Brain Research and Higher Consciousness
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands.
— David Brooks, The New York Times
In the past, higher consciousness was considered the property of religion and the territory of mystics. But we are living in a time when it is the scientifically minded seeker, not the religious believer, who is making the breakthrough discoveries about the mystery we all participate in. In Western culture, old models of the cosmos as the province of a rewarding and punishing creator are giving way to a vision of dynamic energies interacting at every level, from macro to micro: out there in an infinite universe and here within our tiny individual selves.
The popular image of the scientist is that of the preeminent rationalist, even skeptic, interested only in objective, quantifiable facts. But in truth, the scientific method originates in mystery: it developed in the 16th century as an alternative to religion, a new way for people to fathom the unfathomable. Before it emerged, university education had been reserved for the aristocracy and the clergy; the purpose of the university was to study philosophy and theology, and the method of study was rhetoric and discourse, not factual inquiry. Seekers such as Thomas Aquinas risked persecution when they broadened their search for truth to include the objective examination of nature, of things as they are.
One modern seeker who bridged science and religion was Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon who pioneered consciousness research in the mid-20th century. His lifelong search was to understand the nature of consciousness as it arose in the physical organ of the brain; he wanted to know if neuro-electric and chemical reactions could explain the human mind. As it turned out, he found no definitive answers, but he believed that one day the mystery would be solved. “In that day of understanding,” he wrote, “I predict that true prophets will rejoice, for they will discover in the scientist a long-awaited ally in the search for Truth.”
A Picture of Oneness
Today, we can look in ways yesterday’s seekers did not dream of. Using SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography), we can photograph the brain in different states—you might say we can photograph the states themselves, yielding a picture of pain or a picture of love.
SPECT imaging visually documents the dramatic differences between your brain in a state of fear and your brain in a state of meditation. If you are worrying, for example, certain areas of your brain become electrically excited, while other areas grow dim; both can be photographed. If you begin meditating—and keep photographing along the way—you’ll see the area of your brain excited by worry begin to quiet down and new areas awaken. Much of this research has been done with the help of advanced meditators who are able to voluntarily quiet certain areas of their brains and awaken others.
It’s quite a feat for these meditators to enter peaceful states of awareness under laboratory conditions. Reading this, you might feel discouraged wondering how you, without years of meditation training, could begin to take advantage of this new understanding of the brain and generate more peace and equanimity in your own brain. You should not be discouraged, though—just the opposite. The meditators are explorers telling us about hopeful new territory that we can all visit one day.
One leading researcher, Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, has hit upon a specific, important brain state of this kind, which he calls “absolute unitary being” (AUB). In the state of AUB, our self-conscious sense of ourselves as separate beings drops away and in its place we feel and see only connection with all things.
Does this sound familiar? It is the higher consciousness of this article.
Newberg has found a way to photograph oneness—to fix, in the words of one journalist who has commented on his work, the “moments of elevated experience” when we step outside our boundaries and “overflow with love.” He hypothesizes that this state of AUB may actually be the condition that different religions call heaven, nirvana, or paradise—by any name, the ultimate healing experience of human life.