Dean Hamer is a molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health, where he heads the Gene Structure and Regulation section at the National Cancer Institute. In his latest book, Hamer says certain brain chemicals affect higher consciousness and spirituality, and that the actions of these chemicals are linked to a gene his team has researched. He spoke to us recently about "The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes."

What is the God gene?

The God gene refers to the idea that human spirituality has an innate genetic component to it. It doesn't mean that there's one gene that makes people believe in God, but it refers to the fact that humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual--to reach out and look for a higher being.A big part of your research involved a "self-transcendence scale" to rate people's spirituality. What is this scale? As you can imagine, it's not trivial to separate spirituality from more formal aspects of religion, but some psychologists like Robert Cloninger have tried to do that. They use a scale called "self-transcendence."Overall, it tries to measure a sense of "at-oneness" with the universe independent of formal religious beliefs. More specifically, it actually looks at three different subscales. One of them is called self-forgetfulness: a measure of people's propensity to completely lose themselves in what they're doing, whether it's weeding the garden or meditating or whatever. People who are self-transcendent put less focus on themselves and more on everything outside of them. They see the connections to things.A psychic component is called "transpersonal identification," a feeling of a sense of unity with everything else in the universe. Then there's a third scale called mysticism or spiritual acceptance which is more like, do you think mystical experiences have changed your life? Do you believe that science can't explain everything? Do you believe that there might be ESP, for example? Believing that there is more going on than meets the eye.So you studied a certain gene to see how it related to this self-transcendence scale?

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?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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