This is probably one of the best BBC documentaries I’ve seen. It first goes into the historical debate between science and religion, and the conflicts there have been. Next they get into the brain and show how scientists have created a helmet which artificially induces 80% of the people wearing it to have transcendental religious experiences. Using magnetic fields, they can induce activity within the temporal lobe, giving the wearer a feeling that a greater presence is there in the room with them.
They also talk about what actually happens in meditation and how monks can lose their sense of self. They show how during deep meditation, blood flow to the parietal lobe greatly decreases. That area of the brain is a core processing center for our sense of self, our environment, spatial relations, and the processing of time. Remember how I’ve been telling you guys about my studies into how our brain processes space and time? That area is core to linking our mental objects together into a spatial orientation and processing the information. Decreased activity there is basically like your limbs of your body and your orientation to your environment just fading away. But the thing is, during this sort of meditation, not all brain activity has ceased. The other areas are still active; so if say the music in the room continues to play, you still hear it and derive the pleasures from it. I guess you could say it’s almost as if you’re floating in some timeless expanse, floating in the melodies, everything being connected like a great ocean. The areas of the brain which divide the world up into objects and their relations have went temporarily dormant.
So what’s this “fading” of the self like? What is this “nirvana” Buddhists speak of? Well, what sort of brain functions are being lost? Let’s examine.
Within the parietal lobe you find various areas such as the lateral intraparietal (LIP), which makes various objects in the environment pop out at you. It gives you an awareness of the things around you and their general location, based on incoming information from your senses. The ventral intraparietal (VIP) serves a similar function, taking information from the senses and forming a sense of space. The anterior intraparietal (AIP) is particularly geared around consciousness of the geometric shapes of objects around you with the express purpose of grasping them with your hands. Our hands are very important to us and we use them a lot. We have special brain areas dedicated to grasping things. Other areas within the parietal lobe are in charge of our sense of navigation and route planning (how to move and orient the body to get from point A to point B).
These are the sorts of brain areas which have went dormant during meditation, hence they lose their sense of space and time. Their sense of having a body with limbs in relative positions within an environment has gone away. They are correct when they say that they felt dis-embodied.
I’ve been reading a book called The Essential Bohm all day today. It’s a collection of the works of David Bohm, one of the world’s most famous quantum physicists. He was one of Albert Einstein’s best friends and at one point, I believe, was one of his assistants. They collaborated greatly on quantum theory and relativity research. Bohm was also involved in the Manhatten project, though was denied a security clearance because of his communist leanings. But anyways, he was involved in this same sort of research, studying neuroscience. On his Wikipedia page you find this:
The holonomic model of the brain
Bohm also made substantial theoretical contributions to neuropsychology and the development of the holonomic model of the functioning of the brain. In collaboration with Stanford neuroscientist Karl Pribram, Bohm helped establish the foundation for Pribram’s theory that the brain operates in a manner similar to a hologram, in accordance with quantum mathematical principles and the characteristics of wave patterns. These wave forms may compose hologram-like organizations, Bohm suggested, basing this concept on his application of Fourier analysis, a mathematical method for decomposing complex waves into component sine waves. The holonomic brain model developed by Pribram and Bohm posits a lens defined world view, much like the textured prismatic effect of sunlight refracted by the churning mists of a rainbows; this view is quite different from the more conventional “objective reality” model. (Pribram held that if psychology means to understand the conditions that produce the world of appearances, it must look to the thinking of physicists like Bohm.)
It gets even better though. In the program (found below), they showed that nuns in deep prayer lose blood flow in these same areas of the brain. It’s likely that all religious experience comes from the same changes in brain activity. All these people from different faiths are having the same experiences, they’re just inducing it by different means.
It’s amazing how when you study science, it all ties together. The more you study it, it’s like you’re always being handed more and more jig-saw puzzle pieces, and they all start snapping together. At first each subject you study is its own thing, seemingly disparate from the others. With time though, it all comes together. Math, physics, neuroscience, religious psychology… who’d have thought they’d snap together so well? But that’s what real science does – it ties everything together.
In the last segment they talk about feelings great thinkers have had when they felt a “oneness” in the elegance of the laws of our universe, and even in the sheer improbability of our own existence. I’ve talked it up enough. Watch it for yourself 🙂