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Neurophilosophical Inquiries

© Wim van den Dungen


The spiritual function allowing human beings to experience Divine Presence, "numen praesens" or the holy has an exclusive executant "spot" in the brain : the (right) amygdala, and by extension the hippocampus and the temporal cortex. Spiritual exercises aimed at switching on this "God-spot" may initiate the formation of a complete "God-circuit", allowing for the mature expressing of the spiritual function and its double bi-modal structure (bi-hemispheral and cortico-limbic).

Just as the neuroscience of sensoric perception may suggest ways to improve sight on the basis of the executant structures of vision, namely the eyes, the retina and the visual cortex, neurospirituality may suggest spiritual rules enabling the optimalization of the development of the spiritual function. These should be placed next to existing theologies, liturgies, ceremonies and rituals, i.e. the approved ways, so as to suggest modifications of the latter in order to upgrade the "means of grace" and facilitate spirituality and spiritual experience in this life and not (only) in the afterlife.

At present, the following "spiritual rules" seem probable :

1. A focus on spiritual experience.

Apparently, the spiritual function is not "switched on" automatically. Its activity is directly linked with the voluntary association area in the prefrontal cortex. Each person has a free choice to initiate the spiritual function (cf. Maslow on the emergence of self-realization needs). The best religious education will not suffice to turn a free human being into a spiritual individual. As long as the latter refuses and opposes to "switch on" the spiritual function, and this a priori or because the existence of such a function is refuted, spiritual development will not take off. This condition points to a safety-mechanism installed to make one 100% responsible for one's own spiritual development after the point of "no-return" is passed, namely the sincere and persued wish to experience the Divine. Humans may decide not to persue this issue (yet).

Spiritual exercises stress repetition and daily practice. The making of new neuronal pathways takes time, especially when blocks, lateralization and deafferentiation have become habitual. The "total" human is addressed. The release caused by healing is at times troublesome, but always wholesome if the effort is seen through. Spiritual guidance must assist the formation of new, wholesome habits. It should focus on the phenomenology and not hinder the development of the fragile spiritual newborn by heavy theological interpretations, declarations and other superstructures. This focus on spiritual experience is meant to, as it were, take us "out" of the neocortex and allow us to "enter" the limbic, but not to reinforce the neocortex with new verbal (left) and visuospatial (right) information. Too much orthodoxy in the beginning does not lead to a genuine spiritual orthopraxis.

The role of spiritual teachers is not to introduce orthodoxy, but help the arousal of direct spiritual experience.

2. Reptilian/Mammalian balance : ego-preservation versus relatedness.

History shows how religions try to preserve their traditions by way of blood. The "devil" is projected outside, in some "evil" space "out there" and next fought. Monastic and spiritual orders introduce strong sexual and dietical regulations, for practice has learned them extremes (total abstinence, fasting) influenced the "switch" of the spiritual function (i.e. the amygdala). Heavy cortical justifications are invented to motivate the undertaking of these and other drastic physical measures (flagellation, mortification, pain, penitence, visualization of suffering etc). The latter, associated with religious symbolism, arouse strong emotional discharges and so its icons imply fear, death and dominance/submission.

Here, the "shadow" side of the mind comes into play. In Sufism, this is called the "great war", and the clearing of personal passions & evils (cf. Jung's "Shadow-integration") should be completed before engaging in any "lesser war". Unfortunately, most religions fail to "keep the demon inside", and instead of developing a "black box technique" (a method of spiritualizing the reptilian & lower mammalian brain in secret & silence), they unleash their demons by demonizing their fellow human beings (non-believers, women, gays etc). Instead of transforming negative energy, they pile it up, causing decompression, crisis, turbulence & catastrophe.

