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The Utility of a Neuropsychology of Religious Experience

Updated: November 1, 2006

The Temporal Lobe Model | Implications of Temporal Lobe Models | d'Aquli's Model for Meditative States | Testing the Model A Cartography of Ecstatic and Meditative Religious States The religious experience and psychoactive drugs | The Phenomenology of the Psychedelic Experience | The Miracle of Marsh Chapel, The Good Friday Experiment | How do these drugs facilitate a religious experience? | Implications of a Psychopharmacology of Religion Discussion | The Physiological and Chemical Experience Contextualized | Implications For Humanity

Related Original TEWM Papers: The Triune Brain The Self Self-Realization and Social Responsibility

(Note: This in not an original TEWM Paper, it was picked off of the Internet some time ago and did not have any author or copyright information.)

William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience ,(1902) claims that there are an indefinite number of inherent impulses that are apparently common to all human beings. These impulses are divided into two types, those that deal with low level instincts and desires and those that concern higher, more profound urges such as the tendency to subject oneself to strenuous challenge and sacrifice. It is the juxtaposition between of these two types of impulses that is the "general basis of al religious experience" (p.86) The dynamics of this relationship between our lower level impulses and needs and our higher level impulses and needs give definition to our religious lives.

The religious experience has been defined in a variety of ways.

Below is a composite definition from James (1902), Pahnke (1963), Fischer (1978), Pratt (1920). These characteristics can be present in any combination to identify a religious experience and have each been verified as characteristic of a religious experience through observation and self report. Together they address all known cultural expressions of religion. The religious or mystical experience is characterized by:

•Loss of all awareness of discrete limited being and of the passage of time

•An obliteration of the self-other dichotomy

•Visual and auditory hallucinations

•Feelings of bliss and ecstasy

•Feelings of transcendence of the ordinary world

•Preoccupation with religious ritual

•Feelings of internal unity

•Feelings of cosmic union and consciousness

•Feelings of transcendence of space and time

•Sense of presence of a higher being(s) or reality

•Sense of insight into the nature of the universe and an overcoming of paradoxes.

•Entering into trance states

•Sense of sacredness

•Sense of ineffability

To what extent can neuropsychology give us insight into the religious experience. This paper will examine four neuropsychological models for the religious experience and discuss what the models imply for the understanding of the religious experience. By identifying the universal neuropsychological correlates of the religious experience we can, perhaps, move towards establishing an objective, non-phenomenologically based, alternate (to the one above) definition of the religious experience. This paper will explore the possibility of identifying an underlying, universal, neuropsychology of the religious experience and will discuss how useful it is, for the scientist as well as the religious practitioner. The implications of having a decontextualized, reductionist view will be discussed. It is the position of the author that the religious experience is determined, not by spontaneous, or willed, impulses from the brain structures to be discussed below, but a person's interpretation of these neuropsychological processes. Finally, there is evidence that the religious experience is positively correlated with mental health and self actualization (Larsen, 1972; Wulff, 1991). An attempt will therefore be made to synthesize the information gained from these models in order to develop ideas to optimize the religious experience for purposes of improved mental health.

Two neuropsychological models, isolating fundamental components of the religious experience to certain physiological structures, will be presented. These will be followed by a model that allows us to map the entire process of the religious experience to the underlying physiological states presented above. Finally a pharmacological model is presented of the religious experience. This pharmacological section will demonstrate that the religious experience can be chemically facilitated, if not induced, and will offer a neuropsychological explanation of the underlying processes involved.

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The Temporal Lobe Model

The temporal lobe has been associated with disturbances in affect for almost 100 years (Kolb and Wishaw, 1995). Penfield (1975) conducted a series of stimulation experiments with 1,100 patients over a number of years. He found that the temporal lobe was the only area, when artificialy stimulated, that produced altered perception of ongoing experience or induced unreal experience. More recently Bear and Fedio (1977) conducted a study in which they used self report measures given to temporal lobe patients to categorize the characteristics of what is called temporal lobe personality. They came up with the following traits: emotionality, elation and euphoria, sadness, anger, aggression, altered sexual interest, guilt, hypermoralism, obssesionalism, viscosity, sense of personal destiny, circumstantiality, viscosity, sense of personal destiny, hypergraphia, viscosity, sense of personal destiny, hypergraphia, religiosity, philosophical interest, dependence and passivity, humorlessness and sobriety, and finally paranoia. They also found that once these patients had temporal lobectemies all of these symptoms decreased. Research such as this demonstrates the wide effect that the temporal lobe has on our personality and has subsequently lead to the systematic study of the temporal lobe specifically for its role in the religious experience.

Michael Persinger (1983) describes a fairly detailed hypothesis that religious and mystical experiences are, in fact, everyday consequences of spontaneous biogenic stimulation of temporal lobe structures. He asserts that the composition and intensity of these experiences for each human being are a result of temporal lobe stability along a continuum. Persinger begins by explaining that the temporal lobe is an optimal location for the experience of religious or mystical states. He points out that amygdaloid and hippocampal structures are associated with "the sense of 'self' in relation to time and space, the memory-dependent conception of their limits and the primary affective components of anticipation, especially of nociceptive events." Research by Mandel (1980) reviewed later in this paper supports this claim. Furthermore he provides evidence that the amygdala contains representations of emotional states and their different affective dimensions. Wingarten, Cherlow, & and Holmegren, (1977 as cited in Persinger, 1983) show that crude and wide spread stimulation of the amygdala evokes fear and general anxiety while more subtle stimulation evokes peak experiences and intense meaningfulness. States of intense meaningfulness and peak experience evoked in such a way often occur in together with altered body perceptions or feelings of cosmic communion. (Jasper & Rasmussen, 1958 as cited in Persinger, 1983)

Persinger also describes three general physiological properties of the temporal lobe that help identify the temporal lobe as the source for religious and mystical experiences:

1) Deep neuronal structures (in this case the amygdala and the hippocampus), he notes, are characterized by post-stimulation electrical instability. The temporal lobe region is also known for its capacity to generate learned seizures (kindling.) These two phenomenon would allow for the existence of transient firing patterns that are not necessarily elicited by concurrent sensory input.

