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The Neurological Basis of Altered States of Consciousness

Laura

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#1
I'm not too sure that this deserves a thread of its own, but I'll put it here for now.

I'm currently reading "Paul in Ecstasy" by Colleen Schantz. I haven't gotten to her main arguments yet, but the chapter she has on the neurological basis of ecstasy and related experiences is rather good; she's collected her data from a variety of sources. So, I thought I would just clip out that section and post it here; there are a number of implications for those doing The Work and for those working with Neurofeedback as well, I think.

Be patient with the bit of a slog through the description of the brain and what it does where, and how it got that way evolutionarily speaking; she gets down to the nitty gritty of describing the trance/ecstasy/bliss experience at the end utilizing those building blocks.

What is most interesting is her discussion of the "via negativa" and the "via positiva" which amounts to meditating without seed and with seed, as we have discussed elsewhere.

2.1.1 Cross-Cultural Ecstatic Experience

Anyone who has had this experience will know what I am talking about. He will know that the soul lives another life as it advances toward the One, reaches it and shares in it. . . . It needs nothing more. On the contrary, it must renounce everything else and rest in it alone, become it alone, all earthliness gone, eager to be free, impatient of every fetter that binds below in order so to embrace the real object of its love with its entire being that no part of it does not touch the One. (Plotinus, Enneads, 6.9:8-11, in The Essential Plotinus, trans. Elmer O’Brien (New York: Mentor, 1964), 86.)
[A]t that time, I began to keep silence with the greatest joy, and especially in the night before Shrove Tuesday I was in a great grace. And then it happened on Shrove Tuesday that I was alone in the choir after matins and knelt before the altar, and a great fear came upon me, and there in the fear I was surrounded by a grace beyond measure. . . . An immeasurable sweetness was given to me, so that I felt as if my soul was separated from my body. And the sweetest of all names, the name of Jesus Christ, was given to me then with such a great fervor of his love, that I could pray nothing but a continuous saying that was instilled in me by the divine power of God and that I could not resist and of which I can write nothing, except to say that the name Jesus Christ was in it continually. (Sister Margaret Ebner, as cited in David A. Cooper, Silence, Simplicity, and Solitude (New York: Bell Tower, 1992), 186.)
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist? (Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions ofRabia, trans. Charles Upton (Put¬ney, Vt.: Threshold, 1988), 36.)
Neither thinking nor imagination can ever reach this state.
This Ultimate reality retains neither self nor other.
In this non-dual world all is one, nothing is left out.
In this unmeasurable truth one instant is ten thousand years.
One thing is everything all things are one.
. . . Words fail to describe it
for it is neither of the past, present, nor future. (Hsin hsin ming, ‘‘freely rendered’’ by James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998), 700-1.)
The preceding authors include a third-century Greco-Roman philosopher, a thirteenth-century German nun, an eighth-century Mesopotamian Sufi freedwoman, and a seventh-century anonymous Chinese poet. Across traditions, ethnographic descriptions and the reports of practitioners of culturally sanctioned ASCs circumscribe a consistent set of characteristics. The preceding quotations illustrate ineffability, a sense of unity or absoluteness, disruption of temporal awareness, and feelings of euphoria and awe. All of the authors cited were also members of religious traditions (theistic and nontheistic) that provided each of them with a distinctive interpretative framework in which they could reflect on what happened to them, and the ways in which they describe their experiences show the influence of these traditions. Given these competing realities, it has been rightfully asked: What is the balance between apparent universal characteristics of ecstatic religious experience and obvious signs of cultural influence? Is the very experience (not simply its later interpretation) the product of the informing culture? Is the ecstasy subsumed by the culture in which it is practiced?

