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The Neurology of Mysticism - Your Brain on God

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.

Today, mystics continue to be part of our society in the form of religious leaders or worshipers who seek spiritual ecstasy and connectedness with a supreme being. In fact, humans seem to have a strong inner desire to look beyond themselves and commune with an “all” or supernatural being.


Mysticism, Mystics, Religion and Science

The belief in and the desire to connect with a supreme being, god, or deity that controls the universe has been around since the dawn of man. In many ancient civilizations normal occurrences such as thunder, rain, earthquakes and volcanic activities were typically attributed to unseen supernatural entities. These gods or goddesses were often believed to hold the strings of the universe and could manipulate the world at will.

In most cases, shamans, priests or medicine men would be looked upon to be the conduits through which people could commune with these supernatural beings. Today, we consider these members of ancient societies mystics. Within their societies, these religious leaders of old were believed to possess mysterious or occult powers. These supernatural abilities allowed them to reach beyond normal existance and communicate with what lies beyond.

Today, mystics continue to be part of our society in the form of religious leaders or worshipers who seek spiritual ecstasy and connectedness with a supreme being. In fact, humans seem to have a strong inner desire to look beyond themselves and commune with an “all” or supernatural being.

However, is this supreme being that religions call God outside of us in the universe, or is God inside of us in our minds? Do we create our own spiritual ecstasy through cognitive processes within our brains, or is there an external spiritual power that communicates with us?

Although we cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, modern science offers ways to glance into our brains in order to understand the systems and neural phenomena that takes place when we experience mystical ecstasy.

While it is up to the reader to decide whether God or a supreme being is real or not, it seems scientific evidence points to our brains as the purveyors of mystical occurrences.

A Deeper Definition of 'Mystic.'

What Is a Mystic?

A mystic is a person who seeks absorption into a Deity or the absolute. One who believes in the spiritual attainment of truths in a way that goes beyond the intellect. It is someone who has had an experience of union with “The One” which may be God, the cosmos or Mother Earth.

Mystics and experts alike claim that while a mystical experience is rare, everyone has them. They say a mystic episode is the time in which people separate themselves from ego and self and experience an interconnectedness with all that is.

Mirabai Starr, the author of Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, said: “A mystic is a person who has a direct experience of the sacred, unmediated by conventional religious rituals or intermediaries.” In order to achieve this, she continues, requires “transcending established belief systems, bypassing intellect, and dissolving identification with the ‘ego’ self.” She goes on to say: “To qualify as a mystic, as one who has had a mystical experience, or a series of mystical experiences, it really means allowing yourself to let go of your individuated identity and be.” (Vicenty, Samantha “Signs You Might Be a Mystic”, The Oprah Magazine, 17, June 2019)

What Is Mysticism?

Standing at the opposite end of rationalism which considers reason as the highest faculty possessed by humans, mysticism refers to the altered state of consciousness reached through religious ecstasy. Mysticism also refers to the idea of becoming one with God or any other deity or divinity as a way of finding an ecstatic state of spiritual consciousness.

While in rationalism, conclusions are reached through logic and critical thinking, mysticism seeks to find a spiritual truth that goes beyond analytical faculty. Consequently, mysticism can be found in all religious traditions such as the Abrahamic faiths, Asian religions, indigenous, shamanism, Indian, modern spirituality, New Age, and New Religious Movements.

The term “mysticism” originated from the ancient Greek μύω múō meaning “to close” or “to conceal”, and it initially referred to the spiritual and liturgical (worshipping) aspects of early and medieval Christianity. During the early modern period, mysticism grew to include a broad range of beliefs and ideologies related to an altered state of mind. In modern times, mysticism has come to be understood as the pursuit of a union with the Absolute, the Infinite or God.

In some approaches to mysticism, as in Perennial philosophy (perennialism) it is stated that all religions share the same single metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric or globally understood doctrine has grown. In essence, all religions, in spite of dogmatic differences point to the same “Truth”.

Today, the term “mysticism” has come to mean events that are nebulous, esoteric, occult, or supernatural.

