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Mystical experiences under the microscope

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  • medit8ionsociety
    From the Philadelphia Inquirer This is an interesting article that maybe we can say is from the outside looking in , whereas Papajeff s recent post is from
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 16, 2009
      From the Philadelphia Inquirer
      This is an interesting article that maybe
      we can say is "from the outside looking in",
      whereas Papajeff 's recent post is from the inside
      looking out and in. Enjoy!

      Brain waves or beatific vision?
      Mystical experiences under the microscope

      By David O'Reilly

      Inquirer Staff Writer

      As mystical experiences go, Barbara Bradley
      Hagerty's transcendent moment was not the kind
      that launches a new world religion. Still, it
      changed her forever.

      The day was June 10, 1995. Hagerty, religion
      reporter for National Public Radio, was
      interviewing a terminally ill melanoma patient,
      Kathy, whose sunny outlook and trust in Jesus
      seemed to have prolonged her life, inexplicably,
      for years.

      Then, as they talked, "I felt the hair on
      the back of my neck stand on end," Hagerty
      writes in her new book, Fingerprints of God,
      a survey of modern scientific investigation
      into religious experience.

      "The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone
      had moved into the circle [of lamplight] and
      was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy." She,
      too, felt something and had "fallen silent in

      "I felt an unseen caress, engulfed by a
      presence I could feel but not touch," Hagerty
      continues. "I was paralyzed. . . . After a
      minute, although it seemed longer, the presence
      melted away."

      What was it she sensed? Jesus? An angelic being?
      Or, as one researcher later suggested, had the
      temporal lobe of her brain been briefly
      hyperstimulated? This, he told her, likely
      induced the illusion of an unseen presence.

      Whatever it was, it proved the "continental
      divide in my life," Hagerty said during a
      recent interview. "I decided I should
      investigate, the way we journalists do."

      Her investigation grew into Fingerprints of
      God, a lucid overview of an essential question:
      Is mystical experience truly a glimpse of the
      divine, the eternal, the absolute? Or are
      the seemingly transformative moments known
      variously as "enlightenment" or "beatific
      vision" or cosmic bliss merely swells and
      quells in brain activity, signifying nothing
      beyond ourselves?

      "I knew this had some risks," said Hagerty,
      who grew up in a devout Christian Science family
      but had parted with the faith as an adult.

      She would be poking at the very foundation
      of religion: the phenomenon of transcendent
      moments, the kind that had transformed Paul,
      Muhammad, Moses, Buddha, Indian shamans, Hindu
      sages - perhaps even Jesus - and thence whole

      "The main thing was, what if God is a sham?"
      Hagerty worried. "What if religion is all tissue paper?"

      Her "radical project" would take her into
      monasteries, a trailer park, research labs,
      an Indian peyote ritual (she just watched),
      and a Canadian brain stimulation exercise
      that sought to replicate her 1995 experience
      of an "unseen presence."

      The body of scientific research into religious
      experience is so diverse that Fingerprints of
      God never lingers for long on any one topic.
      But it serves as a broad and readable
      introduction to the growing field of "neurotheology."

      Typical of the many stories in the book is
      that of the Rev. Scott McDermott, former
      pastor of Washington Crossing United Methodist
      Church in Bucks County.

      One day in 1996 McDermott - who has a doctorate
      in New Testament theology - struck up a
      conversation with a Pentecostal preacher from
      Toronto. When the man told McDermott he would
      pray for him, McDermott suddenly fell on his
      back with a vision of the ancient Holy Land,
      and saw himself running "from Jericho to Jerusalem."

      For 90 minutes McDermott lay on the floor,
      pumping his arms and legs until he saw himself
      arriving at the Temple. There he found Jesus
      waiting for him, he said, "his arms outstretched."

      McDermott had been exceptionally prayerful
      even as a teenager. Still, the intensity
      and suddenness of his vision - which compelled
      him to leave Bucks for a pastorate in
      Toronto - astonished him. What was it that
      he experienced that day?

      At Hagerty's request, McDermott submitted
      to a brain scan at the Hospital of the University
      of Pennsylvania. There, Andrew Newberg, a
      radiologist now famous for his studies of the
      brain functions associated with spiritual
      practices, observed McDermott's brain activity.

      Newberg observed which parts of McDermott's
      brain "lit up" while he prayed. But what
      really surprised him was McDermott's thalamus,
      a tiny region in the brain that regulates
      the processing of sights and sounds and other data.

      Newberg, who has scanned thousands of human
      brains, including meditating monks and nuns
      both Christian and Buddhist, told Hagerty
      that he has found asymmetrical thalami to be
      a kind of "spiritual marker," often associated
      with "spiritual virtuosos."

      Those asymmetries are typically in the range
      of 3 to 5 percent. McDermott's thalamus was
      15 percent asymmetrical, the most pronounced
      Newberg had ever seen.

      Hagerty also visits the workings of dopamine,
      serotonin, the DRD4 gene, the VMAT2 gene,
      identical-twin studies, the frontal lobes of
      the brain, epilepsy, theta waves, and gamma
      rhythms in religious experience.

      Each seems to offer a tantalizing glimpse
      into the "truth" of such experiences. But
      on the ultimate question - do human brains
      simply generate religious sensations, or can
      some of us perceive realms of being - Hagerty
      says there is no way of being certain.

      "You can have two views of it and they're
      both valid," Hagerty concluded.

      She emerged from her quest with a sense that
      "the instruments of brain science are picking
      up something beyond this material world."
      But she admits that may be, at least in part,
      because she is not comfortable with the idea
      of an absurd, meaningless universe.

      Intellectually, at least, she discounts the
      idea of a God who intervenes in human affairs.

      "I came to define God by his handiwork," she
      writes. "A craftsman who builds the hope of
      eternity into our genes, a master electrician
      and chemist who outfits our brains to access
      another dimension, a guru who rewards our
      spiritual efforts by allowing us to feel
      united with all things, an intelligence that
      pervades every atom and every nanosecond,
      all time and space, in the throes of death
      or the ecstasy of life."

      But emotionally, she finds the idea of an
      "infinite mind" not quite comforting enough,
      and so maintains a "binary view of God."

      "In my everyday life I'm living out a human
      story," she said, and so she turns sometimes
      to the life of Jesus "as a way to model my life."

      "The [concept of God] I can defend intellectually
      at a cocktail party is infinite," she said
      with a laugh. "But the one that helps me is
      'What would Jesus say to me?'

      "I feel I can have both."
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