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The God Chemical? (and I’m not dead) May 25, 2009

Posted 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

Psilocybin3dYou 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?



1. bear - May 25, 2009

I think that in the silence of this late night–I have been really glad to read this–on the flipside–how will I sleep now? Damn red elves. Glad you are back.

2. Adam Heine - May 26, 2009

Glad you’re back, Casey. Hope your house is well.

Options 2 and 3 were pretty much what I was thinking while reading the post.

And for the record, I don’t think that matters of faith shouldn’t be informed by science, just that science really isn’t in the business of proving or disproving matters of faith. Which is pretty much what you said in your paragraph about the elves, so… good?

3. Adam Heine - May 26, 2009

And this comment is because I forgot to tell it to notify me of follow-up comments :-/

4. whytey - May 26, 2009

I’d have to say, like Adam, I lean towards 2 or 3…

but Casey, I had some questions, I really liked this one and it made me very curious…

from my reading of the study, it seemed that there wasn’t a comparative analysis of previous spiritual experiences with the effects of the psylocybin… this is far more subjective, but nonetheless intriguing…

what was the spiritual breakdown of the subjects (this may have been in the study and I missed it), did they provide individual definitions of “spiritual” (again, I kind of skimmed the study), explanations of what had been a spiritual experience in the past, explain what union of all things meant to them, did they identify the experience on the drug as a superior and distinct experience or a superior and common experience to the other spiritual experiences they had in the past…

those are just of the few of the questions I have… maybe irrelevant to the study, maybe they’re answered in the text and I missed it, but yeah, questions nonetheless

5. Stephanie Andrews - May 26, 2009

I just skimmed this and my first thought is: I have a friend who is a part of a sect of mystic catholicism (brazilian). They consistently use a particular hallucinogen as a part of their time together. I can’t remember the name, but she reports some interesting experiences if you would want to in learn more about this type of thing first hand from someone. Let me know and I could see if she would be interested in sharing about it.

6. Mark - May 27, 2009

Uniao Do Vegetal (Union of the Plants) – Brazilian Christian Mystics – Combine indigenous Brazilian beliefs and Christian teachings ingest a hallucinogenic tea called hoasca (contains DMT) in a sacred ceremony meant to connect with God. Not sure if this is what you are thinking of Stephanie.

7. Mark - May 27, 2009

Oh and I would very interested in hearing about her experiences if she’d be open to sharing.

8. caseyww - May 27, 2009

@ #4 whytey-
Great questions. Yeah I didn’t see that there was really a great baseline for previous spiritual experience. They just made a point of choosing people with some religious affiliation. I too think it would be interesting to see what the subjects considered a spiritual experience before taking psilocybin because this might influence how they ranked their experience on the drug.

The way the study tested for the level of spiritual experience was by using the “Pahnke–Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire” (which was included at the end of the study if you want to see exactly what questions they were asking). The questionnaire has people rank their experience based on:
* Internal unity
* External unity
* Transcendence of time and space
* Ineffability and paradoxicality
* Sense of sacredness
* Noetic quality
* Deeply felt positive mood

The questionnaire seems to have been established during other drug studies in the 60’s and has become a bit of a standard.

They also completed a “Persisting Effects Questionnaire” which may get closer to what you’re asking in that it was aimed at judging their emotional response in the months after the trip. It asks things like “are you more happy”. This at least is a little reflective to their level of emotions before the test.

All in all, good point, I imagine that one’s interpretation of a spiritual experience might vary widely depending on the context of your previous experiences. Maybe we’ll have to ask Griffiths.

9. caseyww - May 27, 2009

@ #5 and #6

Talk about relevant. That sounds super interesting. I’d definitely love to hear more about your friend’s experiences and if she is a part of the group Mark described.

10. Antony - May 28, 2009

Interesting return, Casey. I look forward to the series.

I think I’m somewhere between options 1 & 2. I think 3 can’t be right. The pathways in the brain are the pathways in the brain. I might buy that just because we can artificially induce a ‘false positive’ for connecting to the divine does not make every such experience not divine.

I reject option 1 because to reduce humanity to the chemicals in the brain is nonsense. If you want to go there, then ‘love’ is just a chemical interaction in the brain, so is ‘happiness’, so is the feeling of being ‘connected to the divine’, etc. But experientially these things are qualitative more than the sum of the chemicals in the brain. They have meaning that extends beyond the chemical interactions.

