Drugs Produce Loss of Self Like Spiritual Awakening

Drugs Produce Loss of Self Like Spiritual Awakening

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“People tripping on psilocybin can experience paranoia or a complete loss of subjective self-identity, known as ego dissolution”Annamarya Scaccia

 

Psychedelic substances have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. Psychedelics produce effects that are similar to those that are reported in spiritual awakenings. They report a loss of the personal self. They experience what they used to refer to as the self as just a part of an integrated whole. They report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. They experience a feeling of timelessness where time seems to stop and everything is taking place in a single present moment. They experience ineffability, being unable to express in words what they are experiencing and as a result sometimes producing paradoxical statements. And they experience a positive mood, with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

 

It is easy to see why people find these experiences so pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. Even though the effects of psychedelic substances have been experienced and reported on for centuries, only very recently have these effects come under rigorous scientific scrutiny. One deterrent to the research is the legal prohibitions for the possession and use of these substances.

 

The fact that experiences, virtual identical to spiritual awakening experiences, can be induced by drugs and that drugs have their effects by altering the chemistry of the nervous system, has led to the notion that perhaps spiritual experiences are simply an altered state of the brain produced by intense spiritual practices. An important observation in this regard is that alterations of the brain can make it more likely that an individual will have a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences can occur occasionally with epileptic seizures. This may provide clues as to what neural structures are involved in spiritual experiences.

 

In today’s Research News article “Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441112/, Millière reviews and summarizes the published literature on drug effects on the concept of the self. He reports that a number of different psychoactive substances produce similar effects of ego dissolution. This is a dramatic breakdown of a sense of self producing a sense of unity with all things. No boundary between self and other is felt. Instead, there is a feeling of oneness with everything.

 

All psychedelic drugs act on the nervous system. They appear to stimulate the serotonin system in the brain and appear to suppress the activity of a set of neural structures known collectively as the Default Mode Network (DMN). These structures include the cingulate and medial frontal cortices, the thalamus which have been shown to be important for the production of a sense of self.

 

Another class of psychoactive drugs are dissociative anesthetics. These also appear to produce a loss of the sense of self, but act on a different neurochemical system, tending to stimulate the NMDA glutamate receptors. Glutamate receptors are the brain’s primary excitatory receptors and are widespread throughout the nervous system. So, the effects of this class of psychoactive substances on the brain are quite different from those of psychedelic drugs.

 

A final class of psychoactive drugs that produce an ego dissolution are kappa opioid receptor agonists. These appear to act by affecting opioid receptors which in turn affect the dopamine neurochemical system. In addition, it has been shown that drugs that block opioid receptors tend to reverse the feelings of loss of self in psychotic patients.

 

These findings do not reveal a common set of effects on the nervous system that are associated with the loss of a sense of self that are produced by the three different classes of compounds that elicit an ego dissolution. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a common mechanism, only that none has been identified. But, if there is not a common neural mechanism, then it would appear that the sense of self is fragile and can be disrupted by widespread and different effects on the nervous system. In addition, thinking about the self appears to increase activity in a completely different area of the brain and paying attention to non-self elements of experience changes still another set of structures. Hence, a sense of self appears to be produced by widespread different areas of the nervous system and disruption of widespread different areas and neurochemical systems can disrupt the sense of self.

 

One problem with the research on the neural systems responsible for the notion of self may be that what we call self may actually be a complex set of different processes. What we define as the “self” consists of a set of components including physiology, behaviors, personality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, memories, etc. It is not a single thing rather it’s a set of things that in their entirety are considered a self. In other words, the self is a concept that summarizes a set of experiences and is not a thing unto itself. If this is the case then it is not surprising that disruption of different process may be responsible for common feelings of a loss of self.

