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"Peyote is like other psychedelic drugs, including LSD and magic mushrooms – magic mushrooms and psilocybin are kind of the same thing. They seem to prompt mystical experience. Scientists have discovered recently that these psychedelic drugs have a couple of interesting things in common.
Chemically, they all look a lot like serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that affects parts of the brain that relate to emotions and perception. Now scientists at Johns Hopkins University have discovered that they all target the same serotonin receptor, serotonin HT2A. So what that receptor does is, it allows the serotonin or the psilocybin or the active ingredient of these psychedelics to create a cascade of chemical reactions, which then create the sounds and sights and smells and perceptions of a mystical experience. Essentially, they’ve discovered a “God neurotransmitter,” in a way.
NPR: The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism
So now they can get a sense of what happens in the brains of mystics or you and me when we have a spiritual experience. What’s really cool about this is that the war on drugs ended this sort of research for about 35 years, but now at Johns Hopkins and other places, the government’s allowing this to go on. They’ll be able to give you a capsule of psilocybin, slide you into a brain scan, and actually watch spiritual experience unfold in an FMRI. This has really opened the door for understanding the brain mechanisms of spiritual experience.
And he uses this analogy: He says, when you eat a piece of apple pie, all sorts of things happen in your brain. The part of the brain that mediates smell will light up or taste will light up. Probably the part of the brain that handles memory will light up as you think about the last time that you had a piece of apple pie. But does the fact that there is this predictable and measurable brain activity – does that mean that the apple pie doesn’t exist? Of course it doesn’t. So maybe, Griffiths says, this brain activity is chronicling an interaction with the divine.
He raises a third issue, which Francis alluded to, which is, why? Why are we wired to have mystical experiences in the first place? Is it possible that there is a God or an intelligence who’s created this way? I mean, if there is a God who wants to communicate with us, he probably wouldn’t use the big toe; he’d probably use the brain. Doesn’t it make sense that this is how God would communicate?
Now in the end, I don’t think science will be able to prove or disprove God, but I do think there’s a really fascinating debate – and I’m going to close with this – that’s circling around spiritual issues. We may actually make some headway about it. There may be a way to tackle this issue in a definitive way. It’s the mind-brain debate, or can consciousness operate when the brain is stilled?
I just have one more story to tell you to illustrate a point. In 1991, there was a woman named Pam Reynolds. Have you all heard of her? She was found to have had an aneurysm on her brain stem. Her doctor told her that it might rupture at any moment and that she could die at any moment, and so she decided to undergo what was then a very experimental surgery called a standstill operation. She flew out to Arizona to a place called the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
Essentially what they did was they put her under anesthesia, they taped her eyes shut, they put in molded speakers in her ears that emitted really loud clicks – about 90 to 100 decibels. That’s what a jet plane sounds like when it takes off. So loud clicks were firing in her ears. Then when her brain no longer responded to the clicks, the surgeons knew that they could proceed.
The way they proceeded was, they lowered her body temperature and drained the blood out of her head – kind of like draining oil out of a car engine. The aneurysm sac collapsed for lack of blood. The surgeons then went into her skull, snipped the aneurysm, sewed it up, warmed the blood back up, reintroduced it back into her body, raised her body temperature and brought her back to consciousness.
So she was basically without blood in her head or in a deep coma-like state for over an hour. When she awakened, she had quite a story to tell. Basically, she said that she floated upwards – she had an out-of-body experience and watched part of the operation – not all of it because she had a near-death experience in the middle of it. But what was interesting was, she could describe the operating theater – how many people were there, who was placed – she could tell where men and women were. She didn’t know their names, obviously.
She could describe a very unusual-looking bone saw called the Midas Rex bone saw and the blade container. It’s unusual; it looks like an electric toothbrush, so it’s not something you see all the time. She heard conversations, including the one where a female surgeon said that her arteries were too small in the left groin for a tube and so the chief surgeon told the other surgeon to try the right side – she heard this kind of conversation. So she saw things, heard things even though her senses were apparently blocked.
And then she had a typical near-death experience – the white light, seeing the dead relatives, yada, yada, yada, yada. Now I’m not all that interested in the near-death experience, but her ability to describe the operation while under deep
It’s entirely possible that their brains were operating and that this is what a brain does when it is shutting down – it creates illusions, it creates sensations. It’s entirely possible that this is normal activity that’s explained by material means. But Pam Reynolds’ story feels a little bit more compelling to me, probably not to a lot of you, but to me it does. For one thing, it’s corroborated. A doctor named Michael Sabom got all the hospital records and the transcripts from this operation and found that when Pam said something happened, that in fact did happen in the order that she suggested. It seemed to corroborate her account.
I interviewed the chief neurosurgeon, Robert Spetzler, who confirmed that she was in a deep coma for an hour and could not have seen or heard any of the operation. I asked him how he explained it, and he said that he “had absolutely no explanation from a scientific perspective.” He also said that this has changed the way he thought about reality.
I just want to conclude by observing that in my year of interviewing scientists, I learned something about scientists. When they hear of a case that they don’t like – one that doesn’t jive with their worldview – they call it just an anecdote. When they like a story, they call it case history.
Now most scientists would probably say this challenge to a materialist worldview is an anecdote. After all, Pam’s story could lead to the astonishing notion that somehow we have consciousness or maybe a soul that could survive death. Other scientists – in fact a growing number – will call Pam’s story a case history, something to be explored and not just so easily dismissed. But I’m sure of a couple of things. First, this question of consciousness is the next big battle in the emerging science of spirituality. And second, how a scientist comes down on the debate about consciousness will be as much a matter of his own belief system as it will be of the science."
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