2) Areas in the temporal lobes are prone to vascular anomalies which are considered to be the primary cause of hallucinatory experiences. (Altura and Altura, 1981)

3)He points out that cellular membranes in this region are prone to both interneuronal and neuronal-glial fusion. This is a predisposing factor to psychomotor epilepsy. (Schwartzkroin, 1983)

With this background evidence he proposes that a person's religious or mystical experience is evoked by a transient, very focused, electrical display in the temporal lobe. These temporal lobe transients (TLTs) are analogous to electrical microseizures without any obvious motor components. An exception is made for some facial expressions such as ecstasy and for lacrimation.

Persinger continually emphasizes that the leap, in terminology, from a TLT to a religious or mystical experience is context dependent. He states that environmental context (e.g. church, public space), how the experience is labeled (e.g. God, cosmic consciousness), and the inclusion of reward versus aversive neuronal centers would determine the nature of the experience. Reward centers might conjure up "good" images such as heaven while aversive ones might stimulate "bad" ones such as hell. Although the content of the TLT experience would reflect a person's personal life experience, the general patterns and themes would be consistent across every culture because of the similarities of temporal lobe function. He cites evidence from Brazier (1972) which suggests that the persistency in patterns of reported experiences are due to "electrical coherence" during which structures that are not usually coordinated interact briefly. Evidence for this includes systematic access to infantile memories of parental images (perhaps even perinatal memories) and to images from before four to five years of age for which there are no normal retrieval processes. The experience of these memories are attributed to extrinsic (ego-alien) sources (Mahl, Rotheberg, Delgado and Hamlin, 1964). He hypothesizes that the first memory experience would be a universal source of God (parent-surrogate) images and the second would be attributed by the experiencer to previous lives or "other memories"

Many studies have been conducted to demonstrate the range of experiences capable of being produced by the temporal lobes through surgical stimulation. (Persinger, 1983; Gloor, 1972; Horowitz & Adams, 1970; Mandell, 1980) Some of these experiences that are relevant to the religious experience include out-of-body experiences, vestibular sensations (traveling thorough time-and space), auditory experiences (rushing sounds, the voice of God or a spirit creature giving instructions), various perceptual alterations (bright lights, looking down a tunnel), and peacefulness. These experiences are often perceived in a dream-like atmosphere.

After examining these experiences, Persinger places TLT religious or mystical experiences along a hypothetical continuum. Extreme symptoms would include circumstantiality, a sense of the personal (e.g. egocentric references, divine guidance), perseveration, hypergraphia, altered affect, and most importantly an overwhelming sense of religiosity. These symptoms he predicts would be evident in pathological populations of people with temporal lobe epilepsy or temporal lobe psychosis.

Less severe symptoms would include those that are not thought to involve disorders in thought processes. Some of the examples that Persinger gives are déjà-vu experiences; feelings of unreality or depersonalization; peaceful or quiescent periods of diffuse concentration; experiencing the presence of other beings; and distortions in the serial order of time (e.g. telepathic/precognitive experiences). Persinger emphasizes that these are normal experiences and that it is only the degree to which they dominate a person's behavior that predicts pathology.

According to Persinger's hypothesis there are many thing that can be isolated as predisposing and precipitating factors. People whose brains are prone to membrane fusion and to recurrent low- level epileptogenic foci would be particularly sensitive. This sensitivity changes over the life span with major peaks of TLT's occurring during pubescence and during old age (Kiloh, McComas, & Ossleton, 1972). The hypothesis holds that any conditions that increase lability in deep structures, an example being cultural practices, are also important predisposing factors for TLT's.

Many stimuli found in everyday experience serve as precipitating factors. Less severe experiences include fatigue, social isolation peaks or shifts in circadian rhythms, music, smells, and vestibular (rocking) stimuli. Intermediate, not so everyday, experiences include hypoglycema (fasting), hypoxia, psychedelic drug use, intense pain, and direct stimulation of certain peripheral limbic afferents by procedures such as yoga. These stimuli can be combined in different patterns. The efficacy of these patterns would be determined by the learned or physiological propensity to stimulate the relevant temporal lobe structures. Particularly strong stimuli would include the anticipation of self demise and the loss of a loved one.

Behaviors that lead to desirable TLT states can be easily learned. Persinger argues that these states are intrinsically rewarding experiences. He describes TLTs as "learned microseizures provoked by precipitating stimuli and followed by anxiety reduction." People whose brains are susceptible to self-stimulation, according to Persinger's hypothesis, would be prone to multiple conversions and long periods of religious and mystical experiences. These experiences are consequently often characteristic of temporal lobe psychotic patients (Slater & Beard, 1963). Persinger further hypothesizes that, because of the intensity of the TLT reward, antecedent conditions of the episode could become strong secondary reinforces. He outlines a scenario in which a person might seek after personal adversity or crisis since this would persistently be followed by the rewarding TLT high. These people would be prone to periodic bouts of conversion mania, rededications, and repeated "cult jags" (Persinger, Carrey & Suess, 1980).

Persinger (1983) later developed a 140-item Personal Philosophy inventory designed to measure "temporal lobe signs" or behavior that has been associated with epiliptogenic foci in the temporal lobes. The PPI was then used in some studies to measure religious experience as it was associated with temporal lobe behavior. (Persinger 1983, 1987; Persinger and Makarec 1985, 1987) Using this measure on 441 university students, Persinger and Makarec (1987) found significant positive correlations between the Complex Partial Epileptic Signs (CPES) cluster, referring to experiences frequently reported by temporal lobe patients (e.g. visions or inexplicable odors) and clusters that measured paranormal or mystical experiences and sense of presence (of another being).

Another Study conducted by Makarec and Persinger (1985) looked at correlation between PPI scores and EEG measures. Two groups of subjects who had all taken the PPI were exposed to "exotic" rhythmic sounds ranging from seven to ten cycles per second, and then to a diffuse light pulsating at seven cycles per second. Both of these stimuli were designed to elicit various signs of "epilepicity," including Alpha driving (Alpha waves of 8 to 13 cycles per second normally appear in relaxed states). During these periods, EEG measures were taken of temporal lobe and occipital lobe activity. Occipital lobe readings were used as a control. For both groups of subjects the number of EEG spikes in the temporal lobe correlated significantly with three clusters of the PPI: religious belief or dogma, paranormal or mystical experiences, and sense of presence. Spike activity in the occipital lobe was not related to PPI scores. An important side note that Persinger makes is that church attendance has proven to be unrelated to PPI scores or EEG measures implying that institutional training has less influence on our religious experience than does our biological make-up.