Japanese Zen provides a good test case for this debate. Its core cultural goal is attainment of ‘‘insight-wisdom’ ’ rather than an encounter with the divine, and this feature alone distinguishes it from a great many other traditions of ecstasy. Given this important distinction, is it, in fact, a different experience? In this regard, it is instructive to consider the teaching about and training for Zen states of consciousness. Japanese Zen teaching specifically discourages the following ecstatic phenomena:

(1) the sensation of being lifted up in the air like a cloud; (2) the feeling of the presence of some indescribable luminosity; (3) the experience of supernatural joy; (4) the clarification and transparency of mind such that it appears to reflect all the world like a very brilliant mirror; (5) the feeling as though the soul had escaped the bodily confinement and had expanded itself out into the immensity of space; (6) a return toward that definite state of conscious awareness in which all mental functions are present. . . ; (7) a feeling of nothingness in which no mentation is present; (8) a state neither of loss of consciousness nor of consciousness of anything in particular .. .(James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998), 700-1.)

The list is no random collection of prohibitions but touches on phenomena that are reported widely by practitioners of ecstatic states in various times and places. The fact that such experience is forbidden by Zen teaching speaks to its prevalence in the very midst of cultural difference. Apparently, with training and aptitude, these phenomena can be unlearned or managed, but they are native even to cultures that do not value them. In the case of Japanese Zen, culture is imposed on this experience.

This cross-cultural similarity is further supported by the comparison of studies of trance states across cultures. Measurements taken during the practice of transcendental meditation, tantric yoga, and a variety of other forms, including even untrained meditation, all demonstrate the same changes in autonomic nervous functioning of their practitioners. In addition, the neurological studies that have been conducted have included participants from distinct traditions, so that the model is not biased toward any one cultural practice or experience. Culture is no barrier; although it introduces differences to be contended with, by no means do they negate the possibility of cross-cultural comparison. Furthermore, the fullness of experience is not laid bare by culture alone, and culture alone cannot do justice to its impact. That more complete picture depends on other perspectives.

2.1.2 A Brief History of the Human Brain

The second potential barrier to examining Paul's experience in the way proposed here concerns the evolution of the brain. What checks and balances are necessary to responsibly apply contemporary findings to ancient brains? Here the answer is even more straightforward. The human brain as it now exists is really quite an ancient organ - it is quite as old as recorded history itself because the ability to record history depends on brain developments that are present in moderns. Its history of development can be told in five acts: the neuron, the brainstem and midbrain, the limbic system, the neocortex, and the development of specialization and lateralization. I recount this development at some length at this point because these details will help to clarify the information in subsequent sections.

The brain's story begins quite humbly some 650 to 700 million years ago, when the first neurons developed. Neurons respond to stimuli by producing electrical current that is carried by and triggers chemical messengers in the body (so-called neurotransmitters). Individual neurons, in turn, gradually developed interconnections across which information was shared. This arrangement is the extent of the central nervous system that still exists in freshwater flatworms, one of the most primitive organisms in existence. When a neuron fires, a muscle may contract in response, thus moving the organism away from an aversion stimulus or toward a positive one. We have inherited neurons - virtually unchanged, though far more abundant - from these, our oldest neurological ancestors.

A mere 150-200 million years later, these neural fibers had become increasingly organized and interconnected, eventually developing into the brainstem and midbrain, the second neurological layer. This region is com¬posed of the (euphonically named) medulla oblongata, the pons, and the cerebellum. In the fully evolved brain, the brainstem gathers together the neural fibers from the body and distributes them again into the cerebral hemispheres. The evolution of the neural network of the brainstem allowed for more sophisticated exchange of information and hence the coordinated control of some physiological systems. So, for example, the brainstem monitors heart and breathing rates, sensory filtering, and motor reflexes. It also sets ‘‘the trigger for motor reactions to visual, vestibular, painful, sexual and edible stimuli.’’ From the beginning of its evolutionary development, the brainstem has mediated the transmission of tactile stimuli, which necessarily originate from a source that is in immediate contact with the organism. That proximity requires an immediate, and hence reflexive, response from the sensing organism. For these reasons, the brainstem has not evolved beyond reflexive ‘‘thought.’’ Although the work of the brainstem takes place apart from conscious thought, injury to a small portion of this area nevertheless makes even basic consciousness impossible.