By Gustave Doré — Alighieri, Dante; Cary, Henry Francis (ed) (1892) “Canto XXXI” in The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Complete, London, Paris & Melbourne: Cassell & Company

By Gustave Doré — Alighieri, Dante; Cary, Henry Francis (ed) (1892) “Canto XXXI” in The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Complete, London, Paris & Melbourne: Cassell & Company

Neurotheology: an Emerging Discipline

In light of the metaphysical and otherworldly experiences mystics have been describing for thousands of years, scientists have been trying to explain in neurological terms the correlation between the brain and spirituality. The emerging field known as neurotheology or spiritual neuroscience has been studying the correlation between neural phenomena with the subjective experiences brought by mysticism, religion and spirituality; meanwhile constructing hypotheses explaining these occurrences.

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The most pressing question researchers in this field are attempting to answer is whether the identification of neural correlates or triggers associated with mystical experience proves them to be nothing more than cognitive events or do they identify brain activity occurring when experiencing a legitimate spiritual episode. Adding to the research is the correlation of psychedelic drugs and mystical experience which points to parts of the brain that can generate otherworldly cognition.

Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) By Peter Paul Rubens — Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank

Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) By Peter Paul Rubens — Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank

Carmelite Nuns in Montreal

The idea that there is a “God spot” in the brain, from where all notions of a deity emanates are what drove Dr. Mario Beauregard and a team of researchers at the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal to conduct brain scans on a group of Carmelite nuns in 2006.

They were looking for a circuit of nerves or areas in the brain which could explain the cognitive processes underlying the Unio Mystica — the Christian notion of mystical union with God. “The main goal of the study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience,” said Dr. Beauregard.

With this end in mind, they asked 15 Carmelite nuns of varying ages to relive the most spiritual moment in their lives while having their brains scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The researchers concluded that rather than one spiritual center of the brain in particular, they could identify a dozen different regions of the brain that would become activated during a mystical experience.

It seemed mystical experiences are handled by several brain regions and systems normally involved in cognitive functions such as self-consciousness, emotion, and body representation.

This experiment and the idea of a God spot was initially motivated by research conducted at the University of California in which people with temporal-lobe epilepsy were prone to religious hallucinations. This, in turn, led Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Laurentian University in Canada, to artificially stimulate temporal lobes in subjects to see if he could reproduce this religious state. He found that he was able to create a “sensed presence” in his subjects.

Brain Scans During Meditation, Prayer and Trances

One research is being conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg of the Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in which he has scanned the brains of people in prayer, meditation, rituals and states of trance, as a way of understanding the nature of religious and spiritual events.

Dr. Newberg reports that Tibetan Buddhist meditators experienced decreased activity in the parietal lobe during meditation. This area of the brain gives us a sense of our orientation in space and time, leading to the hypothesis that blocking sensory and cognitive input into this area during meditation can cause the sensation of no space and time.

When studying Franciscan nuns during prayer, Dr. Newberg’s research found additional increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe (the language area). This is consistent with a verbally based practice such as prayer, rather than visualization as in the case of meditation. Scans of the Franciscan nuns in prayer, shows activity in the superior parietal lobe, where the brain’s responsibility is for orientation. Activity decreases significantly during prayer as per Newberg’s study.

Finally, Dr. Newberg looked at the brain of a long-term meditator who was also an atheist. The subject was scanned at rest and while meditating on the concept of God. The results showed no significant increase in the frontal lobes as in the case of the other meditation practices. The implication of the study showed that the subject was not able to activate the part of the brain used in meditation whenever he focused on a concept in which he did not believe.

In a brain scan of Tibetan Buddhist meditators, scans show decreased activity in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe handles orientation in space and time providing a feeling of “spacelessness” and “timelessness” during a religious experience.

For additional information on Dr. Newberg’s study, please visit his website.

Mormons Feeling the Spirit

In another study conducted on Mormon (LDS) subjects by researcher Jeff Anderson from the University of Utah found that when they were asked to “feel the spirit” while being scanned in an fMRI machine, their brains lit up in similar ways as people who had taken a hit of a drug or listened to a favorite song. These regions highlighted by the fMRI were part of the same reward circuit of the brain associated with stimulation from drugs, junk food, music, gambling and sex.

This part of the brain called nucleus accumbens is referred to as the reward center which controls feelings of addiction and play a role in releasing the ‘feel-good’ hormone dopamine.

During the exam, they were exposed to videos, literature and songs related to their Mormon religion. However, they were given literature and quotations falsely attributed to Mormon or other world religious leaders. When asked to describe what they were experiencing, they all reported a response similar to an intense worship service. This included feelings of peace and warmth.

At the end of the scan, many were in tears exhibiting similar feelings to when attending meaningful religious services. This occurred irrespective of the type of input they were receiving and pointed to a cognitive process brought upon by their minds.

