Is there a propensity to have religious/mystical experience because our brains are hard-wired through some evolutionary mechanism – essentially is there a survival-use for this –or is there an outside (or inside) connection with a ‘god’ occurring?
More than half the population have reported to have had some type of experience resulting from prayer, meditation, sacred dance or as Bob Holmes, in an article called ‘In Search of God’ for the New Scientist (21st April 2001) , terms it – ‘ by being in a sublime situation, in a church, by the sea, in the mountains or even listening to music.’
The universality of the unique sensations triggered by religious experience , of people of all faiths, has been studied by Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist. He feels that humans have a hard-wired capacity for religious experience, and has been studying the feeling of ‘’oneness with the universe’ and the feeling of awe that accompanies such revelations and makes them more charged and more real than our everyday lives.’
His experiments focused on the effects of meditation on brain activity. Holmes states; ‘Using eight skilled meditators( of the Tibetan Buddhist school) the volunteers were asked to meditate as normal, focusing intently on a single image, usually a religious symbol, while undergoing brain imaging. The test subjects were asked to try and achieve to feel their everyday sense of self dissolve, and become one with the image. As one of the meditators states: ‘It’s as if the film of your life broke and you were seeing the light that allowed the film to be projected’.
A brain mapping technique using radioactive tracers was used to map the distribution of blood flow to take a snapshot of heightened brain activity.
The parts of the brain that regulate attention showed intense acticivity (as expected). Holmes states, however, that ‘during this period of meditation, the parietal lobe, towards the top rear of the brain, was far less active than normal. Newberg realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originate. Broadly speaking , the left hemisphere part of this region deals with the individuals’ sense of their own body image, while the right hand hemisphere equivalent handles it’s context- the space and time inhabited by the self.’
Newberg feels that by turning off the sensations to the outside world, the perieal lobe gets no inputs and ‘depraved of it’s usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.’