One: “The science of peak performance meets the science of spirituality on a dark and stormy night…"
The below video is a great place to start for an overview on Neurotheology. You'll get a breakdown of its history, my take on it and how it all circles back to ultimate human performance. It's brand new too.
Two: Monday of the Mind: Neurotheology Special
In this episode of my weekly FB live show (every Monday at 2PM PT) I cover the neuroscience of mystical experiences, brain imaging, genetics and a little something special about UFOs. It's a fun one.
Three: Some Foundational Reading––"You Are Not You: The Conundrum of Me."
Below we have some foundational reading. To get neurotheology you have to have a grasp on the nature of the Self. Or it's lack thereof. I wrote this piece for PsychologyToday and it'll help you understand the arbitrariness of the bounds of the Self. Have fun:
The brilliant Jungian psychologist James Hillman once wrote: "There is only one core issue for all psychology. Where is the "me." Where does the "me" begin? Where does the "me" stop? Where does the other begin?" Turns out this question is significantly harder to answer than one might assume. For example, a great many of us could argue that the "me" is the stuff inside one's skin, but the microbiologists of the world would disagree. Inside your body, there are 10 times more bacteria than human cells.
Collectively, they take up as much space as your forearm, wrist and hand. The technical term for this legion is the "microbiome" and what we know about it is, honestly, not much at all. One thing we do know is that most of us, if really pushed, would claim that even if we are not entirely our bodies, we are most certainly our thoughts and feelings. But candida albicans, a yeast infection in the stomach, is the counter-argument. Under normal conditions, there is a balance between bacteria and yeast in your gut. Candida occurs when the balance tips, and yeast runs rampant. The condition has a number of nasty attributes, but foremost among them is a feeling of extreme anxiety. This happens because, when the body is anxious it craves the fuel needed to react quickly to negative situations. Sugar breaks down fast, so sugar is what's craved. But the reason the body is really craving sugar is because candida feeds on it.
This means, at least under these circumstances, that your emotions are really just another's hunger. Now does this happen under normal circumstances? No one knows for sure, but I was recently talking to Andrew Hessel, the co-chair of Bioinfomatics and Biotech at Singularity University, who is sure "there's plenty of communication between bacterial cells and our cells, even if we're not able to measure all of it yet."
On a similar note, we also know that eight percent of the DNA in the human genome consists of viruses that have inserted themselves into our genetic code. In fact, in a paper published in "Nature" last January, Cedric Feschotte, a professor of biology at the University of Texas, argues that this foreign DNA may contain the genes for schizophrenia and other mood disorders.So if we are, at both a microbial and a genetic level, not actually wholly ourselves-can we actually answer this question by diving inside?But coming the other way round doesn't really help either. As neuroscientist Jill Taylor Bolte brilliantly describes in "My Stroke of Insight" (or check out her great TED talk on the subject), the parietal lobe is the portion of the brain that controls "me", specifically it demarcates where our body ends and the rest of the world begins.
But, as Taylor points out, this line is completely flexible.For example, people who suffer brain damage to their parietal lobe have trouble sitting down because they don't know where their leg ends and the couch begins. Or, as happened to Taylor, when you have a massive stroke and completely shut down parietal lobe function, you cannot separate self from other. Instead, you feel one with everything (Taylor also argues-and very convincingly-that a sensation of oneness with everything is the experience the right side of the brain has all the time).And this is not just her experience.
In the late 1990s, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg used SPECT scans to peer into the brains of Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhists during moments of "ecstatic meditation." Now ecstatic meditation may sound like a slippery term, but it has a very concrete meaning. For the nuns it's "unio mystico"-a state of being one with all of God's love (or creation depending on how you translate out of Aramaic). For the Buddhists, it's "absolute unitary being," or the state of being one with everything.What the SPECT scans showed was that during moment of ecstatic mediation there is a complete shutdown in parietal lobe function-thus the body's border dissolves and the meditator feels "one with everything."
While these might all seem like extreme cases, it doesn't take a stroke or long years of meditative training to move the boundary of self. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term "group flow" to describe the potent co-joining of consciousness and extremely heightened awareness that results from a bunch of individuals finding themselves in a flow state together. Basketball great Bill Russell, in his 1979 autobiography "Second Wind" described it this way: "During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken...My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me." But even flow states are not required.