Persinger's evidence that internal TLT states are more highly correlated with religiosity than is church attendance is strong evidence that a person's environment has little influence in bringing about a religious experience. It might be too hasty, however to dismiss the importance of the religious context. It is quite possible that church attendance is a poor predictor of religiosity and perhaps a higher predictor of adherence to ones culturally driven practices. To isolate these two phenomena perhaps a measure could be devised that would determine which religious activities are highly correlated with an internal sense spiritual significance and which ones are more associated with culturally expected practices.

Other researchers have also developed models localizing the religious experience to the temporal lobes. Arnold Mandell (1980) uses evidence of sites and mechanisms of drug actions to discuss the role that the temporal lobes play in this experience. Mandell uses a model that considers three classes of psychoactive drugs, their blocking of the inhibitory effects of serotonin on the temporal lobes, and their consequent ability to induce temporal lobe spiking and kindling. Mandell proposes that it is the loss of serotonin inhibitory regulation of hippocampal CA3 cells that leads to their hyperexcitablity and to a subsequent decrease in their ability to "gate" emotionally laden associations between internal, temporal lobe limbic states, and external events. This inability to gate will lead to hippocampal-septal synchronous discharges and to the emotional flooding known as ecstasy.

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Implications of Temporal Lobe Models

Persinger, who is now working on inducing temporal lobe activity by using a computer-modulated electromagnetic field (DeSano and Persinger, 1987), is a good example of a reductionist in the field of neuropsychology. He boldly states that "The God Experience is an artifact of transient changes in the temporal lobe: (Persinger, 1987, p.137) His work has largely been done with the implicit and sometimes explicit tone that more profound religious experience is nothing more than a pathological reaction to adverse stimuli. He further asserts (Persinger, 1987, 1983) that the God Experience promotes passivity, and because of the random emotional associations will lead to unreasoned decisions. He gives an example of a horrible scenario in which a pivotal world leader undergoing one of these religious TLT states would irrationally decide to trigger a nuclear disaster. What will be considered after presenting the next three models is how data like this can be used in a more constructive way. One must also keep in mind that most of the research done on religiosity as a result of TLTs are done with clinical populations. Although studies using disordered populations are often extremely helpful in finding out mechanisms involved in normal behavior, (since many symptoms are simply normal behaviors exaggerated) for purposes of attaching a value label to normal religious experience they are not enough. While Persinger was able to show that those normals with above average incidence of TLT's tended to be more religious, his assumptions of the pathological tendencies of those with TLT's came from disordered populations and not from pathological observations in normal subjects. The danger of reductionism is that taking the religious experience out of its context, either by the language used to describe it or by using decontextualized methods to facilitate it, will prevent it from addressing our needs which are definitely mediated through our set and setting. If one is intent on determining the universal neuropsychological mechanisms involved in the religious experience, perhaps a more useful way to approach the research is to design it in a way that allows it to be applied to promoting a more healthy and efficient religious experiencing for everyone. This issue will be discussed following descriptions of three more models concerning the neuropsychological basis of the religious experience.

The temporal lobe model for the religious experience, as proposed by Persinger and other researchers, is the neurophysiological model for the religious experience which is by far the most prevalent in the literature. A sufficiently different alternate model is presented below.

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d'Aquli's Model for Meditative States

Eugene d'Aquili (1993) has devised a slightly different neuropsychological model of the religious experience. His model is not incompatible with the temporal lobe models, however, instead of focusing on ecstatic states and spontaneous religious thoughts he focuses on meditative states. These states are characterized by a more practiced and intentional experience. d'Aquili proposes that a four structure mechanism is responsible for the religious experience found through mediation. He suggests that the cortical regions directly involved in such a religious experience are: the inferior temporal lobe (ITL); the inferior parietal lobule (IPL); the posterior superior parietal lobule (PSPL) and the prefrontal cortex.

The PSPL, he argues is heavily involved in higher order visual, auditory, somatosensory information. He emphasizes the spatial functions of the PSPL by pointing out that the right PSPL is involved in processing objects that might be grasped or manipulated. He also notes that some of the neurons in the left PSPL respond to stimuli just beyond arms reach. He uses these data to suggest that the distinction between self and world arises from the PSPL's ability to judge these two categories of distance.

The function of the ITL that is emphasized in this model is the detection of objects from the PSPL and the alerting of the organism to those objects of interest or motivational importance. It is able to do this through its connection with the limbic structures.

The IPL, he asserts, is an association area of association areas. This is responsible for generating abstract concepts and relating them to words. It is also involved in conceptual comparison and other general high order grammatical and logical processes.

The prefrontal cortex is also essential in this model because of its ability to control intention. In other words a person's will is generally thought to reside in the prefrontal cortex. D'aquili asserts that the prefrontal cortex is the structure that mediates intense concentration. I was unable to find any data that specifically backed this claim. Data provided by Kolb and Wishaw (1995), however, using strategy forming tasks to demonstrate that those people with temporal lobe lesions have difficulty in temporal organization of behavior, offers evidence for the prefrontal cortex being involved in our attempts to organize our thoughts.

In providing the basics for his model, d'Aquili also discusses the possible role of some limbic structures in eliciting voluntary religious experience, in this case mediation. He points out that the medial hypothalmic structures are trophotropic and are involved in homeostasis. The lateral hypothalmic structures, on the other hand, are considered ergotropic in nature. They are involved in the "fight or flight" response, sensations of fear, and a great range of other positive emotions. The amygdala is also involved in generating emotion. Unlike the hypothalamus the amygdala's generation of emotion is not necessarily stimulus bound and can persist over time with a slow extinction curve. This is a similar concept as is brought in research by Mandel (1980) and Persinger (1983) who attribute this stimulus-less emotional generation to lack of serotonin inhibition. d'Aquli's model is examined in light of Mandel's research at the end of this section

In d'Aquili's model, religious experience is self-induced through meditation. Thus the process must begin with intense concentration that is mediated by the prefrontal cortex, especially the lateral convexity. He offers as support for his model data from Corby (1978) who did a study on a meditating subject with a self reported religious experience. The research showed large amounts of high amplitude alpha and theta waves during the religious experience especially in the prefrontal and parietal areas.

