Brainstorming about Brain Activity
It is well known that, in confirming its preference for objectivity, science makes virtually no room for internal psychic processes, except as these may yield curiosities from the study of organic interactions themselves (a matter for biology). For this reason, it is well to wonder how long thinkers have pondered the incommensurable divide between mind and brain.
When we hear of “mind,” we think of whatever lies beyond matter, but which still lives within whatever affects matter. In Chapter 7 of the Sanskrit poem Bhagavad Gita, certainly the most powerful poem in my own understanding of the Universe, Krishna the deity, advises the inquisitive and restless Arjuna that
Earth, water, flame, air, ether, life, and mind,
And individuality–those eight
Make up the showing of Me, Manifest.
The elements of earth in this depiction play a symbolic rather than a literal or material role in the manifestation of God, a metaphysical (that is, non physical) being. Careful interpretation reveals that this statement does not refer to the nature or composition of this immaterial entity but rather only its appearance. In this sense, the Bhagavad Gita is telling us, God is similar to human mind, which isn’t created by or composed of biological or organic material, but rather uses such matter to make itself present. And we know that mind isn’t brain because no organs or biological components can defeat or transcend physical laws – the brain cannot predict, nor can it remote view, but the mind can do both. Mind can exist outside of the body purposefully, but a body and brain without a mind is useless.
And so it seems that these two universes appear to share the same space, yet have no apparent connection to each other. The connection between them is forever elusive, leading a frustrated Descartes to conclude only that “I think, therefore I am” — a phrase that acknowledges the physiological activity of the brain as evidence of the existence of the mind itself. The phrase (originally written in Latin as cogito ergo sum) appears in his Discourse on Method (1637) as proof that, regardless of whatever else we may be uncertain of, certain knowledge can be confirmed. That this phrase was a turning point in our quest to understand the mind/body divide is proved by the fact that the 386 years that followed Descartes’s conclusion have ushered in the age of modernity, in which rational, ideal knowledge gives way to embodied, physical reality and its materialist implications and what might be called contemporary humanism, which is to say a non-religious approach to self and society free of spiritual or superstitious influence. The study of the brain has become more important (certainly more heavily funded) than that of the mind. There are many new and recent research organizations devoted to brain studies, but no new ones for the study of mind.
Is that the end of The Tale of the Two Selves, namely, mind and brain? As mentioned, the terrain of the mind is not interesting to science, whereas, since Descartes, the brain has become the irresistible frontier for scientific inquiry. Brain as a problem and question has a habit of coming around every so often, and barges even into experiments to which it has not been invited. Let us travel forward three centuries after Descartes’s Cogito to a decade somewhere between the 1940s and 1950s, when three physicists, Isidor Rabi, Felix Bloch, and Edward Purcell developed the principles of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as a method for analyzing the properties of atomic nuclei.
Unexpectedly at the time, this was the scientific direction that laid the groundwork for the creation of the medical MRI scans currently used to examine internal human organs, nerves, and tissue. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) itself was developed in 1990, and in the intervening three decades since its invention, science has developed even more sensitive MRI sensor systems for observing something else: brain activity in real time. New frontiers in psychotherapy and drug development are a goal of big pharma, and observing how the brain operates in response to certain visual or auditory stimuli is an exciting prospect in itself for exploring other areas of inquiry beyond those with narrow medical potential. And so it is that fifteen years ago, neuroscientist Christopher deCharms was already able to demonstrate real time feedback of a brain’s neuronal activity.
Still, the link between heightened activity in certain brain regions and spirituality or visualized meditation seems like a logical opportunity for scientific inquiry, although it hasn’t been considered an important arena of study for modern scientists, perhaps because these states of mind are understood to be purely internal or subjective activities without a true, causal influence on external events. But the limited work that has been undertaken on the way that mind and brain interconnect has always uncovered new insights.
