The Neurology of Transcendence

So just a day or so after we revisit “A Word for Heathens“  — a story exploring the social ramifications of neurotechnology that induces Rapture On Demand — here comes a paper by Cosimo Urgesi and his buddies showing a relationship between the posterior parietal cortex and something called “Self-Transcendence” — an index, if we are to believe the psych types, of spirituality.

What are the odds.

Urgesi et al‘s paper (popsci reports here and here) doesn’t really tell us anything unexpected. The literature’s already rife with evidence that everything from “oneness with nature” to out-of-body experiences derive from the part of the brain that keeps track of where our various body parts are at any given time (our physical sense of self, in other words). The pious protagonist of “Heathens” remembers it thusly:

It’s like a magic trick, they said. Like static interfering with a radio. It confuses the part of your brain that keeps track of your edges, of where you stop and everything else begins—and when that part gets confused, it thinks you go on forever, that you and creation are one. It tricks you into believing you’re in the very presence of God. They showed us a picture of the brain sitting like a great wrinkled prune within the shadowy outline of a human head, arrows and labels drawing our attention to the relevant parts. They opened up wands and prayer caps to reveal the tiny magnets and solenoids inside, all the subtle instrumentality that had subverted an entire race.

Not all of us got it at first. When you’re a child, electromagnet is just another word for miracle. But they were patient, repeating the essentials in words simple enough for young minds, until we’d all grasped the essential point: we were but soft machines, and God was a malfunction.

I wrote those words almost a decade ago, and the research I ripped off was old news even then. What sets Urgesi et al apart is that they have moved beyond mere correlation and noninvasive MRI studies; this was manipulative, controlled experimentation on cancer patients, the surgical removal of neurons from that critical sliver of self, the comparison of spiritualistic tendencies both before and after the knife. And guess what: reduce the number of neurons in the posterior parietal, and transcendence — faith, sense-of-oneness,  even equanimity over your own medical plight — all that stuff increases.  Not so much, though, if you just cut around in there without removing any neurons.

It’s an elegant little study, and another carpet-tack in the casket-lining of the supernatural — yet still we tread so very lightly to avoid giving offence, to reassure the world that we sit atop some pinnacle. “We’re dealing with a complex phenomenon that’s close to the essence of being human,”neurojock Salvatore Aglioti tells Scientific American, as though we’re the only species on the planet whose brain has a subroutine for keeping track of body parts. “They need to be very careful how they word things as they proceed,” warns one of the comments on the same page, “there are people who will take great offense otherwise. It’s going to be important to make clear the FEELING may be biologically based, and make NO comment on the stimuli leading to the feeling.” Even Urgesi et al refer to spirituality, in their introduction, as “a view of the human condition in transcendent contexts and in relation to unseen realities/supernatural agents” (italics mine).

It’s cool, but it’s also a little bit sad. Still, there’s only one other neurological human-interest story this weekend: one of the pioneers working on those neural computers that will one day grow up and — ever-resentful of that hurtful nickname “head cheese” — turn against their creators to spread βehemoth across the globe, went all mavericky and gunned down three colleagues in what was initially reported to be a dispute over tenure but evidently wasn’t.

Man, I miss academia.

——————

Thanks to Bryan Allen and “rm3154″ (aka, “plate of shrimp”, for reasons which remain unclear) for the heads-ups.  Given how preoccupied I’ve been lately, it might have been months before I stumbled on this work otherwise.

Illo taken from Neuron 65, 313, February 11, 2010

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday February 14 2010at 12:02 pm , filed under ass-hamsters, neuro, sentience/cognition . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

26 Responses to “The Neurology of Transcendence”

  1. Man, I miss academia.

    Bigger guns?

  2. Talking about academia.

    Going back to the “scandal” about the “leaked” emails from scientists studying global warming about which you wrote such a well received commentary.
    I read an article about it in my local newspaper a while ago. I looked it up again and I’ll try to translate the main points.

