For a long time in western culture, transcendent consciousness was tightly linked with characters on the spiritual fringe: visionary prophets, ascetic sages, and ecstatic poets. Mystical states were like lightning bolts in the days before Ben Franklin’s kite—fleeting, unpredictable, and impossible to harness or measure. They were divine bolts that hit during the frenzies of ecstatic creation and desert wanderings. They were the ultimate mystery.
Then came psychedelics. In the 1950s, a small but significant coterie of researchers and artists used LSD, mescaline and psilocybin to achieve the states of consciousness described in the literature of ecstatic mysticism. It was an incredible discovery. By swallowing a pill in their living room, they could reliably reproduce the once-exotic case studies collected in books like Richard Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.
It was Huxley who famously bridged the pre- and post-psychedelic scholarship of mysticism. In 1954, he announced the dawn of the psychedelic era in the form of his erudite Mescaline trip report, The Doors of Perception. But if Huxley anticipated psychedelics’ democratization of mystical bliss, he never claimed to know how they worked. How, exactly, did they replace the ego with the infinite? His guess—that psychedelics somehow wash clean the glass “doors” of perception, “revealing the world as it is… infinite”—was based not on science, but the visionary poetry of William Blake.
Fifty years after Huxley’s death, science is beginning to understand, with some precision, how these window cleaners go about their work. By pairing the controlled mysticism induced by psychedelics with modern imaging technology, scientists are mapping the biological underpinnings of spiritual bliss, the way psychedelics helped an earlier generation of researchers map the links among the serotonin system, joy and depression.
The key finding so far involves changes to a part of the outer brain called the posterior cingulate cortex.
“Our psychedelic imaging studies show a strong association between experiences of god and a breakdown in activity linking the posterior cingulate cortex to the frontal brain regions,” says David Nutt, co-director of the Beckley-Imperial College psychedelic research program in London.
“Growing evidence suggests religious and other belief systems are inevitable products of the ways in which the brain works.”
In a forthcoming book, Nutt describes the Beckley-Imperial team’s findings that indicate mystical “out of body” states are linked to reduced blood flow in the posterior cingulate cortex, a central hub in the creation of our sense of self, or ego.
“The posterior cingulate cortex integrates inputs from the senses, especially sight, plus inner sensations such as position-sense and time, in relation to the brains predictions or inferences,” writes Nutt. “It is the master controller of ‘normal’ consciousness, so when it is switched off, another less constrained form of consciousness emerges. In analogy, if the conductor of the orchestra is removed and the individual instruments play their own way in their own time, a different sound is produced.”
When LSD and other psychedelics forcibly remove the brain’s conductor, people report losing the sense of occupying a distinct place in space and time. Commonly known as ego-dissolution, this is the defining feature of mystical states, achieved by psychedelics or other means. Just like the Victorian monks populating William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, subjects on LSD report a sense of leaving their bodies and fusing to “become one” with a loving universe, sometimes called god for lack of a better term.
“The sense that there is more to human beings than biological processes is common to all religions, and our research suggests this has a basis in brain function,” says Nutt. “Subjects reporting ego-dissolution are significantly more likely to report a spiritual experience. Since ego-dissolution correlates to a breakdown of [specific brain regions] we can predict spirituality might come from a similar change in this brain region, which can also be triggered by meditation, fasting, and ritual singing and dancing. These insights reveal the concept of God is an emergent property of our nervous systems.”
It’s not just LSD and ritual chanting that can trigger these mystical states. Nutt points to evidence that they can be induced by brain stimulation with direct low voltage electrical currents and magnetic pulses.
“[Our theory based on LSD experiments] has recently been confirmed in a more direct manner by blocking outflow from the posterior cingulate cortex region by direct electrical stimulation,” he says. Subjects who undergo this treatment before brain surgery often report leaving their bodies, floating off as if in a dream, and experiencing long-term positive effects in terms of wellbeing and “present-ness." These reports echo the testimony of mystics from the 16th century as loudly as they do microdosers from the 21st.
There is, of course, a deep irony to this exciting front in the global psychedelic research revival. There is every reason to believe Nutt is correct to think humans have a profound and salutary evolutionary need for spirituality and mystical states, to experience the “sense of there being more to a human being than simple biological processes.”
But by mapping the neurochemistry of these states, is science not reducing them to simple biological processes? As research proceeds in Nutt’s lab—his team is currently employing MRI to study the brains of people on DMT—it is bound to add another wrinkle to the already contentious debate around religion and spirituality. Many will resist “explanations” of something so long understood as beyond the reach of reason, language and science.
Even within the psychedelic community, there is a tradition of “non-dualism” that rejects biochemical explanations of consciousness.
“The non-dualists think the brain is a receiver picking up signals flowing throughout the universe,” says Robin Carhart-Harris, Imperial-Beckley’s lead investigator. “It’s fantasy, but there’s a kind of investment in these ideas, matched with an extreme anti-authoritarianism and suspicion of scientists.”
The gatekeepers of traditional religion, meanwhile, have always feared the anti-institutional thrust of direct chemically assisted revelation. They are right to fear it, as heavy anecdotal evidence—and increasing scientific evidence—shows that a brush with mystical states is likely to encourage a broad spirituality that is humanistic and anti-authoritarian, one more likely to lead to a meditation mat than a Catholic Church.
Nutt, for one, hopes the work being done at Beckley-Imperial will become a public dialogue between neuroscience and traditional religion. In his forthcoming book on psychedelic neuroscience, Nutt takes pains to distinguish his hypothesis from the position of New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who scornfully dismiss belief in god as a delusion.
“In technical psychiatric terms, ‘delusions’ are confined to beliefs that are outside societal norms,” he writes. “Since most people believe in some form of god, it is a social norm. I suspect spirituality isn’t located in a single brain region, but rather it emerges from a network change. Brain science tells us it’s time to put transcendence and spirituality, not politics and rituals, back into the heart of religious belief. Let the brain give religion back to god.”