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Old 04-26-2001, 08:59 AM   #1
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Post New Scientist article on biological roots of mystical experience

On the website of New Scientist is an article In search of God, introduced by the following blurb:

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Are our religious feelings just a product of how the brain works? Bob Holmes meets the researchers who are trying to explain our most sacred thoughts </font>
The part I personally found most fascinating (and most directly relevant to my own experiences) was the following:

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">This sense of unity with the Universe
isn't the only characteristic of intense
religious experiences. They also carry a
hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe
and deep significance. Neuroscientists
generally agree that this sensation
originates in a region of the brain
distinct from the parietal lobe: the
"emotional brain", or limbic system, lying
deep within the temporal lobes on the
sides of the brain.

The limbic system is a part of the brain
that dates from way back in our
evolution. Its function nowadays is to
monitor our experiences and label
especially significant events, such as the
sight of your child's face, with emotional
tags to say "this is important". During an
intense religious experience, researchers
believe that the limbic system becomes
unusually active, tagging everything with
special significance.

This could explain why people who have
had such experiences find them so
difficult to describe to others. "The
contents of the experience--the visual
components, the sensory
components--are just the same as
everyone experiences all the time," says
Jeffrey Saver, a neurologist at the
University of California, Los Angeles.
"Instead, the temporolimbic system is
stamping these moments as being
intensely important to the individual, as
being characterised by great joy and
harmony. When the experience is
reported to someone else, only the
contents and the sense that it's different
can be communicated. The visceral
sensation can't."

Plenty of evidence supports the idea that
the limbic system is important in
religious experiences. Most famously,
people who suffer epileptic seizures
restricted to the limbic system, or the
temporal lobes in general, sometimes
report having profound experiences
during their seizures. "This is similar to
people undergoing religious conversion,
who have a sense of seeing through their
hollow selves or superficial reality to a
deeper reality," says Saver. As a result,
he says, epileptics have historically
tended to be the people with the great
mystical experiences.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky,
for example, wrote of "touching God"
during epileptic seizures. Other religious
figures from the past who may have
been epileptic include St Paul, Joan of
Arc, St Theresa of Avila and Emanuel
Swedenborg, the 18th-century founder
of the New Jerusalem Church.

Similarly, neurosurgeons who stimulate
the limbic system during open-brain
surgery say their patients occasionally
report experiencing religious sensations.
And Alzheimer's disease, which is often
marked by a loss of religious interest,
tends to cripple the limbic system early
on, says Saver.

The richness that limbic stimulation
brings to experience may explain why
religions rely so heavily on ritual, claims
Newberg. The deliberate, stylised
motions of ceremony differentiate them
from everyday actions, he says, and help
the brain flag them as significant. Music,
too, can affect the limbic system,
Japanese researchers reported in 1997,
driving it towards either arousal or
serene bliss. Chanting or ritual
movements may do the same. Meditation
has also been shown to induce both
arousal and relaxation, often at the same
time. "Sometimes people refer to it as an
active bliss," says Newberg. That
marriage of opposites, he thinks, adds to
the intensity of the experience.</font>

[This message has been edited by Kate Long (edited April 26, 2001).]
Old 04-26-2001, 10:11 AM   #2
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Kate - I already posted this the day the article came out under science and skepticism. The thread is called :

NewScientist joins the mystical alliance.
Old 04-26-2001, 12:44 PM   #3
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That description brings to mind another condition, where a failure of the higher brain causes you to hallucinate, but the limbic system is intact. In these cases, people see visions and ghosts, but are nonplussed. They aren't scary because even though their rational brain tells them that this is unusual, the emotional part of the brain, which has separate ties to the senses, knows that there is nothing there.
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