    Unfortunately they don’t give references but the gist of the article was that the so called scandal was engineered by global warming skeptics, or as they said in the article; the “scandal” itself was in fact a hoax.

    They say that having read all the emails in question, it’s hard to believe the press at-large fell for it.
    They suspect most journalist didn’t read the emails at all.

    One of the most controversial email messages was from Phil Jones and the sentence “”to hide the decline”. That particular email dated from 1999 and at that time they weren’t talking about cooling. The decrease in question was related to the relationship between temperature and growth rings of trees. Historically both go hand in hand, but halfway last century that relationship was broken for some unknown reason. The “trick” in question was about dealing with that problem.
    The reason these emails were misinterpreted was because of something from an email message from Kevin Trenberth. He wondered why scientists couldn’t explain why in the last ten years the increase in temperature was slowing down. He was mainly talking about the year 2008, a cool year compared to other years. He didn’t mean that scientist should try to hide that fact but should try harder to explain it and not just attribute it to natural mechanisms.
    There is a period of 10 years between those emails.
    Other words as well were twisted around to suit the global warming skeptics.

    I only know about this so called scandal what the main stream press has been reporting, the article I translated is as vague, random and unclear as what I just presented, so I have no idea if there is any sense to it. It does sound very plausible however and exactly the sort of thing these global warming deniers would get up to.

    The fact that you can’t trust ANY news source anymore is becoming extremely problematic.

  3. I think that part of me is a little low functioning, but it doesn’t make me religious, it makes me think thoughts like “well, evolution put our edges where they are for survival reasons, and they correlate well with skin and cells, but not so well with environment and symbiosis and externalities and the ripples of consequence which completely rational people could still call karma”, and wonder where exactly my edges ought to be drawn.

  4. I can’t believe I read the whole thing, oooh, my head hurts.

    Since this supposedly stable personality dimension, self-transcendence, is indeed an abstract concept
    involving “spiritual feeling”, “extrasensorial perceptions” and “illusory bodily sensations”, the paper’s
    findings are suggestive at best, with the possibility of further study including other subjects who do not
    have brain lesions or tumors, or personality disorders.

    As the authors themselves stated religiosity was not disentangled “from the subjective spiritual feelings and thinking that allow projecting the self into a transcendental dimension”. (p. 316)

    That being said, I would think that subjects who had experiences akin to “out of body” or “detachment from their body or where they were physically” due to emotional trauma such as a near death experience, rape, incest, child abuse or violence, should also be included.

    This has nothing to do with “religion” or even “spirituality”.

    An altered sense of “one’s own body in space”, “time or location” is quite often the described state of
    being for some who experience such emotional and physical traumas, which may alter the psyche such
    that a “personality disorder” may seemingly emerge, but it is not one that warrants “repetitive
    transcranial magnetic stimulation”. Although that is way better than the brutalities of lobotomies and
    electro-shock therapy.

    Furthermore, “religious beliefs and spirituality are at least partially independent phenomena”(p.316,
    Urgesi et al.) therefore the concept of linking religion and spirituality is flawed. Many more people today
    are describing themselves as “spiritual”, along with agnostic and atheist, rather than, or opposed to,
    “religious” or of any particular religion.

    Some people are just more attuned to or sensitive to the “sensual world” which involves nothing of the sort as religion or spirituality.

    Part of the tippy toe eggshell dance and jive as not to offend, lies within the concepts of death, mortality and having a soul. The human nature to believe that they have a “soul” entombed within the fleshy transporter that somehow “lives on” after the inevitable final decay, is hard to let go of when the reality
    of life on this planet is not at all great. As in, this is it; you better make the most of it.

    Urgesi et al., further suggestively postulate “interindividual differences in spirituality may reflect differences in the ability to transcend the spatiotemporal constraints of the physical body”. Certainly, people who are trained in meditation, as the authors pointed out, but also the mere ability of some
    humans being able to “zone out”, “space out” and “be somewhere else” in front of others is a
    difference possibly due to genetics, culture or personality type that gears towards such a
    transcendence.

