Note: People who’ve had what they considered a religious experience may find this information disquieting. From a personal perspective, I found it not only liberating but empowering. The Dalia Lama, who’s been working with neuroscientists at MIT, has given a thumbs up regarding the research I’m going to present here. He states that what has been discovered about the brain’s role in mystic, and religious experiences is illuminating.
I hope readers will find this illuminating as well. I recommend reading the full paper (with graphs) linked at the end.
“The medieval discussions of consciousness were always goal-oriented; in the West, it (is) was to prevent ‘sinful’ thoughts and feelings and to unite as closely to God as possible. In the East, their purpose is to help conquer anger, greed, sadness, ‘ignorance’ and to ‘seek enlightenment’. Of course, I’m speaking of the mystic traditions, not the popular religions.
Because the contexts for these ideas were always sacred, questioning them can seem a bit profane; even crude. But, now that the understanding of consciousness is coming out of the dark ages, we need to have a fresh look at the phenomena and experiences they address. In the same way, the new view of spirituality will replace the old one in the minds of many. But the spiritual practices and techniques will only become more effective.” ~Todd Murphy, Neuroscientist
My ‘Spiritual’ Experience
I had an unexpected, unimaginable, life-changing experience in 2005. It penetrated my minds eye with laser-like precision as though a seasoned surgeon was removing life-long cataracts. From then on I saw the world through different eyes; a clarity I’d never been privy to before then. What followed would counter most everything I’d been taught, via religion and my culture, about the nature of reality It catapulted me into diligent research regarding the brain, human behavior, and spiritual type phenomena. I found answers to life-long questions that no religion, holy book, cleric, rabbi, or guru came close to answering with any satisfaction.
Since then I’ve engaged in discourse with people who had a spiritual type experience and it played a major role in their conversion to their particular religion/god of choice, and/or cementing their faith. Usually with the religion/god(s) of their culture. I’m grateful that I didn’t allow my own background in Christianity to influence my research, but I feel confidant that had I been a devout Christian at the time of this transformation, I would have attributed it to the Christian god — being “born again” with physical manifestations, not just claiming it by faith and submission to Jesus.
The last nine plus years of research helped me see human behavior in a whole new light, but it has also helped me understand and find forgiveness for the wrongs I’ve suffered at the hands of what Christians and others call ‘sinners’. This new knowledge played a major role in keeping me from drowning in despair primarily caused by Christians’ fear, distrust of and/or disdain for unbelievers. Not to mention — conservative Christian legislators attempting to, and/or passing laws based on their interpretation of the bible, thus profoundly affecting my life and others, today.
Before I move forward with this post, I want to stress that this subject is very complex, and I won’t be able to address everything regarding the nature of belief and spiritual/religious/mystical type phenomena in one post. I also want to stress that I’m not claiming to have all the answers, or that science and neuroscientists do as well. But there are so many variables in our environment that affect gene expression and our unique brain signatures which renders us susceptible to experiences we have historically attributed to God, gods, demons, spirits, ghosts, enlightenment, etc. I should also mention that when Dr. Murphy said that understanding the brain can help us understand “Life after Death” he was referring to near-death experiences.
Before the onset of this experience, I spent at least two decades studying my religion — Christianity, in particular, the bible. I believed I had a personal relationship with God. I prayed for guidance and I also prayed for revelation. I gained revelation alright, but it was not what I expected. I took a month off, spending nearly every waking hour reading.
Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and I became well acquainted. As odd as it may sound, I was so used to studying bibles with several translations, lexicons, concordances, etc., that I continued to read books not seek information on the Internet. Not yet, anyway. I also wasn’t aware at that time that there were support groups on the Internet — people who had similar questions and/or were going through a deconversion.
By this time, I had left Christianity after nearly four committed decades, and over two decades of biblical study, leaving me no closer to the answers I had been seeking throughout my life. I was still a believer in a creator, at the time, but not the god of my religion or any other religion.
“When we look for interhemispheric intrusions in other people’s tales of spiritual transformation, we’re looking for epiphanies of any sort that follow VERY negative episodes.
In many cases, we find them. The Buddha was tortured by the demons of Mara the night before his enlightenment. Jesus emerged from the desert after a meeting with Satan. Ramakrishna’s moment happened following an episode of extreme dysphoria that left him convinced he was about to die.
For the limbic system, there are extensive connections available for shunting the activity to the opposite side if the brain. The most important of these is the anterior commissure, which connects the amygdalas on each side of the brain.