It is important to note that for LDS members, feeling the spirit is an important aspect of their religion. It refers to a feeling of peace and closeness to God which Mormons base a lot of their decision-making processes on.

Exploring the brain's role in mystical experiences | Wellington Faculty of Science | Victoria University of Wellington


Brain Damage and Mystic Experiences

Jordan Grafman neuropsychologist who serves as Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and his colleagues have been studying brain processes that lead to mystic or transcendent moments. They have found that mystical experiences may stem from the brain letting go of inhibitions or opening what they call a “door of perception.”

Grafman and his team conducted a study with 116 Vietnam War veterans who experienced brain damage and had mystical experiences and compared them with 32 combat veterans without brain injuries or neurological disorders. All veterans reported having heard the voice of God or had visions of their family. All of which Dr. Grafman regards as common mystical experiences.

The researchers also conducted interviews of the subjects using the Mysticism Scale, an often used test for analyzing reports of mystical experiences. The test asks respondents about feelings of unity, joy and transcendent events regarding time and space. The veterans were also subjected to high-resolution computed tomography (CT) brain scans.

The researchers found that damage to the frontal and temporal lobes was connected to a greater number and intensity of mystical experiences. Frontal lobes near the forehead are linked to movement, problem solving, memory, language and judgement. The temporal lobes located near the bottom of the brain are linked to the senses, languages and memory.

Additional research revealed that damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was also linked to markedly increased mysticism. This area of the brain is key to imposing inhibitions.

Explaining the information garnered from these studies, Dr. Grafman said:

“The frontal lobes are the most evolved areas of the human brain and help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world. When the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, a door of perception can open, increasing the chances of mystical experiences.”

Ayahuasca cooking in the Loreto region of Peru — By Heah at English Wikipedia — Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons

Ayahuasca cooking in the Loreto region of Peru — By Heah at English Wikipedia — Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons

Psychedelic Drugs and Mysticism

In 2015, Mickael Bergeron Neron, a Canadian programmer decided to travel to the jungle of Peru near the city of Iquitos in order to participate in a unique spiritual retreat involving the use of the herbal drink ayahuasca. Also known as “el te” (the tea), the vine, and “la purga” (the purge), is a brew made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub along with the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. Other plants and ingredients may be added to this concoction as well.

Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic ingredient with hallucinogenic properties. It has been used for spiritual and religious purposes by ancient Amazonian tribes and still used today by certain indigenous religious communities in South America.

It is usually ingested under the supervision of a curandero (shaman) who prepares the brew and administers it to all participants. Today, Ayahuasca has become popular among those who seek a way to open their minds, heal from past traumas or experience an ayahuasca transcendental journey.

Bergeron wanted to use the spiritual experience in order to get rid of “residual early trauma”, which caused a great deal of distress and anxiety he had with women. He had previously experimented with psychedelics in the hopes of ridding himself of the problem, however, his efforts had failed. This time, it seems, he was successful by using ayahuasca. After his encounter with the drug, he wrote:

“Early into the experience, I was merely feeling love. [Then], my whole body was lightning with love. Later, I was love. And yet later, I was a fountain pouring love. I got how life could not sustain itself without love. I was seeing that since my parents met and had me through love, I was a product of love and, by extension, love itself. I was shown that not only life, but the universe itself could not exist without love, and that, fundamentally, love makes up the whole universe. When I had the experience, I was not just part of the universe, but I was the universe itself.”

This is only one of the many mystic and transcendental experiences Bergeron experienced during the time he consumed ayahuasca alongside the other participants and the shamans in attendance.

Psychedelic drugs, or hallucinogens, are compounds we know as mind-expanding that can also induce states of altered perception and thought. Among the most common of these are cannabis, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin and Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

These are all substances that have been used in ritual ceremonies going back thousands of years. From the indigenous people of the Amazons to the practitioners of Hinduism who consumed soma (a sap from the Asclepias acida plant known to cause a feeling of transcendence), psychoactive drugs have been used to attain spiritual enlightenment.

Even ancient Greek philosopher Plato is believed to have used psychedelic drugs in aiding his philosophical understandings. It is Ironic that these mind-expanding substances have deeply influenced Western civilization.

Assignment to the elements in Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum

Assignment to the elements in Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum

Most Interesting Mystics in History

Throughout history, there have been hundreds, even thousands of mystics. Men and women who have both attempted to enter into an altered state of consciousness and have claimed to have directly communicated with God or the absolute.