    Again, nothing to do with religion or spirituality per se. Just how some minds work and the inner gears shifting differently.

    My own experiences of “self-transcendence” had nothing to do with religiosity, belief in a supernatural
    power, mystic experiences, drugs (psychotropic or otherwise), crank new ageyness, sex, or some other
    nebulous altered state of being. It is probably just a mind body discombobulation that makes for some
    interesting and sometimes fun experience that involves just going to sleep.

    When I told a friend about some of these “experiences” she said in all seriousness, that I better not do
    that again because I may not come back. Ok, so I did not ask her from where. When I told a former
    boyfriend, a bit older than me, he went on about “astral projection” and “chakras”, but that’s ok too. He
    also rhapsodized about LSD trips, karma, twin-flames and Sedona Arizona Energy Vortexes.

    Interacting with other human beings makes life so interesting and a great learning experience indeed.

    Maybe one day highly evolved human beings will have the ability to do a Vulcan mind meld.

  5. I’ve only had religious/supernatural experiences under large doses of hallucinogens — and also when I was a child. Perhaps the two are related.

    And does “plate of shrimp” refer to Repo Man?

  6. And does “plate of shrimp” refer to Repo Man?

    Yep. It’s that lattice-work of coincidence that lays over everything.

  7. Cosimo Urgesi and his buddies showing a relationship between the posterior parietal cortex and something called “Self-Transcendence” — an index, if we are to believe the psych types, of spirituality.

    Ah ha. The third eye is not where they thought it was. Good to see science finally proving there *is* a transcendence center in the brain. Descartes would be so pleased.

  8. Hey Peter. Well, I argue this material with academics all the time and some of them have a reaction that might surprise you. They’ll accept that there are regions of the brain that are responsible for these feelings of transcendence and they’ll just insist that this is how God set it up so that he can communicate with us. “Of course it’s a brain process. That just shows God’s infinite wisdom in designing us and building us with our own private God channel on our radios.”

    I confess, when the debate with the Easter Bunny loving vitalists, to use Peter’s phrase, gets to this point and they are willing to just embrace the absurd consequences of the ideology that has devoured their consciousness, I figure they are refuting themselves better than I ever could just be saying this shit out loud. Unfortunately, there will be those Christians who take their clue from the academics and continue believing that they are in contact with a magical other dimension. Thanks for the link. I’ll use this.

    MM

  9. [...] Unlike me, however, he’s actually a scientist. In a recent post on his blog, entitled “The Neurology of Transcendence,” he summarizes what appears to be a very important neurology study (conducted on willing [...]

  10. you could look at it like transcendent feeling is just a trick of the brain, or you can see that there is a part of our brain that is constantly telling us where our body is, and it is doing it so emphatically that we forget we are one with everything.

    Also, I don’t think the idea that we are one with everything is necessarily a supernatural thing. It doesn’t need magic to be true. Or even a different understanding of science.

    Also, I don’t think transcendence in this sense is a big part of all religion. I think religion as it is today lies mostly on tradition and a need for justice and order in the universe and not on a sense of oneness.

    Though I do see how the effect of the brain we are discussing might reinforce the idea of a soul. And I do see how this effect could be important in the brains of the founders of religion.

  11. rereading my comment, my first sentence makes me sound like I believe that we are one with everything, which I don’t. Or rather it makes me sound like I think the idea that we are part of the system of the universe to be something profound, which I don’t.

    Not important to the conversation, really. Just don’t want to sound like not me.

  12. More and more of our scientific understanding is calling into question the hard edges and sharp boundaries we have used in the past to define the “human condition”. If contemporary microbiology is anything close to true, then a “human being” is actually an anthology organism consisting of various cell lines, many of which are not even eukaryotic. And if you believe in any sort of theory of complex systems, the whole idea of being rooted in the central nervous system, just a little homunculus a centimeter or so behind the eyes, needs to be replaced by a committee of systems, the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems being the chief honchos, that makes us much more distributed than our self-images tell us we are.