My one problem with option 2 is that it makes God the agent here. God is trying to communicate with us. I think what the drug experience shows is that the difference between moment 1 (before the trip) and moment 2 (during the trip) is that we – our physical self – changes, not God. He is the same always (if he is), the only difference is that with this drug (or in the intense practice of prayer or meditation) our orientation changes, our capacity to recognize what apparently always is (‘God’) changes.

Well, that’s my first cut at it, at least.

11. Mark - May 28, 2009

After reflecting on this some, I think option 2 might be closest to how I feel. I don’t fully embrace the concept at the end of the NPR piece that God has wired us in a way that permits this disconnect from our ego (the part of ourselves trying to sort and understand what’s going on around us). Instead, I think we normally are controlled by the ego, but our being and existing is more complex and dynamic. The universe is infinite, but we deal in finite time. So therefore time is something very connected to the ego, but doesn’t much matter to other parts of our being. In other words, the part we connect to most often – the reality we choose to perceive – is limited, but the world around is not.

Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” – named based on thoughts of William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”) – came to mind. Been awhile since I read it, but here goes…

In Doors, Huxley discusses the minds tendency – maybe even necessity – to reduce things. He discusses this reduction in terms of language limitation and connection to concepts. In the child’s mind – seeing things new – new experiences are not already tainted by previous ideas, concepts or linguistic limitations. Huxley argues that man limits things and exists in a comfortable reality – his or her way of existing in everyday life. We understand time by our day to day interaction with it, but the concept of it is a lot more complex and exists differently depending on where you find yourself in the universe (yes – I was sucked into Yahoo!’s little blurb on black holes – where time ceases to exist – what a mind blowing concept! – the idea that time exists beyond concept and can actually be reduced). A lot of this reduction is necessary. We can’t always be floating in the world of ideas (unless we’re grad students, but even grad students need to come up for air and interact with the world).

For Huxley, drugs – in his case mescaline (peyote) – were a way to escape the ego (something he felt that we all sought). He felt that in that state, we disconnect or distance ourselves from immediate concerns and therefore can possess a clarity of mind that we might not otherwise come to. Huxley did not believe the benefit in the drugs was from the trip (he made it a point to say that he was no dumber on mescaline), but rather he felt that it was this distance that we might not otherwise obtain that was beneficial. It wasn’t an artificial reality, but rather one that emphasized different aspects of existence that were limited by our everyday perception. In a way it’s what you bring to the experience and seek out of it, rather than what the drug itself does.

Which brings up Whitey’s question – as to what the people defined as spiritual. The questionnaire (from Casey’s post) leaves the question pretty open, which I think is fair since the spiritual is experienced very differently by everyone. I guess what’s interesting to me is how universal the study’s results were. Whether it was some form of unity or separation, people felt something they would categorize as spiritual.

I’m not sure what I think about spirituality and the necessity to distance or escape from the ego. In prayer and meditation, we do try to separate ourselves from our immediate reality – the barrage of thoughts, worries and concerns of everyday life – but in a way seem still connected to it. Pure Nirvana it seems – escapes us. But may be God is found in that separation. The Bible has numerous references to returning to a child-like innocence. Wishing to connect to God again with new eyes.

I guess the question for me is how memorable these drug-induced experiences can be. I know for some they can be transformative and lasting, but for others not. In my own life, I’ve witnessed both. I’ve seen people’s perceptions change drastically and others have just gone along for the ride. Huxley suggested some of this in Doors – he noted that some people are wired to perceive more of goings on outside our everyday – these for him were artists and similar minded people. Psychologists and psychiatrists have constantly debated the benefits of drug use in clinical settings. Some of argued that breakthroughs with certain patients were accelerated by inducing this type of mental state. Some feel that this temporary feeling brought on by drugs cannot replace years of psychological exploration – that the breakthrough from long-term therapy is more lasting and meaningful.

Not sure where I fall in that debate – connecting to the spiritual sometimes through this way does seem beneficial for some – those that drink hoasca and peyote in religious ceremony would probably agree – but it seems like it’s got to be tied to larger spiritual development. Other means have to be used to help really develop a true a spiritual life (whatever that means for anyone here).

