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Mario Beauregard & the Mystical Mind

In a documentary about his work, The Mystical Brain (Raynauld 2006), neuroscientist Mario Beauregard states something to the effect that even when he was a child, he believed humans possessed some type of soul that was more than the sum of neuroanatomy. Indeed, Beauregard's work takes the vantage that spirituality is more than the neural networks.

Mario Beauregard is a neuroscientist affiliated with the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona. Beauregard received his Ph.D. from the University of Montreal, completed post-docs at the University of Texas Medical School & Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill, & has published a whole buncha science papers & two books, Brain Wars (2012) & The Spiritual Brain (2009).The Spiritual Brain

His research focus is on emotions & transcendent states, which he defines as "experiences that extend or lie beyond the limits of ordinary experience" (Beauregard 2011:63). In particular, Beauregard is interested in mystical experiences & cites William James (1902), who outlined several characteristics of mystical states:

  • Ineffability: quality of eluding any adequate account in words
  • Noetic quality: experienced as a state of deep knowledge or insight unknown to discursive intellect
  • Transiency: cannot be sustained for long
  • Passivity: feeling that, after experience sets in, one is no long in control & may in grasp of superior power
William James and Josiah Royce, near James's country home in Chocorua, New Hampshire in September 1903. James's daughter Peggy took the picture. On hearing the camera click, James cried out: "Royce, you're being photographed! Look out! I say Damn the Absolute!"
William James and Josiah Royce, near James's country home in Chocorua, New Hampshire in September 1903. James's daughter Peggy took the picture. On hearing the camera click, James cried out: "Royce, you're being photographed! Look out! I say Damn the Absolute!"

William James' significant influence is apparent in Beauregard's theoretical ethos, as with many researchers of consciousness. I must admit that I find that James was consistently & profoundly ahead of his time. William James (1842-1910) was one of the most influential philosophers to come out of the U.S. He was also a pioneering psychologist & a medical doctor, though he never practiced the latter. He was born wealthy into a family of intellectual prestige. His godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, also known as "Darwin's bulldog," & brother of novelist Henry James ("Turn of the Screw," "Daisy Miller"). He was known for being a Pragmatist & believed that the value of any truth is dependent upon its use to the person holding it. He was the founder of Functional Psychology but his approach was as a radical empiricist--he though the world & experience cannot be halted for entirely objective analysis, as the intrusion of analysis always changes the world. And why I would like to claim him as an honorary foundation of anthropology (like Emile Durkheim & so many others) is his belief that diversity is the default human condition. What I came to realize thru my own fieldwork that he noted over 100 years ago is that one can believe in a god & prove its existence by what belief brings to one's own life. James wrote several influential books, but the one I need to remember to teach sometime in our Landmarks of Anthropological Literature is The Varieties of  Religious Experience.

Beauregard also draws on the work of Walter Terence Stace, a British philosopher who published two books on mysticism. Stace indicated that mystical experiences could be extrovertive or introvertive. Extrovertive mystical states are facilitated by nature, art, music, or mundane objects & are transfigured by awareness of the One; whereas introvertive states find the One at the bottom of the human self. In general, mystical states are triggered by mind-altering drugs, as well as natural substances, shamanic practices, meditation, hypnosis, near-death experiences, regular religious/spiritual practice, or nothing at all. And they can utterly transform attitudes & beliefs related to worldview, belief systems, relationships, & sense of self.

limbic system
limbic system

But this is nothing new to anyone who has smoked a joint while on Loratab, eaten good LSD, drank a bottle of Robitussin, eaten packs of Nyquil Liquicaps, or whatever the kids are doing nowadays. These things are fuck your mind, but what does that mean? Well, it depends, but it may have a lot to do with the temporal lobe & limbic system. The temporal lobe is the region of the cerebral cortex beneath the lateral fissure that influences visual memories, sensory input, language comprehension, storing new memories, emotion, & meaning derivation. The limbic system is a collection of structures supporting emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, & olfaction that integrates external stimuli with internal drives, & marks valence of stimuli & experiences. According to Joseph LeDoux, it's not really a system but historically was considered an evolutionary novel layer & thus is identified together.