D'aquili also discusses the importance of functional deafferantation. He points out that the phenomenon of deafferantation can be partial or total and can be the result of physical interruption or of inhibitory impulse from other nervous system structures. He provides evidence that intrahemispheric information transformation can be partially or totally prevented by impulses originating in the prefrontal cortex. He further argues that, when deafferantation of a structure occurs to a significant degree, the cells within that structure begin to fire either randomly or according to the "internal logic" of that structure. This is because the ordered neuronal activity is no longer determined by input from other parts if the brain. He notes, consequently that almost all known examples of functional deafferentation originate in the prefrontal cortex and are therefore willed by the subject.

D'aquili actually proposes two neuropsychological mechanisms for obtaining a religious experience. The first method of undergoing a religious experience is passive meditation. The religious experience through passive meditation begins in the right prefrontal cortex with the will to clear the mind of thoughts. This results in a partial deafferentation of the right PSPL. This partial deafferentation of the PSPL will result in stimulation of the right hippocampus through the rich connections between the two. There is possibly stimulation of the right hippocampus from the right prefrontal cortex. This high stimulation of the hippocampus will result in the stimulation of the right amygdala's trophotropic centers. When the threshold of stimulation to these centers is reached there is stimulation from the amygdala to the ventromedial portion of the hypothalamus which results in the stimulation of the peripheral parasympathetic system. The result so far for the subject will be a sense of relaxation and increasing state of quiescence.

He further develops this mechanism in such a way that impulses from the ventromedial structures of the hypothalamus stimulate the right amygdala again. Impulses continue to the right hippocampus, then back to the right prefrontal cortex. Impulses go around in this circuit generating greater electrical activity. This increasing level of neural discharge continues until a maximum level is reached in the trophotropic-parasympathetic system. This results in almost instantaneous maximal stimulation of the ergotrophic-sympathetic system. This maximal stimulation of both systems results in ecstatic and blissful feelings because of intense stimulation to the lateral hypothalamus and the median forebrain bundle.

The sensations arising from this mechanism as it has been described so far are usually not enough to be considered a religious experience. d' Aquili further expands this mechanism and its interpretation to explain religious experience. He points out that the total deafferentation of the PSPL can't result in unusual or unmodulated visions, sounds or tactile stimulations, since there is no memory of previous sensations in the PSPL. He concludes that this deafferentation must therefore result in an "absolute subjective sensation of pure space." Because, he claims, the sole purpose of the concept of space is to serve as a matrix in which to relate objects he proposes that this pure space is experienced as absolute unity or wholeness. He then, briefly, turns his attention to the left PSPL. Because it is involved in the self-other/self-world dichotomy he proposes that the deafferentation on the left PSPL, eliminating the self-other dichotomy, occurs at the same time as the deafferentation of the right PSPL.

Having laid out this mechanism, d'Aquili predicts that the end result is:

"the subjects attainment of a state of rapturous transcendence and absolute wholeness which carries such overwhelming power and strength with it that the subject has a sense of experiencing absolute reality. "

 

d'Aquili proposes a second major mechanism for achieving the religious experience. Through active meditation the subject will fixate on a mental image or a physical object to start the process. This focusing on an object, which does not necessarily have to be a religious one, is opposed to the attempt to clear the mind during passive meditation. This mechanism has many of the same components as the one for passive meditation. When a person focuses on an external visual object impulses pass from the prefrontal cortex to the right PSPL. In this case however they are stimulating not deafferenting. The right PSPL fixes an image presented from the ITL which attaches complex associations to the stimulus. When a person focuses on an image from memory the right prefrontal cortex directly stimulates the right ITL. The prefrontal cortex then stimulates the PSPL so that it fixes the image from the ITL. In both cases, d'Aquili proposes, continuous fixation on the image presented by the right ITL begins to stimulate the right hippocampus. This in turn stimulates the right amygdala, which stimulates the lateral portions of the hypothalamus, generating a pleasant sensation. A reverberating loop is established that is identical to that in passive meditation. This stimulation of the ergotropic systems results in maximal stimulation feedback through the limbic structures to the left and right prefrontal cortices. He proposes that this stimulation of the prefrontal cortices will result in the deafferentation of the left PSPL by the left prefrontal cortex as in the previous mechanism. He explains that there is a period of time during which there is conflict on the right side between facilitory and inhibitory mechanisms, and total instantaneous deafferentation of the left PSPL. In this situation the self other dichotomy has again been eliminated while the object of focus still remains fixated upon. This would result in subject's feeling absorbed into the object or becoming one with the object. The length of this experience would depend on the subject's determination to remain fixated on the object of focus. Because of the maximal ergotropic and trophotropic discharge through the limbic systems stimulation of the inhibitory centers of the prefrontal cortex the meditator is eventually forced to surrender and give in to total deafferentation of both sides of the PSPL. The deafferentation of both the left and the right PSPL, he concludes, results in the experience of the "Absolute Unitary Being".

Arnold Mandell's research also provides an explanation for meditative states and their neuropsychological ability to induce religious or mystical states. He notes that meditation is speculated to silence serotonin cells and perhaps the reticular-septal circuit by removing sensory driving. d'Aquili's model lends support to this hypothesis, of serotonin inhibitory functions being suspended, by arguing that functional deafferantation caused by the conscious effort in the prefrontal cortex is responsible for allowing cells in the temporal lobe (the amygdala) to fire according to their own internal logic. By removing the regulatory input derived from the reticular formation passed along to sensory collaterals, the "inside world" dominates. This, he posits, will result in a loss of comparator function. He hypothesizes that with a lack of comparative function to provide a source of reference a sense of the "I" is lost. He further hypothesizes that this lost sense of the "I" and a loss of comparator functions will result in the dissolution of dualistic debates and conflicts. Feelings and perceptions of unity will take over.

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Testing the Model

D' Aquili's model can be tested in a variety of ways. One of the first things that must be established empirically is that the prefrontal cortex is in fact the seat of the will. Then in the same way that Persinger tested for EEG spiking in the temporal lobe one could test for spiking in the areas that d'Aquili associates with the religious experience. Those areas that are inhibited by prefrontal cortex "desire" would exhibit less spiking than others. Those areas excited would do the opposite. Serandifites (1965) showed that subjects with temporal lobectomies exhibited far fewer signs of religious behavior after the operation than before. Because there are four separate structures associated with the religious experience in d'Aquili's model studies should be done on patients that have had different combinations of these structures surgically removed. Can these people meditate effectively? If not, in what ways are their experiences lacking? Another question to be answered for any biological model of religious experience is whether or not people are genetically prone to these neural states. This can answered using concordance studies. That is will twins show significantly similar patterns of development of "religious" neural mechanisms? Can physiological symptomology associated with religious experience (e.g. temporal lobe psychosis) be traced down family lines?

