The God Chemical? (and I’m not dead) May 25, 2009Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, science.
However I’ll grant that depending on your definition of death you may be able to make a decent argument for whether I’ve been alive or not the past months.
Where has Valence been? Unfortunately the answer is quite mundane and I’m tempted to make up a more interesting explanation than confess the truth… (I’ve been on a 3 month sabbatical meditating in Tibet?…The audible voice of Cthulhu answered all my questions but regrettably forbade me to share the deep meanings with you all?…I’ve actually been writing this entire time but Valence has been under attack from a Vatican conspiracy to hack dissenting media (help me Tom Hanks!)?) Unfortunately, to go with any of these I’d need to take down the whole bit above about pursuing truth. Damn you, commitment to authenticity!
The simple answer is that my wife and I have been buying and remodeling a house over the past months. I apologize that I never gave a “my blogging life is on hold message”. The moment where I was going to start writing again was always just around the corner only to be postponed by this task or that. Anyways, I won’t bore you with further excuses as much as I’ll simply beg your grace and jump back in the deep end.
The Science of Spirituality
You thought I was joking about the deep end? Recently NPR’s All Things Considered aired a 5 part series on the Science of Spirituality. I want to discuss the first of their five parts (hopefully getting to the other four eventually): The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism. (Go ahead, listen, it’s only 7 minutes long)
The piece begins by dropping a bombshell of a question: Is God beyond the tools of science to even measure? While I suspect they are going to spend the series exploring that question and we’ll have time o’plenty to thoroughly vet the issue in future posts I think it’s worth touching on briefly before getting into a discussion of brain chemistry.
It’s a popular platitude to claim that science and religion are looking at two completely different aspects of the world and denying that the results of scientific inquiry should change our faith. There is some truth here but I think this line of thought is more than often misused to insulate peoples’ personal faiths from the light of critical thought instead of parsing out how we should be thinking about the “unknowable”. It’s argued that ultimate questions about meaning and miracles can’t even be approached by science because science is rightfully limited to exploring strictly material explanations about the world (see NOMA). True, in a very real sense science is agnostic on questions of spirituality. Honest science can only answer “I don’t know” when presented with a question for which it has no evidence. The spirit is defined as non-material and science is limited to the material after all so how could science ever inform our spirituality?
Two ideas here:
1. This would be well and fine if religious claims never crossed the material border. However, many religious claims are specifically material (i.e. God created the earth or Jesus rose from the dead). Further, I think it’s curious that the separation of religion and science is only touted when science is threatening an article of faith. If perchance science suddenly found undeniable evidence for the biblical flood I doubt that believers would shrug their shoulders and dismiss the evidence, claiming that matters of faith shouldn’t be informed by science since they’re simply addressing separate issues altogether.
2. Science can still help us make informed and rational decisions even if it’s not ultimately “proving” or “disproving” spiritual questions. If it is completely honest, science must respond “I don’t know” to the assertion that invisible Red Elves are controlling the weather. This is a non-falsifiable claim. Science just doesn’t know. However, by providing an alternate consistent physical model for us to understand the weather that doesn’t need to invoke the jurisprudence of red elves, science allows us to dispense with an infinite number of non-falsifiable theories that have no pragmatic utility. Let me make it clear that science is not disproving the existence of invisible red elves it’s just admitting that their presence is unnecessary to explain the weather patterns.
Okay, on to brain chemistry and drugs! Being neither a neuropharmacologist nor much of a drug user my experience with hallucinogens is pretty thin. This might be for the best on both counts even though I tried my hardest to also be invited to a peyote ceremony to research this post. I did, however, read the study NPR referenced from John’s Hopkins titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” performed by Roland Griffiths. (The study is actually pretty short and readable for those tempted to click the link.)
The crux of the study is simply trying to answer the question “Can we reliably induce spiritual/mystic experiences?” Since science often needs repeatable and consistent iterations of a test to get valid data it has had trouble addressing spirituality simply because of the sparse and often anecdotal nature of peoples experiences. Many believers may live an entire lifetime of devotion based on one truly transformative experience. Without the luck of having people in a brain scanner at that exact moment of epiphany science simply has no data to go on.
Now, it’s no secret that taking hallucinogens gives people mystical experiences. From Navajo peyote use to the reference of Leary and the drug culture in the 60’s we are accustomed to stories of spiritual enlightenment associated with drug use. However, is this drug induced mysticism similar to the natural emotions many report feeling during worship on a Sunday? If there is significant physiological similarity what does this say about our assertion that we are ‘feeling God in the room’ instead of reacting to a chemical rush?
To be fair, Griffiths’ experiment was not aimed at answering the later questions but simply at first establishing under rigorous controls that mystic experiences could be reliably induced in so called “hallucinogen-naïve” subjects. That is, he removed the bias of someone who considers peyote a sacrament or has a lifestyle based on LSD use by choosing subjects who were religious and had never used drugs before.
Before going any further I have to talk about the actual science just a little (without the aid of disco music this may not have same punch that NPR had). The specific drug Griffiths studied was called psilocybin which is the active chemical in certain mushrooms. Psilocybin works on the brain by mimicking the effects of a natural neurotransmitter called serotonin which the brain uses to send messages and is used in the control of appetite, mood and anger. Psilocybin essentially looks like serotonin knocking at the door to a unsuspecting neuron but once inside delivers an entirely unexpected message causing the neurons to misbehave and the net effect is a trip.
When compared with the ‘placebo’ (which was Ritalin in this case, also physco-active in order to give a more relevant baseline to compare the relative mystical effects of one drug to another) psilocybin by far was reported to increase distance from ordinary reality, increase emotions like crying, joy and intense happiness and also increase peace and harmony. The study is quoted as finding:
…the volunteers judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. In written comments about their answers, the volunteers often described aspects of the experience related to a sense of unity without content (pure consciousness) and/or unity of all things. (Griffiths)
71% of the subjects reported their experience with psilocybin as one of the most significant spiritual moments of their entire lives. That’s astounding to me. The astounding part is not that they had a reaction to a drug it’s that they knew they were having a reaction to a drug and still felt spiritually connected to the supernatural. The physical, artificial if you will, origins of this mystic incident just didn’t matter when it came time to interpret the ultimate meaning of their experience. That is, even though they knew it was a purely physical response to a chemical they still walked away feeling as having communed with God. I’d be terribly interested to know now what the long term significance of that moment has been in their lives.
The NPR piece concludes rather ambiguously (perhaps in an effort to tease us back next time) by quoting Griffiths:
Still, Griffiths says all the studies in the world can’t answer his central question about spirituality: “Why does that occur? Why has the human organism been engineered, if you will, for this experience?”
I see 3 options to explain this apparent “engineering” in humans:
- Calling our mystical experiences a communion with the supernatural is a mistake. Our brain and therefore our reality is governed by a complex dance of chemicals which has been refined by eons of evolution. When any part of this dance is altered we get a different reality. When our serotonin receptors act up and we think we experience the euphoria (or fear) of meeting with God we are no more experiencing the supernatural than those tripping on psilocybin.
- God is just using the physical to interact with us. Why wouldn’t he? Just because we can artificially induce a spiritual reaction to a drug doesn’t mean that God isn’t the one naturally inducing this reaction under ‘normal’ circumstances.
- You can’t prove that the chemical pathway used by psilocybin is the same that was used in my spiritual experience. Just because the effects may look the same doesn’t mean that my experience wasn’t truly supernatural.
What do you think?