3. Mammalian/Cortical balance : icons of belongingness versus verbal voluntary control.

The limbic pole of the spiritual function, the "God-spot", does not operate on "monotheistic" lines. Indeed, Upper Paleolithic, shamanistic spirituality is based on controlled trance allowing the shaman to "enter" the spirit-world. Although in some systems, the "Great Spirit" ruled (cf. henotheism), most of the time a polytheistic view dominated. Each "god & goddess" has its own "domain" and ritual (cf. Santaria). The religions "of the book" maginalize mystics and their direct experience of the Divine. "Rationalist" monotheism developed a superstructure negating Divine plurality, although a "problematic remainder" is left over :

  • Judaism : Divine Presence is the "feminine" side of "God", called the "shekinah", manifesting in an infinite variety of forms, in particular as the Law (Torah) ;

  • Christianity : the Holy Spirit (by some theologians associated with the "feminine" - cf. Mariology), is both an objective order or dispensation (the communion of the saints, the "living energies" manifesting the world, the church, etc.), as well as a direct, intimate, tactful, inner & subjective experience of God ;

  • Islam : Divine nearness as experienced by the Sufi's (cf. Ibn al-'Arabî), implies every thing is a Self-manifestation of the Divine through one of the Names of the Divine.

The icons of belongingness, established when the spiritual function is activated, invite us to emotionally adhere to a set of "dogmatic" images. They define the convenant between the terrestial and the celestial. These images gravitate around the mythical life-story of the religious founder : the legendary Osiris, the Vedic "seers", Moses, Gautama the Buddha, Jesus the Christ, Mohammad the Messenger of Allah etc. To call in "their" grace (as law, teaching, Divine Grace, Baraka, etc.), these "examples" (always mystics) become "images" to be "imitated". Even in Islam's radical monotheism and its adjacent radical iconoclasm, the life of the prophet was and is considered exemplaric (although his face is never shown) and in Arabic calligraphy, letters become the bodies of abstract images (cf. the arabesque as a way of thought). Images are more willing to be charged with emotions of attraction, repulsion or express states of equilibrium.

The manipulation of fear also belongs to this level of analysis. The religions use strong negative images (torture, mutilation, extreme pain, extreme humiliation) to identify what happens when one falls "out of grace" (cf. the horrible images of the hells in the various religions). In this way, they address the "negative" side of limbic spirituality by a principal denial of blood-thirst and violence. So Buddhism's emphasis on the end of all afflictive emotions is very to the point.

Psychodramatic verbalization stabilizes emotions. The inability to communicate makes emotions "loop" and causes "storms" or (if repressed) stress and psychosomatic disorders. Confession and penitence are the Christian "approved ways" to deal with the downside of the limbic pole of the spiritual function. Buddhist meditations on "wrathfull deities" may be another. 

If the icons given (by a religion) limit a person's voluntary control on his or her spiritual development, no limbic-cortical balance can be achieved. In that sense, monotheism poses a fundamental difficulty. By stressing the unity of the Divine and the "approved ways" (the "left" eye of remoteness), they "close" the door to the "abode of God" (the "right" eye of nearness). On the other side of the equation, polytheism has antinomic problems : the variety of the Divine does not allow a higher order organization, limiting the expression of the spiritual function to signals & icons. Henotheism is the first step away from a horizontal "totemism" of "gods & goddesses" by introducing verticality : One "God" is also in and above "millions" of other Deities (cf. Amun in Late Ramesside theology and Hindu henotheism). Christian trinitarism stands between Egyptian henotheism and Islamic monotheism, for "One" in "essence" ineffable "God", exists as three Divine Persons, who all share the same Divine nature (cf. "homoousios"). Which concept of God is suggested by the executants of the spiritual experience ? The neo-Platonic triadic scheme spring to mind (cf. Proclus, 412 - 485 CE) :

  • "mone" (the principle on its own) - manation : "God" computed by the prefrontal cortex ;

  • "proodos" (the principle as efficient cause) - emanation : "God-circuit" of devotional practice ;

  • "epistrophe" (the principle as final cause) - return : "God" as direct Divine spiritual experience (cortico-limbic - cf. Does the Divine exist ?, 2005).

4. Elementary rules for a critical, neohumanist superstructure.

Humanism is usually associated with atheism. Neo-humanism must acknowledge the spiritual function as a crucial feature of our humanity. It is at work together with other mental operators, such as determination, verbalization, visuo-spatialization, dualization, emotionalization, existentialization and conceptualization.

This view does not propose the return of any of the many religious dogma's regarding humanity and the universe. Instead of discussing whether "God" exists or not, neo-humanism fosters direct spiritual experience, allowing everybody to find out the "color" of their own spirituality (which does not imply spiritual council, guidance and devotion are no longer necessary). Especially in the beginning, spiritual culture and context are most helpful. But, without opening the "doors of perception", no self-realization needs are met and a person's full potential to humanize and individualize is postponed.