When blind people claim they can feel the world through the tip of their cane (or tennis players feel the racket as an extension of their hand or race car drivers claim they can feel the track through the tires) this is actually the parietal lobe extending the boundary (and sensory function) of self.In my forthcoming book, "A Small Furry Prayer," I explore how the mirror neuron system may work in tandem with the parietal lobe in drawing this same border (empathy, technically, is another version of extending the border of self), but this book is actually about the relationship between humans and dogs-so what the hell does this have to do with where the "me" ends?In my experience-plenty.Alongside my wife, I co-run the Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary-which is a fancy way of saying I routinely share my house with a pack of 25 dogs.For reasons that have to do with our healing methodology (we run a special needs dog sanctuary so our dogs need lots of healing), we don't have many rules. The dogs roam free. Which means there are usually a dozen or so with us in the bed at night.
Now, I am a late convert to dog rescue, so sleeping with a pack did not come naturally. For my first two years running this sanctuary, every time a dog bumped into me during the night, I woke up. Since dogs were always bumping into me at night, well, I didn't get too much sleep for a very long time. But something strange happened during my second year: I stopped feeling those dogs. I could go to sleep alone in the bed and wake up draped in dogs without noticing their arrival. This is called habituation-but it's really a parietal lobe function.
And this too happens all the time. Mothers get so used to the feeling of their infant in their arms, they often forget they're holding their child.But what's different about my dog experience is that we have an ever rotating crew of animals. So it's not just one baby I'm habituating too, it's an entire schematic category called "dogs."By my third year running this rescue, I could be wide awake-say buried in a book-and ten dogs could come lay down atop me and it would only be when I tried to move (and discovered I was pinned down) that I would notice their presence.
But things didn't stop there. A few weeks back, I was trying to take an afternoon nap. As I was just about to fall asleep, a fly landed on my leg. It stayed on my leg too-driving me nuts. I really didn't want to move to shoo it away because I knew that if I moved I would pull myself out of sleep, but I knew that if I didn't shoo it away I would never fall asleep. Conundrum. Then I realized something-it wasn't a fly, it was actually my dog Dagmar. She had laid down next to me and what I thought was a fly was actually her tail brushing against me. And the moment I realized this-the sensation vanished. It was like a switch got flipped.
One moment Dagmar's tail was a foreign object annoying me, the next—after realizing it belonged in that schematic category marked "dog"-—it was gone, completely incorporated into my sense of self. What makes this interesting is that it happened when all of my attention was directed at the sensation. This was not an unconscious shift of "me" borders (like was happening when I was sleeping or reading) this was completely conscious, with my full focus trained on the sensation.
So where is the "me?
Well, it's a little hard to say, but if the "me" is supposed to represent a solitary and singular experience then clearly not in our genes or cells or thoughts or feelings or sensations.
In fact, the longer we look at it, the one thing that comes clear is that the "me" is actually the "we."
Four: Wave Rider - A New York Times Magazine Excerpt From West of Jesus
The following was published by New York Times Magazine to mark the launch of my book "West of Jesus". WoJ is my most neurotheology heavy book to date. It tracks a contemporary surfing myth and looks at the neuroscience that connects spirituality and high risk sport. You should get a nice sense of it from whats below. Enjoy:
My earliest childhood belief was a sneaking suspicion that the world was more mysterious than people were letting on. It's hard to say how much of this was suburban boredom and how much heartfelt sentiment, and in the end it didn't matter. By the time I got to college, that little notion had grown into a bad case of Jonathan Livingston Seagull-itis. When two semesters of philosophy failed to satisfy, I dropped out and moved to Santa Fe because the New Age was booming.
Santa Fe was the rabbit hole, all right. There were ashrams, monasteries, strange teas, stranger mushrooms, Sanskrit chants, Native American medicine men with headdresses made from whole otter skins, folks on the run from the law, folks on the run from much worse. I signed on for the whole tour; it lasted for years. By the time I returned, I could sit in full lotus for six hours at a time, but I never, not once, achieved a mystical anything.
