Enlightenment is a traditionally mystical and slippery concept, but when it is subjected to the rigors of empirical analysis, there is a lot to be learned about our brains and ourselves. Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has put enlightenment through a battery of scientific tests, says there are actually two kinds of enlightenment: lowercase-e enlightenment, which changes our opinions about the world, and Enlightenment, which changes our essence, i.e. how we think of life, death, God, etc.
Capital-e Enlightenment is notable because of how people report the experience anecdotally and how it changes the brain. Whatever sensation accompanies the experience of Enlightenment — whether light, or music, or color — it tends to be the most intense experience a person has had with that element. And this intensity is reflected in the brain's limbic system, which processes emotion, and its parietal lobe, which organizes our sensory information to create sensations of time, space, and self.
When people experience Enlightenment, they frequently report losing their sense of self, and scientific analysis confirms that brain activity is a driving cause of this sensation. And while Enlightenment is typically associated with religious individuals like Mother Teresa or the Buddha, people from all walks of life experience essence-changing events — sometimes just walking down the street, says Newberg.
What's more, these experiences can be purposefully induced through the use of pharmacological substances like LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms. And while these experiences may seem aberrant from so-called real life, Dr. Newberg argues that we come hard-wired ready to have them. Perhaps Enlightenment experiences are like a pair of glasses, he says: we are born into the world with bad vision until we experience corrective lenses. Whether these lenses are applied to our eyes or to our brains may matter little in an epistemological sense.
When we start to think about enlightenment we try to divide it into two basic ideas about enlightenment. And one is what I usually refer to as the small E enlightenment experiences and these are the kind of experiences that people have a number of times through their life. It may be kind of the sudden epiphany about how to resolve some problem at work or solve an issue with a relationship. Some issue you’ve been working on for a long time and you suddenly figure it out and you kind of understand things in a different way for the first time. But that’s the little E experience. And the big E experiences are usually those experiences that are kind of are life changing. They’re mind blowing. They change everything about the way you think, about the world, about life, about death, about spirituality. Whatever it is it changes everything about who you are.
For example one of the experiences that people often have is a very profound sense of an intensity of the experience. The experience is the most powerful experience they have ever had. And if there’s specific elements within it, if it’s something that they’ve seen, if it’s some vision of light or something like that - it’s the most beautiful light that they’ve ever seen. It’s the most beautiful music they’ve ever seen. It’s the most intense feeling of love that they’ve ever seen. So whatever it is it’s this very, very powerfully intense experience.
We can look at the areas of the brain that help us to determine which things in our lives are particularly important, are particularly intense to us. This usually occurs within an area of our brain called the limbic system, which is the emotional areas of our brain - particularly areas such as the amygdala and the hippocampus - which light up. They go crazy when something really important happens in our life.
The limbic system also helps to write things into our memory. So when something happens in our life and thousands of things happen to us every day we don’t remember most of them because they don’t trigger that kind of a response. But if we get into a fight with somebody we’ll remember that for a while because it was very emotional to us. So when people have these intense enlightenment kinds of experiences not only do they feel incredibly real at the moment but they are remembered almost for the entire lifetime of the person that they keep coming back to that experience and they always remember this experience as being that life changing moment that from that point forward everything was different.
Another core element of these experiences for example is a feeling of unity, connectedness, oneness. So the people will often say, “I felt connected with everything in the universe. I felt one with God.”
There’s an area of our brain, a parietal lobe which is in the back of our brain and this normally takes all of our sensory information and helps us to reconstruct a sense of ourself and how that self relates to the world in some kind of spatial way. Well we found that this area of the brain in particular starts to quiet down when people have these profound experiences of oneness or unity. Now this makes a lot of sense. If it’s trying to create your sense of self and your sense of space if it starts to shut down well you lose your sense of self. You lose your sense of space.
And I suppose ultimately one of the most important aspects of the enlightenment experience is its permanence is that it rearranges the way our brain works for the rest of our lives. So when people have that experience and they suddenly now realize what their beliefs are in spirituality or their beliefs are about life or death or whatever there’s some incredible change that occurs perhaps in many different areas of our brain that really rearranges the way the person thinks, the way they feel, the way they behave in life.