When the phenomena of the dysphoria are cognitive, then the dropout seems most likely to be cognitive, as the specific signals embedded in the blast of activity may well be ‘coded’, so to speak, to cognitive functions. If the dark night of the soul is made of emotions, then the enlightenment that follows should find itself with an emotional quality.
This seems to predict something we see in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Some teachers (like H.H., the Dalai Lama and the Teacher Ammachi ) emphasize compassion and a state called “loving kindness”. An emotional orientation. Others, (like the Zen masters and the Vedanta teachers) emphasize awareness of the present moment. A ‘cognitive’ orientation.”
It would take hundreds of hours of research (after my experience) before I found this research and understood it. About three and a half weeks into my self-imposed seclusion, I was in the middle of reading when I had an “epiphany”. Endorphins felt like they had infused every molecule of my being. Then my mind went completely silent. I had never experience a silent mind in my entire life. Neither had I ever practiced meditation, much less mindfulness meditation.
“Now, when the non-verbal hippocampus is activated, it is far more likely to activate the amygdala on the opposite side of the brain. … As the left amygdala bursts into activity, the pressure is taken off of the one on the right, and the right hippocampus no longer needs to vent its activity. It remains busy. That enhances non-verbal cognitive processes at the expense of verbal cognitive ones.”
I had always been plagued with mind chatter since I was a small child, and it affected my ability to fall asleep. I got up from my chair and walked over to a credenza that had an ornately carved wooden framed mirror above it. I’m not sure why I did that. I stood there for an unknown amount of time, then
It was the oddest feeling (having a silent mind), and I’m at a loss for words when it comes to describing it; even metaphors and similes would do little justice. Following this euphoric episode, massive amounts of information from my environment came streaming into my brain; my senses were heightened as though I had very low latent inhibition. I had a keen awareness yet thoughts did not define it.
Some days later I thought to myself how ironic it was that when I let go of religion — I found answers to my questions, and unimaginable peace.
“When this recondite process involves the amygdala, with its affective functions, the experient would first find themselves in a state of intense fear, anxiety, or hopelessness. When their experience (and with it, right amygdaloid metabolic levels) builds past a certain point, they can experience a dramatic, sudden cessation of their dysphoria, and a state of euphoria, even the point of an epiphany, as right amygdaloid activity suddenly spills into the left.
During the preceding dysphoria, the excess activity in the right amygdala will very probably have recruited pathways/microstructures in the adjacent hippocampus. When the balance of activity shifts to the left for the amygdala, but the hippocampus on the right remains more active than the one on the left, the person will experience extreme positive affect, and shift into a positive cognitive style in a sudden, dramatic episode that they might label as a ‘miraculous’ ‘healing’ or an ‘awakening’, or even, if it contains the elements of a ‘sensed presence’ experience, ‘meetings’ with ‘angels’.”
The idea behind the “interhemispheric intrusion” is that when the activity in one brain structure becomes so elevated that it goes past a certain threshold, it needs to escape or vent into another. It gets it name from the notion that right-hemispheric phenomena temporarily crowds out phenomena from the left. The right-sided phenomena intrudes on it, so to speak. An interhemispheric intrusion can precipitate an event called ‘synaptic dropout’. This is when synapses (connections between nerve cells) actually drop out of service after excess input. “Burn out” might be a better term, except that the event, and the following dropout do not happen at random.”
Murphy states that interhemispheric intrusion can occur with a combination of factors including intense focus and fasting. After grave disappointments, I had been intensely focused on finding answers and I’d also been fasting off and on during that month-long sabbatical. Not so much deliberate, but I would lose track of time and forget to eat. Previously, I’d experienced a couple of traumas (the suicide of my husband and cyber fraud/identity theft which caused me to lose my business and left me sorely betrayed and penniless). To add insult to injury, I had also discovered that the bible had serious credibility issues and no pastor or elder was willing to answer my questions except with pat answers. When I left Christianity, I lost my social network as I was pretty much shunned by my fellow Christians. I was intensely disappointed in human behavior, and the fact that I’d been so trusting and deceived. This put my right amygdala (negative emotions) on high alert.
My right amygdala become so elevated that it went past a certain threshold, and vented into the left amygdala (positive emotion). I experienced ‘synaptic dropout’ or burnout. After excess input, connections between nerve cells (synapses) drop out of service. In my case, my right amygdala (negative emotions) dropped out of service and my left amygdala (positive emotions) became predominately active.