During the next decade, I lost interest. I still hoped there was a place where exalted magics were possible but no longer lived in that part of the world. Since I didn't go in for the big-invisible-man-in-the-sky theory, there wasn't much left. Instead I went in the opposite direction, becoming a science geek, a fervent devotee in the high church of observable phenomena. And then, in my mid-30's, I got Lyme disease and whatever faith I had in the miracle of modern medicine — for me, the apogee of rational materialism — was lost, too.
My first year was spent with doctors who were convinced that I was faking my sickness, my second with doctors who were unable to cure it. By then I had lost 25 pounds. Truthfully, I was done. Long ago I decided that given the right set of impossible circumstances, calling it quits was always an option. There was a lot of melodrama that year: sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet, a couple of bottles of bourbon for added insurance, a trusty ballpoint for any sad-sack attempts at epic poetry.
It was around that time that I got a phone call from a friend who wanted me to go surfing. For certain, it was a ridiculous request — even if you ignore the Lyme fatigue that kept me in bed many days. My last wave-riding experience took place almost a decade earlier, in monstrous Indonesian swells, and that time I nearly drowned. But even before that, the sport was never much fun for me. I learned to surf in San Francisco, where the water is freezing and the waves are serious. Just paddling out often felt like a life-threatening experience. I remember days when I never made it to the lineup, never mind catching a ride. The few rides I did catch were often short, often mean, the currents often treacherous. Eventually I stopped trying.
My friend took me to Sunset Beach; unlike its Hawaiian namesake, Southern California's version is a beginner's wave predominately peopled by geriatrics, the unskilled, the terrified. Most surfers learn there and never go back. The waves are soft and slow, and on the day we went, there was no swell in sight. The surf was barely two feet high, but the water was warm and the tide low, and despite my wobbliness I could just about wade to the lineup.
Thirty seconds later, a wave came. Because it was a junk day at a junk break, there were no other takers. I was rusty, but I spun my board around, paddled twice and was on it. Somehow I got to my feet and drove down into the wave. There was a gauzy line of foam forming on the crest as a cradle rock of acceleration sped me into the trough.
Surfing is not found among remedies — common or otherwise — for chronic immune conditions, and since I had rejected just about every mystical system known to man, I didn't think it was time to start believing in some aquatic hippie nonsense about communion with the water. All I know is that when that ride was over I wanted another and another and another. The ocean was offering me a taste, no more, but for the first time in two years, for that one wave-riding instant, I felt the thrum of life, the possibility of possibilities.
Five waves later I wasn't just exhausted, I was disassembled. Those five waves led to 15 days in bed, but on the 16th I drove back for more. I caught five more waves and spent another two weeks recovering. The ratio would stay bad for months, but there was no way around it: I started to feel better, and the world started to feel mysterious again.
Five: The "God Helmet" Can Give You Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences
Six: Extreme States: Out-of-body experiences? Near-death experiences? Researchers are beginning to understand what's really going on.
Brace yourself. This one is mega-meaty. If you've made it this far though it shall not disappoint. Go for it:
The whole "let's go jump out of an airplane" concept had been dreamed up at a Friday night party, but now I was Saturday-morning sober and somehow still going skydiving. To make matters worse, this was in 1984, and while tandem skydiving was invented in 1977, the concept had yet to make its way to the airfield in mid-Ohio where I had wound up. So my first jump wasn't done with an instructor tethered to my back handling any difficulties we might encounter. Instead, I jumped alone 2,000 feet, my only safety net an unwieldy old Army parachute, dubbed a "round."
Thankfully, nobody expected me to pull my own rip cord. A static line, nothing fancier than a short rope, had been fixed between my rip cord and the floor of the airplane. If everything went according to plan, 15 feet from the plane, when I reached the end of my rope, it would tug open the chute. Getting to this point was more complicated.
As the plane flew along at 100 miles per hour, I had to clamber out a side door, ignore the vertiginous view, step onto a small metal rung, hold onto the plane's wing with both hands, and lift one leg behind me, so that my body formed a giant T. From this position, when my instructor gave the order, I was to jump. If all this wasn't bad enough, when I finally leaped out of the plane, I also leaped out of my body.