    So it’s not surprising that our notions of where “we” end and the world begins are sort of fuzzy. It was always a little vague; do we end where the live skin cells stop and the dead cells are layered, or do “i” include the dead skin? Since I’m topologically a torus, do “i” include what’s in my gut? When I’m performing some routine task with a tool I have a lot kinesthetic familiarity with (say, driving a car), is the tool a part of my body or not? It feels like it is to me; when deciding whether the side of my car can get past an obstacle, I get the same feeling as when I’m making the same decision for my body. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sam neural tasks are being performed.

    So why not just accept that our oh so very precise definitions don’t work very well on things as complex as human beings, and accept that maybe we have to think of ourselves as dynamically-changing organizations of other things. There’s no creamy nougat center, no cherry swimming in alcohol; we each take up a fuzzily-bounded and complexly-structured volume of space and time. We can find out more at any given time with tools like fMRI, but carrying one around so as to know what’s going on inside all the time seems sort of self-defeating.

  13. Now this seems to refer more to the Eastern religious sense of oneness rather than a sense of communing with an external deity.

    “It’s cool, but it’s also a little bit sad. Still, there’s only one other neurological human-interest story this weekend: one of the pioneers working on those neural computers that will one day grow up and — ever-resentful of that hurtful nickname “head cheese” — turn against their creators to spread βehemoth across the globe, went all mavericky and gunned down three colleagues in what was initially reported to be a dispute over tenure but evidently wasn’t.”

    Oddly, I recently read that the alleged shooter also shot her brother dead in Mass. in 1986 when she was 20-years old, but the case was closed rather than pursued for some reason. Possibly (not sure of this) it was related to a series of shootings at the time, and some theorized that there were unusual levels of lead in the communities water due to a gasoline depot.

  14. Umm … just noticed my own last sentence. Pun not intended, but rather amusing.

  15. Neal Soldofsky says: Also, I don’t think the idea that we are one with everything is necessarily a supernatural thing. It doesn’t need magic to be true. Or even a different understanding of science.
    Also, I don’t think transcendence in this sense is a big part of all religion. I think religion as it is today lies mostly on tradition and a need for justice and order in the universe and not on a sense of oneness

    What he said. The sense of oneness and religion can be quite different entities. And we are continua, not absolutely discrete items. Along those lines,

    SpeakersToManagers says: So why not just accept that our oh so very precise definitions don’t work very well on things as complex as human beings, and accept that maybe we have to think of ourselves as dynamically-changing organizations of other things. There’s no creamy nougat center, no cherry swimming in alcohol; we each take up a fuzzily-bounded and complexly-structured volume of space and time. We can find out more at any given time with tools like fMRI, but carrying one around so as to know what’s going on inside all the time seems sort of self-defeating.

    Hell yes. Excellent. I wish I had said it. There’s no static creamy nougat center to myself; I am a dynamic interactive system, with edges that flow into my surroundings in 3D, 4D if you watch over time.

  16. keanani said:

    I can’t believe I read the whole thing, oooh, my head hurts.

    Yeah, I zoned out myself a couple of times.

    the paper’s findings are suggestive at best, with the possibility of further study including other subjects who do not have brain lesions or tumors, or personality disorders.

    That’s actually one of the plans: using TMS on healthy subjects.

    As the authors themselves stated religiosity was not disentangled “from the subjective spiritual feelings and thinking that allow projecting the self into a transcendental dimension”… This has nothing to do with “religion” or even “spirituality”.

    Furthermore, “religious beliefs and spirituality are at least partially independent phenomena” (p.316, Urgesi et al.) therefore the concept of linking religion and spirituality is flawed. Many more people today are describing themselves as “spiritual”, along with agnostic and atheist, rather than, or opposed to, “religious” or of any particular religion.