 

All of this suggests that spiritual awakening may be an entirely different process than the effects of psychoactive drugs. They may each disrupt a different aspect of the set of components that we describe as the self. They further suggest that the sense of self is fragile and can be disrupted by disparate activities and psychoactive compounds affecting widespread and differing neural systems. Until there is greater clarity about which exact components of self are affected by each of the activities and drugs that produce an overall sense of loss of self, it will not be possible to answer the question as to whether spiritual awakening is due to organic changes produced by engagement in spiritual activities, or that they are representative of a totally different reality.

 

“There is ‘objective reality’ and then there is ‘our reality. Psychedelic drugs can distort our reality and result in perceptual illusions. But the reality we experience during ordinary wakefulness is also, to a large extent, an illusion.” – Enzo Tagliazucchi

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Millière, R. (2017). Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 245. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00245

 

Abstract

There is converging evidence that high doses of hallucinogenic drugs can produce significant alterations of self-experience, described as the dissolution of the sense of self and the loss of boundaries between self and world. This article discusses the relevance of this phenomenon, known as “drug-induced ego dissolution (DIED)”, for cognitive neuroscience, psychology and philosophy of mind. Data from self-report questionnaires suggest that three neuropharmacological classes of drugs can induce ego dissolution: classical psychedelics, dissociative anesthetics and agonists of the kappa opioid receptor (KOR). While these substances act on different neurotransmitter receptors, they all produce strong subjective effects that can be compared to the symptoms of acute psychosis, including ego dissolution. It has been suggested that neuroimaging of DIED can indirectly shed light on the neural correlates of the self. While this line of inquiry is promising, its results must be interpreted with caution. First, neural correlates of ego dissolution might reveal the necessary neurophysiological conditions for the maintenance of the sense of self, but it is more doubtful that this method can reveal its minimally sufficient conditions. Second, it is necessary to define the relevant notion of self at play in the phenomenon of DIED. This article suggests that DIED consists in the disruption of subpersonal processes underlying the “minimal” or “embodied” self, i.e., the basic experience of being a self rooted in multimodal integration of self-related stimuli. This hypothesis is consistent with Bayesian models of phenomenal selfhood, according to which the subjective structure of conscious experience ultimately results from the optimization of predictions in perception and action. Finally, it is argued that DIED is also of particular interest for philosophy of mind. On the one hand, it challenges theories according to which consciousness always involves self-awareness. On the other hand, it suggests that ordinary conscious experience might involve a minimal kind of self-awareness rooted in multisensory processing, which is what appears to fade away during DIED.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441112/

Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Spiritual experiences, be they called awakenings, mystical experiences, or enlightenments, involve a shift in how the individual perceives reality. This could be viewed as a spiritual revelation. But it could also be viewed as a change in the neural systems integrating and interpreting experiences. So, are spiritual awakenings revelations of a reality beyond physical reality or are they simply hallucinatory experience evoked by changes in the nervous system?

 

One way of investigating this question is to study the brain-spirituality connection. Research along these lines has revealed that there is a clear association between spirituality and the brain. Modern neuroscience has developed methods, such as neuroimaging, to investigate the relationship. Applying these techniques it has been demonstrated that spirituality is associated with changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/19/spirituality-mindfulness-and-the-brain/). So spirituality and changes in neural systems co-occur. But, this does not demonstrate a causal connection, whether spirituality alters the brain or brain alteration causes spirituality, or some third factor is responsible for both.

 

A better way to demonstrate if brain activity cause spiritual experiences is to investigate what happens to spirituality when the brain changes. One place to look at this is with accidental brain injuries incurred by humans that afford an opportunity to glimpses associations between brain change and spirituality. In general people who have incurred damage to the right inferior parietal area show an increase in spirituality. So, brain alteration affects spirituality. But, increased spiritual beliefs and spiritual seeking is not the same thing as spiritual experiences. So, we cannot conclude that these changes in the brain are responsible for awakening experiences.

 

Another manipulation of the brain occurs with drugs. Indeed, various hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, etc. have been shown to produce experiences that are extremely similar to spiritual experiences. These drugs have been shown to alter the activity in specific neurochemical systems in the brain and when that happens, experiences that are very similar to spiritual awakenings are evoked. Many people who have used these drugs are altered spiritually but vast numbers of people find hallucinatory drugs as fun recreation but are not affected spiritually.

 

Spiritual seekers who have used psychedelic substances report that they experience something like but not the same as spiritual awakening experiences. The following quote from Alan Watts is illustrative.

“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse         which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs           are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For         psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones.       The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away      and works on what he has seen…”

Also a quote from Ralph Metzner

            “While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits,     and one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

Hence, it appears that although there are great similarities between manipulation of brain chemistry with drugs and the experiences occurring with spiritual awakenings, they are in fact quite different.

 

So, what should we conclude regarding the clear relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences? It has been established that spirituality changes the brain and that changes in the brain are associated with spiritual experiences. Does this indicate that spirituality is nothing but a brain function? This would suggest that spirituality and spiritual experiences are nothing but physical events and don’t represent experience of true transcendence or an indication of a god. If this were true then it would suggest that there is nothing beyond the physical, that spiritual awakenings are nothing other than evoked changes in the nervous system.

 

It should be noted that reported spiritual experiences most frequently involve changes in sensory experiences. We know that sensory experiences are produced by the nervous system. So, it would be expected that if a spiritual experience occurs then there would be changes in the nervous system. As a result it is not surprising that nervous system changes would accompany spiritual experiences.

 

Neural changes may represent the effects of spiritual experiences on the physical body. After all, when we become aware of any kind of remarkable occurrence we react emotionally, physically, and thoughtfully. This would imply that the neural changes occur after the spiritual experience and not before it as a causal relationship would demand. In addition, changing the brain with drugs may simply induce the same effects as the sequela of spiritual experience and not the spiritual experiences themselves.

 

The most common report of spiritual experience is that everything is perceived as one. This oneness experience is not reported to be a change in the actual sensory information, but rather as a perception of the interconnectedness of all things such that they are seen as all a part of a singular entity, like seeing individual waves as all being part of one ocean. The more modern science studies events and their interconnections the more that the truth of oneness is revealed. The entire science of ecology has developed to study the interconnectedness among biological entities, meteorology has determined that atmospheric conditions over the entire planet are interconnected, and geology has revealed the interconnectedness of all movement of the planet’s surface and interior. Just think how interconnected everything is with sunlight. Without this energy, life could not exist and even the weather would not be changing. Everything about us and our planet is interconnected to the sun’s energy.

 

So, perhaps the oneness revealed in spiritual experiences may actually be a more accurate glimpse of the truth of existence. Perhaps, the changes observed in the brain may simply be the effect of this revelation rather than the cause. At this point we cannot reach a clear conclusion as to whether spiritual experiences are material and physical or true revelation of a non-physical reality. But the research is exciting and will continue to explore these ultimate questions regarding existence.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Making the Ego Go Away is a Mystical Experience

 

psychodelics-ego-dissolution2-nour

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“When subjected to a scientific experiment, these characteristics proved to be identical for spontaneous and psychedelic mystical experiences.
1.
 Unity is a sense of cosmic oneness achieved through positive ego transcendence. Although the usual sense of identity, or ego, fades away, consciousness and memory are not lost; . . ., so that a person reports that he feels a part of everything that is, or more simply, that “all is One.”  – Walter N. Pahnke

 

The core experience that has been found to be present in spiritual awakenings is a loss of the personal self. What they used to refer to as the self is experienced as just a part of an integrated whole. People who have had these experiences report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. Although awakening experiences can vary widely, they all contain this experience of oneness.

 

Millions of people worldwide seek out spiritual awakening by engaging in practices, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer. Others use drugs such as peyote, mescaline, LSD, ayahuasca and

psilocybin to induce spiritual awakenings. The experiences produced by the drugs have many characteristics which are unique to the experiencer, their religious context, and their present situation. But, the common, central feature of these drug experiences is a sense of oneness, that all things are contained in a single thing, a sense of union with the universe and/or God and everything in existence.