Anyway, temporal lobe epilepsy has been associated with hyperreligiosity in some people & speculation runs amok that religous zealots of the past who have galvanized cultural change may have been epileptics of this variety--e.g., St. Paul, Muhammad, Joan of Arc, & Joseph Smith. While this is a sensational aside, what is important to note is that most people who have temporal lobe epilepsy are transcendent experiences are not epileptics, & very few epileptics report transcendent experiences during seizures.

The limbic-marker hypothesis (Saver & Rabin 1997) suggests that temporolimbic discharges underlie core features of transcendent experiences, such as noetic/ineffable content, sense of touching ultimate reality, experiences of unity with all, timelessness, spacelessness, & feelings of positive affect, peace, & joy. Such discharges may mark experiences as depersonalized/derealized, crucially important or self-referent, harmonious, or ecstatic. As with strong emotions, experiences associated with such discharges can be named but cannot be communicated in full visceral intensity. This reminds me of one of the more impressive descriptions my Pentecostal informants have given me of her baptism of the Spirit, when she received the Holy Ghost for the first time. She said it was thousands of times greater than that feeling of absolute feeling of devoted love you get occasionally when you look at your own child (especially when they're sleeping--my kids say we're creepy for sitting in their rooms at night having transcendent experiences watching them sleep).

Neural correlates of religious experience: dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, medial parietal cortex
Neural correlates of religious experience: dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, medial parietal cortex

Beauregard's brain imaging work builds on that of Nina Azari & co. (2001), who conducted some of the first such studies of religious experiences. Members of the Free Evangelical Fundamentalist Community read Psalms 23, verse 1, which their conversion experiences are based on, relative to nonreligious participants reading "happy" & "neutral" texts. PET scans indicated activation in religious participants in dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, & medial parietal cortices. Most significant is an assessment consistent with Bernard Silka & Daniel McIntosh (1995):

Religious experience is a cognitive attributional phenomenon, mediated by a pre-established neural circuit... Religious attributions are based on religious schemata...about religion & religious issues & include reinforced structures for inferring religiously related causality of experienced events (Beauregard 2011:70).

Beauregard with the Dalai Lama
Beauregard with the Dalai Lama

The Mystical Mind documents Beauregard's own investigations of the meditative prayers states of several Carmelite Nuns. It follows him from the lab to conference presentations about his work, framed by an interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It also visits the labs of such neurotheology colleagues as Michael Persinger, Richard Davidson, & Antoine Lutz. It follows Beauregard to a Templeton Foundation-sponsored "Mind & Life" conference, where several neurotheologians meet with with religious leaders. Andrew Newberg is interviewed, though his work is not discussed. Lacking narration & marred a bit by a soundtrack of Gregorian chanting or Mongolian throat music or something (which I love, but not in this context), the documentary is a bit sleepy & could have filled the space by covering more ground. For instance, it is suggested that we don't know if different meditative types of practice produce different brain states, but Newberg has demonstrated that this is true, albeit in limited samples. It also takes a little context to understand all that is going on. For instance, an audience member criticizes Beauregard at a conference for the credit he gives the Pam Reynolds case, though it has not been corroborated. Reading Beauregard's chapter "Transcendent Experiences & Brain Mechanisms" in the Cardena & Winkelman volume puts much of it in context.

I do like the documentary, but what makes it exceptional is about 5 seconds of dialogue by the Dalai Lama wherein he says thru his interpreter that the Buddhist creation myth is that humans evolve from monkeys. The Dalai Lama himself interrupts his interpreter to say that he knows Tibetan humans at least evolved from monkeys, which is a more scientific statement. Ha! Neurotheology joke? I get it!