Classical humanism, with its profound discourse on human freedom and dignity, liberated the neocortex from its entanglements with outdated icons and signals. The "old" spiritual superstructure was totally deconstructed, to the point of Nietzsche's "God is dead" formula. The modern neocortex no longer processed the concept of God (cf. Laplace), traditional theologies and adjacent metaphysical systems. In classical Marxism, communism and materialist atheism, no reference to "God" is made. A metaphysics of finity was the most positivist philosophers would allow. 

These elaborated iconoclasms did not eliminate "God" from the intellectual scene. Why ? Only recently, and thanks to neurological studies of spiritual practioners as well as epileptics, the limbic nature of the "abode of God" was introduced to the debate.

The most elaborated critical language-game, theory or ideology is incapable of eliminating strong icons & powerful signals. Icons may be overwritten by adjacent emotional word/image-associations, but in cultural systems this process is slow and persist only if these "new" charges are sustained over the generations (in Amarna theology was eliminated from the record but returned in stories and tales afterwards). Signals are the landmarks of our existence and next to the "nominal" operations of the brainstem, only
the "fourth state" adds to our reptilian habits. But this is a highly individual (in the sense of unique) and personal (in the sense of a someone experiencing) matter.

The dangers of too much & too little superstructure have been discussed. Are there elementary rules to keep in mind for building a spiritual superstructure ?

  • vertical and singled out : the Divine "is on High" and separated from profane, common & vulgar spatiotemporality (prefrontal cortex) ;

  • unity and diversity : the Divine is "one" supreme being, spirit, energy and "many" supreme, imaginal existences as ancestors, spirits, angels, saints, gods, goddesses, energies, world-soul etc. (cortical synchronization & relay to limbic) ;

  • ineffable and incomprehensible : the essence of the Divine, the Divine qua Divine, remains unknown and every system approaching this essence becomes totally incomprehensible and perplexing (deafferentiation of the verbal association area and relay to limbic) ;

  • fascinating and tremendous : the Divine is attractive because of its numinous quality, power and ability to change fate (voluntary association area), but also repulsive because of its overwhelming, dominating & crushing presence (fear reflex of amygdala) ;

  • intense bliss, joy & happiness : in principle, the "peace" of the Divine is open to all humans (a healthy brain has a functioning amygdala-hippocampal complex) - the personal benefits derived from an integrated spiritual function are also important motivators (prefrontal cortex).

5. Unity and plurality in the Divine.

Hermeneutical investigations carried out elsewhere, evidence the Divine as bi-polar : in essence, one and ineffable, in existence, multiple and mysterious (hidden, invisible). Neurospirituality suggests a cortico-limbic circuit as the basis of an integrated and mature spiritual function.

It has two anchor-points : the limbic "God-spot" and the prefrontal voluntary association area. Superstructures are inevitable.

When discussing the universal characteristics of human spirituality, these polarities are fundamental and hermeneutics, mystical experience and neurospirituality confirm their importance. A conceptualization of the Divine, i.e. a cortical discourse on the Absolute involving symbolizations which do not thematize these basic polarities of theonomy, will not enhance the development of the spiritual function. Especially in radical monotheism
is such a danger present. Theologians at work in the conservative branch of the Sunni tradition reject "nearness" to Allah (Arabic for "The God"), conceived as heretical blasphemy. Hence, the living source of spirituality is deafferented, for every movement of the spirit is immediately recuperated by a cortical system of symbols, stressing the impossibility of spiritual experience. In contrast, Sufism is highly mystical and developed a system of thought enabling the mystic to experience the Divine. The notion of "annihilation" became essential, for stressing the human subject was eliminated, "God" was kept pure.

