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Communion with God:
an artefact of the human brain?


Reports of alleged communications with the spirit world have been frequent in all civilisations since the beginning of recorded history. The abnormal behaviour of the individuals subjected to the altered states of consciousness associated with such events have generally appeared frightening to spectators who attributed mysterious powers to the shamans indulging in such practices. Where the forces of nature were attributed to good and evil spirits, shamans were called upon to intervene to bring rain, to protect from thunder and to heal the sick. Objects and rituals involved in these operations were held in awe and acquired a "sacred" quality to distinguish them from the profane objects and acts of every day life.

From these humble beginnings grew a vast array of different religions where the mystical experience became less important than the structures, hierarchy, rituals and dogma that allowed the elite to organise communities around belief systems. "Mystical experience" was tolerated only if it confirmed the vision of the spirit world held by each community, if it did not, it was deemed demonic and justified the death penalty. Original shamanism was considered pagan and its adherents were subject to persecution and conversion by force. Shamanism disappeared from view but did not cease to exist, it just went underground while organised religions took over its role as doorway to the spirit world.

Shamanism survived in the open in remote, isolated areas free from religious persecution such as northern Siberia or the Matto Grosso. It also survived underground in Africa and the Caribbean as Voodoo and in the Americas as various obscure indigenous cults generally disguised behind a veneer of Christian appearances. Modern shamanism still involves alleged communication with spirits made possible by trances induced by rythmic rituals and psychotropic substances.

The striking similarity between the reported behaviour of shamans in full trance that have reached us from different geographical areas and from different ages has been interpreted by some observers as proof of the existence of a spirit world but others now see it as no more than the reflection of the innate processes of the human brain.

Considerable progress has been achieved since neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield of McGill University started to map the functions of the various parts of the brain during open cranium surgery fifty years ago. Thanks to non invasive technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and single photon emission tomography (SPECT), we can now localise the interaction of the five senses with the brain and identify the modules that are active during a wide range of activities and emotions. More recently, we have learned how to cause precisely located groups of neurons to fire by using rapidly changing magnetic fields produced by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) equipment.

We have also begun to understand the chemistry of the brain during that period that saw the introduction of chlorpromazine (Thorazine) in 1950 to treat schizophrenia, rapidly followed by imipramine (Tofranil) to alleviate severe depression, chlordiazepoxide (Librium) to relieve anxiety and the popular tranquilliser diazepam (Valium). Further research on how these drugs work, chlorpromazine blocks the neurotransmitter dopamine, imipramine amplifies the action of norepinephrine and serotonin, and diazepam boosts gamma aminobutyric acid, another neurotransmitter, led to the design of more efficient medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluvoxamine (Luvox) and citalopram (Celexa). Newer drugs are still being produced every year.

All this to say that we are now beginning to have the tools required to study how the various forms of altered states of consciousness are caused and what goes on in the brain when they occur. Rapid progress by several research centres and universities in this area is bringing about the emergence of a new branch of neurology called "neurotheology" involving qualified professionals and advanced technology to study what goes on in the brain when humans undergo a "mystic experience" and how certain ritual practices and drugs (entheogens), can facilitate or cause its onset.

The emergence of this new field of science divides believers of a spiritual plane between those who fear that it will reduce the mystical experience to a mere artefact of the brain and those who maintain that we are only discovering the path that God designed in our brains to permit some of us to reach him directly.

August 2003

Sites on shamanism
Buryat shamanism
Harner Foundation for shamanic studies
Mapuche shamans
Shamans of the Amazon

Sites on entheogens
Council of Spiritual Practices  -
Heffter Research Institute  -
Hoffman Foundation  -

Sites on neurotheology
Todd Murphy's website  -

Articles on neurotheology
Sharon Begley in Newsweek 01-05-07  -
Steve Connor and Robert Lee Kotz in LA Times 97-10-29  -
E.Trull in the LA Times  -
Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post 01-05-07  -
about Michael Winkleman in CCLE 01-06-05  -

Books on consciousness, the brain, science and religion
Alper Matthew, The "GOD" Part of the Brain, Rogue Press, New York, 1996
Becker Ernest, Denial of Death, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1973
Boyer Pascal, Religion Explained, Basic Books, New York, 2001
Cowan James, Mysteries of the Dreaming, Brandl & Schesinger, Australia, 2001
Deacon Terrence W., The Symbolic Species, Norton & Co. New York , 1997
Dennett Daniel C., Conciousness Explained, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1991
Dennett Daniel C., Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1995
Dennett Daniel, C. Freedom Evolves, Penguin, New York, 2003
Eliade Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt Inc, London 1957
Giovannoli Joseph, The Biology of Belief, Rosetta Press, 2000
James William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Simon & Shuster, NY, 1997
Krupp E.C., Skywatchers, Shamans & Kings, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997
Kurtz Paul, Living Without Religion, Prometheus, Amherst, 1994
Newberg Andrew & d'Aquill, Why God Won't Go Away, Ballantine Books, New York, 2001
Norretranders Tor, The User Illusion, Penguin, London, 1999
Pinker Steven, How the Brain Works, Norton & Co., New York, 1997
Pinker Steven, The Blank Slate, Penguin, London, 2002
Shermer Micael, Why People Believe Weird Things, Freeman & Co., New York 1997
Wright Robert, The Moral Animal, Random House, New York, 1995


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