With an increased understanding of exact mechanisms involved in the religious experience technology, will soon be able to selectively stimulate these mechanisms. What are the clinical implications of this as well as the implications for the future of religion. These issues will be addressed after considering two more models for religious experience.

 

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A Cartography of Ecstatic and Meditative Religious States

d'Aquili and the proponents of the TLT model both claim to provide the essential insight into the underlying neuropsychological processes involved in the religious experience. Neither model, however, deals directly with the religious experiences explained by the other. One would have to ask if it is possible to synthesize a model that accounts for both meditative religious experiences as well as ecstatic ones.

Roland Fischer (1969, 1971, 1978, 1986) believes that, based on neuropsychological as well as behavioral evidence, that these two models can be reconciled since ultimately they will end in the same state. He has therefore developed a cartography which displays meditative and ecstatic states on a circular continuum. The continuum shown in Figure 1 represents different states of subcortical arousal.

An increase in ergotropic arousal is represented as one moves in one direction along the continuum. This arousal is physically marked by an increase in activity in the sympathetic nervous system, frequency of saccadic movements of the eyes, as well as an increase in cortical activity. Movement in the other direction reflects trophotropic arousal. This hypoarousal or reduced stimulation is characterized by an increase in parasympathetic activity, decreased saccadic frequency, muscle relaxation, and decreased cortical activity. Fischer describes increased ergotropic arousal as being characteristic of creative, psychotic, and ecstatic states. While trophotropic arousal is involved in various forms of meditation.

Fischer's cartography of ecstatic and meditative states presents us with a way to examine the physiological correlates of a religious experience. According to Fischer the more one moves in either direction along the continuum, away from the normal state of perception, the greater the objective time-space world transformation for the experiencing "I" the closer one becomes to the end goal or the self. Fischer is able to outline these changes in time and space through a description of various states produced by psychedelic drugs. Although Fischer does not provide any direct evidence, he hypothesizes that similar changes in time and space presumably occur during trophotropic arousal. Research by Mandel, explained later in this paper, provides what could be an explanation for both states by positing a model of the disinhibition of certain areas associated with the religious experience achieved both through drug consumption as well as through meditation. Using either method of arousal (ergotropic or trophotropic), however, results in the same end state: the "self." This state is characterized by a oneness with the universe which is able to accurately perceive beyond the confines of the physical time-space world.

Fischer's circular model also takes into account the phenomenon of trophotropic rebound. This is a term he uses to define the process of person, when at the peak of ergotropic arousal, passing from ecstasy into Samadhi, the last stage of yoga. this is explained as a "physiological protection mechanism." It is suggested that the process might be the same process producing Pavlov's transmarginal inhibition. Passage from samadhi to ecstasy, rebound in the opposite direction, is also possible. Gellhorn and Kiely (1972) show evidence for unpredicted increases in heart rate and EEG when experienced yogis pass from samadhi to ecstatic states. Corby (1978) also reported an increase in autonomic activity during mediation for experienced meditators. Based on this evidence of both kinds of arousal occurring together, Fischer does not propose that reciprocal ergotropic and trophotropic have an inverse relation to each other (an increase in one is automatically accompanied by a decrease in the other.) Gellhorn and Kiely suggest that because the observable trophotropic arousal in meditation does not lead to sleep that there is concurrent partial activation of the ergotropic system. They hypothesize that an experienced yogi's attempt to maintain on the trophotropic side of the ergotrophic-trophotropic balance excites the ergotropic system without increasing muscle tone, until the process culminates in the experience of ecstasy.

Some researchers, such as Mills and Campbell (1974) argue that Fischer's model cannot explain important differences between different forms of mediation. Fischer (1971) argues however that many of these differences in form of mediation, or indeed any sort of religious experience, result simply from cortical interpretation of subcortical processes. General subcortical activity, ergotropic or trophotropic, can produce general emotional states that can be interpreted in various ways at the cortical level. Using attribution theory to attach a contextual label or cause to certain subconscious processes in accordance with one's experience and beliefs is an important concept to be gained from Fischer's rebuttal of the Mill's and Campbell criticism. Fischer (1971) expands his model even more in light of attribution theory. He claims that cortical "freedom" to interpret subcortical activity decreases as one progresses in either direction along the continuum. The freedom of interpretation finally disappears in the "self" state of ecstasy and samadhi, in which the "I" is dissolved and there is an indistinguishable integration of cortical and subcortical activity.

The relevance of contextualized understanding of the neuropsychological approach to religious experience will be discussed after a review of pharmacological research on the nature of the religious experience.

Fischer (1972) further speculates that the closer a person moves to the self the more time he or she will spend in the non-verbal right hemisphere. With the increase in arousal in either system the rational "I", which is specific to the prepositional, verbal left hemisphere, will receive less attention as the "self", specific to the intuitive non-verbal right hemisphere, receives more attention. Fischer uses studies of psychedelic drug induced religious experiences to provide evidence for his theory. He observes that as drug induced arousal along the continuum increases the syntactical structure of language becomes more simplified.

Fischer weaves together his whole neuropsychological theory by suggesting that the loss of freedom to interpret subcortical activity can also be seen as a freedom from the confining rationality of the left-hemispheric "I." He continues that at moderate levels of arousal the core "self" and the interpretive "I" begin to communicate. The expression of their communication is represented in the subjective symbols of dreams and hallucinations. Fischer (1971), claims that it is these symbols that are the source of art, literature, science, and religion.

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The religious experience and psychoactive drugs

So far the models considered all account for religious experiences that are "natural," that is they account for experiences produced by a person's interaction with their environment. What about model of religious experience that is specific to the ingestion of psychoactive substances. Of what comparative value are these artificially induced experiences? What insight can research in this area give us into the underlying processes of the religious experience? This section will attempt to develop a neuropsychological model for drug induced religious experiences that addresses these questions.

Psychoactive drugs have been used for many thousands of years for religious purposes. One of the earliest accounts of ritual drug consumption involves the drug Soma. In Vedic literature Soma is simultaneously a god, a plant, and the plants' juice. This same mushroom played a part in religious rituals in northern Siberia.