It happened the second I let go of the wing. My body started falling through space, but my consciousness was hovering about 20 feet away, watching me descend. During training, the instructor had explained that rounds opened, closed, and opened again in the first milliseconds of deployment. He had also mentioned that it happened too fast for the human eye to see and that we shouldn't worry about it. Yet in the instant I began falling, I was worried. I was also watching the chute's open-close-open routine, despite knowing that what I was watching was technically impossible to see.
My body began to tip over, tilting into an awkward position that would produce quite a jerk when the chute caught. In what might best be described as a moment of extracorporeal clarity, I told myself to relax rather than risk whiplash. In the next instant, my chute caught with a jerk. The jerk snapped my consciousness back into my body, and everything returned to normal.
Out-of-body experiences belong to a subset of not-so-garden-variety phenomena broadly called the paranormal, although the dictionary defines that word as "beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation," and out-of-body experiences are neither. This type of experience has been reported in almost every country in the world for centuries. Mystics of nearly every faith, including all five of the world's major religions, have long told tales of astral projection. But this phenomenon is not reserved for only the religious. The annals of action sports are packed with accounts of motorcyclists who recall floating above their bikes, watching themselves ride, and pilots who occasionally find themselves floating outside their airplane, struggling to get back inside. However, most out-of-body tales do not take place within the confines of an extreme environment. They transpire as part of normal lives.
The out-of-body experience is much like the near-death experience, and any exploration of one must include the other. While out-of-body experiences are defined by a perceptual shift in consciousness, no more and no less, near-death experiences start with this shift and then proceed along a characteristic trajectory. People report entering a dark tunnel, heading into light, and feeling an all-encompassing sense of peace, warmth, love, and welcome. They recall being reassured along the way by dead friends, relatives, and a gamut of religious figures. Occasionally, there's a life review, followed by a decision of the "should I stay or should I go?" variety. A 1990 Gallup poll of American adults found that almost 12 percent of Americans, roughly 30 million individuals, said they have had some sort of near-death experience.
In 1982, physician Melvin Morse had a case that piqued his curiosity about these extreme states of consciousness. Morse was moonlighting for a helicopter-assisted EMT service while finishing up his residency in pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Seattle. One afternoon he was flown to Pocatello, Idaho, to perform CPR on 8-year-old Crystal Merzlock, who had apparently drowned in the deep end of a community swimming pool. When Morse arrived on the scene, the child had been without a heartbeat for 19 minutes; her pupils were already fixed and dilated. Morse got her heart restarted, climbed into the chopper, and went home. Three days later Crystal regained consciousness.
A few weeks passed. Morse was back at the hospital where Crystal was being treated, and they bumped into each other in the hallway. Crystal pointed at Morse, turned to her mother, and said, "That's the guy who put the tube in my nose at the swimming pool." Morse was stunned. "I didn't know what to do. I had never heard of OBEs [out-of-body experiences] or NDEs[near-death experiences]. I stood there thinking: How was this possible? When I put that tube in her nose, she was brain dead. How could she even have this memory?"
Morse decided to make a case study of Crystal's experience, which he published in the American Journal of Diseases of Children. He labeled the event a fascinoma, which is both medical slang for an abnormal pathology and a decent summary of the state of our knowledge at the time. He was the first to publish a description of a child's near-death experience.
He started by reviewing the literature, discovering that the classic explanation—delusion—had been recently upgraded to a hallucination provoked by a number of different factors, including fear, drugs, and a shortage of oxygen to the brain. But it was drugs that caught Morse's eye. He knew that ketamine, used as an anesthetic during the Vietnam War, frequently produced out-of-body experiences and that other drugs were suspected of being triggers as well. Morse decided to study halothane, another commonly used anesthetic, believing his study might help explain the many reports of near-death experiences trickling out of emergency rooms. "It's funny to think of it now," he says, "but really, at the time, I set out to do a long-term, large-scale debunking study."
