The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism In a study at Johns Hopkins, a majority of test subjects given a psychedelic drug reported having full-blown mystical experiences. Such research is shedding light on the chemical reactions that take place in the brain when people feel they're encountering God.
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The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism

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The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism

The God Chemical: Brain Chemistry And Mysticism

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

For much of the 20th century, mainstream science shied away from studying spirituality. Sigmund Freud declared God to be a delusion. Others maintained that God, if there is such a thing, is beyond the tools of science to measure. Now, some researchers are using new technologies as they try to understand spiritual experience.

NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty spent a year exploring the emerging science of spirituality for her book "Fingerprints of God." And today, in the first of five stories, she takes us deep into the research on psychedelic drugs and the chemistry of mysticism.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: My search led me to the top of a mountain, to the Navajo Reservation at Lukachukai, Arizona. This night would be my first peyote ceremony.

(Soundbite of singing)

HAGERTY: While Fred Harvey, an 87-year-old roadman, or high priest, warmed up his voice, members of his family prepared the peyote, a cactus that induces visions when it's ingested. Using peyote to touch the spiritual world has been central to the Navajo religion for hundreds of years. It's a mediator, says Andy Harvey, between the human world and the divine.

Mr. ANDY HARVEY: Sometimes, we ask the peyote to help us to cleanse the illnesses away and cleanse our mental being, our spiritual being. And we believe that that's what it does. That's why we call it a sacrament and a sacred herb.

(Soundbite of drumming)

HAGERTY: At 9 p.m., 32 of us crawled into the teepee. And for the next 11 hours, the young men drummed, the roadman prayed, and everyone but me ingested a lot of peyote. I wasn't allowed to record the ceremony, so I briefly escaped.

Okay. It's about probably 1:30 in the morning. This ceremony is for someone who is suffering from shingles. Her name is Mary Ann, and she's really in a lot of pain. And so, this ceremony was about that.

That's as far as I got before someone yanked me back to sit on the hard dirt floor. A few hours and a lot of peyote later, Mary Ann cried, the shingles are gone. The peyote has healed me.

(Soundbite of drumming and singing)

HAGERTY: After the ceremony, Mary Ann said she was, in her words, too peyoted up to talk. So, I called her on the phone two months later. She said while in the teepee, she saw the spirit of a man she thought she may have harmed and asked him for forgiveness.

MARY ANN: He came to me in front of me, and he just left me. And that's when the pain stopped.

HAGERTY: She was forgiven, she said, and the pain did not return. Mary Ann believes it's because the peyote-inspired vision healed her.

Scientists have long been intrigued by mystical experiences like Mary Ann's. A person prays and gets better. A car crash victim feels himself floating above his body. For years, scientists have wondered why these things occur and even if they're real. So, they're taking drugs like peyote out of the teepee and into the laboratory to find out more.

The early research using LSD to spark spiritual experiences began in the early 1960s. But shortly after, it hit a snag.

Dr. TIMOTHY LEARY (Late Harvard University Psychology Professor): Turn on. Tune in. Drop out...

(Soundbite of cheering)

HAGERTY: Timothy Leary's rallying cry captured the tone of the era…

(Soundbite of song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Singer, The Beatles): (Singing) Lucy in the sky with diamonds...

HAGERTY: a generation conducted its own uncontrolled experiments with drugs and spirituality. Researchers grew nervous. And in 1971, the experiments ended.

(Soundbite of scratching record)

Until now.

(Soundbite of slamming doors)

A couple of months after the peyote ceremony, I found myself following Roland Griffiths into his mushroom mecca in the middle of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore.

Professor ROLAND GRIFFITHS (Behavioral Biology, Johns Hopkins University): It's laid out as a comfortable living room.

HAGERTY: The lighting is low, the carpeting plush. There's a cross on the wall, a statue of Buddha, a Shinto shrine. In the middle of the room is a sofa where volunteers can lie down after they've ingested a capsule of psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient in mushrooms. Griffiths, a neuropharmacologist, is the lead investigator in the first major study of drugs and spirituality since the 1970s.

Why, I asked, would he launch such controversial research?

Prof. GRIFFITHS: I was just curious.

HAGERTY: Actually, Griffiths says when he took up meditation 15 years ago, he began thinking differently about the nature of reality. He wondered: what if he could study what happens to the brain when people enjoy spiritual experiences? Griffiths recruited 36 people. They all were middle-aged and stable, had an active spiritual practice; whether Christian, Jewish or other, and were willing to take the trip of their lives.

Ms. KARIN SOKEL: They asked me to lay down with headphones and the most powerful music I've ever heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SOKEL: And then, I was blindfolded. And with that, I began to have my experience.

HAGERTY: During those eight hours, 56-year-old Karin Sokel believes she saw God.

Ms. SOKEL: I know that I had a merging with what I call oneness, I am.

HAGERTY: Sokel's words echoed those of mystics through the ages, who talked of a physical union with God, a peek into eternity, an out-of-body experience. She was not alone. Griffiths says 70 percent of the subjects had full-blown mystical experiences.

Prof. GRIFFITHS: Frankly, it was remarkable.

HAGERTY: This research offers clues about the mechanics of spiritual mystery, says neuroscientist Solomon Snyder.

Dr. SOLOMON SNYDER (Chairman of Neuroscience Department, Johns Hopkins University): If we assume the psychedelic drug-induced state is very much like the mystical state, then if we find out the molecular mechanism of action of the drug, then you could say we have some insight into what's going on in the brains of mystics.

HAGERTY: Snyder, who chairs the neuroscience department at Johns Hopkins and was not involved in the study, says scientists suspect a key player in the mystical experience is the serotonin system. The neurotransmitter serotonin affects the parts of the brain that relate to emotions and perceptions. Chemically, peyote, LSD and other psychedelics look a lot like serotonin and they activate the same receptors.

Think of the serotonin receptor as a bouncer in a nightclub. The party is a bit tame, and when the bouncer spots the fun chemical, the active ingredient in psilocybin, he lets Mr. Fun into the club. Suddenly, the party picks up and the brain chemicals are bumping and grinding.

(Soundbite of song, "Celebration")

KOOL AND THE GANG: (Singing) Celebrate good times. Come on.

HAGERTY: Let the spiritual experience begin.

KOOL AND THE GANG: (Singing) It's a celebration. Celebrate good times...

HAGERTY: Okay, it's more complicated than that. There are other chemicals and receptors at play, and of course, mystical experience happens without drugs; through prayer and meditation, or chanting or fasting.

But researcher Roland Griffiths says this study will open new vistas in the science of spirituality, because until now, you could not systematically study mystical states.

Prof. GRIFFITHS: You can't just say, well, come into the laboratory and pray for two hours, and then we're going to image your brain because we know you'll have a mystical experience then. I mean, we're talking about rates of experience that may occur once in a lifetime or once every year or two.

HAGERTY: But if you can chemically induce the equivalent of a spiritual experience, he says, you can slide a person into a brain scanner and observe which parts of the brain light up and what neural networks are used. Still, Griffiths says, all the MRIs in the world can't answer his central question about spirituality.

Prof. GRIFFITHS: Why? Why does that occur? Why has the human organism been engineered, if you will, for this experience?

HAGERTY: It's a question that haunts other scientists, as well. They want to know, is there a sweet spot for spirituality in the brain? Tomorrow, the search for the God spot.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can explore the latest research into the science of spirituality at

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