What was your greatest spiritual experience

God in the head The neurobiology of spiritual experiences

Visions, near-death experiences or mystical experience of unity - under the term "neurotheology", a branch of research has been established that investigates religious and spiritual phenomena in a neuroscientific manner. Ultimately - so the thesis - all religious experiences can be explained as a complicated interplay of neurons or even as malfunctions of the brain. Is "God" refuted by this? Will there be "enlightenment at the push of a button" soon?

In meditators who concentrate on eliminating disturbing environmental impressions, the prefrontal cortex, which is located on the frontal side of the brain, is activated. During meditation, the sensation of stimulation in the right part of this region is reduced. The cognitive scientist Michael Persinger took up this idea in the 1980s.

He believes that religious and spiritual experiences can be traced back to brief electrical discharges in this area of ​​the brain. In numerous series of experiments, Persinger observed spiritual experiences such as angelic apparitions, religious ecstasy and near-death experiences in test subjects who were stimulated by electrodes attached to their heads.

Connections between spiritual experience and epilepsy can be found conspicuously in saints and biblical figures. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel has all the traits of a convert who found God through epileptic thrusts. The consequential conversion of Saul to the apostle Paul can thus be read as the case history of an epileptic.

Cross-border commuters

Dostoyevsky, who struggled with his biblical demons, was also an epileptic.

In his book "Sacred Pathways" - hallowed paths - Todd Murphy documents his work on mystical experiences and their neuroscientific traces. He crosses the border between esotericism and neuroscience.

Under the name "Shakti" or "Shiva" helmet, the Persinger student sells wire frames that are supposed to enable spiritual experiences for domestic use through the electromagnetic stimulation of certain brain areas. So-called "Mind Machines" are also on the market, which influence brain waves with pulse-like light and sound sequences and are supposed to evoke other states of consciousness.

Brain researchers like Gerhard Roth view the phenomenon of "disembodiment" or other mystical experiences from the perspective of neuronal malfunctions, for example as the cause of an insufficient supply of oxygen or caused by injuries in the parietal cortex. This also includes near-death experiences.

Spirituality as a Scientific Practice

However, the philosopher Thomas Metzinger does not want to make any statements about experiences of God or near death, but rather about whether spirituality is possible as a scientific practice. In his own mystical experiences, he seeks an alternative to the religious practice of the established churches in a spirituality oriented towards self-knowledge.

The basis of such a worldly spirituality is first and foremost his idea of ​​a self-model of the ego. For Thomas Metzinger there is such a thing as a "subtle body" that one could call a soul. He calls it pure information flowing in the brain. When there are disturbances in these "self-models", the line between spirituality and psychological problems is often very fine.

Out-of-body or near-death experiences are individual spiritual experiences that cannot be empirically proven. In psychiatry and neurology, however, such experiences are also recognized as part of a trauma or actually as a "defect". Depressive disorders or other stress phenomena could be hidden behind it.

Brain stimulation as therapy

In Parkinson's patients, "deep brain stimulation" is used for therapeutic purposes with demonstrable success: Here, small electrodes are implanted in the pathologically altered structures, which function as a kind of "jamming transmitter", using electrical stimuli to regulate the motor skills and thus help those affected To relax muscle parts.

Certain areas of the brain can be stimulated or inhibited with light electrical surges. These procedures are also used successfully for depression. Apart from these clinical procedures, meditation research is increasingly examining the connections between meditative, but not necessarily spiritual, practice and their influence on the brain structure.

For Metzinger, meditation is an advanced philosophical practice with which we can expand consciousness and the ability to think - an expanded form of self-knowledge. The question arises: What happens in our neural structures while we meditate? How does our brain change when we let the inner and outer world merge for a certain period of time?

Meditation research

The psychologist Ulrich Ott has been investigating these questions in empirical studies for years. Ulrich Ott is one of the most renowned German meditation researchers. It guides you through the Bender Institute at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen - a mixture of a doctor's practice and an experimental laboratory. Here, subjects are examined in long-term studies in the state of meditation. How does the brain change during meditative relaxation, are there regions that change significantly?

This form of empirical meditation research has nothing to do with wellness esotericism and wellness meditation. Experienced spirituality is not the goal, but a welcome side effect of these studies, which also deal with yoga as a meditative practice.

For example, studies found changes in certain brain structures in the gray matter, the body of the nerve cells or the white matter - this caused a marked change in the inner body perception and emotion regulation of the test subjects.

Meditation in the magnetic resonance imaging scanner

The clinically simulated state, mentally wide awake and yet sunk in an inner world, describes the world of Tibetan monks very well. At the age of 26, the molecular biologist Matthieu Ricard dropped out of his academic career, traveled to the Himalayas and became a Buddhist.

Today Ricard is a practicing Lama himself and, as a consultant, is one of the Dalai Lama's inner circle. The brain researcher Richard Davidson examined Ricard's brain with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging in his laboratory: What can one observe in a meditating monk when he puts himself in a state of "unconditional compassion"?

During intensive meditation practiced in practice, there is a considerable increase in gamma waves, those brain waves in the range of over thirty Hertz, which are characteristic of the highest cognitive performance of the thinking apparatus.

Beyond space and time

The left frontal lobe is particularly active in meditators, which suggests greater concentration, combined with positive feelings such as affection and compassion, while the activity of the brain area that processes information from the senses that serve for spatial orientation goes back.

This makes it possible to make visible what meditators have been experiencing and describing for perhaps millennia: spiritually wide awake and collected, beyond space and time, they experience themselves as united with a comprehensive consciousness that could be called spiritual.

But when Thomas Metzinger warns of a sell-out of spiritual ideas and brings intellectual honesty into play, it is against the background of churches that are noticeably emptying. In our competitive society, spiritual, magical and religious experiences become a relaxing "Eso pastime" with a wellness character - mostly without any philosophical knowledge value.

Enlightened neurons

The skepticism towards the official churches also creates a lot of space for patchwork religions, esoteric doctrines of salvation and sometimes softened instant enlightenment. What remains exciting, however, is why so many people are looking for spiritual experiences and what these experiences change in the neural network of the brain.

The answers will not be able to give helmets or similar experimental arrangements, they are only tools for understanding how the brain works. One of these functions is possibly the recognition that the world cannot be explained, let alone demystified, by rational means alone.

More on the subject:

  • Blume, Michael: Neurotheology - Neuroscientists Explore Faith; Tectum Verlag 2009.
  • Metzinger, Thomas: The Ego Tunnel: A New Philosophy of the Self: From Brain Research to Consciousness Ethics; Piper 2014.
  • Murphy, Todd: Sacred Pathways: The Brain's role in Religious and Mystic Experiences, 2015.
  • Ott, Ulrich: Meditation for skeptics: a neuroscientist explains the path to the self; Droemer TB 2015.
  • Ott, Ulrich: Yoga for skeptics: a neuroscientist explains the ancient wisdom doctrine; U.W. Barth 2013
  • Passie, Torsten: What is expansion of consciousness (DVD); Auditorium network 2013.
  • Passie, Torsten & Belschner, Wilfried & Petrow, Elisabeth (eds.): Ecstases: Contexts - Forms - Effects (Bibliotheca Academica - Philosophy Series); Ergon 2013.
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