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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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.

But in one part of your book, you talk about studies with identical twins and that also seems to bear out your ideas that there is some genetic basis, it's not just practice.

Yes, the twin studies are really the original basis for saying self-transcendence is at least partially genetic. And what was interesting about it is not only is it partially genetic, but the part that is not genetic is not from social learning, it's not that people get this from their parents or even from their schools or their ministers or churches or anything else. It's just sort of genes and plus just the random stuff that happens in people's lives. The same type of twin studies have actually been used to look at more classic, formal religious beliefs like, do you believe the Bible is true? Do you think that abortion is a sin? And how often do you go to church? As you might expect, those type of beliefs and attitudes have really no genetic basis.

Meaning they're very conditioned by the environment.

Right.

You're careful to say in the book that you don't want to speculate on whether God exists, this is purely about how the human brain functions when it's having spiritual experiences. Why?

There's a natural tendency for believers to see this type of data as evidence that there is a higher power who made people in such a way that they would believe. But there's also a natural tendency for disbelievers to say, "This proves that it's all just in your mind."

I really can't overemphasize that this kind of data can't really support either of those views. It's purely about how the mind perceives things and works. Whether or not those beliefs are true, whether they come purely from within or whether they come from without, we just absolutely can't say. I don't think people should use this type of information in that way.

What what do you hope people take away from the book?

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