 

Hence, central to both practice induced awakenings and psychedelic drug experiences is a loss of self that is sometimes called an ego death or an ego dissolution. In today’s Research News article “Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI).” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1358413174182605/?type=3&theater

or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4906025/

Nour and colleagues attempt to develop a psychometric scale measuring ego dissolution and its opposite ego inflation and compare the results on this scale for people who self-reported use of psychedelic drugs, cocaine, and alcohol. They recruited participants with on-line ads and obtained anonymous responses from 691 people. The ego dissolution inventory (EDI) contained 8 items; “I experienced a dissolution of my “self” or ego,”I experienced a dissolution of my “self” or ego,” “I felt at one with the universe,” “I felt a sense of union with others,” “I experienced a decrease in my sense of self-importance,” “ I experienced a disintegration of my “self” or ego,” “I felt far less absorbed by my own issues and concerns,” “I lost all sense of ego,” “all notion of self and identity dissolved away.” Items were rated 0–100, with zero defined as “No, not more than usually”, and 100 defined as “Yes, entirely or completely.”

 

They found that the ego dissolution inventory (EDI) had adequate psychometric properties suggesting reliability and validity of the scale. The scores on the EDI were extremely similar to the participant’s responses to unity experiences on the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ) suggesting that ego-dissolutions were virtually identical to reported senses of oneness. Interestingly, they found that ego dissolution was highly related to well-being suggesting that loss of the self produces a sense of personal well-being. In terms of drugs, it was found that when psychedelic drug dose or intensity of experience was high, ego dissolution was also high. But, there was no such relationship with cocaine or alcohol, while when cocaine dose was high ego-inflation was also high. So, psychedelic use is associated with ego dissolution while cocaine use is associated with a heightened sense of self, ego-inflation.

 

The results demonstrate that the ego dissolution can be measured and that the EDI is a reliable and valid measure. They further indicate that ego dilution and unity experiences are virtually identical suggesting that they may be measures of the same experience. The results also show that psychedelic drug use, but not cocaine or alcohol are highly associated with ego dilution. All of this adds to the case that awakening experiences and psychedelic drug experiences are either extraordinarily similar or perhaps identical. Since psychedelic drugs alter the brain, the results further suggest that awakening experiences may be due to similar changes in the brain.

 

This study was strictly correlational and no causal connections can be determined. But, these interesting results strongly suggest that a double-blind clinical trial of drug effects on ego dissolution and inflation should be conducted. It is not possible to manipulate participants into having non-drug induced awakening experiences. But, the similarity between the two suggests that drug induced experiences may be an excellent model for the study of the neural changes that underlie spiritual awakening experiences

 

“Because the ego never actually exists, those who are most captivated by its illusion are still playing. They take it seriously and do not know that they are playing. By inducing ego-death and evolutionary perspectives, psychedelic drugs can counteract
the fear of death.”
– LSD Experience – Ego

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Nour, M. M., Evans, L., Nutt, D., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2016). Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, 269. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00269

 

Abstract

Aims: The experience of a compromised sense of “self”, termed ego-dissolution, is a key feature of the psychedelic experience. This study aimed to validate the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI), a new 8-item self-report scale designed to measure ego-dissolution. Additionally, we aimed to investigate the specificity of the relationship between psychedelics and ego-dissolution.

Method: Sixteen items relating to altered ego-consciousness were included in an internet questionnaire; eight relating to the experience of ego-dissolution (comprising the EDI), and eight relating to the antithetical experience of increased self-assuredness, termed ego-inflation. Items were rated using a visual analog scale. Participants answered the questionnaire for experiences with classical psychedelic drugs, cocaine and/or alcohol. They also answered the seven questions from the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ) relating to the experience of unity with one’s surroundings.