In Mesoamerica, more that 3500 years ago, hallucinogenic mushrooms were also used for ritual purposes; the Aztecs called their form of mushrooms God's flesh (Wasson, 1961). Robert Graves (1960) notes that edible mushrooms were also known in Greece where they formed essential ingredients in nectar and ambrosia, the food of the Olympic gods. Many Native American groups also have a tradition of using edible forms of cacti for religious purposes.

Drug induced religious experience has been investigated more recently, in this century, by many famous people. William James claimed to undergo a religious experience with nitrous oxide while Aldous Huxley, after refuting the validity of the religious experience, had one by consuming mescaline.

Much research has been done on the neuropsychological mechanisms involved in the drug induced or facilitated religious experience. The psychoactive drugs most commonly associated with religious experience are the psychedelics (Wulff, 1991). The most commonly used and researched of these being the hallucinogens, LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline.

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The Phenomenology of the Psychedelic Experience

The range of experiences that these drugs produce is actually very wide (Wulff, 1991). They vary by dosage, personality of the subject, education and vocation, and expectation of the subject. The experience is also influenced by the setting, including the physical environment, visual and auditory stimuli present, and the purpose of the occasion. The experience also depends on the number, personal qualities, and expectations of others present.

These hallucinogens are characterized by a variety of perceptual changes. One of the first subjective effects of moderate consumption of LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin has been called a "saturnalia" or "orgy" of vision (Unger, 1963). Light and color become intensified, objects seem plastic or alive, and the visual field is filled with fantastic imagery. Sensitivity to sounds, tastes and odors can also be increased. Very common to these experience, as well is the phenomenon known as synesthasia in which perception in one sensory modality stimulates another. Objects considered trivial under normal circumstances may become endlessly fascinating or extremely significant. The subjective experience of time is also radically transformed. Intervals of times that last only minutes can become be so rich, experientially, that they seem to last indefinitely. The concept of a timeless eternity, for some subjects, becomes a reality. The subjective experience of space is also transformed. Areas and object change in size and shape and two dimensional objects can take on a third dimension and faces be reduced to two dimensions.

Other perceptual changes, more central to the theme of this paper, involve the perception of the self. Very often there is a dissolution of the "self" which can be called depersonalization or derealization. The body image often undergoes distortion or alteration, tactile sensitivity is reduced, and the ego becomes detached. The sense of self can fade to the extent that a person is no longer the locus of his or her own experience. For example a person can become the music that they were previously listening to or the pain that they feel may no longer seem to be his or her own.

This experience of union with the surrounding universe was termed by Huxely (1954), after his mescaline experience, as the "sacramental vision of reality." Experiences such as this have led many researchers and observers to consider drugs magical keys to the mystical experience. Timothy Leary (1964) claims that between 40 and 90 percent of subjects will undergo an intense mystical or revelatory experience. In addition, the lower percentages are a result of studies done with subjects who were patients in psychotherapy, medical personnel, and from settings that are neutral. Higher percentages are expected when the subjects are religious professionals and when the setting is supportive of a religious experience.

Using empirical studies of drug induced religious experience we can determine which substances, under which circumstances, are optimal for the facilitation of the religious experience. By controlling set and setting between a control group and an experimental group the effects of a drug can be accurately studied. The simplicity of this design is useful for two reasons:

1)Through successive experimentation those groups and individuals who use psychoactive drugs to facilitate religious experience can develop efficient and safe ways to experience religiously oriented altered states of consciousness.

2)With an awareness of a drug's action in the brain, we can implicate

certain structures that mediate the religious experience.

Below is an example of an experiment involving drug induced religious experience. It is reviewed in order to get an idea of the type of experimental designs used as well to assess how useful these studies are.

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The Miracle of Marsh Chapel, The Good Friday Experiment

In the early 1960s psychological research into drug induced altered states of consciousness was extremely popular. One of the most prominent researchers in this field was Walter Pahnke. He wanted to determine if the experiences triggered by psychedelic drugs are fundamentally similar to the experiences of acknowledged mystics.

Pahnke (1963, 1966) first developed a "typology of the mystical states of consciousness." Pahnke drew heavily on the theories of universal mystical experiences of philosopher Walter Stace (1960).

Pahnke divided the religious experience into nine dimensions. Below are brief definitions.

1) Unity

2) Transcendence of space and time

3) A deeply felt positive mood

4) Sense of sacredness

5) Objectivity and reality

6) Paradoxiality

7) Alleged ineffability

8) Transiency

9) Persisting positive changes in attitude and behavior

After completing his typology Pahnke, conducted his experiment. He divided a group of 20 male graduate students from a theological seminary into ten pairs. The pairs were matched on the basis of religious background, past religious experience, and general psychological makeup. One student from each pair was assigned randomly to the experimental group while the other served as a control. The group of 20 was then divided into five groups of four students each, on the basis of friendship and apparent compatibility.

Each group had two leader assigned to them who were personally familiar with the positive and negative effects of psychedelic drugs. None of the students had taken psychedelic drugs.

A five hour session of tests, interviews, and group discussion was held to inform the subjects and to maximize trust and positive expectation. The subjects and their leaders then met in a suite of rooms in Marsh Chapel at Boston University. In their respective rooms they were to hear a live broadcast of a Good Friday service conducted in the main sanctuary. Ninety minutes before the service began, two subjects in each of the five groups consumed capsules of 30 milligrams of psilocybin, one of each pair of leaders was given 15 milligrams of psilocybin. The other students and leaders consumed identical appearing capsules containing 200 milligrams of nicotinic acid, which, at this dosage, produces flushing and tingling sensations. Not only did Pahnke employ a double blind study but he told the subjects that half of them would receive an inert placebo with no side effects. He did this with the hope that those who did receive the control substance would mistake its effects for those of the drug. The service was composed of organ music, solos, readings, prayers, and personal meditation and lasted two and one-half hours. Most of the subjects stayed inside the chapel throughout this period.

Immediately after the service, individuals reactions and group discussions were tape-recorded. Each subject then wrote an account of his experience "as soon after the experiment as was convenient" at the experimenter's request. Within a week of the experiment each subject also completed a 147-item questionnaire designed to measure the degree to which subjects experienced each dimension of Pahnke's typology. This was followed by an interview based on the questionnaire. Six months later all of the subjects filled out a follow-up questionnaire designed to reevaluate the composition of their experience and to identify and measure any enduring changes that resulted from it.