Morse's 1994 report, commonly referred to as the Seattle study and published in Current Problems in Pediatrics, spanned a decade. During that period, he interviewed 160 children in the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital in Seattle who had been revived from apparent death. Every one of these children had been without a pulse or sign of breathing longer than 30 seconds. Some had been in that state for as long as 45 minutes; the average apparent death lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. For a control group, he used hundreds of other children also in intensive care, also on the brink of death, but whose pulse and breathing hadn't been interrupted for more than 30 seconds. That was the only difference. In other dimensions—age, sex, drugs administered, diseases suffered, and setting—the groups were the same. In setting, Morse not only included the intensive care unit itself but also scary procedures such as insertion of a breathing tube and mechanical ventilation. These are important additions because fear has long been considered a trigger for a near-death experience (and might have been the trigger responsible for what happened when I skydived).
Morse graded his subjects' experiences according to the Greyson scale, a 16-point questionnaire designed by University of Virginia psychiatrist Bruce Greyson that remains the benchmark for determining whether or not an anomalous experience should be considered a near-death experience. Using this test, Morse found that 23 out of 26 children who experienced apparent death—the cessation of heartbeat and breathing—reported a classic near-death experience, while none of the other 131 children in his control group reported anything of the kind.
Morse later videotaped the children recalling their experiences, which included such standard fare as long tunnels, giant rainbows, dead relatives, and deities of all sorts. But many descriptions—augmented by crayon drawings—included memories of the medical procedures performed and details about doctors and nurses whose only contact with the child occurred while the child was apparently dead.
Other scientists have duplicated Morse's findings. Most recently, cardiologist Pim van Lommel, a researcher at Rijnstate Hospital in Arnhem, the Netherlands, conducted an eight-year study involving 344 cardiac-arrest patients who seemed to have died and were later revived. Out of that total, 282 had no memories, while 62 reported a classic near-death experience. Just as in Morse's study, van Lommel examined the patients' records for any factors traditionally used to explain near-death experiences—such as setting, drugs, or illness—and found no evidence of their influence. Apparent death was the only factor linked to near-death experiences. He also found that one person in his study had difficult-to-explain memories of events that happened in the hospital while he was presumed dead.
Possible clues to the biological basis of these unusual states turned up in studies conducted in the late 1970s, when the Navy and the Air Force introduced a new generation of high-performance fighter planes that underwent extreme acceleration. Those speeds generated tremendous g-forces, which pulled too much blood out of the pilots' brains, causing them to black out. The problem, known as G-LOC, for g-force-induced loss of consciousness, was serious, and James Whinnery, a specialist in aerospace medicine, was in charge of solving it.
Over a 16-year period, working with a massive centrifuge at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, Pennsylvania, Whinnery spun fighter pilots into G-LOC. He wanted to determine at what force tunnel vision occurred. More than 500 pilots accidentally blacked out during the study, and from them Whinnery learned how long it took pilots to lose consciousness under acceleration and how long they remained unconscious after the acceleration ceased. By studying this subset he also learned how long they could be unconscious before brain damage started.
He found that G-LOC could be induced in 5.67 seconds, that the average blackout lasted 12 to 24 seconds, and that at least 40 of the pilots reported some sort of out-of-body experience while they were unconscious. Not knowing anything about out-of-body experiences, Whinnery called these episodes dreamlets, kept detailed records of their contents, and began examining the literature on anomalous unconscious experiences. "I was reading about sudden-death episodes in cardiology," Whinnery says, "and it led me right into near-death experiences. I realized that a smaller percentage of my pilots' dreamlets, about 10 to 15 percent, were much closer in content to a classic NDE."
When Whinnery reviewed his data, he noted a correlation: The longer his pilots were knocked out, the closer they got to brain death. And the closer they got to brain death, the more likely it was that an out-of-body experience would turn into a near-death experience. This was the first hard evidence for what had been long suspected—that the two states are not two divergent phenomena, but two points on a continuum.
Whinnery found that G-LOC, when gradually induced, produced tunnel vision. "The progression went first to grayout (loss of peripheral vision) and then to blackout," he explains, and the blindness occurred just before a person went unconscious. "This makes a lot of sense. We know that the occipital lobe (the portion of the brain that controls vision) is a well-protected structure. Perhaps it continued to function when signals from the eyes were failing due to compromised blood flow. The transition from grayout to unconsciousness resembles floating peacefully within a dark tunnel, which is much like some of the defining characteristics of a near-death experience. The pilots also recalled a feeling of peace and serenity as they regained consciousness.
