Skepticism

Pass the ‘shrooms

Once again, my plan to post photos of boobies, or to rant about what a total tool Ann Coulter is has been delayed. This time it’s by a wonderful study about how to use mushrooms to induce a mystical experience. One reviewer said of it: “all scientists interested in human psychopharmacology should sit up and take note.”

A group of Johns Hopkins researchers really did an outstanding, classic, double-blind study. They found that the active agent in “sacred mushrooms” can induce spiritual experiences— pretty much like spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.

The link above has an extended interview with one of the researchers. Intriguingly, the interviewer seems convinced that the study is some sort of key to religiosity, and the scientist is determined to not go there.

Q: Are you trying to find a short cut to the spiritual journey that some people pursue for years?
A. Our focus in this research was to study the effects of psilocybin using the methods of modern psychopharmacology. It’s true that “transformative” changes in values, self-perception, and behaviors have been reported across cultures and eras as a consequence of mystical-type experience. This bears investigation.

Q: Should religions feel threatened by this work?
A: I can’t see why.

Clearly, the concern is that if all mystical experiences–Hildegard, Paul, or others– can be reduced to brain chemistry, what will be left?

This research is very interesting to me, because I have temporal lobe epilepsy. This form is commonly associated with strange visions and experiences, and also a very high incidence of religiosity. A device commonly device used to map the brain often is known to cause mystical visions and experiences, rather like TLE.

(As an interesting aside, one researcher proposed using this magnetic device as a “god helmet” and claimed to be able to cause visions. Richard Dawkins put on the god helmet –while he had “strange experiences” he didn’t become a believer. Quel suprise! )

I am really, really excited that we are on the threshold of beginning to understand what makes people have religious/spiritual experiences at a neurological or pharmacological level. And I really hope that the folks who are condeming the mushroom study as promoting drug use (“think of the children!” ) don’t squelch this new field of research.

For the curious, the full citation is: Psychopharmacology, July 2006. “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” You can read full commentaries from the journal here.

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22 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting the PDF, John–I wasn't able to get a copy that was accessable to the public.

    Oh, BUGGER. mispelled it as 'shroons. So, now I know about the shrooms–is it "quel" or quelle?" couldn't remember.

    I will fix that, since a headline is too embarassing to leave as is.

  2. Fascinating stuff. One wonders when a "god helmet" might appear on the mass market… and what the reaction of various faiths might be.

    Though I can imagine some of those reactions quite easily, alas.

    I also ponder what MY reaction would be. I've never had what I would call visions, but on a few occasions have experienced what I feel to be the presence of God in a very direct, intimate way. If a manmade device could reliably and safely create a similar effect… Hm.

    In all honesty, such a gadget would force me to reexamine my faith. Because those moments when I feel God in me (something like a pitcher being filled for the first time with cold water, if you will imagine a pitcher that is aware of itself) are perhaps the most vivid, REAL (in the sense of their emotional impact and focussing effect on my senses) experiences in my life.

    If such moments could be artificially induced, I would have to wonder if my perception and faith in God's existence was valid… Let me clarify: if I used such a device and was satisfied that the state it induced was indistinguishable from my previous intimate experiences of God, I would have to reexamine my religious faith and feelings.

    That may sound a bit mealy-mouthed, but there it is.

  3. I don't think your sentiments sound mealy-mouthed Wright. Ideally we should all be prepared to re-examine any of our beliefs and perceptions upon gaining new evidence.

    To me that is what scepticism is all about.

  4. Oh and I was going to say – boy Ann Coulter sure is crazy!

    Her strange fixation on "perversions" as she calls them reminds me of a conservative politician here in Australia who put on a show of pornographic material for the parliament (no really – Fred Nile is his name). He said it was to stop a proposed bill legalising and regulating the sale of x-rated material … hmm I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

  5. Certainly, threatening to religion, which is clearly among the reasons it's taken this long for JH to get around to something of this sort. (As mediated through funding issues, and legal threats against touching Those Eeevil Drugs without having their lab confiscated.)

    I have had religious and magical experiences in at least three different mileus (depending how you count). My own drug experiences weren't really "to the point" as far as religion — but I've experienced "communion" with Jewish and (occasionally) Christian congregations, I've had some dramatic magical experiences among Neo-Pagans, and I'm *still* able to do shamanic journeying and such. Yet somehow, I still remained a skeptic, and eventually drifted into atheism. (Modulo some definitions — like PZ Myers, I think "agnostic" is a waffleword, that just invites pestering by amateur evangelists.)

