Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Can a new theory in neuroscience explain spiritual experience to a non-believer?

update thanks Càm: "There have been no studies linking the serotonergic system and the insula, whereas we know for sure that the pineal gland is filled with serotonin receptors, it has more than any other brain area, it is known as the physical third eye, and psychedelics work primarily on the serotonin system."

For those interested here's some more related info in a 1976 (updated '96) paper called The Pineal Gland, LSD and Serotonin, here's an excerpt:
LSD happens to be one of the more famous antagonists. It not only penetrates the blood brain barrier but slips slyly into the transmission site inside the nerve cells themselves. It can mimic serotonin to the point where the body thinks its serotonin and consequently shoots it across the synaptic gap. When LSD reaches the other side it is accepted but the LSD doesn't carry the message any further. The impulse of electricity is redirected down less familiar pathways, pathways which have not been highly conditioned.

Specifically LSD affects the oldest parts of the brain first (e.g. upper end of the spinal cord, medulla oblongata, cerebrum, pineal gland and hypothalamus region) then the bloodstream takes it forward into the immediate back brain (location of sight interpretation) up through the area of hearing, the cerebellum, other sense interpretive centers, and the motor areas.

Using radioactive molecules traced with LSD, science has been able to follow the course of LSD through the various channels and avenues of the body. It has been found that after selecting certain areas of the various parts of the brain it then migrates to sections with fewer imprints, for instance the right of the hemisphere, the so-called creative center.

By redirecting consciousness, as it were, into the unimprinted areas of the cortex, one hypothetically experiences the world anew, hence the variety of interpretations which arise upon questioning psychedelic voyagers about their "trip".
This is what the post was first about, Interoception: Check out this article Flesh Made Soul, very interesting article though I'm gonna nitpick a little (ok a lot) and say what bothered me about this article, if you go by the subtitle (= main title of this post) though the article is great though I just regret a few things: The satisfaction of one materialist explanation and the unexplorative spirit, the cold language (I practically felt a cold scalpel against my cheek reading some of this :p), the total ignoring of DMT, DNA, Kundalini and chi, the relative ignoring of the benefits of meditation and the relative ignoring of the huge scope of spiritual experiences, and the huge scope of Out of Body experiences (multidimensionality for instance) besides a technical way (open brain :p) to induce it. Ok so I wanted the perfect article lol! But I'll just comment on a few excerpts and share my thoughts. I admit it's nitpickery, semantics, and very subjective ;p. I recommend reading it entirely first.
Called interoception, it offers a radically new view of human anatomy and physiology based on how information from the body reaches the brain and how that information is processed uniquely in humans.

The subjective awareness of our emotional state is based on how our brain represents our physiological state, says Dr. Arthur D. Craig, a neuroanatomist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix and leading researcher in interoceptive processes. "If there is any way to objectively measure a subjective state," he says, "this is it."
This is fascinating, with the right scientists (meaning openminded and good intentioned) this could mean leaps in understanding consciousness (which seems to be a much disliked word, I really don't get what the big fuss is about it, though some people really hate being conscious so that might explain it hehe. Not saying everyone who doesn't like the word hates being conscious, just joking kids...)
update (repeated): "There have been no studies linking the serotonergic system and the insula, whereas we know for sure that the pineal gland is filled with serotonin receptors, it has more than any other brain area, it is known as the physical third eye, and psychedelics work primarily on the serotonin system." Càm
In this view, spirituality -- an emotional feeling from the body, a sense of timelessness, a suspension of self and dissolution of personal boundaries -- can be explained in terms of brain physiology, which means, of course, that it is subject to experimentation and manipulation.
Yeeha! Though that kinda raises questions too about ethics and spirituality. I've begun reading Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where people have a "mood machine", where they can just dial their preferred mood. Which I think in reality would probably fuck up your chemical balance so hard all kinds of mental abnormality is just around the corner.
In a study of "vipassana" meditation, where one's field of awareness is expanded to include anything that comes into consciousness, Davidson found that practitioners showed a strong decrease in areas of the right brain associated with the self.
According to Dr. Sara Lazar, a neurobiologist at Harvard University, insular gray matter is bigger in experienced meditators. Like a muscle, it can be challenged to grow bigger and stronger.
This is one of the few hints of the benefits of meditation and spirituality in the entire article (besides describing the experience of bliss), if you want to convey spirituality to the "non-believer", non-practitioner you might include some more reasoning as to why they should even bother, besides talking about the bliss, why did I strike that word: "The mystics ask you to take nothing on mere belief. Rather, they give you a set of experiments to test in your own awareness and experience. The laboratory is your own mind, the experiment is meditation." Ken Wilber.
Such studies do not, of course, prove or disprove the existence of God. The fact that many brain regions, including interoceptive regions, light up when subjects are asked to contemplate religious feelings or to meditate is but one aspect of these experiences.
This is the best line in the article that was really necessary considering the general tone, not about the existence of God, (who cares? :p oh right, billions lol) but that the neurobiology is but one aspect of these experiences.
Beliefs, which are learned from family and culture, create meaning.
And from authority, they not only create meaning, they create illusion, lies and bullshit too :p
I cannot prove that neurochemistry and interoceptive processes fully explain that extraordinary event, but they are, to my mind, sufficient.
I respect her view but I can't help but joke: Quitter! What a drive for research lol. So here we have a person grounded in a materialist bs and is quite happy with a materialist explanation. I can only be disappointed at this. There shall be little transcending and evolving with that attitude no?
Some might argue that a supernatural agent entered my body without my knowledge -- but there is not a shred of evidence for that claim. I prefer a biological explanation.
It's hardly necessary to invoke a "supernatural agent", notice that wording. I think she felt dirty typing it! Remember aspects (not talking about all the crazy shit out there ;p) of the supernatural and the paranormal are normal, just more rare, thanks to our left brain dominance.
In fact, I believe that every person is capable of achieving an equivalent state of sublimity without invoking God. There is nothing mystical about it. Interoceptive awareness varies with individuals. Some will be more prone to such experiences than others. Some are better at reading signals from their bodies. Hormones like oxytocin, brain chemicals like serotonin, and drugs like ecstasy play a role in producing these phenomena. Indeed, drugs are used to induce spiritual experiences the world over.
I just bolded the first four words for the hilarity, facts and belief have little to do with each other, I realize I'm nitpicking ;p But this blog's whole purpose is to evolve beyond BS. One way is making people more aware of the use of their language especially involing the word belief. I'm sure you've noticed it by now lol.
She's totally right though there is no need for (a) God(s) in these matters, "So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way getting around to the realization that you are the entire universe." Alan Watts. However saying there's nothing mystical about it is pushing it. There can be something mystical, though not necessarily, about achieving a state of sublimity. Mysticism is one of my favorite 'concepts' and hobbies, it has little do with (a) God(s) but with looking within, I don't see why it has to be thrown out the window. Mysticism might be the only way to 'true knowledge' which is learned by sensory experience instead of using made up human 'concepts' ;p Tricky thing eh language!

