The Brain Chemistry of the Buddha

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

BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen

 

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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?

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.

Jesus went to the desert, Muhammad had all these flights, and Saul on the road to Damascus became Paul. Moses talked to the burning bush. Buddha spent a long time under a tree, contemplating. That's really the heart and soul of spirituality, changes in consciousness. Monoamines play a very important role in the brain, in connecting ourselves to the world around us.

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