Another flaw in the construction of a spiritual superstructure is made abvious with the opposite strategy. Suppose the experience of the Divine is made easy (as in Ancient Egypt, in Hinduism or more recently, in the postmodern Paganism of the New Age). Gods, goddesses, ancestors, spirits, entities, powers, energies, etc. exist on every corner, in every natural phenomena, in the soul of every human being, etc. The order of & dynamics between these spiritual entities becomes blurred, especially when efforts are undertaken to conceptualize them rationally (ante-rationality contains inherent conflicts which administer such possible confusions) ... Who is the most important entity or set of entities ? How do they maintain their dominance ? Who created them ? What is their relationship to this creator ? How to make sure that entities are not just "invented on the spot" to satisfy humans and not necessarily the Divine ?

  • signal theologies (reptilian) : a lot of entities exist in a well-defined "place" (a natural setting, a temple, a totem, a statue, a magical circle, a "Divine" animal or human etc.) and do not "operate" outside it - requests are material (more food, health, territory or victory over an enemy) ;

  • icon theologies (mammalian) : some entities "move around" (in Egypt deities embarked and visited each other in their temples along the Nile) and their stories ask for a set of emotion/word-associations involved with belongingness, nurture & relatedness - requests are material and psychological (a good social position, prosperity, happy life, stong family ties, love etc.) ;

  • symbol theologies (human) : the supreme entity or entities (hierarchy & numeration) are "abstract" and are everywhere all the time - He, She, It or They are addressed using prayer, ritual, recitation etc. and involve a symbolical theology (material objects infused with Divine power) - requests are material, psychological and universal (peace for all beings, enlightenment for all sentient entities, universalism, paradise on Earth etc.).

Higher neurological structures reduce the number of entities. A balance between too much and too little has to be struck. In Judaism, the "limbic" component is the "Shekinah" or the "feminine" Divine Presence. Here we see the combination of a monotheistic superstructure with an interesting "theophanic" limbic orientation. Unfortunately, the structure was out of balance because of (auxiliary) adherence to a reptilian place-conservatism (confusing the "chosen people" with a race and "Israel" with a concrete geographical region, whereas "all spiritual humans" and "the Kingdom of Earth" are meant). In Qabalah (Hellenized Jewish mysticism), was this superseded. Another constructive example is sophiology, i.e. "wisdom" as the feminine side of the Divine, a mirror in which the Creator originates & witnesses creation.

6. Reptilian/Cortical balance : permanent reformation and the expectation of the Divine.

This balance is the final neuronal outcome of spiritual emancipation : the establishment of a circuit between the neocortex and the special neurons of the brainstem hand in hand with the implementation of a "fourth state" (ARAS). 

The triune brain has an upper, medial and deep structure. Traditional theologies deal with the upper and medial levels. The "God-circuit" is cortico-limbic, but "fed" by the ascending reticular system, adapted to four basic states : waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and "the fourth" ("turîya", "samâdhi", "satori", "nirvâna", "state of grace", "gatlut", "baqa", "trance in sobriety", "station of no station", "gnosis" etc.). This "fourth" state is the net, automatic return (merit) on continuous spiritual training and permanent reformation ("always constructing" instead of "under construction"). Talent and training will always bear fruit. The executant arousal-characteristics of spirituality (the "new station") are, ex hypothesi, recorded in the raphne nuclei and the "locus coeruleus", forming a new rhythmical beat, upgrading the three-step of nature into the four-step of the adept Homo sapiens sapiens (who acts as the "quintessence" freed from the pull of the four "elements" of nature).

In neurophilosophy, the deep layer of the brain comes into play as part of a general theory on meaning, or universal semantics on the basis of the wiring of the brain, the executant organ of consciousness and free will. In this theory on language, three kinds of meanings were programmed in our neurological evolution : signal language (hippothalamus), iconical language (limbic system) and symbolical language (neocortex).

The semantic field of signals is limited by place-relationships and power-struggles, as well as the language of immediate survival and safety. Icons reflect emotional states, ordered in terms of relatedness, belongingness, nurture, sadness or joy. Symbols bring meaning untouched by context, like abstracts standing on their own.

These bring meaning to a higher abstract order, influencing volition and constituting the fundamental "objects" of higher cognition. More able to steer the executant organ, the "brilliance" of consciousness may manifest and bring solutions to the many problems facing humanity. The integration of the spiritual function, like so many other functions and operators, is part of our human development and is best viewed as such.

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initiated : 01 V 2003 - last update : 26 IX 2009 - version n°3