then it is justifiable to ask if any experience exists without corresponding brain activity. Otherwise we simply do not know what signal measured in the brain relates to a given experience. To suggest that a spiritual experience is only accorded to that state of there being no signals in the brain, is to say spiritual experience does not exist when dead because the brain is dead!
Lets be a bit more scientific and think these things through before jumping to conclusions.
Posted by: Phreezzz | October 24, 2007 at 12:07 PM