Results: Six hundred and ninety-one participants completed the questionnaire, providing data for 1828 drug experiences (1043 psychedelics, 377 cocaine, 408 alcohol). Exploratory factor analysis demonstrated that the eight EDI items loaded exclusively onto a single common factor, which was orthogonal to a second factor comprised of the items relating to ego-inflation (rho = −0.110), demonstrating discriminant validity. The EDI correlated strongly with the MEQ-derived measure of unitive experience (rho = 0.735), demonstrating convergent validity. EDI internal consistency was excellent (Cronbach’s alpha 0.93). Three analyses confirmed the specificity of ego-dissolution for experiences occasioned by psychedelic drugs. Firstly, EDI score correlated with drug-dose for psychedelic drugs (rho = 0.371), but not for cocaine (rho = 0.115) or alcohol (rho = −0.055). Secondly, the linear regression line relating the subjective intensity of the experience to ego-dissolution was significantly steeper for psychedelics (unstandardized regression coefficient = 0.701) compared with cocaine (0.135) or alcohol (0.144). Ego-inflation, by contrast, was specifically associated with cocaine experiences. Finally, a binary Support Vector Machine classifier identified experiences occasioned by psychedelic drugs vs. cocaine or alcohol with over 85% accuracy using ratings of ego-dissolution and ego-inflation alone.

Conclusion: Our results demonstrate the psychometric structure, internal consistency and construct validity of the EDI. Moreover, we demonstrate the close relationship between ego-dissolution and the psychedelic experience. The EDI will facilitate the study of the neuronal correlates of ego-dissolution, which is relevant for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and our understanding of psychosis.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4906025/

 

Awakening-like Experiences Occur with Epilepsy in the Insula

mystical experiences epilepsy2 Gschwing

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Dostoevsky described his seizures in a letter to a friend: “I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life.”” – Anil Ananthaswamy

 

Millions of people worldwide perform practices, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer, to achieve a spiritual awakening. Others use drugs such as peyote, ayahuasca  and psilocybin to induce spiritual awakenings. If successful, these people report unique profound experiences that permanently alter their lives and the way they perceive the world. These experiences have many characteristics many of which are unique to the experiencer, their religious context, and their present situation. They include a state of ecstasy, bliss, love and joy, a sense of ultimate freedom and belonging, a transcendence of space and time, a sense of lacking control over the event, a greater sense of meaning and purpose of life, a sense of timelessness, a sense of having encountered ultimate reality, a sense of sacredness, a sense that one cannot adequately describe the richness of this experience. But, the common, central feature of all of these experiences is a sense on oneness, that all things are contained in a single thing, a sense of union with the universe and/or God and everything in existence.

 

The fact that these experiences can be induced by drugs and that drugs have their effects by altering the chemistry of the nervous system, has led to the notion that perhaps these experiences are not actually spiritual but rather simply an altered state of the brain produced by drugs or intense spiritual practices. An important observation in this regard is that alterations of the brain can make it more likely that an individual will have a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences can occur occasionally with epileptic seizures. This may provide clues as to what neural structures are involved in spiritual experiences.

 

In today’s Research News article “Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1278188525538404/?type=3&theater

or below or view the full text of the study at:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4756129/

Gschwind and Picard review published cases of individuals who report spiritual experiences with the onset of an epileptic seizure. Their review led them to hypothesize that the focal area for the production of spiritual experiences is the insular cortex. This is a large piece pf cerebral cortex that has been enfolded with growth of the cortex and does not appear on the surface. It has been covered and is buried deep inside at the juncture of the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes. The insula is highly interconnected with a wide variety of other cortical and subcortical areas of the brain. It has been implicated in consciousness and appears to play a role in diverse functions usually linked to emotion or the regulation of the body’s homeostasis. These functions include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. So, the insula would appear to be well situated to produce and affect higher level experiences.

 

Gschwind and Picard review cases of spiritual (ecstatic) experiences that occur with epileptic seizures either located in or affecting the activity of the insula. In addition, they review cases where direct electrical stimulation of the insula produce reports of spiritual-like experiences in awake humans. This together with the widespread interconnectivity of the insula and its suspected role in higher conscious experience, makes a case that the insula is the area of the brain that is central to spiritual (ecstatic) experiences.

