Is the experience the same for everyone? Well, that's one tenet I hold, but now maybe there's some scientific evidence. Modern research is starting to map all kinds of brain functions, and in particular Newberg and d'Aquili, neuroscientists from U. Penn, have used new brain scanning techniques to study aspects of "the religious experience".
Meditation inside a CAT scanner would defeat far better minds than mine, but a relatively new technique, SPECT (single photon emission computerised tomography), permits more flexible research work. Volunteers meditate quietly with an IV line in their arms. During the "one with everything" state, a tracer (normally hexamethyl propyleneamine oxide) is injected into the line, and this binds preferentially to the areas of the brain being heavily used. Later work in a scanner allowed Newberg and d'Aquili to compare the activity to that of the brain at rest.
The study was based on several hypotheses in "neurotheology". It postulated that meditation would increase activity in the frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex. It also hypothesized that the altered experience of tima and space in meditation would be a result of decreased activity in the superior parietal lobe. and also predicted that there would be a decrease in the activity in the sensorimotor area of the brain. Whilst there might be changes in the midbrain correlated with autonomic actions, it sggested, there would be little change in activity in the cerebellum, superior frontal cortex, and occipital lobes.
The findings support the hypotheses that meditation is associated with increased activity (blood flow) in the frontal lobes and that such activity is correlated with decreased activity in the posterior parietal lobes. Decreases in blood flow in the left superior parietal lobe and increases in the left prefrontal cortex suggest that the two areas work together to create a sense of space. But there was an increase in blood flow to the sensorimotor cortex (so meditation practice does not dampen the perception of distracting external stimuli) and also Increased activity in the thalamus and midbrain, which may be connected to increased attention of subjects during meditation.
For me, the key factor is the decrease in activity of the parietal lobe, which is responsible for differentiation between self and other (the left side of the lobe deals with one's own image: the right with context). Newberg (after d'Aquili's death) repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns 'centring' while performing the rosary. Apart from the differences due to the fact that their prayer is expressed in words rather than images, the results were the same.
The sense of awe that accompanies the experience? Jeffrey Saver of UCLA comments that the temporolimbic system is responsible for stamping the experience as "important" in the same way that it marks your child's, or lover's face as being "important". The limbic system is a part of the brain that dates from way back in our evolution and he believes that during an intense religious experience the limbic system becomes unusually active and tags everything with special significance, characterised by bliss and well-being. Certainly, people who have had such experiences find it very difficult to describe to others. It's easy to convey the visual aspects of the experience, which are what everyone experiences all the time, but the underlying sensations are virtually impossible to communicate.
People who have epileptic seizures restricted to the temporal lobes frequently report a sense of profundity during those seizures, whereas Alzheimer's victims normally exhibit a loss of religious interest. The religious or spiritual profundity is, says Saver, "similar to people undergoing religious conversion, who have a sense of seeing through their hollow selves or superficial reality to a deeper reality," Clearly, as with entoptic phenomena, it isn't the experience per se that matters; it's what you do with it that counts.
Limbic stimulation brings a richness to experience, a fact that is unconsciously used by many forms of ritual. Deliberate, stylised motions of ceremony makes them different from mundane actions and may help the brain to flag them as significant. Music and chanting affect the limbic system in the same way as ritual actions, triggering arousal or bliss, just as meditation can be shown to induce arousal and relaxation, often at the same time. This marriage of opposites, thinks Newburg, adds to the intensity of the experience. The technique of centring prayer is what allows the nuns studied by Newburg to use the verbal symbolism of chant to create a distinct "sacred space" It's similar to the "dercad" of the early Celtic Christians: as Psalm 46 has it, "Be still and know that I am God" (verse 10).
If you're atheist or anti-religious, the results of this type of research mean that religious experience is all a trick of the brain. Religious believers are either very upset by the research or suggest that this is just the brain's way of contacting the numinous. Wouldn't it make sense that if one or more deities created the universe, they'd construct mankind's brain in such a way that it could receive messages?
Newberg says "The brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual experiences and religious experiences ... Unless there is a fundamental change in the brain, religion and spirituality will be here for a very long time. The brain is predisposed to having those experiences...". He says that he has a sense of his own spirituality, but declines to say whether he believes in God, because any answer would prompt people to question his agenda. "I'm really not trying to use science to prove that God exists or disprove the existence of God,"
Other researchers go much further. Michael Persinger, professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has developed a helmet-like device that runs a weak electromagnetic signal around the skulls of volunteers. Eighty percent of his volunteers " report a 'mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near' them. "These volunteers" Persinger notes "know they are in the laboratory. Can you imagine what would happen if that happened late at night in a pew or mosque or synagogue?" He feels his research shows that "religion is a property of the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there."
Many of the researchers are atheists, but James Austin, a neurologist who began practicing Zen meditation during a visit to Japan, has found himself having to re-evaluate what his professional background had taught him. "Some of my experiences were quickenings, one was a major internal absorption ... I felt deep bliss. I realized that nothing in my training or experience had prepared me to help me understand what was going on in my brain. It was a wake-up call for a neurologist." His spirituality is similar to practices associated Hinduism or Buddhism and doesn't involve a belief in God He emphasizes the importance of meditation and its power to make an individual loving and compassionate.
Perhaps Mary Doria Russell defines the middle ground. Narrowly missing a Hugo for "Children of God" puts words into the mouth of a Jesuit priest on a spacecraft. Asked about the dark night of the soul, he says "On a bad day, when it's all just poetry, it's still poetry to live by, poetry to die for.".