The qualitative data were quantified through content analysis. The content analysis scores as well as scored from the both questionnaires were converted into three percentages. He conducted a statistical comparison between the experimental groups and the controls after averaging the three scores.

For all 17 comparisons the experimental group showed significantly higher scores at the .05 level or better. The experimental subjects did not, however, undergo "complete" mystical experiences in that none of them experienced each state to its full extent. The data are nonetheless striking in that the reported experiences of those that consumed psilocybin were much more similar to optimal mystical experiences than for those who "had the same expectation and suggestion from the preparation and setting" (p. 307). Also striking was that eight of the ten receiving psilocybin had, according to the follow up survey, significant and enduring effects of the experience.

Pahnke's miracle has since come under some criticism.

Timothy Leary (1968, p. 310) who was one of the group leaders in the study noted that, because the experimental and control subjects were in the same room, all of the subjects soon knew who had been given psilocybin and who had not. This eliminated the desired effect of the nicotinic acid to make the control subjects feel as if they had been administered the drug. Had the control subjects continued to believe that they were under the influence of psilocybin the may have scored higher. This could have possibly been done by putting subjects in rooms by themselves or by keeping subjects from talking to each other. This latter solution might be more representative of a real church setting. Ideally an experimenter would introduce the subjects into the church service and separate them. This would be useful because without interacting with fellows subjects, thereby revealing who has the drug or not, they could receive the benefit of a full religious environment.

Another important factor that reduced the powerful implications of this study was a result of one experimental subject who was determined to demonstrate that drugs can not produce religious experiences. He was the only subject who had made no religious preparation for the experiment and who reported no evidence of mystical experience. Perhaps this subject, knowing the purpose of the study, deliberately set out to mask his religious experience when reporting it. It is more likely however that his reported experience was sincere. The fact that he did not have a religious experience emphasizes the importance of the mindset that a subject enters a drug facilitated altered state of consciousness with in determining whether or not he or she has a religious experience.

Pahnke conducted an even more rigid follow up study with 40 subjects, however he died before he could fully publish the results.

He did note similar results however. Other studies have also shown that psychedelic drugs can precipitate religious experience (Leary, 1964; Leary and Clark, 1963; and Clark, 1969). These studies also show that whether or not the set or setting are purposefully religious, at least a third of subject's consuming psychedelics will report that their experience is religious or mystical. None of these studies were as stringent however as Pahnke's experiments. Very strict federal laws now make it almost impossible to research with these drugs in the United States. Legal or publishable data now on the further parameters of the drug induced religious experience cannot be obtained, thereby leaving the complex issues unclarified.

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How do these drugs facilitate a religious experience?

Arnold Mandell (1980) devised a neuropsychological model of the religious experience based on drug interactions as well as temporal lobe function. Using his own research as well as previous research as a foundation, he is one of leading proponents of a model that is based on serotonergic systems and one of the only ones to specifically draw conclusions as to the actual mechanisms involved in a drug facilitated religious experience. His model suggests that amphetamine, cocaine, and hallucinogens are all capable of producing a "neurological state of transcendent consciousness."

Because serotonin has an inhibitory effect on temporal lobe limbic structures and because each of these drugs has the capacity to acutely reduce serotonin synthesis and/or release, they have a disinhibiting effect on the temporal lobes. This leads to synchronous electrical discharges in temporal lobe limbic structure. This evidence is supported by research from Eidelberg, Lesse, and Gault (1963), Ellinwood (1971), Monroe and Heath (1961), and Radalovackey and Adey (1965). These synchronous discharges in the temporal lobe will last beyond the acute drug effect and are related to increased discharge and resulting cell death in the hippocampus. These events, he claims, are associated with a state of transcendent consciousness.

In accordance with other temporal lobe theorists, Mandell concludes that these drugs induce an acute decrease in serotonergic inhibitory regulation of temporal lobe limbic structures. This will result in "affectual and cognitive processes characteristic of religious ecstasy and the permanent personality changes associated with religious conversion.

In his model, Mandell also brings to light evidence that shows that because lithium stimulates tryptophan uptake into neurons resulting in an increase in serotonin synthesis. The increase in serotonin levels is seen in the mesolimbic system as well as the hippocampus (Mandel, 1979). Furthermore pretreatment or post treatment with lithium in animals and humans appears to antagonize the effects of amphetamine and cocaine in a way that is consistent with known serotonergic inhibition of stimulant induce behavior. (Segal, Callaghan, & Mandell, 1975; Furukawa, 1975; Flemenbaum, 1974; Hollister, Breese, Kuhn, Cooper & Schanberg, 1976)

Lithium is also shown to produce and almost complete loss of effect of cocaine and LSD (Mandell, 1980).

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Implications of a Psychopharmacology of Religion

If we put aside the legality of most of the substances considered here, another significant issue become apparent. What are the differences between an internally induced altered state of consciousness that is religiously significant and one that is drug induce? What are the implications for religious practitioners and institutions?

Jame's Bakalar (1985) identifies three attitudes towards the drug induced religious experience. They are "materialist reductionism, defense of the purity of an orthodox faith, and religion as personal experiences given form and meaning by traditional interpretation." Bakalar points out that those scientists and people who take a reductionist view to the experience are most likely to use evidence such as cited above to argue that the religious experience is immediately less significant. Aldous Huxeley was a proponent of this viewpoint until he tried mescaline in 1953. (Wulff, 1991) Those that take the viewpoint that drug experiences make the religious experience less pure will argue that although certain phenomenology might exist any drug induced religious state is lacking in genuiness. The student in Pahnke's Good Friday experiment who was determined to show the ineffectiveness of drugs on spiritual experiences is and example of a person who holds this view. To describe this viewpoint, Bakalar uses the analogy that a person who lands on a mountain top in a helicopter does not see the same view as the person who struggles up on foot. To test this claim perhaps those that have had drug induced religious experiences can be asked to describe their newly gained insights into spirituality. These responses could then be content analyzed and compared with responses from non-drug using religious practitioners. This would determine if the experiences provide similar spiritual growth. Then using a universal hierarchical categorization of religious thought such as James Fowler's (1980), a judgment could be made as to which method of religious experience (non-drug induced, drug induced, or a combination of both) is more successful at providing significant religious growth. The last type of viewpoint is that a persons drug experience, as it is informed by insight from already established religious traditions, is a beneficial tool for increasing the significance of and growth potential in a religious experience. This attitude is usually adopted by those religious practitioners who actually use the method themselves. Timothy Leary (1968) once claimed that soon religion without drugs would be as pointless and unnatural as astronomy without telescopes.

