If you can’t join us for The Yoga of Possibility December 12 – 14, you might still like to read some the things we’ll be using as references.
When I first began looking into about neurological correlates for religious experiences, I was often sort of wildly irritated by what I read. I was delighted, therefore to come across the research of Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili. D’Aquili is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Newberg is a Fellow in the Division of Nuclear Medicine and an Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Both are Directors of the Institute for the Scientific Study of Meditation.
A lot of the early material I trudged through followed the old saw that if the brain has any sort of chemistry for enlightenment, that just proves that our innate sense of the existence of higher meaning is “all in our heads.” The question of what is real amid what and how our bodies perceive is far from glibly divided into “in our heads” and “out there.” D’Aquili and Newberg back off this sort of conclusion, instead simply offering evidence that our brains are “built for” and responsive to efforts to bring about altered states that flood us with a sense of unity and oneness.
In an article entitled, The Neuropsychological Basis of Religions, or Why God Won’t Go Away (Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, volume 33 number 2, June 1998), the authors describe the effects of practices such as yoga:
One of the things that happens is progressive activation of certain parts of the nondominant parieto-occipital region of the brain (which we are calling the “holistic operator”), creating an increasing sense of wholeness becoming more dominant over the sense of multiplicity of baseline reality.
The occipital lobe is the home of the primary visual cortex. We create our experiences of sight in this region. Above the occipital region is the parietal lobe where information from our senses is integrated into our behavior, allowing us for example, to pick up tools and use them.
Dr’s D’Aquili and Newberg are explaining that during meditative practices, areas of the brain which in our “normal” state are less privileged by day-to-day habitual thinking become gradually and progressively more dominant, causing a neurological balance that reveals a sense of wholeness and unity, a state which the authors designate Absolute Unitary Being, or AUB.
If you can’t get a copy of this paper through your library you can very likely find or get through interlibrary loan Andrew Newman’s Why We Believe What We Believe (New York, Free Press, 2006). D’Aquili and Newman eloquently validate my impatience with hasty, unwarranted conclusions from brain research. Here is an excerpt near the conclusion of their paper:
Many find it deeply disturbing that the experience of God, the sense of the absolute, the sense of mystery and beauty in the universe, the most profoundly moving experiences of which humans are capable, might be reducible to neural tuning, to specific patterns of neural blips on an oscilloscope, or to measurable changes in brain-imaging studies. However, such a pessimistic interpretation misses a few rather important points. First of all, our experience of baseline reality (e.g., chairs, tables, love, hate), indeed of our whole physical and psychological environment, can also be reduced to neural blips and fluxes of brain chemistry. So what criteria can we use to evaluate whether God, other hyperlucid unitary experiences, or our everyday world is more real? Can we use our subjective sense of the absolute certainty of the objective reality of our everyday world to establish that that world is really real?
To simplify the issue somewhat, let us for the moment contrast the most extreme hyperlucid unitary state, that of AUB, with baseline reality. In such an exercise one can see that there is no question that AUB wins out as being experienced as more real. People who have experienced AUB, and this includes some very learned and previously materialistically oriented scientists, regard AUB as being more fundamentally real than baseline reality. Even the memory of it is, for them, more fundamentally real than reality. A number of years ago we interviewed several people who had undergone this experience. There is no doubt that it, and even the memory of it, carried the sense of greater fundamental reality than that generated by their experiences of day-to-day living. If we use the criterion, therefore, of the sense of certainty of the objective reality of that state, AUB wins hands down.
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