That is why I’m uncomfortable with option 3. The experiences are not necessarily different, but we come to them differently. Prayer life through community song or through quiet reflection is a way to distance ourselves – seek unity or separation. It is certainly a way to find the spiritual. Feeling that same unity or separation may also be – it’s why religious sects that sincerely believe that drugs are a way to connect God are permitted to use otherwise unlawful drugs in religious ceremony. Our minds and the strange way we’re wired and the chemical trip we’re on can be influenced by what we ingest, but they can also be as easily influenced by the people we connect with and the experiences we’re having. So I guess for me there may be a difference, but only in manner.

So option 2 makes sense, at least to me. I agree with Antony that it’s not God acting upon us – we choose to ingest it and it’s interaction with our body is natural not divine. But I think that something like Psilocybin may be a way to connect to the spiritual.

12. Nancy O. - May 28, 2009


13. Emmet - May 30, 2009

I had comments to make… and then other people stole them. Thanks a lot Antony. So I guess I’ll just have to make some stuff up.

(Not having used hallucinogens or been “in love” I am probably unqualified to make these next few statements, to which I say, oh well.)

Chances are we have all read books, heard songs, and/or watched movies that have brought about emotional responses that mimic emotional experiences we normally identify with “real life”, but the fact that most of us aren’t emotional nihilists means that we haven’t let these manufactured emotions/experiences take away from the naturally occurring ones. Just because the feeling of love can be broken down into specific chemical reactions and recreated with drugs doesn’t mean that the relationship between two lovers is invalidated, its just that we know more about it now than we did several years ago.

I am tempted to place spiritual experiences into the same category as “in love” experiences. The value of the experience is not in the temporarily felt emotion, though I’m sure it’s nice, but is found in the greater intimacy that is developed with the other person through the experience. I’ve probably had several hundred if not thousands of “Spiritual experiences” of one form or another, and as much fun as they are, it is in the fruit of those experiences that value is found. It is in the deeper intimacy with that other person and the personal transformation that occurs which makes us confidently say “this is more than a crush”. There is a structure beyond the chemical reactions which provides a platform for experiences which bring about chemical reactions to transform our lives.

So Casey, I guess I would go with a modified version of #2. God doesn’t interact with us by manipulating chemicals in our brains, but interacts with us and there is a chemical reaction in our brains just like in any other relationship.

14. Philip - June 1, 2009

I think the question raised by the study and by Casey that hasn’t been touched on here is how to discriminate between “spiritual experiences” and chemically-induced states. Granting something like option #2–that God has some interaction with us that results in a chemical change, either caused by or causing the mental state of a spiritual experience—how could one ever tell the difference between just a random synaptic firing and God truly communicating with you? In other words, if the effect is the same, how can you tell between two different sources?

I suppose one could say that it’s all subjective anyway, but I’m missing the argument from those who stand by option #2 concerning how one could ever distinguish a divinely-engineered spiritual experience from some naturally-induced change in the brain’s chemistry.

15. Mark - June 1, 2009

Philip – I think for me there is no need for a distinction. Something does not have to be supernatural to be interpreted or felt as spiritual (whatever that means for an individual).

16. Paul - June 15, 2009

I think Mark hit on a very interesting thought:

It wasn’t an artificial reality, but rather one that emphasized different aspects of existence that were limited by our everyday perception. In a way it’s what you bring to the experience and seek out of it, rather than what the drug itself does.

Hallocinogens do seem to separate the ego from individual self and create a sense of belonging to the entire universe and everything in it. What is really interesting though is the correlation between the effect of the drug, and what ultimately, many if not all religions are trying to say about God… that we are all a part of this almost gestalt-like thing called reality. Philosophers of the East would call it the Tao where philosophers of the West call it God. Maybe the understanding of all faiths in a broader context is trying to say just that.

Only 3 times in my life have I ever truly felt connected and was able to open my consciousness to being a part of everything and everything a part of me: twice when I used mushrooms, and once when I thought i was about to get plowed over by a big rig. Not sure where I’m going with this, but I will finish by saying I think spiritual experience on a macro scale is really the acknowlegement through some experience of being a part of everything.

17. Benjamin - May 24, 2010

So, it has been a year …nothing new?

18. Emmet Blue - May 25, 2010

Serious, I got your comment and I thought, “cool, Casey is writing again.” Then I looked at the post and was like, “this sounds familiar… like really familiar.” Then I started reading the comments and I was like, “Shit, I already commented.”

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