Although there is clearly a chemical aspect to our religious experience one question to be considered concerning any pharmacological enhancements is this. To what extent can we

engage in cosmetic pharmacology? That is, is there a point at which we cease to be genuine "selves" and more a composite of the different psychoactive drugs we put in our body? Is such a distinction an artificial one? This is a debate that has arisen recently with the wide-scale introduction of prozac into our society however there are implications for drug induced religious experiences as well.

The evidence presented above shows that drug induced religious states simply facilitate naturally occurring physiological states in the body. It is our interpretation of these internal physiological and chemical states that determines whether or not we have a religious experience. It is important then to consider the context of our religious experience as without any sort of context at all drug induced states can not produce a religious experience.

This question of context dependency is brought up in the next section.

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Discussion

Areas in the brain that seem to produce the substrates for a religious experience have been isolated according to theories by Persinger and d'Aquili. Fischer and d'Aquili have presented us with models that allow us to map two well established religious processes to these physiological states. Further evidence is provided for a physiological basis for religious experience with the presentation of drug research. The research above shows that there are definite neuropsychological correlates to the religious experience. How one chooses to interpret and apply these data is the concern of the rest of this paper.

Religion is a integral component of the human experience both on a societal as well as personal basis. This data is extremely useful, therefore, for any researcher trying to understand the basis of human behavior. Assuming that a universal neuropsychological definition of the religious experience can be established; something that Persinger, d'Aquili, Mandell, and others like them are well on the path to doing; we can establish more objective measures for examining the phenomenological characteristics of the experience.

This would be important for religious leaders, whose job it is to promote a successful religious experience in their followers. By nurturing those underlying neuropsychological processes that facilitate religious experience, religious leaders and institutions might develop religious practices that are more efficient in producing significant subjective religious experiences in their practitioners.

Here are two examples of how these theories can be tested, then applied by religious leaders and institutions to improve the religious experience. Following Persinger's proposition that brains are more prone to membrane fusion and recurrent low level epileptic foci during pubescence and old age, these age groups could be specifically targeted in order to ensure the optimum chance for conversion or significant religious experience during the life span. Indeed, studies could be done to determine of these two groups are statistically the most prone to religious experience and conversions. Persinger believes that the experience of God as a being has its origin in temporary, temporal lobe-limbic access to normally inaccessible, infantile parental images. Therefore, another way in which Persinger's theory could be tested and applied is to substitute more parental images for God (i.e. God the mother or father) to see if a person's sense of connection with God is increased. Whether or not this parental imaging of God is helpful or not might be determined by a longitudinal study which assesses the dynamics of the infant-parent relationship then examines the correlates in how a practitioner relates to his or her god concept.

An understanding of the neuropsychology behind the religious experience would also be of importance to therapists who would be in the position to determine whether someone is experience a religious phenomenon, a pathological one, or both. The therapist would benefit in having a clearer understanding of the neuropsychological processes involved in the religious experience in that he or she would be able to treat pathologies associated with the religious experience appropriately (i.e. without depriving a person of the right to a religious experience), especially with medications.

Religious experience, as redefined using neuropsychological models of universal substrates can be useful for constructing "pure" religious activities for those for whom it is useful. While it might be useful for those scientists who are interested in simply isolating the underlying components of behavior, there is a danger in approaching the religious experience in an abstract way.

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The Physiological and Chemical Experience Contextualized

As it has been noted earlier, it is very important to recognize that all of these models assert that the neuropsychology underlying these experiences are for the most part subcortical, decontextualized activities and that it is our own personal history and context that gives rise to their interpretation as religious experiences. Here we can look towards Gazzaniga's concept of an interpreter structure in the midst of a "social brain" which functions to coordinate and order the input from different activities in the brain. (Gazziniga, 1985) This interpreter mediates our subjective experience of neuropsychological events. It is perhaps this hypothetical interpreter structure in the cortex that determines whether or not the many physiological or chemical states discussed above result in a religious experience. Many of the researchers here, while noting the interpretive functions of higher cortical structures can still be considered reductionists. The dangers of reductionism are that the experience is decontextualized which can threaten the its usefulness. By taking subjects out of a religious mindset and environment to test them, most researchers are successful in isolating mechanisms that most likely play a part in religiosity but still fail to provide any useful findings for the religious community. In other words they have successfully isolated a behavior in the brain but, for the most part, have fallen short of applying the data to anything besides "general knowledge." While a somewhat reductionist approach in this case might be necessary in order to determine and isolate universal mechanisms, perhaps a more efficient religious experience can be developed by others using this same data.

Implications For Humanity

It has been established that there are neuropsychological components of the religious experience and that they can possibly be optimized by the religious institution, the scientist, or the drug using spiritual seeker. Of what practical use is this knowledge? What impact does it have on humanity? Further research should be done on the impact of certain types of religious experience and mental health. A limited study by Larsen (1979) implies that certain types of religious experience, in this case "present-oriented" experiences, lead more readily to self actualization. Another study by Greely (1973) demonstrates that the occurrence of mystical experiences correlates .34 with positive affect as measured by the Positive Affect Scale (measuring psychological well-being) developed by Norman Bradburd (1969) and -.34 with the Negative Affect Scale (related to indicators of poor mental health). When the characteristics of mysticism were more narrowly defined to include passivity, ineffability, a sense of new-life, and the experience of being bathed in light, the correlation with positive affect rose to .52. What characteristics of the religious experience as outlined from a neuropsychological viewpoint would correlate with a high sense of self actualization and subjective well-being? Taking viewpoint that self-actualization and psychological well-being are an important components, if not the goal, of mental health, it is easy to see how useful an understanding is of different experiences, right down to their pure neuropsychological processes, and how they work to effect our subjective sense of how successfully we are living our lives. Perhaps other studies can be done which isolate those religious activities that are beneficial to mental health and in turn educate society in such a way that would allow us to optimize our religious experiences.

Related Original TEWM Papers: The Triune Brain | The Self | Self-Realization and Social Responsibility

 

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