Examples of such scientific work appear in the book “How God Changes Your Brain.” This book, written by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, takes the reader deep into the complex intersection of spirituality and neuroscience, and assesses the impact of religious and spiritual practices on the human brain. Perhaps surprised by the number of discoveries in this research, Newberg and Waldman saw fit to prepare a new field of study, which they called neurotheology, a term that refers to the interdisciplinary study of the neural basis of religious experiences. Newberg conducted brain scans on meditating Buddhists and praying Catholic nuns. He observed heightened activity in the frontal lobes (associated with focus) and decreased activity in the parietal lobes (linked to spatial orientation and the sense of self). In chronicling the intricate relationship between the brain’s biological processes and our spiritual beliefs, the authors draw on ample research studies and experiments that clarify how our brain is hardwired to perceive God and spirituality.
A similar research direction, focusing on the genetic study of a religious orientation, is exemplified in books like “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes” in which geneticist Dean Hamer suggested that a person’s capacity for spirituality might be influenced by VMAT2, or Vesicular Monoamine Transporter 2, a protein coded by the VMAT2 gene. This protein is primarily involved in the transport of monoamine neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, into synaptic vesicles. These neurotransmitters play roles in mood, reward, and various other functions. According to Hamer’s research, there is a connection between particular VMAT2 gene variants and scores of test subjects who filled out a self-reported scale describing their level of spirituality. Hamer found that individuals with certain versions of the VMAT2 gene were more likely to have higher scores on the self-transcendence scale, which, in his view, suggested a genetic predisposition to spiritual or mystical experiences. Hamer’s claims about the VMAT2 gene were met with skepticism and criticism from both the scientific and religious communities, with some critics arguing that spirituality is a complex trait likely influenced by multiple genes, environmental factors, upbringing, culture, personal experiences, and more. Perhaps justifiably, this reduction of spiritual activity down to a single “God gene” seemed to be an oversimplification, and subsequent studies have not consistently replicated Hamer’s findings.
Not all research directions exploring the mind/brain divide have converged around a single gene or molecule. Some work has been done in the opposite direction, most notably in psychedelic research. Here, substances like psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, have been found to induce profound spiritual experiences, and brain imaging during such experiences shows a complex pattern of brain activity, including decreased activity in the default mode network (associated with the ego or sense of self). Similar studies have been conducted on dimethyltryptamine, commonly known as DMT, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in various plants and animals. When ingested or inhaled, DMT produces intense hallucinogenic effects often described as transporting the user to other dimensions or realms, encountering otherworldly entities, and experiencing a profound sense of interconnectedness. The experience can be so intense and otherworldly that it’s sometimes called a “breakthrough,” perhaps because DMT is produced endogenously in small amounts by the pineal gland, the pea-sized endocrine gland located between the two brain hemispheres. The pineal gland’s primary function is to produce and secrete melatonin (the hormone that modulates sleep patterns in both circadian and seasonal cycles), but in various cultures and philosophies, it has also been associated with spirituality, consciousness, and the third eye. To this point, Descartes, whose own philosophy we discussed earlier, famously referred to the pineal gland as the “principal seat of the soul.”
We can sense the abundance of research on brain states from even this cursory overview of scientific studies, but beyond the presence and interaction of chemical agents, the bigger questions are not addressed. We may ask, for example, What exactly is prayer as an activity on its own? How does one know that one is truly in a meditative state, as opposed to simply believing so? It seems that these kinds of questions point to thinking that is by definition expansive, and if so, how do we proceed with a brain analysis approach that meets this larger case? In addition, different contemplative practices like meditation (as distinct from prayer) might produce different psychological effects compared to ritualistic or doctrinal practices, and the problem of locating a region in the brain in which to measure activity becomes a major challenge.
To solve this problem, Newberg and Waldman, mentioned earlier, focused on measuring brain changes not in specific regions but rather in patterns of activity detected from neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in the brains of subjects having religious experiences. Notably, they found that the effect of meditation or prayer isn’t localized to any particular brain region. So while the release of dopamine that happens during meditation can induce the same feelings of pleasure and reward that can be elicited by the enactment of religious experiences or rituals, the authors found that prayer or meditative states are more mysterious than the mere release of a chemical in the brain, since even looking at religious imagery and symbols can activate specific parts of the brain that were found to further reinforce religious beliefs and enhance what we might call the religious experience itself.
