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How Enlightenment Changes the Brain — And How You Can Become Enlightened
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 is the director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine. Andrew has been asking questions about reality, truth, and God since he was very young, and he has long been fascinated by the human mind and its complex workings. While a medical student, he met Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, who was studying religious experiences. Combining their interests with Andrew’s background in neuroscience and brain imaging, they were able to break new theoretical and empirical ground on the relationship between the brain and religion.
Andrew’s research now largely focuses on how brain function is associated with various mental states—in particular, religious and mystical experiences. His research has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states, as well as surveys of people's spiritual experiences and attitudes. He has also evaluated the relationship between religious or spiritual phenomena and health, and the effect of meditation on memory. He believes that it is important to keep science rigorous and religion religious. Andrew has also used neuroimaging research projects to study aging and dementia, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Dr. Newberg has published over 100 research articles, essays and book chapters, and is the co-author of the best selling books, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine, 2001) and How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Ballantine, 2009). He has presented his research throughout the world in both scientific and public forums. He appeared on Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC's World News Tonight, National Public Radio, London Talk Radio and over fifteen nationally syndicated radio programs. His work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other newspapers and magazines.
His newest work is How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation.
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.
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.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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