 

The reviewed information is highly complex and the conclusions are speculative. They are far from proving the case that the insula is responsible for spiritual (ecstatic) experiences. But, it provides sufficient enticing evidence that further scrutiny of this area and its association to these experiences should be undertaken. It should be mentioned that no area in the brain works alone. Rather complex behaviors and experiences are produced by the joint action of large numbers of areas throughout the brain. So, pointing to the insula only suggests that it may be central to the disparate neural system underlying spiritual (ecstatic) experiences.

 

That spiritual (ecstatic) experiences can be produced by epileptic seizures and by electrical stimulation of the brain, combined with the fact that drugs that alter brain chemistry can also produce these experiences, suggests that neural systems may underlie all spiritual experiences. This should not be surprising as the experiences are physical in nature, very unusual sensory experiences, but physical experiences nonetheless. So, it should be as no surprise that a physical entity, the brain, may underlie them. It has yet to be conclusively shown, however, the experiences produced by epilepsy, stimulation, or drugs is the same as that reported by mystics and spiritual seekers. This also leaves open the question as to what it is that’s registering and aware of. these experiences. It appears that regardless of what produces them, the underlying awareness registering them is unchanged.

 

“The anterior insula may be where all manner of feelings, including bodily pleasures and pains; sights, sounds and smells; emotions, expectations and intentions; and even the sense of one’s physical surroundings are integrated into a unified sense of a “self” moving through time.

If this hypothesis is true, then disturbances to the anterior insula would likely cause disturbances to the usual sense of self-awareness.Jim Schnabel

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are available at the Contemplative Studies Blog http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/

 

Study Summary

Gschwind, M., & Picard, F. (2016). Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 21. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00021

 

Abstract

Ecstatic epileptic seizures are a rare but compelling epileptic entity. During the first seconds of these seizures, ecstatic auras provoke feelings of well-being, intense serenity, bliss, and “enhanced self-awareness.” They are associated with the impression of time dilation, and can be described as a mystic experience by some patients. The functional neuroanatomy of ecstatic seizures is still debated. During recent years several patients presenting with ecstatic auras have been reported by others and us (in total n = 52); a few of them in the setting of presurgical evaluation including electrical brain stimulation. According to the recently recognized functions of the insula, and the results of nuclear brain imaging and electrical stimulation, the ecstatic symptoms in these patients seem to localize to a functional network centered around the anterior insular cortex, where we thus propose to locate this rare ictal phenomenon. Here we summarize the role of the multiple sensory, autonomic, affective, and cognitive functions of the insular cortex, which are integrated into the creation of self-awareness, and we suggest how this system may become dysfunctional on several levels during ecstatic aura.

 

Frontal Cortex Damage Increases Mystical Experiences

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Push theories argue that activation of a single ‘God Spot’ causes mystical beliefs, suggesting that injuries to these spots would reduce mysticism. In contrast, pull theories argue that the suppression of our inhibitory functions opens up the brain to mystical experiences,” – Joseph Bulbulia

 

Spiritual experiences, be they called awakenings, mystical experiences, or enlightenments, involve a shift in how the individual perceives reality. This could be viewed as a spiritual revelation. But it could also be viewed as a change in the neural systems integrating and interpreting experiences. So, are spiritual awakenings revelations of a reality beyond physical reality or are they simply hallucinatory experience evoked by changes in the nervous system?

 

One way of investigating this question is to study the brain-spirituality connection. Modern neuroscience research employing sophisticated neuroimaging techniques has investigate this relationship and has revealed that there is a clear association between spirituality and the brain. Neuroimaging techniques that allow the measurement of the nervous system in an intact human have demonstrated that spirituality is associated with changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. So spirituality and changes in neural systems co-occur. But, this does not demonstrate a causal connection, whether spirituality alters the brain or brain alteration causes spirituality, or some third factor is responsible for both.