Ancient Egyptians were known for their application of metaphysical realities in their daily lives. ‘As above so below’ and ‘as below so above’ was part of a total cosmic consciousness and main law of existence espoused by their civilization.

In ancient Greece Pythagoras, Plato, and many other philosophers were said to have been initiated into cults of mysticism.

During the early 19th century American revivalist period known as the Second Great Awakening emerged religious leaders and mystics such as Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and Charles Taze Russell, who all claimed direct communication with God and Jesus Christ. Many of the groups led by many of these mystics went on to become major religions today.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the United States became a place of séances and table-rappings. This was a period when spiritualism and mediums such as Victoria Woodhull were famous enough to testify before Congress. Even residents of the White House conducted séances and Ouija circles.

Mysticism and mystics have been with us since the beginning of human existence. It is likely they will continue to be with us for many more years to come.

The following are a few of these men and women we know as mystics. They were chosen as they represent mystical approaches that help us to highlight how certain cognitive processes affected their ability to purportedly look into the universal void.


Hildegard von Bingen

One of the earliest known mystics, Hildegard von Bingen (1098 to1179) was a child when she first began receiving visions of God. Later, after becoming the head of an abbey of nuns, she began to record her mystic experiences, which became a collection known as Scivias or Know the Ways. Her philosophical views covered everything from natural history to music prompting Popes, bishops and kings alike to consult her. She died sometime in the 12th century and canonized in 2012.

Sickly from birth and long before taking her monastic vows, von Bigen claimed her spiritual awareness was based in what she called the umbra viventis lucis, the ‘reflection of the living Light.’ In a letter to aristocrat Guibert of Gembloux at the age of seventy-seven, she described her experience with this light in great detail by writing:

“So, I have never fallen prey to ecstasy in the visions, but I see them wide awake, day and night. And I am constantly fettered by sickness, and often in the grip of pain so intense that it threatens to kill me, but God has sustained me until now. The light which I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it “the reflection of the living Light.” And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam.”

Hildegard explained that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three, and by the age of five, she began to understand that she was experiencing visions.

In 1913, famous scientist and historian Charles Singer, wrote a retrospective diagnosis of Hildegard von Bingen as a migraine sufferer, which has since become commonly accepted. Singer examined the Scivias manuscript describing her 26 religious visions which included stars, shimmering points of light, and crenellated figures of some of the 35 illuminations. Singer thought that he recognized depictions of ‘scintillating scotoma’, a common visual aura that typically precedes a migraine attack.

Noting that Hildegard had written about her long periods of illness, Singer diagnosed her with a functional nervous disorder, manifesting itself as a migraine. She died on September 17, 1179, at the age of 82.

Ellen G. White, American author and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. = By Unknown author — Ellen G. White Estate,

Ellen G. White, American author and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. = By Unknown author — Ellen G. White Estate,

Ellen Gould White

Ellen White (November 26, 1827 — July 16, 1915) was one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and who could be considered a Christian mystic. During her lifetime she claimed to have received over 2000 visions and dreams from God which occurred in public as well as in private meetings. She published as well as verbally described the content of her visions, which early Adventists pioneers considered as a Biblical gift of prophecy.

In a series of writings, she titled Conflict of the Ages, White endeavored to show how the hand of God was present in Biblical and church history. This cosmic conflict between Satan and Jesus Christ, referred to by Seventh-day Adventist scholars as the “Great Controversy theme,” is often quoted and analyzed in her writings.

Over her lifetime she wrote more than 5,000 periodical articles and 40 books. Some of her more popular books include Steps to Christ, Child Guidance, The Desire of Ages, and The Great Controversy. Currently, 200 of White’s books and articles are available in English. This includes the 100,000 pages of manuscript currently published by the Ellen G. White Estate.

At the age of nine, while living in Portland, Maine, Ellen White was hit in the face with a stone. This event, she claims started her conversion. She said:

“This misfortune, which for a time seemed so bitter and was so hard to bear, has proved to be a blessing in disguise. The cruel blow which blighted the joys of earth, was the means of turning my eyes to heaven. I might never had known Jesus Christ, had not the sorrow that clouded my early years led me to seek comfort in him.”

Consequently, Ellen White went into a coma for three weeks and remained in bed for many weeks after. Dr. Mollerus Couperus, a retired physician and founding editor of Spectrum magazine contended that because of the brain injury caused by her incident, Ellen White suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. This, explaining the cataleptic states she would enter during her visions.