    BTW, I'd still say Michael Harner's shamanic methods are the simplest, and perhaps most reliable, means to have non-trivial experiences along "occult/religious" lines. Note that he started out as an anthropologist, and in his _Way_of_the_Shaman_, he carefully does *not* discuss the "place in the world" or "true nature" of the shamanic spirits… they are simply what you encounter when you enter such-and-such state of altered consciousness, for which he provides a straightforward (and drug free) procedure. (Q.v. http://www.shamanism.org, natch. His foundation does classes/training, international support of beleaguered native shamans, and purportedly a certain amount of research… I haven't paid much attention to the group lately.)

  6. Ann Coulter also has proposed the "flatulent raccoon theory" to contest evolution.
    http://web.mac.com/bug_girl/iWeb/Bug_Girl/Blog/5D

    That was what I was originally planning to write about on Tuesday, but this study was just too cool.

    As someone who has had involuntary "mystical" experiences, I can't recommend them. Nothing like thinking there's a giant black bear in your kitchen to just wreck a day.

    As I was writing this, I was thinking about some of the reports of people being eaten by alligators post-Katrina in New Orleans which turned out not to be true. However, people hugely stressed, without medication, dehydrated–perfect conditions for a seizure. While plenty of horrible stuff *did* happen (see "the great deluge" for an account), the wilder tales make total sense to me in the context of neurologically stressed brains.

  7. By itself, the discovery that a trigger in the physical world — a Bach fugue or a magic 'shroom — can provoke a spiritual experience does not say very much about God. Think about it: if we were Intelligently Designed by a Designer who wanted His creations to "connect" with Him, then surely He would wire in a circuit for doing that. The spooky part comes when we find many natural triggers for spiritual events, all of which produce mystical transfigurations just as good as the old-time religion — i.e., indistinguishable both to the 'shroom user and to outside bystanders. We can then study the origin of the mystical experience in a scientific way and propose theories for the origin of the "God circuit" which are entirely grounded in natural law.

    Daniel Dennett suggests one possibility in Breaking the Spell. Suppose you're a hunter-gatherer, living in a nomadic clan community whose medical care is provided by a shaman. The people who can best be cured by the shaman's arts stand a better chance of reproducing; ergo, susceptibility to shamanism gives an individual adaptive advantage. This isn't just a psychological matter of credulity: if your brain can feel a strong placebo effect, the shaman can help you survive more diseases. Any genetic alteration which "hard-codes" this adaptation into your genome means a greater chance of success for you and your posterity.

    Now, consider the peacock's-tail effect. A peahen discriminates between potential and non-potential mates by looking at their tails, so natural selection imposes the ability to detect a suitable tail, creating genes which wire a well-trained neural network into the peahen brain. But when this same neural network receives a grossly overblown stimulus, an amped-up version of the input it was trained to recognize, it responds with a frenzy of approval. Elaborate feather displays so overblown they even make the male bird's life more difficult provoke an extremely favorable response in the female, and so these genes we would otherwise consider useless or even deleterious become widespread.

    It is difficult not to compare this with human society: for every typical anatomical difference between human men and women, you can find a culture which considers an extreme form of that difference a sign of beauty. (I first heard this observation in Desmond Morris's The Human Sexes (1997), a documentary which aired rather late at night.) More deeply than that, however, what if the idea of a powerful sky-being is like the peacock's tail to the mystical-response machinery we evolved over generations of shamanism?

    God is a high-heeled shoe, the hips of a Turkish belly dancer and the long neck of a Russian ballerina.

    It's all speculation, of course, questions begging for answers, yet these are the kinds of speculations we will have to do with increasing frequency as we discover more electric and chemical means of provoking contact with divinity.

    Further reading: M. Enquist and A. Arak, "Symmetry, beauty and evolution" Nature 372 (10 November 2002): 169–72.

  8. If you have more than a certain number of links in a post, the software automatically yanks it and puts in in a que for approval. This is why the "free porn" comments appear and dissapear over time :)

    No editorial action on my part.

  9. Not quite. YOur eyes don't send you visual signals when they get no input (hence, when there's no light received by our eyes, we see only pitch black).

    On the other hand, people experiencing religious epiphanies are apparently subjected to the activation of a part of their brain without any apparent external input. Their brain is in essence creating the vision on its own (or at least, that's the most logical and down to earth explanation), just like dreams are created in the brain. Even if you want to believe they are messages from something other than your subconscious, there's no reason to assume they are.

