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Xanax of the caveman: neuropsychology of unity of existence and prayers;

By Abbas Sadeghian, PH.D.

In part one of this series we discussed the issue of the origins of human religiosity. During this session we are going to discuss the issue of the location of certain religious behaviors which have already been discovered.

PART I: Neuropsychology of Human Religious Behavior

Probably the most intriguing aspect of human religiosity is mysticism, which can be seen in most religions in the world. However, the definition and the types of behaviors that we see in different cultures are somewhat different. One can postulate that the mysticism that is seen in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism originated from Buddhism.

Sufi dance
(photo by Iason Athanasiadis)

According to most historians the phenomenon of mystic behavior was originally documented among the Buddhists' who lived in Northern India. Their thoughts and behaviors gradually moved towards the West. The artifacts related to these behaviors can be seen in the caves of the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan (Bamian). This location contains huge statues of Buddha which were mostly destroyed by the Taliban. At that time, the Taliban viewed these statues as a sign of idolatry. In the same vicinity there are many caves containing artifacts of Buddhist monks. During the time period (before the invasion of Alexander) most people occupying these regions were followers of the prophet Zoroaster. The correct pronunciation is Zartosht. Zoroastrianism is one of the first dualistic religions of the world. They believed in Gods of good and bad. The contradiction between them was overcome with the understanding that eventually the God of goodness (Ahoramazda) would prevail, and that the God of evil (Ahriman) would lose. This ideology is the foundation of many religions. The ideas of heaven, hell, Messiah, a prophet born in to a virgin mother and Armageddon, probably originated from Zoroastrianism. These ideas traveled though Old Persia and were incorporated by the Jewish population of Mesopotamia (Iraq). These ideas were spread when Cyrus the Great freed the Jewish people from slavery in about 500 B.C. Gradually, these same ideas made the foundation of belief in the concept that the world and human thinking is made of two elements of good and bad. An indulgence in evil behavior would cause a person to become demon-like, and atonement could cause a person to be angelic. Because of this, the idea of harshness on the body to achieve higher states of consciousness came into existence. This phenomenon can be observed in most of western Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and parts of Europe. Some of these symbolic behaviors still persist. For example, priests and nuns abstain from sex and they wear clothes made of wool which are hard on the body. The ritualistic behaviors of mysticism are not identical among different cultures. However, they are all designed to achieve the same goal; atonement to achieve higher states of consciousness. The fundamental belief among all these mystic branches of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism is if one indulges in total repression of the pleasures of the world he will be able to become a part of God. (With all of the abilities of God). This is referred to as "unity of existence". Although this interpretation of relationship to God is considered blasphemy, it is still practiced in all of the major religions of the world. Again, if one is hard on himself, his existence can become united with God and he will be able to do what God can do. This concept in Islam is referred to "Fana e Fellallah" which translated to English means becoming "dissolved in God.' Unity of Existence is the foundation of mysticism, of all major religions.

Neuropsychology of Fana e Fellallah (Unity of Existence)

The neurological foundation of this behavior was originally documented by Dr. Newberg in his famous book why doesn't God Go Away? The experiment leading to this discovery became possible with advances in neuroimaging techniques. The experiment consisted of two experimental groups. The first group consisted of devout nuns and the second group; Buddhist monks .The experimental groups were injected with the special dye needed for a SPECT study. They were advised to begin the process of praying to try to get into a trance-like state. The ultimate goal of these groups was to enter the stage of dissolving in God, or Fana e Fellallah. They were also advised that once they entered into trance to make a very minor gesture alerting the experimenter of their condition.

SPECT Study Findings

During this first stage of heavy meditation there were several pictures taken of the brain activity, this was followed by several pictures being taken after the subject entered into the trance. Interestingly, the part of the brain which became quite active during the first phase of meditation was the posterior superior parietal lobe. This area of the brain is in charge of locating ones self in "space." In other words, if a person is heavily aware of his body in a space, he is utilizing the posterior superior parietal lobe. This phenomenon describes the behavior of the nuns and the monks in ultra awareness of the self. Once the individual would make the gesture that he is entering into a trance, the activity of the posterior superior parietal lobe would stop and shortly turn into total inactivity. In other words the ultra- awareness of the self in space would turn into total dissolving in the space or losing one's self into the universe. In essence, becoming one with the universe which is the "unity of existence' or becoming a part of God.

Neuropsychology of Prayers:

One of the most interesting behaviors of human beings is their indulgence in the behavior of prayers. Considering the fact that prayer is universal and is seen in all religions', one can postulate that it has organic causes. The efficacy of prayers is simply a matter of fate; however recent studies (done over a five year period by a large study group), indicated that prayers do not have any impact on the improvement of other patients' health. This is a depressing study, since many times patients' are told that prayer may be their only hope for a cure. In defining personal experiences which are considered religious, there is a common belief among all religions: when you are in communication with God, you will have favorable outcomes.

The Neurological Origins of Prayer

It's a well known fact that most of human religious behaviors originate from the left hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere of the brain is mainly responsible for the language abilities, and most of the human religious behavior is language based. For example, the Bible, preaching, prayer, religious conversation and debates are all language based. Aspects of human religious behavior which are visually based are mostly located in the right hemisphere of the brain; (religious drawings, artistic stricture of churches, temples and mosques). The left temporal lobe is mainly related to religious verbalization. The inhibitory neurons of the left temporal lobe have the function of controlling human senses; (hearing, vision, smell, taste). Therefore any legions or seizures or poor development in left temporal lobe would lead into auditory, visual and olfactory hallucinations. Not only these conditions, but problems associated with the thought process related to the senses which leads into delusional thinking. A stroke in this site usually leads to vivid religious experiences (conversations with God). Although the main structure in the brain dealing with emotions is the amygdale, the center for suppression of anxiety is located in the right frontal lobe. The left frontal lobe and the right frontal lobe are connected through pathways which cause prayers to lead into reduction of anxiety. Therefore, although the individual is not attaining the favorable outcome of the prayer, his anxiety has been reduced by indulgence in prayers, making prayers or asking for the assistance from God, one of the most common human behaviors.

About the author: Dr. Abbas Sadeghian is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine

... Payvand News - 11/15/10 ... --

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