Dr. M.G. Kellogg, a contemporary of Ms. White who attended many of her public visions wrote:

“In each instance she was suddenly seized, fell unconscious, and remained unconscious during the full time the fit lasted; every vital function was reduced to the lowest point compatible with life; pulse almost stopped and very infrequent breathing so slight as to be imperceptible except when she uttered short sentences; pupils dilated to great width, sense of hearing blunted…”

It seems that while Ms. White honestly believed her visions came from God, they were most likely the cause of a brain injury.

The tree of life based on the depiction by Robert Fludd in the Deutsche Fotothek.

The tree of life based on the depiction by Robert Fludd in the Deutsche Fotothek.

Abraham Abulafia

Born in Zaragoza, Spain in 1240, Abraham Abulafia was the founder of the school of “Prophetic Kabbalah”, Jewish religious teacher and mystic. He endeavored to create a mystical system that could assist one in achieving a state of unio mystica (union with God) which he called prophecy, though modern scholars refer to it as ecstatic kabbalah.

Abulafia wrote extensively, although only thirty of his books have survived until today. Among his more influential writings are his handbooks which teach how to achieve the prophetic experience and his prophetic books. These are revelations including apocalyptic imagery and scenes which are interpretations of spiritual process of inner redemption.

In his many writings, Abulafia focused on devices and techniques for uniting with what he called the Agent Intellect, or God. He claimed this could be accomplished through the recitation of divine names together with breathing techniques and cathartic practices.

Some of his mystic practices were adopted by the Ashkenazi Hasidim, a Jewish mystical, ascetic movement in Germany during the 12th and 13th centuries. Abulafia, suggested a method based on a continuously changing stimulus which was meant to prevent the relaxation of the consciousness by meditation, but rather to purify it through a high-level concentration, requiring performing many actions at the same time.

Abulafia’s method for reaching spiritual ecstasy includes the following steps:

  1. Preparation: the initiate purifies himself through fasting, the wearing of tefillin (leather boxes containing scrolls of the Torah), and donning pure white garments.
  2. The mystic writes out specific letter groups and continually rearranges them.
  3. Physiological maneuvers: the mystic chants the letters in conjunction with specific respiratory patterns, as well as placing the head in various positions.
  4. Mental imagery of letters and human forms: the mystic imagines a human form, and himself without a body. The mystic must ‘draws’ the letters mentally, projecting them onto the ‘screen’ of the ‘imaginative faculty’, i.e. he mentally imagines the patterns of letters. He then rotates the letters and turns them. As Abulafia describes: “And they [the letters], with their forms, are called the Clear Mirror, for all the forms having brightness and strong radiance are included in them. And one who gazes at them in their forms will discover their secrets and speak to them, and they will speak to him. And they are like an image in which a man sees all his forms standing in front of him, and then he will be able to see all the general and specific things (Ms. Paris BN 777, fol. 49).”

Abulafia claimed that at the end of this process a mystic would undergo four experiences. First, body-photism: a perception or hallucination of a luminous appearance, in which light not only surrounds the body but also diffuses into it. After this, as the ecstatic Kabbalist continues to combine letters and performing physiological maneuvers, the second experience occurs: the body weakens in an ‘absorptive’ manner. The third experience provides the mystic with a feeling of thought enhancement and imaginative capacity. Finally, the fourth experience is characterized mainly by fear and trembling. Subsequently, trembling is needed for attaining prophecy.

For Abulafia, fear is followed by pleasure and delight which is due to the sensing of another ‘spirit’ within the mystic’s body.

Only after passing through these experiences does the mystic reach his goal of a vision of a human form similar to his own appearance and who stands in front of him. The experience, however, is intensified when the double is able to talk to the mystic in order to teach him the unknown and revealing the future.

Abulafia, managed to create a system in which autoscopic phenomena (AP) could occur. AP is defined as the experience in which a person perceives the surrounding environment from a different perspective, especially from a position outside of his or her own body. It is an illusory visual experience or hallucination in which the subject has the impression of seeing a second body in extrapersonal space (outside of him/herself) This is accomplished by isolating a fundamental component of the self as it experiences itself beyond corporal boundaries.

Experts say that Abulafia accomplished his mystical doppelganger to appear by experimenting on himself with sleep deprivation, letter recitation, fasting and breathing exercises. These are all techniques known to alter the brain.

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