The Brain Chemistry of the Buddha

In 'The God Gene,' geneticist Dean Hamer says human spirituality may have an innate genetic component to it.

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Right. There was a twin study suggesting that this spirituality scale is at least partially inherited. We were interested in finding out what are the genes. So we did a classical type of study that molecular biologists do: we rounded up a bunch of people and measured their self-transcendence. Then we looked at a bunch of genes and looked for differences. And we found this one gene that was at least correlated with self-transcendence. It's called VMAT2, which stands for 'vesicular monoamine transporter no. 2.' It handles one type of brain chemical, monoamines, that have a lot to do with emotional sensitivity.

What are some of these brain chemicals? Is serotonin a monoamine?

It is. A lot of people know about serotonin because that's depression, anxiety, feeling bad, etc. Although it's also ecstasy, feeling connected. With every brain chemical, like every personality trait, there's two sides. With depression and anxiety, the opposites are ecstasy, happiness, euphoria.

Norepinephrine is another one, although its functions are a little bit less defined. Dopamine is the third major one.

So basically this VMAT2 gene, which you have been able to isolate, affects those brain chemicals--which in turn, you feel, affect people's sense of spirituality?

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Exactly. That's the theory. The best interpretation is that the monoamines are affecting higher consciousness. By higher consciousness, I mean the way that we perceive the world around us and our connection to it. We see all of these sites and sounds and smells and data coming in. We make it into sort of a coherent picture like `that's a person', `that's a building', etc. Furthermore, we're able to place ourselves precisely in that picture at all times. We know where we fit and we know that we're the same person that we were yesterday. We know that we'll be the same person tomorrow. There's never any discontinuity in who we are. We never think we're somebody else.

Yet there are stories of holy people who do feel like their own personalities have evolved or changed.

Exactly, changed. Or they feel like they're not on Earth anymore or they feel like they've reached Nirvana, if you're more of an Eastern type.

All of those are examples of people's consciousness changing, and I don't mean that in a flaky way. I mean it very particularly. Their relationship to the universe is somehow changed, and that's a very deep spiritual experience. I would say that every great religious leader had that type of experience.

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Interview by Laura Sheahen
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