Most people would probably agree we’re living through a spiritual crisis. The rationalisation of modern times has pushed spirituality into the realm of the absurd, but belief in a higher power has been part of the human experience as far back as we can go.
We were wired for spirituality. We’re not suffering for any other reason and science simply can’t disagree, even though current research only just scratches the surface.
The way the brain is put together makes it very easy for humans to have spiritual experiences. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg discovered that certain practices, in particular prayer, meditation and rituals, strengthen the prefrontal lobes of the brain which help to control primitive impulses such as fear, anxiety and stress.
Newberg also discovered that during these spiritual practices the lobes of the brain actually decrease in activity which gives the feeling you are being overcome by an experience, or that it comes from somewhere else.
Scientists have difficulty isolating these experiences, how they are really having an effect and where they come from. All they know for sure is they have a big part in our brain’s make-up and make us more resilient, so much so that people with a strong intrinsic faith (a deep personal belief, not just a social inclination to go to a place of worship) recover 70% faster from depression than those who are not religious.
But it’s not just a lack of faith that causes us problems. Thinking logically and repressing the mystical has been proven to further compromise our mental health because it decreases empathy.
When you believe in a higher power you suppress the part of the brain used for analytical thinking and engage the empathetic network, but when thinking analytically you actually do the opposite and push aside empathy.
The researchers of this particular study also found that atheists are most closely aligned with psychopaths. Not killers, but ‘the vast majority of psychopaths classified as such due to their lack of empathy for others.’
With a spiritual awakening, as Newberg explains in this video, one of the main effects is a feeling of unity, connectedness or feeling at one with the universe. There’s an area at the back of the brain which quiets when people have these experiences – when it shuts down you lose your sense of self and your sense of space.
It only takes one experience to change things for the better. Often it’s a crisis point, a death of someone close, reaching rock-bottom through an addiction where the pain becomes so fierce that you break down… and through.
These experiences are permanent. They change your beliefs. The part of the brain called the thalamus is changed by the experience, your experience of the self. This change can happen to anyone, it’s simply a matter of activating it.
For thousands of years people have used psychoactive plants such as ayahuasca and ibogaine, or other sensory deprivation methods such as not eating or sleeping, to shift the brain to another level.
Newberg describes this as ‘putting on glasses for your brain, to see the world in a clearer way, in a different way, but in a way that was always there in the first place.’
Shea Preuger struggled with heroin addiction for six years but managed to get clean through taking the psychoactive plant medicine ibogaine.
“I wasn’t spiritual before I took ibogaine but when I came out of it, the first thing I said was I couldn’t understand if what I’d seen had either come from me or from this plant. It didn’t make any sense.
“I always thought the world was just black and white but I had this new opinion that there was something else out there. There was something missing in my life. Now it was more interesting to be part of the real world, to know what I could accomplish with my own mind and my own spirituality, which I guess I’d been seeking through drugs. Before then it never even occurred to me that this was possible.”
Plant medicines are still viewed by the mental health services as slightly dodgy. Instead, the medical way to sort through our spiritual dis-ease is to prescribe anti-depressant drugs, and lots of them. And talk therapy.
Most people, atheists too, don’t wholly agree with these sorts of methods, or at least don’t have that much faith in their efficacy, so the vast majority take matters into their own hands and self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs to keep them from spiralling into misery.
One thing science can prove is that spiritual experiences have a similar effect on the brain as taking drugs. The same area of the brain that is affected by feelings of love and listening to music is activated, the nucleus accumbens or ‘reward centre’ which controls addiction and plays a role in the release of dopamine, one of the chemicals which controls a person’s mood. It’s just it’s a lot easier to get hooked on crack than it is to get hooked on meditation.
Most of us are addicted to something, whether it’s drugs, sugar, smartphones or work. Russell Brand, one of the more infamous addicts turned spiritualists believes that the label of addiction is too confining and actually this is just the human experience in motion.
“Science is based on the idea that what can be weighed, what can be measured is what is important. There’s a thread within atheism that tells you that the only thing that matters is that which can be ascertained. That our secular rejection of the mystical leads us to the conclusion that we’re just individuals, we’re here to survive, we’re here to fulfil our impulses. But no-one has made a worse mess of this way of life.”
Facing his own battle with addiction he found the answer in helping others, probably the most fundamental belief in all religious texts.
“Your own suffering can become a tool and the suffering of others can be an opportunity if you can just break out of the pre-existing and imposed paradigm that you are here to earn money. That your worth is established by what you’ve got.”
We still can’t prove god, however, and therefore religion is still generally frowned upon. It’s delusional to believe in something so unprovable, as Richard Dawkins so gleefully explains. This lack of proof only salted the wounds caused by deep human flaws in the various religious systems and made it increasingly difficult for modern thinkers to believe.
But religion is very different to spirituality. Religion describes the social structures put in place to help increase our spirituality. The two words are very different and often get mixed up to the detriment of our well-being.
The emotional importance of a belief in a higher power just can’t be ignored. Perhaps today we prefer to act like gods ourselves, coming so far as to create whole worlds in the form of virtual realities. It’s not hard to imagine there are other beings in the world doing that to us, as Elon Musk so prophetically declared. In fact, religious texts speak of the same ideals themselves. They just don’t do it in technological terminology.
When we have faith that we are all separate and insignificant we’re left extremely vulnerable because religion provided mankind with emotional resilience and the only way we can help the existential angst we are left with is by numbing the pain.