  10. “Clearly, the concern is that if all mystical experiences–Hildegard, Paul, or others– can be reduced to brain chemistry, what will be left?”

    Just because we can reproduce or understand the effects of something on a brain doesn’t mean you a reducing it to brainc chemestry. Since everything we perceive happens because of some brain chemestry, the universe wouldn’t exist.

  11. If there was no such detectable brain activity during St. Paul's religious experience, whould you find it to be more or less real? It's a catch-22 situation. If the religious experience shows nothing on the scanner, it's a fake. If it shows, it's also a fake.

    The idea of reductionism is to reduce large areas of human interest to their neurological consequences. So the love of a mother to a daughter is would be same as the brain activity when she holds her. Every human emotin could be reduced to a molecular level. That's not to say the brain of the mother will not show a different activity, or that there won't be chemical reactions involved, but it's another thing to say that's all there is to it.

  12. Euphoria is an example that comes to mind. It can happen because of an outside input, like winning the lottery. It can also be caused by a chemical agent, like a drug. An what if a mathematician finally solves some arcane paradox after hours of musing? He could get euphoric on his very own.

  13. Delance wrote:

    "If there was no such detectable brain activity during St. Paul’s religious experience, whould you find it to be more or less real? It’s a catch-22 situation. If the religious experience shows nothing on the scanner, it’s a fake. If it shows, it’s also a fake."

    It's not really about showing up on a scanner or not, it's about showing up on a scanner and having a clearly mundane explanation or not. If people's religious visions coincide with an epileptic seizure in the temporal lobe, then why invoke god when what they experienced was probably just part of their brain misfiring? If however, there's no apparent reason why part of the brain is suddenly very active but not crashing, and the person is obviously experiencing some kind of abnormal phenomenon, then it would be possible to say that some external influence might have caused the vision, like god for instance.

    For example: if a girl becomes pregnant after having had intercourse with someone, it's not that extraordinary. If however, she manages to get one of her eggs fertilized without any apparent external source to set that firtilization in motion, then we could truly speak of a miraculous immaculate conception.

    If no eggs are being fertilized, then nothing has happened, and the woman simply isn't pregnant.

    See what I mean? There's a difference between merely showing up on the scanners and showing something on the scanners for no apparent reason.

    If a person claims to have a vision and the scanners show nothing, there's no amount of asserting and vowing and swearing that's going to convince anyone you're not just making it up and lying through your teeth. As such, well, yeah, you can't prove something's happening because there's no evidence for it. Another reason of why god cannot be proven to exist, if he's not bound by the laws governing our universe …

  14. "If people’s religious visions coincide with an epileptic seizure in the temporal lobe, then why invoke god when what they experienced was probably just part of their brain misfiring?"

    How would we know the difference, if any, between a religious "vision" and some epileptic seizure? How do we know St. Paul had either one/both? All those people being studied now, how would we know any of them had religious visions? I don’t see how anyone could satisfactorily answer those questions.

    We know not all religious visions could be explained away based on epileptic seizures, because often they are shared between multiple individuals at the same time. But then you can always go back to the assumption that any naturalistic explanation is correct by default and no supernatural events exist. With this assumption, any explanation is unnecessary, it’s an afterthought.

    "Another reason of why god cannot be proven to exist, if he’s not bound by the laws governing our universe …"

    Well, who thinks differently?

    “If however, she manages to get one of her eggs fertilized without any apparent external source to set that firtilization in motion, then we could truly speak of a miraculous immaculate conception.”

    A bit of trivia: “Immaculate Conception” actually refers to the conception of Mary, mother of Jesus, by her parents. (The conception of Jesus was Immaculate too, but the term doesn’t imply fertilization without sex, but without sin, and sex is not a sin).

    Moving back to St. Paul, I don’t see why he having a well timed epileptic seizure that warranted a radical change of heart would be any less miraculous. [cue to sentimental music] The true miracle was the conversion. [fade to credits]

    In all seriousness, I’m in favor of investigating any claim of miraculous phenomena the best way possible. I just think that this job can’t be done with the presumptions that they can’t exist.

  15. I know that. What I'm saying is that you can't examine an event to know if it's A or B, then say it must be A because there's an assumption against B. It'd be using assumption as evidence. It's circular logic.

    On the other hand, since the very purpose of a scientific investigation of a apparent miracle is to find a explanation to disprove it, it can't begin with the assumption there must be one, or it'd be just a pointless exercise.

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