Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tickle My God Spot!

A few weeks back during my pilot broadcast, I discussed the article Hopkins Scientists Show Hallucinogen In Mushrooms Creates Universal 'Mystical' Experience. The article describes a study done at Johns Hopkins by Roland Griffiths. In the study, 36 subjects were given either psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic" mushrooms) or the placebo methylphenidate (th active ingredient in Ritalin -- it has similar physiological effects to psilocybin, but without the hallucinagenic ones). Most of the subjects who took the psilocybin reported having mystical experiences and furthermore reported that they were happier and more satisfied in the two months following the exposure.

I'm all for this type of research. For one, the taboo against doing serious research with illegal psychoactive drugs is counterproductive. To not be able to even investigate certain substances just because some non-medical authority says they have no medicinal value is plainly irrational. For another, I'm personally fascinated with the human "mind" and would love to know more about how the devoutly religious mind works. It appears to work like it's high on shrooms.

But there were a couple things that bothered me.

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a "full mystical experience" as measured by established psychological scales.

What exactly is a "full mystical experience" and what "established phychological scales" were used to measure it? I just don't know what that means. Does it mean that the vocabulary used to describe it is very similar to the way people have been describing these experiences for centuries? I don't know. Perhaps the actual paper describes this to my satisfaction--I haven't read it yet.

In the present work, 36 healthy, well-educated volunteers-most of them middle-aged-with no family history of psychosis or bipolar disorder were selected. All had active spiritual practices. "We thought a familiarity with spiritual practice would give them a framework for interpreting their experiences and that they'd be less likely to be confused or troubled by them," Griffiths says.

So I guess an atheist who took psilocybin would be utterly confused due to his lack of proper framework. Methinks that the purpose of this study was to prove how safe and helpful psilocybin-like substances are; that way
their sponsors could market their own version at some point down the road. So naturally they recruited volunteers who were predisposed to see delusional experiences as positive events in ther lives.

Personally, I would have done it all differently: I would've included atheists as controls. I would've compared the descriptions of the believers and non-belivers to see how they differed. Finally, I would have had the subjects monitored by fMRI during their "experiences" to see exactly what was going on, and if believers and non-believers were having actually different mental experiences, or just interpreting them differently.

Then yesterday, I saw this other article about another study that did (some) of that. Okay, no psilocybin and no atheist controls, but si to "mystical experiences" during fMRI. In No 'God Spot' in the Human Brain, a University of Montreal study involving 15 cloistered Carmelite nuns was described.

The nuns were not asked to try and actually achieve a state of spiritual union with God during the experiment because, as the nuns put it, "God cannot be summoned at will."

Nevertheless, the researchers believe their method was justified because previous studies have shown that actors asked to enter a particular state activated the same brain regions as people actually experiencing those emotions.

Gee, didn't they know that a little psilocybin would've done the trick? Seriously though, here's the kicker.

The study found that mystical experiences activate more than a dozen different areas of the brain at once.

So it seems that the magical "God Spot" is just a myth. The brain actually has quite a few religenous zones. (Yes, I did just make up that word)

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