The third development is the limbic system, a kind of medial stratum of the brain. It includes a number of structures that began to develop about 500 million years ago and continued to do so for about 100 million years. The most important parts of the limbic system for ecstatic states are the hippo¬campus, the hypothalamus, and the amygdala. These structures are vital in what medical students memorize as ‘‘the four m’s’’ and ‘‘the three f’s’’; that is, mating, memory, mood, and motivation and fighting, feeding, and fear. Described broadly, the limbic system functions as a kind of cerebral switch¬board, determining which impulses will move between other regions of the brain and the body and brainstem. It controls autonomic processes and organic balance, details that are discussed more fully in Section 2.2.1. It is also fundamental to the emotional meaning of thought and experience. More specifically, the hippocampus plays a major role in orienting the organism in the face of novel stimuli and then in encoding new memories based on that information. For its part, the hypothalamus is largely responsible for maintaining of equilibrium between the body’s quiescent functions (basically rest, cell repair, and nourishment) and its arousal func¬tions (so-called fight-or-flight mechanisms). It is also essential to the motiva¬tional system of the organism, ‘‘initiating and maintaining behaviors the organism finds rewarding.’’

Finally, the amygdala ‘‘controls and mediates virtually all high-order emotional functions,’’ both pleasurable and fearful, and thereby contributes an essential ingredient in the successful encoding of new knowledge. Individuals with amygdaloid damage, who are therefore working without this emotional content, fail to make effective decisions and choices. Thus, emotion is essential to cognitive functions that are normally thought to be singularly rational. The combined effects of these characteristics also give the amygdala a significant role in determining the social and emotional nuances of speech. There are those who claim further that all religious experience is dependent on the functioning of the amygdala. In these various ways, the evolution of the limbic system provided the means for more complex interaction with the environment, including a role in generating ecstatic states of consciousness.

The neocortex, the fourth layer of neurological development, is most commonly identified by its four pairs of lobes: the left and right frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. These designations, however, derive more from descriptions of morphological features (the first means by which the brain was studied) than from studies of brain functioning. However, neocortical function pertains far more to phylogeny than to physiognomy. For example, the amygdala gave rise to most of the temporal and portions of the frontal lobes, whereas the hippocampus developed into the occipital lobe and the superior portion of the parietal lobe. Therefore, these two sets of areas are closely related in function.

From the beginning of its development, the forebrain (the limbic system and neocortex) was associated with olfactory processors. That fact allowed for evolutionary developments in the forebrain that were not possible in the brainstem. Olfactory stimuli can be sensed at some distance and therefore allow the time necessary to consider possible reactions to the information before a response is required. As Rhawn Joseph explains, because of this distance, ‘‘the forebrain was given time to ‘think.’ . . . Moreover, because the source of this information might be far away and hidden, the forebrain had to retain this information in ‘memory.’ ’’ So it was that the forebrain continued to develop refinements of cognition, a fact that is reflected in part by the percentage of cranial space it now occupies.

The final neurological layer to be outlined here is precisely these refinements. They include both cognitive systems and specializations, some of which are significant factors in ecstatic states. Handedness and language are the most convenient indicators of the evolution of brain lateralization and specialization. Handedness seems to have become pronounced around 2-3 million years ago. It is estimated that 60-70 percent of Australopithecines were right-handed. The estimates for 150,000 years ago are that 90 percent of archaic humans were right-handed, approximately the same percentage as today. Hand dominance requires the ability of the right and left brain hemispheres to divide their attention and work independently from one another. Still, it appears that the left-hemisphere specialization for speech was established only 50,000 years ago, culminating in the evolution of writing and reading around 10,000 years ago.