And one of the real key areas, one last area I’ll mention at the moment is one of the key areas that seems to be involved in that is a very central structure called the thalamus. And this is located deep inside the brain. Some people think that the thalamus is actually the seat of consciousness and it actually takes a lot of our sensory information and sends it to the different parts of our brain and it helps different areas of our brain communicate with each other. Well this is an area that seems to be dramatically changed by these kinds of practices and experiences. So if you think about it if the thalamus is changed it’s really changing a person’s overall perceptions of reality, the way they think about reality, the way they sense reality and ultimately the way their brain interacts with that reality.
These are not experiences that are happening only to the Mother Teresa’s of the world and the Buddha’s of the world. These are experiences that are happening to everyone. These are just regular people. These are people who go to church. They’re people who are religious, people who are not religious, people who are agnostic, people who had a drug- induced experience, people who were meditating. And my favorite some of them were just people basically walking down the street or driving their car down the street and the experience just hit them.
As a neuroscientist if you look at everybody’s brain we all have a lot of the same basic structures in the same basic ways. We have our frontal lobes and our temporal lobes and our limbic system. And even when you look at brain scans usually we’re not more than five or ten percent different from each other. So we all have kind of the same basic circuitry, which makes me think that the ability to have these kinds of experiences is within all of us. It’s just a matter of how one activates it and whether one activates it through a very traditional religious path or some other more unusual path.
When you start to think about how to induce these kinds of experiences one of the things that to me is very interesting is that we tend to look at kind of the more modern technologies and there’s a device called transcranial magnetic stimulation which sends magnetic waves into different parts of the brain. There’s been some work by other investigators who have tried to see if different electromagnetic waves into areas like the temporal lobe along the side of the brain help to induce these kinds of experiences. But for thousands of years people have found ways of inducing these experiences. And you go back, you know, into the shamanic traditions and people using mushrooms and peyote and ayahuasca and all these other kind of pharmacological, if you will, substances. And people have induced various physiological changes in their body by not eating for a period of time, not sleeping for a period of time, going into some kind of cave or doing some sort of sleep deprivation process, or sensory deprivation process.
And it’s interesting because in our kind of Western modern way of thinking about things we do tend to think about this as, you know, you push a button or that this is some sort of artificial stimulation of these experiences. For example a shaman who takes some mushrooms to get into a spiritual state, that shaman doesn’t look at that whole process as being artificial. That shaman basically looks at it as, “This is what I need to do to get my brain to another level so that I can interact with the spiritual world.”
And part of the way I always think about it as a guy who wears glasses and doesn’t see very well. When I wake up in the morning the world’s a very blurry place. I put my glasses on and the world becomes clear. So what if it is that transcranial magnetic stimulation or drugs or, you know, meditation. What are these are like basically putting on glasses for your brain to see the world in a clearer way, in a different way but that really was always there in the first place? So there’s some very interesting and important epistemological questions about the realness of these experiences irrespective of how they actually wind up getting started and how they become induced in that particular individual.
But it also raises another kind of larger picture question and I challenge my own students a lot about this which is where do all of our experiences come from when you think about it from the perspective of the human brain? And what I mean by that is is that if you look at what’s really going on and what’s going on whether or not I’ve got a drug in my brain or not.
For a neuron to fire at all sodium and potassium ions are crossing back and forth across the membrane and it depolarizes the neuron and it fires. So there’s these ions that are moving across a membrane. They cause electrical activity which can be measured. That causes the neuron to turn on its metabolic interface so we can see increases in metabolic activity and how it’s using energy. And then there’s the release of all different kinds of neurotransmitters and serotonin and dopamine that move across this little synaptic cleft and activate another neuron.
So where in all of this does the thought occur? You know where is our thought? Where is our experience of the world? When we say we see something, we feel something, we think something where in all of that is that really happening? And so if I give a person a drug or if a person meditates or whatever it is they’re doing, you know, how do I ultimately link that back to what’s going on in the brain itself and how reductionistic can we ultimately be? Or is it possible that our brain is merely just kind of receiving all of this information and certainly, you know, if you go through a kind of Buddhist or Hindu perspective on a lot of this, consciousness is all around us and our brain is more like a radio receiver that taps into this universal consciousness for a period of time while we’re here on earth and then goes back to that universal consciousness when we go away.
So we don’t know and the bottom line is is that neuroscience is going to have a lot of difficulty ultimately being able to isolate exactly where these experiences are and how drugs or whatever it is that a person is using or doing to induce some kind of experience how that really is having an effect and where those experiences truly come from.