The simplest conclusion to draw from these studies is that, give or take some inexplicable memories, these phenomena are simply normal physical processes that occur during unusual circumstances. After all, once scientists set aside the traditional diagnosis of delusion as a source of these unusual mental states and began looking for biological correlates, there were plenty of possibilities. Compression of the optic nerve could produce tunnel vision; neurochemicals such as serotonin, endorphins, and enkephalins could help explain the euphoria; and psychotropics like LSD and mescaline often produce vibrant hallucinations of past events. But no one has directly tested these hypotheses.
What researchers have studied is the effect of a near-death experience. Van Lommel conducted lengthy interviews and administered a battery of standard psychological tests to his study group of cardiac-arrest patients. The subset that had had a near-death experience reported more self-awareness, more social awareness, and more religious feelings than the others.
Van Lommel then repeated this process after a two-year interval and found the group with near-death experience still had complete memories of the event, while others' recollections were strikingly less vivid. He found that the near-death experience group also had an increased belief in an afterlife and a decreased fear of death compared with the others. After eight years he again repeated the whole process and found those two-year effects significantly more pronounced. The near-death experience group was much more empathetic, emotionally vulnerable, and often showed evidence of increased intuitive awareness. They still showed no fear of death and held a strong belief in an afterlife.
Morse, too, did follow-up studies long after his original research. He also did a separate study involving elderly people who had a near-death experience in early childhood. "The results were the same for both groups," says Morse. "Nearly all of the people who had had a near-death experience—no matter if it was 10 years ago or 50—were still absolutely convinced their lives had meaning and that there was a universal, unifying thread of love which provided that meaning. Matched against a control group, they scored much higher on life-attitude tests, significantly lower on fear-of-death tests, gave more money to charity, and took fewer medications. There's no other way to look at the data. These people were just transformed by the experience."
Morse has gone on to write three popular books about near-death experiences and the questions they raise about the nature of consciousness. His research caught the attention of Willoughby Britton, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Arizona who was interested in post-traumatic stress disorder. Britton knew that most people who have a close brush with death tend to have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, while people who get that close and have a near-death experience have none. In other words, people who have a near-death experience have an atypical response to life-threatening trauma. No one knows why.
Britton also knew about work done by legendary neurosurgeon and epilepsy expert Wilder Penfield in the 1950s. Penfield, one of the giants of modern neuroscience, discovered that stimulating the brain's right temporal lobe—located just above the ear—with a mild electric current produced out-of-body experiences, heavenly music, vivid hallucinations, and the kind of panoramic memories associated with the life review part of the near-death experience. This helped explain why right temporal lobe epilepsy was a condition long defined by its most prominent symptom: excessive religiosity characterized by an intense feeling of spirituality, mystical visions, and auditory hallucinations of the voice-of-God variety. And given what Whinnery has found, it is possible that his pilots' near-death-like dreamlets were related to brief episodes of compromised blood flow in the temporal lobe.
Britton hypothesized that people who have undergone a near-death experience might show the same altered brain firing patterns as people with temporal lobe epilepsy. The easiest way to determine if someone has temporal lobe epilepsy is to monitor the brain waves during sleep, when there is an increased likelihood of activity indicative of epilepsy. Britton recruited 23 people who had a near-death experience and 23 who had undergone neither a near-death experience nor a life-threatening traumatic event. Then, working at a sleep lab, she hooked up her subjects to electrodes that measured EEG activity all over the brain—including the temporal lobes—and recorded everything that happened while they slept.
She then asked a University of Arizona epilepsy specialist who knew nothing about the experiment to analyze the EEGs. Two features distinguished the group with near-death experience from the controls: They needed far less sleep, and they went into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep far later in the sleep cycle than normal people. "The point at which someone goes into REM sleep is a fantastic indicator of depressive tendencies," says Britton. "We've gotten very good at this kind of research. If you took 100 people and did a sleep study, we can look at the data and know, by looking at the time they entered REM, who's going to become depressed in the next year and who isn't."