Other forms of specialization are more complex, but apparently equally old. For example, the region of the brain known as Broca’s area was one of the first areas of specialization to be identified and examined in detail. It is located in the lower posterior left frontal lobe and is directly connected to other cortical areas and secondarily to limbic structures. From these connected regions, it receives auditory, visual, and somaesthetic (i.e., the interrelations of touch and body position) impulses and sequences them in ways that enable ‘‘the expression of thought in linguistic form,’’ resulting in speech and writing. Injury to this small area of the brain deprives the patient of the ability to produce fluent speech even though all the necessary individual cognitive and motor components for speech are functioning. Thus, this region and others like it are described as areas of executive control because they are responsible for directing, monitoring, and coordinating disparate functions into seamless, synchronized action.

Two areas of specialization of more relevance to ASCs {Altered States of Consciousness}are the attention association area and the (spatial) orientation association area. The former is located in the prefrontal cortex and is ‘‘richly interconnected with the limbic system . . . and all secondary and tertiary sensory association cortices,’’ but not primary areas. The latter is located in the posterior superior parietal lobe (i.e., the upper back portion) and is responsible for the synthesis of a three-dimensional image of one’s own body in space and in relation to objects. It exercises control based on processing of somaesthetic, visual, auditory, and verbal-conceptual information channeled to it from other brain areas. Although it processes information from many parts of the brain, in itself the association area appears to be discretely bounded and contained. In this way, a great many independent functions are transparently blended. Thus, Damasio notes that, in many cases, the sense we have of a single fluid thought is really something of an illusion. One decision can require the input of numerous systems that are relatively isolated from one another. For example, to register a single image as ‘‘sight’’ appears to require thirty distinct brain activities. Still, the attention and orientation association areas hold together a great deal of interconnected information, and it is at this level of processing that such information is generally available to our conscious awareness.

These five sets of features are the basic engines of both normal and ecstatic states of consciousness. Although they are quite novel in the grand scheme of evolutionary development, the most recent are nonetheless tens of thou¬sands of years old. Their antiquity makes it possible to use the findings of the last century to understand the workings of the human mind 2,000 years ago.

2.2 The neurological and cerebral basis FOR ecstatic experience

The next two major sections of this discussion appear in order from greatest abstraction to least. I will present the neurological model of religiously altered states of consciousness before I present some of the evidence for the model on which it is based. Although, as I have said, the model represents the greatest degree of abstraction from the findings, it also provides a manageable frame of reference to hold the many details that inform it.

In the past few decades, some neurologists have turned their attention more directly to religious experience and begun to theorize about and test the functioning of the brain related to religiously altered states of consciousness. It is difficult to gather data on religious ecstasy directly. Whereas one can measure the cerebral blood flow of a meditating Buddhist practitioner, for example, it is significantly more difficult to carry out more accurate - and inevitably more invasive - tests and impossible to carry out even these less invasive measures on other kinds of ecstatics who practice active methods. In extraordinary medical circumstances, the neocortex itself has been directly stimulated electrically, but nothing below the cortical surface (for example, all the limbic structures) has been available for direct manipulation. Because of these limits, comprehensive models of brain functioning in religious ecstasy are especially valuable.

They allow theorists to use the information available from other contexts (e.g., records of brain injuries, lesions, surgical stimulation) more intelligently and even to construct tests that can appropriately target particular aspects of the larger model. Among those who have pursued the relationship between neurology and religious experience are Charles Laughlin and John McManus, Barbara Lex, Carol Rausch Albright and James Ashbrook, Roger Sperry, Colwyn Trevarthen, Rhawn Joseph, and James Austin. Still others are involved in parallel neurological modeling of emotion and attention.

One neuropsychiatrist in particular, Eugene d Aquili, has led this modeling, and since his death Andrew Newberg, a clinician in nuclear medicine, has taken over the direction of their research. D’Aquili’s work with New- berg represents the most comprehensive attempt to model the neurocognitive phenomena of ecstatic religious experience. This comprehensiveness is reflected in part by the broadly interdisciplinary character of their work. In the words of one reviewer, ‘‘[understanding d’Aquili requires one to comprehend Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to have a working knowledge of modern neuroscience, to have familiarity with contemporary theology, to develop an anthropology and non-Marxist sociology, and quite possibly to have had a mystical experience.

The model has received corresponding attention and critical review by both scientists and philosophers of religion. Scientific review has, as would be hoped, raised issues for further exploration and refinement, in particular the need to analyze more fully the evidence that has informed their theorizing. D'Aquili's last presentation of the model, The Mystical Mind, profited from that critique. Despite the need for continued study, the work is praised for its ‘‘tremendous heuristic value.'' Furthermore, the remaining critique of the model is at the level of clinical detail, not primary or foundational components. With those provisos in mind, I summarize their model in Section 2.2.1, setting aside some of the more speculative and philosophical elements to focus on the core neurological insights.

2.2.1 The Model of Neurological Tuning

According to the neurological model of trance, religious ecstasy is made possible in part by the normal functioning of the nervous system. The experience is not exhausted by scientific description, but certain of its features are shaped distinctively by human neurology. According to the model, trance may follow the path of either one of two neurological complexes: either the sympathetic nervous system along with its related brain centers, glands, and the limbic system, together known as the arousal system, or the parasympathetic nervous system and its corresponding neocortical and limbic components, together designated the quiescent system. The former system, when sufficiently stimulated, results in what is commonly known as the ‘‘fight-or-flight’’ reaction in the body. This state typically includes increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, as well as sweating, dilated pupils, and increased blood flow to skeletal muscles in reaction to some stimulus in the environment. In effect, it prepares the body for action. When the arousal system is active during normal consciousness, we often interpret such sensations to be the result of imminent danger or intense infatuation (or, particularly in adolescence, some indecipherable combination of the two). In any case, the sympathetic system is dominant in circumstances of survival, either in its procreative aspects or as protection from threat. The quiescent system, for its part, normally ensures maintenance of the body through functions such as digestion, cell growth and repair, and reduction in heart rate. It is associated with sleep and other states of rest and generally acts to keep the basic bodily functions in balance.

These systems interact continuously to maintain appropriate responses to changing conditions. Typically, when one is activated, the other is inhibited, and in that sense they have traditionally been described as antagonistic. Human beings and other mammals experience the push and pull of arousal-quiescence interaction daily. One of the most common forms of this interaction is the cycle of sleep and wakefulness. Other ordinary examples involve interruption of one system by a stimulus that triggers the other, ‘‘such as ergotropically orienting to a sound while falling asleep or tropho-tropically salivating at the smell of food preparations while one is hard at work.’’ The pattern of interaction between systems is distinct for each person, and evidence suggests that these levels are determined before birth. This base level of focusing on one or the other system, either in established cycles or in response to stimuli, is the most common mode in which the autonomic nervous system functions.

Yet these common patterns can also be interrupted and modified. For example, many people in a variety of cultures have learned to control their autonomic nervous functions through disciplines as disparate as athletic training, religious meditation, and pain-management techniques. Further¬more, according to d’Aquili and Newberg, trance or ecstatic states are experiences of just this sort of unusual interplay between autonomic systems. Recent research is creating a more complex picture of how the two systems interact. It is no longer thought that they are simply reciprocal; that is, that one decreases its influence while the other increases proportionately. Rather, they exhibit a more flexible interaction, which helps to describe the rich mix of neurological phenomena that result in ecstatic states. According to the model, as someone enters meditation, they can ‘‘tune’’ their parasympathetic nervous system to a significantly greater degree than normal. Such states are known as hyperquiescence because of the extraordinary predominance of rest functions. Hyperquiescent tuning is controlled by activity with slow ritual behavior. Through acts as simple as prolonged intentional relaxation of muscles, lowering of breath¬ing rates, concentration on a limited visual field, or chanting, the practitioner can activate the quiescent system beyond its normal levels. In contrast, someone whose ‘‘output of motor activity is continuous and rhythmical’’ (e.g., ritual drumming, Sufi or Voudon dancing, or even marathon sports) tunes the sympathetic system to the point of hyper-arousal. This ‘‘low-grade’’ ecstasy, if you will, is experienced differently in its two forms: Hyperquiescence is perceived as a sense of ‘‘tranquillity and bliss in which no thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations intrude,’’ whereas in hyperarousal people feel as though they can channel vast quantities of energy and sensory information related to a narrow field of attention with ‘‘keen alertness and concentration.’’ In Austin’s explanation, absorption is an experience that neurologically ‘‘mimics extreme attention’’ colored by ‘‘enchantment.’’

In this way, one’s consciousness is altered in large part by an intensification of particular brain activity. In addition, it is further altered by ‘‘tuning out’’ other aspects of the brain’s normal functioning. The flow of impulses between cerebral regions is identified as either afferent (stimuli entering a given structure or area) or efferent (stimuli proceeding from a structure or area). Thus, ecstatic states of consciousness are marked by pronounced deafferentation in some cerebral regions even while normal or increased levels of efferent activity continue. By these means, the cerebral components of the central nervous system are active, but the sensory, vascular, and muscular inputs that they would normally be processing are largely blocked from their attention. The narrowed cerebral focus allows for far greater levels of ‘‘attention’’ to the stimuli that are received. That higher degree of attention may well account for the fact that many people who experience religious ecstasy find the event to be ‘‘more real’’ and certainly more intense than normal experience; the more limited field of input receives proportionately more of the mind’s attention and is felt to be known more fully.

Neurological stimulation is a physical, electrochemical phenomenon in the brain. So, in circumstances such as grand mal seizures, electrical impulses can spread indiscriminately to adjacent cerebral structures. However, in regular functioning, the neurotransmitters that carry the impulses between neurons ensure a more selective targeting of regions. A single neuron is typically responsive to more than one neurotransmitter, thus creating the potential for communication that is far more complex in tone than the binary opposites of on and off would allow. So, in the case of ecstatic states of consciousness, electrochemical stimulation appears to begin quite selectively - less a contagion than a targeted recruitment. According to the model, as the ritual action continues successfully, a kind of self-reinforcing loop, or ‘‘reverberating circuit,’’ of brain structures is established that involves much of the limbic system and some specialized brain areas, especially the orientation association area and the attention association area. As this process proceeds to its (neuro)logical conclusion, what began as the intense stimulation of one half of the autonomic nervous system ends as the maximal stimulation of both. D’Aquili and Newberg describe the process of mutual maximal stimulation as the result of ‘‘spill-over’’ of excitation from either the sympathetic to the parasympathetic system or vice versa.

The experience of maximal stimulation varies according to the direction of ‘‘spill-over.’’ Quiescent (i.e., parasympathetic) entry to trance, the via negativa, might typically begin with the practitioner’s attempt to clear the mind of all thought, which is the intentional, behavioral face of the hidden, neural experience of deafferentation. This effort, when successful, is focused in the right orientation association area in particular. As already mentioned, the orientation association area is a brain system; that is, it is informed by other brain structures, each of which contributes particular sensory or processing capacity to an integrated task. In this case, that task is the creation of a sense of one’s body in space. It requires somaesthetic input and visual, auditory, and even verbal-conceptual processing, all of which are tuned out of the ecstatic loop. When the input to the system is blocked while the system remains active, such widespread deafferentation can result in an absolute subjective sensation of pure space, ‘‘which is experienced subjectively as absolute unity or wholeness.’’ According to the model, that is why so many people report an experience of oneness or limitlessness as part of their ASC.

The process and effects of active methods, the via positiva, differ in a few respects. First, the arousal (sympathetic) entry into trance is unlocked by intense focus on a mental image or external object or through vigorous, repetitive activity, and so, to begin with, the right attention association area is stimulated by afferent impulses related to the external focus of attention. Second, the early phases of trance are accompanied by pleas¬ant sensations emanating from stimulation of the hypothalamus. Finally, the trance culminates in total deafferentation of the left attention and association systems but (among trained practitioners) strong continued engagement of the right attention association area. It is the trained meditator’s effort to focus on a particular object or image that keeps the attention system engaged, which in turn affects the subjective nature of the experience. In this case, as the input to the orientation areas is inhibited, there is again an experience of pure space, except that this time something else - the focus of the meditation - is in that space. Hence, in the via positiva, the practitioner experiences not simply pure space but a sense of union.

Obviously, then, the competence and training of the meditator are essential elements in determining the character of the experience. One set of contingencies that the successful practitioner must manage is tied to control of the hypothalamus. This limbic structure is deeply implicated in the culmination of these experiences. Because the hypothalamus helps to control both arousal and quiescence, the culmination of the via negativa can be either a persistent bliss or a moment of peak ecstasy followed by stabilization in ‘‘a deep quiescent void.’’ In fact, it takes a great deal of practice to restrict the hypothalamus consistently to one tendency or the other. A different set of challenges concerns maintenance of the focal image in the via positiva. This focus is very difficult to maintain against a system that generally is working toward deafferentation. It takes a great meditative determination to maintain the input to the right attention area. Eventually, say the modelers, either the meditators surrender or the inhibitory stimuli overpower their abilities and ‘‘the end point of the via positiva then becomes the end point of the via negativa.’’ Thus, the character of the experience hinges to some degree on the aptitude of the practitioner. D’Aquili and Newberg summarize the two ways as follows:

It seems to be the case that most mature meditators who practice the via negativa tend to end up in the quiescent state. Likewise, it is true that those who practice the via positiva . . . tend to end up with the ecstatic experience of AUB {i.e., absolute unitary being}, which we would suggest is an arousal state. So it may be that one ends up more or less according to the general mode in which one starts out. . . . Perhaps the socioculturally determined belief system of the meditator has something to do with the outcome as well.
Separate work regarding the religious nature of some brain activity has been conducted by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran and his colleagues. Ramachandran has specialized in the study of epilepsy and found it noteworthy that patients with left temporal lobe seizures often experienced, in seizure, ‘‘deeply moving spiritual experiences including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God.

Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, ‘I finally understand what it’ s all about. This is the moment I ’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense. ’ ’ ’
Furthermore, patients with such seizure-related experiences demonstrate ongoing effects related to their sense of religious significance. Religious behavior and commitments become far more important to them or in some cases begin to matter for the first time in their lives.

Ramachandran hypothesizes four possible explanations for these phenomena and their unusual and lasting effects: (1) it is divine communication, (2) it is due to mental health problems, (3) it is a reasonable and even healthy response to the set of abnormal neural phenomena, (4) humans have ‘‘evolved special neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience. He concludes provocatively that religious experience might be due solely to temporal lobe activity and he christens the relevant cerebral area the ‘‘God module.
 

robnitro

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
#2
The narrowed cerebral focus allows for far greater levels of ‘‘attention’’ to the stimuli that are received. That higher degree of attention may well account for the fact that many people who experience religious ecstasy find the event to be ‘‘more real’’ and certainly more intense than normal experience; the more limited field of input receives proportionately more of the mind’s attention and is felt to be known more fully.
This is something that bothered me when reading about paranormal experiences, whether it be UFOs or ghosts,etc. How is it determined to be real when the judgement of what is real can be a mere function of how focused the brain is on a belief or experience, objective or not. We've had dreams that felt so real only to wake up and be confused, trying to determine if it happened or not. It seems like the focus of working "in the real world" is the only way to train the brain to not wishfully think which is a put off to people looking for "spiritual experiences". Perhaps that is why this reality is so hard and solid and why the powers that be are always trying to sell the next big lie or false hope?

Separate work regarding the religious nature of some brain activity has been conducted by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran and his colleagues. Ramachandran has specialized in the study of epilepsy and found it noteworthy that patients with left temporal lobe seizures often experienced, in seizure, ‘‘deeply moving spiritual experiences including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God.
Interesting and we have other cases where other sort of phenomena, like voices from god or visions happen- as in Schizophrenia.

One theory really grabbed my attention from this sott article about people seeing loved ones that were dead during times of high stress - fight or flight survival.
https://www.sott.net/article/292451-Third-Man-Factor-The-hallucinatory-effects-of-survival
As for other explanations, you could say that this might be spiritual in nature. It certainly fits the bill of a "guardian angel." But others have argued that it's actually an ancient relic of human psychology called "the Bicameral Brain." This theory suggests that until about 3000 years ago, our brains were quite different then they are now. The hardware of the brain is the same, but our consciousness was structured in a radically different way.

It's a difficult subject to explain, but basically some researchers think that our consciousness was once divided into two halves, and we only had control over one (they base this theory on the narrative structures of ancient literature). The other half communicated to us through voices in our heads, and gave us a sense that everything around us was alive, which would explain quite a bit about what we know of ancient religions. But having a bicameral brain would be a lot like having schizophrenia, hence the reason why it died out.
In reading about Bicameralism here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_%28psychology%29 , there's a link to what may have been felt/heard/experienced and described in religious texts.
 

Gaby

SuperModerator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
#3
The process and effects of active methods, the via positiva, differ in a few respects. First, the arousal (sympathetic) entry into trance is unlocked by intense focus on a mental image or external object or through vigorous, repetitive activity, and so, to begin with, the right attention association area is stimulated by afferent impulses related to the external focus of attention. Second, the early phases of trance are accompanied by pleas¬ant sensations emanating from stimulation of the hypothalamus. Finally, the trance culminates in total deafferentation of the left attention and association systems but (among trained practitioners) strong continued engagement of the right attention association area. It is the trained meditator’s effort to focus on a particular object or image that keeps the attention system engaged, which in turn affects the subjective nature of the experience. In this case, as the input to the orientation areas is inhibited, there is again an experience of pure space, except that this time something else - the focus of the meditation - is in that space. Hence, in the via positiva, the practitioner experiences not simply pure space but a sense of union.
They probably were not aware of the polyvagal theory when they conducted this research. However, it is interesting how they reached similar conclusions.

Meditating with a focus of attention or seed does seem to put the hypothalamic energies into good use. Sympathetic/arousal energies are re-directed towards a healing pathway which opens possibilities to transform hypothalamic animalistic needs or wounds into higher goals or energies. That could have the potential to heal pre-set tracks in the brain that keeps a person in a traumatic hyperarousal state and/or immobilization by fear and dissociation.

Similarly, meditating without a focus of attention or seed, makes the brain wander off in dissociative states that is more characteristic of the primitive vagus locus of control. Whether a person succeeds in emptying the mind or simply just wanders off in dissociation, it opens a door to experiences that are “up for grabs” to something out there.

Meditating with a seed seems to be the best way to re-direct sympathetic arousal energies that would otherwise set us for failure.

Just some thoughts.
 

Persej

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
#4
Gaby said:
Meditating with a focus of attention or seed does seem to put the hypothalamic energies into good use. Sympathetic/arousal energies are re-directed towards a healing pathway which opens possibilities to transform hypothalamic animalistic needs or wounds into higher goals or energies. That could have the potential to heal pre-set tracks in the brain that keeps a person in a traumatic hyperarousal state and/or immobilization by fear and dissociation.

Similarly, meditating without a focus of attention or seed, makes the brain wander off in dissociative states that is more characteristic of the primitive vagus locus of control. Whether a person succeeds in emptying the mind or simply just wanders off in dissociation, it opens a door to experiences that are “up for grabs” to something out there.

Meditating with a seed seems to be the best way to re-direct sympathetic arousal energies that would otherwise set us for failure.
I wonder if neurofeedback can help in meditation as a helper to hold our focus of attention. One such device claims to do that: http://www.choosemuse.com/