While not as nefarious as religion, belief in psi (that is, psychic phenomena) shares a lot of the same failures of critical thinking and nonscientific reasoning as religion does. Psi, to me, is basically a belief in what I call “natural supernaturalism”. Psi is basically supernaturalism dressed up in the garments of natural and/or unknown phenomena. For example, many psi proponents cling to a sort of “psi-of-the-gaps” when it comes to the existence and cause of consciousness. The mechanics behind consciousness are not completely known, but at the same time they are not completely unknown either.
A decade ago, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg did a series of scans on Buddhists while they were meditating. What he found was fascinating. Bob Holmes in New Scientist Magazine (21 April 2001), reported the following:The researchers found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention–a sign of the meditators’ deep concentration. But they saw something else, too. During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active than when the volunteers were merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and d’Aquili realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates.Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual’s sense of their own body image, while its right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context–the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.“When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don’t disturb them any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets no input,” says Newberg. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.More recently, Newberg has repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns in prayer. The nuns–whose prayer centers on words, rather than images–showed activation of the language areas of the brain. But they, too, shut down the same self regions of the brain that the meditators did as their sense of oneness reached its peak.This sense of unity with the Universe isn’t the only characteristic of intense religious experiences. They also carry a hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists generally agree that this sensation originates in a region of the brain distinct from the parietal lobe: the “emotional brain”, or limbic system, lying deep within the temporal lobes on the sides of the brain.Neuroscience can now duplicate the mystical experiences claimed by religious people over the years in two different ways. One is through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ketamine and psilocybin. The other is through electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.Karl Jansen, M.D., Ph.D., a is a leading neuroscientist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In an article entitled, “Neuroscience, Ketamine, and the Near Death Experience,” published in The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (ed. Lee Worth Bailey and Jenny L. Yates) he writes:There is overwhelming evidence that the mind is produced by the brain. The effects on the mind of adding drugs to the brain, and the religious experiences which sometimes result, provide further evidence (p. 267).Jansen’s research shows that drugs such as ketamine produce out of the body experiences or the sensation of experiencing the divine which are virtually identical to many near death experiences.Brain scientists have also found that electrode stimulation of the temporal lobes evokes experiences which become part of the subjective stream of consciousness, embedded into the very fabric of the personality, such that the personality, and even sexual orientation may be altered. Moreover, patients may experience profound visual and auditory hallucinations and even feel as if they have left their bodies and are floating in space or soaring across the heavens (Rhawn Joseph, Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience , 3rd Edition, chapter 9).
Newberg first took baseline images of the brains of the meditators to use as a standard for comparison (Newberg 5). It was important that these scans of the brain be taken while the subjects were at rest so that brain activity while one is simply relaxed could be differentiated from brain activity while one is having a spiritual experience. The baseline scans showed an “even distribution of activity throughout the brain,” characterized by a large amount of activity in the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a moderate amount in the prefrontal cortex (Newberg 4).1The subjects then meditated. When they reached the peak, they pulled on a string attached at one end to their finger and at the other to Dr. Newberg.2 This was the cue for Newberg to inject the radioactive tracer into the IV connected to the subject. Because the tracer almost instantly “locks” onto parts of the brain to indicate their activity levels, the SPECT gives a picture of the brain essentially at that peak moment (Newberg 3). The results revealed a marked decrease in the activity of the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a marked increase in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, predominantly on the right side of the brain
The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditationTo further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.[…]Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.
Meditative practices typically require several coordinated cognitive activities. This study measured changes in cerebral blood flow during “verbal” based meditation by Franciscan nuns involving the internal repetition of a particular phrase. These results are compared with those we previously described in eight Buddhist meditators who use a type of “visualization” technique. Three experienced practitioners of verbal meditation were injected via i.v. at rest with 260 MBq of Tc-99m HMPAO and scanned 30 min. later on a triple head SPECT camera for 45 min. Following the baseline scan, subjects meditated for approximately 40 min. at which time they were injected with 925 MBq of HMPAO while they continued to meditate for 10 min. more (total of 50 min. of meditation). The injection during meditation was designed not to disturb practice. Subjects were scanned 20 min. later for 30 min. Counts were obtained for regions of interest for major brain structures and normalized to whole-brain blood flow. Compared to baseline, mean verbal meditation scans showed increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex (7.1%), inferior parietal lobes (6.8%), and inferior frontal lobes (9.0%). There was a strong inverse correlation between the blood flow, change in the prefrontal cortex and in the ipsilateral superior parietal lobe (p<.01). This study on a limited number of subjects demonstrated the feasibility of studying different types of meditation with neuroimaging techniques, suggested that several coordinated cognitive processes occur during meditation, and also raised important methodological issues.