Normal people enter REM at 90 minutes. Depressed people enter at 60 minutes or sooner. Britton found that the vast majority of her group with near-death experience entered REM sleep at 110 minutes. With that finding, she identified the first objective neurophysiological difference in people who have had a near-death experience.
Britton thinks near-death experience somehow rewires the brain, and she has found some support for her hypothesis regarding altered activity in the temporal lobe: Twenty-two percent of the group with near-death experience showed synchrony in the temporal lobe, the same kind of firing pattern associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. "Twenty-two percent may not sound like a lot of anything," says Britton, "but it's actually incredibly abnormal, so much so that it's beyond the realm of chance."
She also found something that didn't fit with her hypothesis. The temporal lobe synchrony wasn't happening on the right side of the brain, the site that had been linked in Penfield's studies to religious feeling in temporal lobe epilepsy. Instead she found it on the left side of the brain. That finding made some people uncomfortable because it echoed studies that pinpointed, in far more detail than Penfield achieved, the exact locations in the brain that were most active and most inactive during periods of profound religious experience.
Over the past 10 years a number of different scientists, including neurologist James Austin from the University of Colorado, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, and the late anthropologist and psychiatrist Eugene D'Aquili from the University of Pennsylvania, have done SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scans of the brains of Buddhists during meditation and of Franciscan nuns during prayer. They found a marked decrease in activity in the parietal lobes, an area in the upper rear of the brain. This region helps us orient ourselves in space; it allows us to judge angles and curves and distances and to know where the self ends and the rest of the world begins. People who suffer injuries in this area have great difficulties navigating life's simplest landscapes. Sitting down on a couch, for example, becomes a task of Herculean impossibility because they are unsure where their own legs end and the sofa begins. The SPECT scans indicated that meditation temporarily blocks the processing of sensory information within both parietal lobes.
When that happens, as Newberg and D'Aquili point out in their book Why God Won't Go Away, "the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real." They use the brain-scan findings to explain the interconnected cosmic unity that the Buddhists experienced, but the results could also explain what Morse calls the "universal, unifying thread of love" that people with near-death experience consistently reported.
These brain scans show that when the parietal lobes go quiet, portions of the right temporal lobe—some of the same portions that Penfield showed produced feelings of excessive religiosity, out-of-body experiences, and vivid hallucinations—become more active. Newberg and D'Aquili also argue that activities often found in religious rituals—like repetitive chanting—activate (and deactivate) similar areas in the brain, a finding that helps explain some of the more puzzling out-of-body experience reports, like those of the airplane pilots suddenly floating outside their planes. Those pilots were as intensely focused on their instrumentation as meditators focused on mantras. Meanwhile, the sound of the engine's spinning produces a repetitive, rhythmic drone much like tribal drumming. If conditions were right, says Newberg, these two things should be enough to produce the same temporal lobe activity to trigger an out-of-body experience.
Neuropsychologist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has conducted other studies that explore the generation of altered mental states. Persinger built a helmet that produces weak, directed electromagnetic fields. He then asked over 900 volunteers, mostly college students, to wear the helmets while he monitored their brain activity and generated variations in the electromagnetic field. When he directed these fields toward the temporal lobes, Persinger's helmet induced the sort of mystical, free-of-the-body experiences common to right temporal lobe epileptics, meditators, and people who have had near-death experiences.
None of this work is without controversy, but an increasing number of scientists now think that our brains are wired for mystical experiences. The studies confirm that these experiences are as real as any others, because our involvement with the rest of the universe is mediated by our brains. Whether these experiences are simply right temporal lobe activity, as many suspect, or, as Britton's work hints and Morse believes, a whole brain effect, remains an open question. But Persinger thinks there is a simple explanation for why people with near-death experience have memories of things that occurred while they were apparently dead. The memory-forming structures lie deep within the brain, he says, and they probably remain active for a few minutes after brain activity in the outer cortex has stopped. Still, Crystal Merzlock remembered events that occurred more than 19 minutesafter her heart stopped. Nobody has a full explanation for this phenomenon, and we are left in that very familiar mystical state: the one where we still don't have all the answers.