 

A better way to demonstrate if brain activity causes spiritual experiences is to investigate what happens to spirituality when the brain changes. One place to look at this is with accidental brain injuries incurred by humans. This affords an opportunity to glimpses associations between brain change and spirituality. In general people who have incurred damage to the right inferior parietal area show an increase in spirituality. So, brain alteration affects spirituality. But, increased spiritual beliefs and spiritual seeking are not the same thing as spiritual experiences. So, we cannot conclude that these changes in the brain are responsible for awakening experiences.

 

In today’s Research News article “Neural correlates of mystical experience”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1201966963160561/?type=3&theater or see below

Cristofori and colleagues study the effects of brain injury incurred by soldiers in the Vietnam war and mystical experiences with a matched group of uninjured Vietnam veterans. The neuroimaging technique of Computerized Axial Tomography (CT Scans) were used to map the areas of the brain damaged in the veterans. They found that one particular area, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) was associated with higher levels of mystical experiences. Veterans with damage to that area had significantly higher scores on the Mysticism Scale (M-Scale) than either intact veterans or veterans with damage to other brain areas. These results suggest that damage to the brain causes increased mystical experiences.

 

The prefrontal cortex in general, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) have been shown to be involved in executive function. Executive function regulates cognitive processes, including attention, working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. The results from the study suggest that damage to areas underlying these executive function increases mystical experiences. This in turn suggests that reducing higher level thinking induces more mystical experiences. Indeed, Cristofori and colleagues found that the in the brain injured veterans the greater the deficit in executive function, the higher the mysticism score.

 

These results support a theoretical model of mystical experiences proposed by de Castro in which executive function inhibits unprocessed sensory information from reaching consciousness. The model postulates that these raw sensory experiences are the basis of mystical experiences. So, brain damage which disrupts executive function would tend to increase the ability of these unprocessed experiences to reach consciousness.

 

Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that frontal cortex damage increases mystical experiences.

 

“it will first be necessary for science to accept that its ability to understand subjective phenomena is radically limited by its current world-view and that this world-view or paradigm is long overdue for a radical transformation. What will aid enormously in this transformation is for scientists to begin the process of inner research or exploration of their own consciousness so that the states of mind being studied, such as mystical perception, become a part of their own experience. When the consciousness of the researchers starts to undergo a profound transformation, the old world-view or paradigm will correspondingly undergo a similar shift.” – Michael Persinger

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

 

Study Summary

Irene Cristofori, Joseph Bulbulia, John H. Shaver, Marc Wilson, Frank Krueger, Jordan Grafman. Neural correlates of mystical experience. Neuropsychologia, Volume 80, 8 January 2016, Pages 212-220

 

Highlights

  • We investigated the causal role of brain region in mystical experience.
  • VLSM showed increased mystical experience associated to ip temporal cortexanddlPFC.
  • Patients with selective lesions to dlPFC reported increased mystical experience.
  • Executive functioningcontributes to the down-regulationof mystical experiences.

Abstract

Mystical experiences, or subjectively believed encounters with a supernatural world, are widely reported across cultures and throughout human history. Previous theories speculate that executive brain functions underpin mystical experiences. To evaluate causal hypotheses, structural studies of brain lesion are required. Previous studies suffer from small samples or do not have valid measures of cognitive functioning prior to injury. We investigated mystical experience among participants from the Vietnam Head Injury Study and compared those who suffered penetrating traumatic brain injury (pTBI; n=116) with matched healthy controls (HC; n=32). Voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping analysis showed that lesions to frontal and temporal brain regions were linked with greater mystical experiences. Such regions included the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex(dlPFC) and middle/superior temporal cortex (TC). In a confirmatory analysis, we grouped pTBI patients by lesion location and compared mysticism experiences with the HC group. The dlPFC group presented markedly increased mysticism. Notably, longitudinal analysis of pre-injury data (correlating with general intelligence and executive performance) excludes explanations from individual differences. Our findings support previous speculation linking executive brain functions to mystical experiences, and reveal that executive functioning (dlPFC) causally contributes to the down-regulation of mystical experiences.