Review by Jennifer A. Coleman, 2008
Porush, David. 1993. “Finding God.” Omni, 16/1, pp. 60 – 69.
This article reports on the work of other researchers in the field of neuroscience as related to the study of subjective religious/spiritual experiences, and the ability to recreate such experiences in the laboratory through use of psychoactive substances. The author begins by presenting three subjective experiences of “religious ecstasy,” including: Ralph Waldo Emerson (“I Become a Transparent Eyeball,” written in 1836), an American researcher who injected himself with psychoactive substances, and lastly, a description by a Hindu yogi of his experience of meditation.
The author relates the above experiences to those of persons diagnosed as schizophrenic. He posits that the ability to experience such phenomena is not an adaptive skill. He argues that the ability to defend oneself, or to fight predators, would not be enhanced by experiencing a state of religious ecstasy. He asks as a consequence: “What part of the brain perceives transcendence?”
Porush mentions studies using DMT (dimethyltryptamine) by researchers at the University of New Mexico, which stimulate so-called religious/spiritual experiences using DMT. DMT produces “striking psychedelic effects,” in which the subjects experience separation of consciousness from their physical bodies, and extreme emotional states, such as euphoria, terror, bliss, etc. Among the trends experienced by research subjects is the experience of seeing God, or experiencing transcendence. The researchers conclude that DMT has the ability to induce religious ecstasy. Nonetheless, the researchers ask whether the subjects’ experience is in fact “real,” or just an artificially induced hallucination.
The author posits that studies such as those employing DMT, actually involve “a radical alteration in the role of the major player in the brain’s activity, serotonin – 5 hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT for short.” Serotonin is the “Mr. Big of neurotransmitters,” “serotonin is the gyroscope of the mind-brain.”
The author also discusses studies administering MDMA-3 (4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, also known as “ecstasy.”) In both cases, use of DMT, and administration of “ecstasy,” the dorsal raphe nucleus is contacted to release serotonin. At the same time as the motor cortex is stimulated to produce a flood of hallucinogenic molecules, “Serotonin and the hallucinogens that act as serotonin agonists – like LSD, mescaline, DMT, and psilocybin – also travel to the thalamus, a relay station for all sensory data that are heading for the cortex.” The cortex of the brain “attaches meaning to the visions that bubble up from the limbic lobe.” The neurocortex is more likely “to attach transcendent or alien significance, to the otherworldly perceptions transmitted from the nether regions of the brain.”
Despite the foregoing review of on-going research, Porush concludes that: “the whole concept of locating some mythical ‘transcendent receptor site’ in the brain is too simplistic.” He seemingly endorses the “more holistic” view, that involves a much more complex activation of events involving a “coherent leaping into a new order of self-organizing complexity.” As a result, Porush concludes, we are still a “long way off from understanding how the brain moves from a series of neurochemical events to massively subjective mental experiences” of religiosity and spiritual reality. “Connecting brain activities to subjective experiences is the Holy Grail of brain research,” according to Freeman. But such experiences do not belong to a “place” in the brain. Rather than a “whereness” in the brain, the issue is much broader and more complex. The author concludes with questions, “tainted with metaphysics,” rather than conclusions.
Porush’s article is interesting insofar as it lays out the basic neurochemical issues and related neurological relationship problems raised as a result. However, it is out of date (1993) and thus cannot reliably be cited for its content. Nonetheless it provides a concise, easily apprehended, statement of the issues raised by neuroscience, vis-a vis religious/spiritual experience. The studies mentioned in the article may be pursued for a more current/contemporary discussion of the issues raised in this article.