This is why I lost all fear for a while, several months, in fact. I was in la la land. I had an ‘unnatural’ trust. I was in awe. I wept in wonderment, often. I saw things in acute detail. Gratitude flooded my being. Everything was beautiful. The sky seemed bluer, the grass, greener.
Murphy: (I’m repeating the 3rd paragraph again for emphasis)
“The human sense of self is maintained in the limbic system, and the limbic system exists on both sides of the brain. Each structure on one side that feels good to us (when it’s busy) is complimented by another on the opposite side that feels bad.
So, for most people, an emotional structure called the amygdala feels good on the left, and bad on the right. And, for most people, a cognitive, thinking structure called the hippocampus feels better on the right and worse on the left.
When the left amygdala bursts into activity, the pressure is taken off of the one on the right, and the right hippocampus no longer needs to vent its activity. It remains busy. That enhances non-verbal cognitive processes at the expense of verbal cognitive ones.
The mind is ‘silent’. “Suffering” is ‘ended’ as the left amygdala’s positive emotions now predominate. Bliss, ecstasy, unconditional love, etc.”
I became aware that I was obsessively multitasking and started hearing my own internal dialogs which were negative in nature. From all those years of religious and cultural indoctrination, I had been reinforcing misinformation and distorted perceptions about ‘human nature’, unconsciously, i.e., Original Sin, etc. Soon I found ways (brainwave training) to curtail those thoughts. I also had to rewire my brain so that I would come back to Earth — find balance within the limbic structures. For a demonstration (under the microscope) showing neurogenesis, neural pathways/networks being created and synaptic pruning, breaking a habit or thought pattern, Watch.
“We mentioned before how gradual enlightenment might be seen as a slow suppression of negative thoughts and emotions that can change the sense of self through rather ordinary neural mechanisms. Sudden enlightenment is quite another story. There, only one neural mechanism is really implicated: the interhemispheric intrusion.
Very few models of brain activity can encompass really sudden shifts in states of consciousness. While a seizure (abnormal electrical activity) might be invoked to explain the suddenness of the event, the moment of enlightenment is not a recurring event the way seizures are. In the classical descriptions, enlightenment forever alters the sense of self. In a good way. And only once.
But before I understood what happened, I got all ‘spiritual’ and was reading spiritual type books from people like Eckhart Tolle –“The Power of Now”, and Neale Donald Walsch –“Conversations With God”, etc. These were great reads at the time, and to be honest — a reprieve from all the years of negative feedback during my Christian years — sinners; judgement; hell; demons; Satan; God’s wrath; the unforgivable sin; the great commission; bible study; avoiding “the appearance of evil”; being told that non-believers were untrustworthy and depraved — fearing them too; women should submit to their husbands because “the woman was deceived and became a sinner“, which was why Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross; and on and on.
Major mindfuck stuff.
But a funny thing happened on my way to understanding these experiences. I learned that Eckhart Tolle and Neale Donald Walsch had very similar experiences. In fact, based on what I read from their own personal testimonies, what I experienced was nearly identical to what Eckhart Tolle experienced, and the aftereffects. Both Walsch and Tolle had negative episodes and very negative mindsets before they became ‘enlightened’. I use that term loosely. Both had experienced trauma. Walsch suffered a series of crushing blows — a fire that destroyed all of his belongings, the break-up of his marriage, and a car accident that left him with a broken neck and an empty bank account.
Tolle had a very close relationship with his professor who committed suicide, so he was extremely distraught and confused. He suffered with what he said was “unbearable depression”. Tolle said waking up one morning “everything was miraculous, deeply peaceful. Even the traffic.” He stopped studying for his doctorate, and for a period of about two years after this he spent much of his time sitting, “in a state of deep bliss,” on park benches in Russel Square (London).
Although I didn’t sit on a park bench for two years, my blissful episode lasted at least that long, then gradually tapered off (self-imposed through rewiring). The only difference between me and those guys was that they took their experience to the bank, wrote books; gave lectures; seminars; TV interviews with Oprah, etc., and are living quite comfortable now ($$$).
I took my experience and invested it in countless hours of research. It was my earnest desire to understand what happened from a neurological/biological perspective. My diligent pursuit did not disappoint and came with unexpected bonuses.
I can have a good laugh at myself now, and at those who promote woo woo to the “unenlightened”.
But damn — think about all the money I could have raked in.
Do I consider myself enlightened? No. Is there really such a thing as enlightenment? Who’s to say?
Source: Forgetting About Enlightenment: Enlightenment as a neural process.