And so, in summary, science has found pathways to transcendental states but not the causes of such states. To approach the question of causes of transcendent thinking, we have to move from science, which is built on an exhaustive explanatory framework, to another kind of inquiry founded on research in the humanities, which is speculative and accepts phenomena that are caused by unknown factors.
In this alternative line of investigation, we would do well to select a visual trope that serves as a case study for the emergence and evolution of transcendental thought.
From Brainstorming to Mindstorming
Groundbreaking as scientific research has been, many of these insights had already been uncovered by Carl Jung one hundred years earlier through his own prolonged study of a specific object of meditative stimulus: the mandala, a symmetric image that reflects not the outer world of society, but the inner self of the individual reflecting back on itself for layers of meaning and representation (incidentally, mandala means “circle” in Sanskrit).
Each time he revisited the object, Jung found more meaning in it, and more cases, both culturally determined as well as individually practiced, in which what we might call brain or meditative states were activated by reflecting on the mandala, which is the purpose of its design in the first instance.
With this in mind, Jung found in mandalas a mirror of the inner self, and believed that their symbolic nature had the power to heal and integrate the psyche. Mandalas are not merely a description of the psychic self; they also represent the self’s continual striving for unity and wholeness. In other words, mandalas are both a psychological photograph and a path to personal integration. In what turned out to be a lifelong journey of continued and growing discovery, Jung explored mandalas in many of his works, adding something new each time to their definition.
For instance, an elaborate discussion of mandalas appears in his book “The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious,” by which time he had found them in societies outside of Tibet, where they had been believed to originate. Realizing that mandalas were not unique to Eastern religion, Jung now came to perceive them as archetypal images that emerge in various cultures, religions, and even deep within certain states of being. In fact, beyond being exciting as a physical object or template of conscious activity in normal conditions, mandalas, according to Jung, also emerge in dreams, visions, and in art during times of personal transformation. In these spaces, mandalas appear to be an attempt by the psyche to compensate for chaotic or disordered psychic states by portraying order and unity. We can see how the symmetry found in all mandalas can imply such order.
In this work, Jung examines mandalas from various cultures and ages, demonstrating their universal nature, and also shares accounts of personal experiments with drawing mandalas and how they reflected his inner state.
In my view, Jung learned to interpret this mirroring effect of mandalas as a therapist with one specific psychiatric patient, whose journey of healing was described in “A Study in the Process of Individuation,” an engrossing essay through which he analyzes a series of mandalas drawn by the patient, and demonstrates how the evolving forms of the mandalas correspond with the patient’s inner transformation. In a memoir written in the final stages of his life (“Memories, Dreams, Reflections”), Jung similarly wrote that during periods of personal turmoil, he would draw a mandala every morning, describing how this process helped him gain insights into his inner state.
The final context through which Jung discussed mandalas is in connection with the least understood field of study in the Western world – alchemy. Alchemy is known today as the forerunner of the field of chemistry – like chemistry, the older discipline worked with materials intended to be combined through boiling, melting, and evaporation in an aim to transform base metals like lead into higher metals like gold and silver. But Jung argued that physical transformation was symbolic of metaphysical transformation, and thus alchemy was encoded with many esoteric instructions for the reader, and these steps went beyond mere alteration of matter. Also in “Psychology and Alchemy,” another exploration of symbols of the subconscious, mandalas are compared to alchemical circles, and Jung delves into how both represent the psychic processes of transformation and individuation.
Mandalas are clearly a mind-oriented trajectory designed to use sensory reflection as a means to incite metaphysical states, which is the end goal of brain science studies that formed our point of departure in this essay. Perhaps measurement is not the highest, best way to approach how brain becomes mind, but reflection, which begins with thought but quickly transcends it (all meditative states are characterized by decreased brain activity), can activate the brain not as a processor for immediate levels of representation but as a bridge to new forms of meaning. If so, then through the expansive use of Mind, we can prove that believing in something greater than ourselves truly makes us greater than ourselves. After all, isn’t that what prayer is?
Francisco J. Ricardo,
Burbank, August 2023
This essay is also available here.