Speaking of tricky language, it also depends on your definition of a word. Out of which huge misunderstandings can arise if people have different definitions in their mind.
For instance what I understand as mysticism, and the wikipedia defintion will do: the pursuit of achieving communion, identity with, or conscious awareness of ultimate reality, the Other, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight. (left all in it for completeness, don't need all of it in my definition ;p)
However, if you go to the wordref dot com dictionary, mysticism suddenly turns into this:
1. Obscure or irrational thought (LOL! wtf! Hellooooo :p)
2. a religion (wtf?) based on mystical communion with an ultimate reality (So in the definition of a noun they use a derived adjective of that same noun! lol! Though to their credit 'mystical' gets explained a little better at least...
Human brains evolved to be belief engines, according to Lewis Wolpert, a professor of biology at University College London who studies the evolutionary origins of belief. "We want to explain everything," he says, "We cannot tolerate not knowing a cause."
I know I always bitch when the word "belief" is used but come on, belief engines, followed by "cannot tolerate not knowing". There is a huge difference between Belief, Thought, and Knowledge. Just because you know something doesn't mean you have to believe it, you can disbelieve it sure, but once you 'know' something there is no belief required, just knowing will suffice don't you think? (And by this I mean provable facts - which are rather rare ;p, not theories. You can temporarily choose to prefer a theory over another considering proof first, evidence and contradicting evidence, again, no belief necessary - in the game of semantics :p).

Our brains really are belief engines, confirmation bias can confirm whatever crazy stuff we choose to believe and we can ignore whatever doesn't fit. Thinking and Knowing is where you do value the information that contradicts earlier beliefs, assumptions or hunches and use it to get a bigger picture and grow continually more wise. The authorities know the brain is a belief engine and use BS all the time to fulfill their agendas. Politics runs on BS, the media manipulates (that includes confirming) the viewer's beliefs everyday. Etc.
Thus, it seems, if our cultural upbringing has convinced us that God exists, we will interpret our blissful floating state as proof of a divine power. But if we doubt that God exists, we will turn to science and hope that researchers will eventually learn how to induce a spiritual experience in anyone who asks for it.
This last paragraph was also kinda weird to me because spirituality and mysticism are direct experiences, I'll continue to induce my own spiritual experiences and don't need a scientist for that, but thanks. Can imagine a store in a street, where materialists stand in a line for their spiritual experience? :p The way consciousness alteration is restricted I don't see it happening soon. If you have no problem with those legal restrictions however, you can induce your spiritual experience right now - well ok no, in a few months - preperation is in order. The magic word is entheogens (in the article she only mentions ecstasy of all drugs, once), you read a few 'user manuals' by for instance Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna (were sufficient for me) and there you go, though reading is not sufficient. Mental sanity, having the right intentions, the right amount of respect for yourself and your surroundings, and a healthy attitude about the unknown, are the other requirements. I recommend researching the Psylocybin Mushroom (I don't vouch for any other entheogen).
Taking it without informing yourself, without some preparation, is relatively dangerous, even kinda stupid and will not show you its true potential. Set and Setting are the two most important words.

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