    Part of the tippy toe eggshell dance and jive as not to offend, lies within the concepts of death, mortality and having a soul. The human nature to believe that they have a “soul” entombed within the fleshy transporter that somehow “lives on” after the inevitable final decay, is hard to let go of when the reality of life on this planet is not at all great.

    And that, I think, is why all this stuff is tied in with religion.

    I agree that religion and “spirituality” are not the same thing, but they are connected. Religion is a formal system of social engineering that exploits belief in an afterlife and/or eternal bliss to acquire resources at the expense of believers (much as certain parasites alter host behavior to further their own agendas). Astral projection, out-of-body experiences, the sense of one-ness with the universe — these are the subjective phenomenon that support the beliefs that religion exploits. Entire books have been written on near-death experiences to “prove” the reality of the Christian belief system.

    You take away these experiences, you make the absurd claims of most religions that much harder for even the gullible to swallow.

    RedIndianGirl said:

    And does “plate of shrimp” refer to Repo Man?

    I do not know. I myself did not understand the reference, but it has been decades since I’ve seen Repo Man.

    Hljóðlegur said:

    Good to see science finally proving there *is* a transcendence center in the brain. Descartes would be so pleased.

    Actually, if Descartes read carefully he would realize that this study at least shows exactly the opposite: there is a “body-monitoring” center in the brain, and transcendence only occurs when its normal operation is fucked with. To call it a “transcendence center” would be akin to shooting a person through the head and then concluding that the bullet must have passed through the brain’s “death center”.

    Matt McCormick said:

    …They’ll accept that there are regions of the brain that are responsible for these feelings of transcendence and they’ll just insist that this is how God set it up so that he can communicate with us. “Of course it’s a brain process. That just shows God’s infinite wisdom in designing us and building us with our own private God channel on our radios.”

    Pretty shortsighted of God to make it so easy for us mere mortals to jam His signal, though. I wonder if sufficiently radical surgery on the posterior parietal could keep the patient out of Heaven?

  17. Actually, if Descartes read carefully he would realize that this study at least shows exactly the opposite: there is a “body-monitoring” center in the brain, and transcendence only occurs when its normal operation is fucked with

    Brain injury such as stroke or ablation are step one in the dubious investigating of “centers” of control or activity, and they are notoriously blunt instruments, hahahahaha. I kill me. But seriously, folks …. I skimmed the paper, and what occurred was increases in feelings of transcendence in people with brain cancer who had a certain area ablated. If only such patients experienced feeling of transcendence, then we could blame those feelings on brain tissue destruction. So many activities and states cause that sensation that it’s early days to declare we have identified the mechanism.

    I enjoyed Descartes’ idea that the pneuma ran the body like a puppet via the pineal gland, so I was grooving on the fanciful thought of the breath of consciousness exerting “spirit pressure” on the brain in some part, like, good job, Rene, just wrong spot in the skull. It put me in mind of that idea.

    I wonder if sufficiently radical surgery on the posterior parietal could keep the patient out of Heaven?

    HAHAHAHAHAHA. Well, yeah – do you have to feel it to get in? Can God tell if you’re faking your religious orgasms?

    Okay. Hm. Assume that “religious feelings” really do live in some discrete bit of parietal lobe. Even with the handicap of a broken spiritual radio, according to Christianity, one only need recognize ones sin and make a conscious decision to repent. This sounds like frontal cortex work. So, if God knows you are faking transcendence, does it still count to make the dispassionate decision to repent? I knew an ordained minister who had faith without any transcendent feelings at all; never stood in the presence of the living God, like your Word for Heathens protagonist did.

    So, I think that strictly speaking, Christianity lets you in without the radio working, so long as you hear the message indirectly and repent.

  18. *Clarification regarding neurological transcendence, and the usage of “religion” and “spirituality”.

