The Parietal Lobe and Mystical, Religious and Spiritual Experience

In the Spring of 2001 the popular press carried a number of articles claiming that scientists had 'explained' religious feelings as 'just a product of how the brain works'.

These articles referred back to a report in the New Scientist ('In Search of God' by Bob Holmes, New Scientist, 21st April 2001, pages 25 - 27 ).  The report described experiments  which demonstrated that when Tibetan Buddhist meditators experienced the dissolution of the distinction between self and other, there was an associated shutdown of the parietal lobe, a region of the brain responsible for the sensation of  personal identity.

The tone of the tabloid press was that science had finally explained away religion as some kind of malfunction of the brain. The original New Scientist report wasn't quite so simplistic, but did make some reductionist statements such as:

'Experiments on the brain have led neuroscientists to suggest that the capacity for religion may somehow be hardwired into us'

'You can have a dream and and it feels real at the time, but you wake up and it no longer feels as real. The problem is, when people have a mystical experience, they think that is more real than baseline reality - even when they come back to baseline reality'.

Why is this a problem?  How real is baseline reality?  What is reality?

In Buddhist philosophy, 'baseline' or 'ordinary' reality is what appears to the non-physical symbiotic mind after being filtered and distorted by the biological system which is the collection of our sense organs, nervous system and brain. This biological system has not evolved to represent reality. It has evolved to ensure its own survival - or more correctly to ensure the survival of those genes that code for it.

One of the mechanisms that ensures survival is the instinct for self-preservation, which of course relies on the projection on to the mind of an inherently-existent self or ego which has to be preserved.  Any animal which couldn't distinguish betwen self and other wouldn't survive for any length of time. 

This self or ego appears most strongly to us when we are threatened, either physically, or emotionally (such as being embarassed or insulted).

But how real is the self?  Am I the same person I was when I was six?  Will I be the same person when I'm 64?  The constituents of my body are constanly being lost and renewed,  and are said to totally turnover every seven years of so.

So am I the same person I was when I was six,  in the way that the axe is still  the same old axe even though it's had three new handles and four new blades?

If my body is not the self then maybe my mind is the self.  But my mind as a fifty-year-old has more in common with other fifty-year-olds than it has with that of the six-year-old I used to be. The six-year-old had a large store of memories of his life back to infancy.  Now I can only remember perhaps twenty things that happened to me before I was six.

So the stable inherently-existent self is a delusion. Many schools of Tibetan Buddhism (eg Kadampas) place great emphasis on arguing intellectually against the concept of the inherently-existent self, and also using meditational techniques to obtain a deep qualitative realisation of 'the emptiness of the self' . (In Tibetan Buddhist philosophy  all things are empty of inherent existence).

To the average Westerner, deliberately cultivating the idea that your ego doesn't exist as a fixed entity may seem weird and scary, but in fact it can be immensely liberating.   As one of the researcher/meditators taking part in the study said "It feels like a loss of boundary. It's as if the film of your life broke and you were seeing the light that allowed the film to be projected"

A materialist would view this loss of the sense of the self during meditation as pathological and delusional.  A correctly functioning brain produces 'baseline reality'.

A Buddhist would turn this view on its head. The self or ego is a delusion and does not exist inherently. The concept of a permanent unchanging self is a carrot-and-stick mechanism imposed by the biologically-evolved central nervous system on the non-physical mind.  This mechanism is necessary for survival and evolution, but ultimately the self is a delusion - it is unfindable.   The New Scientist article suggests that the parietal lobe is the neurological seat of this delusion.  

- Sean Robsville

See Also:

' The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest.'

Arguments against Buddhism
- the best way to understand the strengths of a philosophy is to attempt to refute it!

The Three Poisons
Hatred, Confusion and Desirous attachment.

The Mind is not the Brain
'...scientific and philosophical evidence that the mind is a non-evolved, non-biological and non-physical entity.'

Alternative states of awareness
' ....People get spiritual experiences under the influence of electromagnetic fields such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS),   and from psychedelic drugs such as mescalin, LSD, Psilocybe semilanceata and Amanita muscaria. All these transpersonal experiences are simply delusions caused by disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the neurones.'

' ...Yes and No. There's no doubt that people experience other realms of reality under the influence of TMS  or psychoactive drugs. In these conditions the functioning of the brain is indeed abnormal.  But - you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain? The brain is a device which has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being. Disruption .... by biochemical or biophysical agents, enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances.... '

Buddhist Teachings
on the mind, personal relationships, meditation and the spiritual path.

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

- Sean Robsville

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation