Altered States


by Todd Murphy – Behavioral Neuroscientist

Summary-The personalities of people who are involved with spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and ceremony are shaped by the altered-state experiences their spirituality creates. The part of the brain that manages our states of consciousness, the temporal lobes, is a little busier in these people than most, producing personality traits that appear over and over among spiritually oriented people.

Spirituality means different things to different people. We need to find a definition for it here that will let us connect to both the scientific understanding of spirituality, and the spiritual traditions of the world. One definition that works pretty well is ‘being prone to altered states of consciousness.’ It doesn’t matter whether a person is drawn to union with God, ‘oneness with the universe’, the state of total ’emptiness’ of Zen, the experience of channeling the spirits as a medium, or to heal others through prayer or ‘energy.’

Each of these only happens when a person enters a different, ‘special’ state of consciousness. There are other ways of seeing spirituality, but looking at it this way will bring out some features of the spiritual process that we might miss using if we emphasize other aspects. Many people who are involved in spiritual practice object to hearing it ‘defined’ or ‘labeled’. I would ask such people to remember that definitions will be a part of any attempts at integrating spirituality with science, because science always defines its terms.

Our states of consciousness are managed in the temporal lobes of our brains. The temporal lobes do all sorts of things including language, long-term memory storage, emotional reactions, perceiving spatial relationships, and music. Smells are interpreted here, as well as patterns, whether these are patterns in time or in space. Most importantly, the human sense of self is maintained here, in all its guises including our feelings of self-worth, and our sense of being an independent person.

The temporal lobes are unique in having their own special kind of epilepsy. Its usually called temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), but it also goes by the name of ‘complex partial seizures’. Its called partial because it stays in the temporal lobes of the brain. TL seizures are mostly experiences of altered states because the temporal lobes control states of consciousness. When they go haywire, the person’s state will be an odd one, at least compared to that person’s usual (or baseline) states.

Most often, this kind of seizure begins in the lower portions of the temporal lobes, in a structure called the amygdala, and then spreads out into other areas. Each time a seizure spreads into a brain area, the threshold of electrical activity needed to activate that area gets just a bit lower. If it gets low enough, a person will find themselves having the experience associated with that brain part almost all the time. Not as it comes up in their seizure, but as it might appear normally. In one example, a person whose seizures include an hallucinated smell might find that they have a sharper-than-usual sense of smell at all other times.

One of the functions of the amygdala is that it infuses our moment-to-moment experiences with meaningfulness. As the pathways that are involved with the experience of meaningfulness have their thresholds lowered, individuals find meaning in more and more things.

Remember that both spirituality and TL epilepsy involve experiencing altered states. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that TL epileptic events are all spiritual experiences. Some TL seizures have features (such as automatic lip-smacking) that just don’t come up that often (if at all) during spiritual experiences. I’m not trying to equate TL epilepsy with spirituality, I’m saying that there’s a big area where they overlap.

Some of the personality transformations (or seqelae.) that happen when a person has a lot of altered state experiences can be found in both groups. So I’m going to be comparing what medicine has learned (in very concrete ways) about TL epileptics with what I and others find in spiritual people, communities, and traditions, even though they haven’t been very deeply studied as yet.

Lets start by talking about language. Language depends on several parts of the brain, but one of the most important is called Werneke’s area. This is the part of the brain where speech gets its meaning. If this is involved in a person’s seizures, they might start manifest a trait called viscosity. Viscosity is a physics term used to describe fluids, and it means ‘resistance to change in flow.’ A viscous person will tend to talk at length and they won’t want to change the subject until they are through with it. The trait has to do with self-expression.

When humans developed writing, we also found a new way to act out this trait, called hypergraphia. A hypergraphic person will write almost compulsively at times. They fill diaries and journals. They’re often poets. Some people would say that the throat chakras of these people were active (or blocked, depending on who you’re talking to), but this is supposed to be brain science, so we’re going to take the view that its the brain’s language centers that are keeping busy.

During this kind of experience, they might ‘hear voices’, or just hear their name called from within. They might ‘channel’ or ‘serve’ as a medium. When they are not having an experience, they are more likely to spend time writing. Poets have been found to have TL ‘signs’ more often than others. Such people might fill diaries, write metaphysical books (most of which, of course, are never published), and I suspect, create websites.

Even without this kind of experience, many practitioners still find a lot to express. There are important language centers in the temporal lobes, and when the temporal lobes are generally more active, these language centers are going to be affected. In one of the questions (true or false) I asked if the subjects ‘felt that they had an important book to write’. Most answered ‘true’.

Another personality trait that spiritual practitioners almost always seem to show is a fascination with spirituality. It may seem to be too obvious to say, but what it less obvious is that spirituality dominates over other kinds of concerns more than other pursuits do. What seems to be happening is that the repeated experience of altered states is so novel, and infused with such a sense of meaningfulness that things which lack meaning in them lose their impact.

Another personality trait that can emerge after enough time in an altered state has two names. In medical terms, its called hyperemotionality. In spiritual terms, its called open-heartedness or more simply ‘being filled with love’. A psychologist might call it ‘extreme vulnerability.’

Most of the time, unusual states of consciousness invoke intense emotional states. TL seizures most often involve fear, terror or a sense of ‘impending doom.’ (Interestingly, there are also dissasociative seizures that seem to have no emotion at all.) Spiritual states are usually pleasant. Everything from simple calm or freedom from fear to bliss or ecstasy.

This extra input to the amygdala has an impact beyond just making for intense moments. It makes the person more emotionally sensitive at all other times as well. Among TL epileptics, is commonly makes for extra irritability. For spiritual practitioners, it seems to be more a matter of an extra need to feel safe. After a certain point in spiritual development or ‘growth’, the aspirant begins to be more careful about the ‘energies’ they connect with. Their own way of seeing it is a bit monastic. Monks and nuns withdraw from the world, avoiding socially intense situations. In more modern times, we hear of meditators ‘withdrawing into their own space’.

The need to defend one’s self from verbal assaults, and to avoid those who aren’t like-minded gets more intense. Practitioners become more ‘open-hearted’, and along with it, more vulnerable. Few romantic relationships escape unscathed. If one partner begins spiritual practice, and the other doesn’t, they may soon find that the level of intimacy that’s comfortable for each is now different. Of course, the now-spiritual partner has a new set of interests, and that tends to divide two partners. The practitioner can feel that they’ve ‘outgrown’ the relationship, while the one who’s not doing practice might tend to blame the group their partner joined, or to feel that their partner has taken religion ‘too far’. In fact, one study of TL epileptics found that they were more likely than others to undergo multiple religious conversions.

In order to go further with this topic, we need to talk about the amygdala again. What seems to be happening is that as the two amygdala get more active, the chances of their falling out of phase with one another increases. Normally, the left amygdala (remember language is on the left) is the dominant one. Normally people process their experiences by thinking about them; thinking in words.

Humans seem to have two senses of self. Left hemispheric, and right hemispheric. The pathways of the human sense of self on each side have been found to include the amygdala. When the two amygdala fall out of phase with one another, the ‘self’ on the left can become aware of the activities on the right. The right-sided sense of self is experienced as an outer (ego-alien) ‘presence’. All of this is fairly well established. What I want to add to it, as an hypothesis, is that the two amygdala are out of phase whenever we’re relating to another. (I’ve designed a study that should put it to the test, but lack of funding at present makes it difficult to carry out.) As a person experiences altered states more often, they find that the way they relate to ‘the other’ is changed.

Another obvious effect is that as the left ‘self’ begins to lose its mastery over the individual, the person is more and more likely to ‘feel’ their way through situations, rather than thinking about them. One study found that people who experienced altered states frequently were unable to follow scientific, ‘linear’ reasoning.

Still another effect is that, because each time the right-self intrudes on the left, the left-self loses a bit of its control, and because the left is normally dominant, the effect is that the person’s self esteem (while they are in normal states) goes down. As near as I can tell, it stays that way until the person’s normal states are adjusted so that they then have a permanent ‘baseline’ state that allows their right-sided ‘self’ to emerge in all circumstances.

Until this happens the person can suffer from ‘the dark night of the soul’, which can come as moments when they doubt their self-worth, or as long periods of melancholy. More often in my experience, such people respond with a specific coping strategy. They become ‘holier than thou.’ In these cases, spiritual practitioners will respond to comments from others with ‘spiritual’ interpretations.

You missed your bus? You weren’t ‘meant’ to be on it. How have you been lately? There is no lately: there is only this moment. The person you were attracted to isn’t interested in you? Give your love to Jesus. I seem insensitive? I’m only sharing my truth in this moment. You’re angry about something? It just shows how are attached you are. You’re offended by something? That’s just your ego coming out.

In extreme cases, such people have an answer for everything they don’t care to hear, and each answer shows how ‘spiritual’ they are, and subtly ‘puts down’ the other. Its just not possible, for one who is ‘holier than thou’, to feel beneath others. This type of person won’t be free of the inner turbulence that an extra-active amygdala creates, they just won’t feel that they are lower than others. Because we are such linguistic beings, we are very sensitive to words that we don’t like. An easy way to cope is to have a stock of things to say that invalidates whatever the ‘other’ has to say, and to do so in a spiritual-seeming way. If they are successful, they can become gurus or teachers in their own right.

Now, gurus (or masters or satgurus, sufus, tzaddiks, roshis, growth group or workshop leaders, priests, or a ministers) often don’t like to be ‘defined’ or ‘labeled’ or ‘categorized’, but there a category that seems to invite them in. Its a term from primatology, the study of our evolutionary cousins, the so-called lower primates. You know. Monkeys and chimpanzees. Gurus are dominant or alpha individuals. Within their community, the guru is the boss. He (forgive the sexist pronoun) usually calls the shots. He disperses the donated resources, and if the tradition doesn’t include celibacy, to be his romantic partner is a ‘position’ of some prestige. All other conditions being equal, the guru will be more successful at passing on his genetic material than the disciple. If you become a guru, your self-esteem will automatically rise. You’ve become the alpha person.

In one study of serotonin levels in monkeys, it was found that the dopamine level of the alpha male in the troupe was higher than that of the betas. When he was removed from the group, one of the betas took his place. When his dopamine levels were taken again, it was found that they had risen to the level of the previous alpha. Becoming a guru works against low self-esteem, just as becoming a leader of any kind will bring a person ‘up’.

We’ve been talking about gurus and ‘wannabe’ gurus. Another type we need to look at is the ‘perfect disciple’.

Another way of responding to low-self esteem is to lower your self. The perfect disciple will always see the guru as being higher. Devotion to the guru allows a context where low-self esteem can be acted out in a constructive way. Being subordinate is rewarded in communities gathered around a spiritual master. The Buddhist and Hindu practice of prostrations or pranam allows a person to behave submissively without actually taking on a position of inferiority for those around them. Only the master (and the ‘inner circle’ of senior disciples) is worthy of these gestures. For day-to-day living in the ashram, the slogan seems to be ‘we’re all bozos on this bus’. Outside of their community, their having found the path allows them to discount what others say. They don’t know the truth. Such a believer need not pay any heed to slights or challenging remarks from others.

It’s no wonder that so many cults, religions, and spiritual traditions are so ready to embrace those in a state of sadness or despair. They will usually claim to have the answer. And they do. It actually works. Its an effective coping strategy that people have been using for millennia. As such, it has stood the test of time far longer than any kind of psychotherapy.

Read full article:  The Spirituality Personality

US Copyright Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107

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