    The nomenclature is limited, not broad enough to encompass the “transcendental” experiences of humans who do not believe in or
    designate their experience as “religious” or of a “spiritual” nature, as in “supernatural”, or “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

    Those who do not would thusly be able to say they had a – “synaptic susurration”, “extrasensory vision”, “inner vision”, “brain fart”, “radical strata riffage”, “electric blue bugaloo”, “wonky lucidity”, “sleeping corpus memory”, “slipstream dream”, “freefalling sleepfloat”, whatever, to describe and legitimately validate, something that would pass muster according to Sagan’s Baloney Test.

    “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
    You understand now why you came this way,
    ‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small,
    But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day.”

  19. Last thought on this very stimulating issue ~ music, of course can take you on a transcendental voyage, of the aural kind, any time any place, where you can be a space cadet in public without worry or care…

    One of my favorite songs heard in the late 70’s, Ian gives great flute,
    but this video cracks me up:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsCyC1dZiN8

  20. The commercial possibilities are fascinating? ghastly? to contemplate.

    Worried about your children becoming atheists when they leave the nursery and are exposed to other ideas at school? One simple operation and the probability of atheism developing is reduced by over 95%! Effective for all denominations and faiths!

    Or if the effect can be replicated by electromagnetism, walk-in transendescence booths. Only five dollars for a guaranteed hour of relaxation and one-ness with your Deity! (Didn’t Norman Spinrad put these in one of his short stories?)

  21. OTOH, whether we call it satori or Freud’s infantile oceanic bliss, maybe it’s more reasonable to say that this bit of brain has grown to alienate us from our original oneness, and the oneness to which we return. After all, any self-identity we impose on ourselves is just a narrative trick.

  22. Since I’m topologically a torus, do “i” include what’s in my gut?

    Good one, Bruce. I tell my students that no, what’s within the gut is not yet within the body, and that they have an isthmus of the external world running from their mouths to their anuses. This seems to strike home with unusual force – I had one tell me years later that she still thought of herself as a tube within a tube. Glad to see that I taught someone something.

    … would be akin to shooting a person through the head and then concluding that the bullet must have passed through the brain’s “death center”

    That’s nice. I’d like to use it in my next Nervous System lecture.

  23. keanani said:

    Last thought on this very stimulating issue ~ music, of course can take you on a transcendental voyage, of the aural kind, any time any place, where you can be a space cadet in public without worry or care…

    Yes, good point. Which is probably why so many Christians would ban rock music if given their druthers

    One of my favorite songs heard in the late 70’s, Ian gives great flute, but this video cracks me up:

    I think I remember an interview in which Ian said he wrote LitP as a reaction to people who kept telling him he should write something more friendly to Top-40 Radio. He hated Top-40, so he deliberately set out to write the most insipid and derivative love song he could, just to teach these people a lesson and get them to shut up. “Living in the Past” was the result.

    And of course it was a huge hit. It was Tull’s own Springtime for Hitler.

  24. The function of the brain region that mediates our sense of position in space is the subject of a book published in 2001 called “Why God Won’t Go Away”. Unfortunately, the authors subscribe to the “God made it that way so we could get to know Him” school of thought.

    From what I understand of the operation of this brain area it would seem that self-transcendent states arise when sensory input to the brain area in question is compromised in some way. This would explain why reports of isolation chamber experiments often include references to self-transcendent experiences. It would also explain near-death reports of self-transcendence.

  25. It was Tull’s own Springtime for Hitler.

    Please, please let someone else besides me have gotten this without googling it.

  26. I want to read up more on this; thank you for posting about it.
    It is interesting to consider that the dysfunctions that give me very interesting migraines and impair my ability to read other people’s faces may be related to the frightening “spiritual” feelings I’m often left struggling with. I’d heard a bit (an NY Times article a while ago, about spirituality as a spandrel) but nothing terribly useful. Ta very much.