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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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.

From a brain chemistry standpoint, what was happening in Jesus', Buddha's and Muhammad's brains during these spiritual experiences?

I think that what happened in Buddha's brain is that by focusing really hard and concentrating the front part of his brain (the attention-orientation region) on his meditation, breathing, etc., that he sort of relaxed another part of the brain, probably a back part of the brain, and that there's a change in the flow of monoamines. And then his whole sense of orientation of himself relative to the universe just relaxed or changed. And bingo.


So when we're "in the zone," in a Zen state where we forget about the self--that's the same thing you described with Buddha, but to a lesser extent, going on in our brains?

Exactly. A very mild form of that. The monoamines, depending on the exact levels in your brain, probably make it a little easier or more difficult for that to occur also.

Is there a way for people to increase their spirituality levels?

Probably practice is the best. Even though we're saying there's a genetic predisposition, it's still very clear that practice makes perfect and that people can change their level of spirituality by working at it.

There's actually an experiment that I cited-I think it was by a graduate student in England, I'm not even sure if it's been published-but he or she actually gave the self-transcendence questionnaire to people with different levels of meditation experience, and showed that the self-transcendence scale changed as people meditated. Everything else about their personality remained just the same.

So just sitting down, praying or meditating or whatever, can actually change-

The brain, yeah. I also think some people just have an easier time doing that than others. If you look at tennis players, some people are just going to be better tennis players than others, but nobody's a good tennis player unless they practice a lot.

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Interview by Laura Sheahen
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