Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of conversations with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done hundreds of them now and if this is new to you and you’d like to watch previous ones, please go to the past interviews menu on bathgap.com where you’ll see all the previous ones archived in various ways. This show is made possible by the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. If you appreciate it and feel like supporting it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the site, and even small contributions are significant if enough people do them. My guest today is Andrew B. Newberg, MD, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation. I’ve been reading Andrew’s books and listening to hours of his other recordings and interviews and talks, and his whole area of expertise and study fascinates me. I’m going to read his entire bio here, even though it’s a little long, because it’s substantive and it will give you a really good idea of who he is and what his credentials are. So Andrew is currently the Associate Director in Charge of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He is also a professor in the departments of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University, and he is an adjunct professor in the department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. And now this next sentence tells you why I’m interviewing him. “Dr. Newberg has been particularly involved in the study of mystical and religious experiences, a field referred to as ‘neurotheology.’” He has also studied the more general mind-body relationship in both the clinical and research aspects of his career, including understanding the physiological correlates of acupuncture therapy, meditation, and other types of alternative therapies. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed articles and chapters on brain function, brain imaging, and the study of religious and mystical experiences. He has written or co-written several books, about half a dozen, such as, “Neurotheology – How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality,” “How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain – The New Science of Transformation,” “How God Changes Your Brain – Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist,” “Why God Won’t Go Away – Brain Science and the Biology of Belief,” and “The Metaphysical Mind – Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought,” oh, also “Principles of Neurotheology.” He has also produced a 24-lecture video program entitled “The Spiritual Brain” for the Teaching Company. He has presented his work at scientific and religious meetings throughout the world and has appeared on Dr. Oz, Good Morning America, Nightline, 2020, CNN, ABC World News Tonight, as well as in the movies, “What the Bleep Do We Know,” “Bill Maher’s Religulous,” and “Awake – The Life of Yogananda.” His work has been featured in articles in Newsweek, Time, National Geographic, Discover, O Magazine, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The London Observer, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Reader’s Digest. And his website is andrewnewberg.com. So I don’t usually read such a long bio, but I think that was worth reading.
Andrew: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Rick: So welcome, Andrew, and thanks.
Andrew: Thank you for having me on the program.
Rick: Yeah, so customarily I start with just a little bit of the person’s background, and I recollect a few things from listening to other interviews you did about your childhood, how you were really an inquisitive kid. And at a rather early age, you realized something that took me until about the age of 17 to realize, and that with the help of a little LSD, which was that everybody sees the world very differently, even though presumably there’s only one world out there, and you really puzzled over that. Do you want to comment on that a little bit?
Andrew: Sure, yeah. As you said, from the time I was a kid I think I was just always asking questions, and I was very stymied by the issue of the fact that we seem to have all these different religious and spiritual beliefs, and different political beliefs, of course, is a very prominent topic in today’s world. And it was disturbing to me, I think. It really bothered me, and I remember many times lying awake at night long after I was supposed to be in bed and pondering these questions, and then I’d wander into my father’s office and he was doing some work there, and I said, “Dad, I don’t understand this. What is God? Tell me what’s going on.” And he was always incredibly supportive, and usually would sort of throw the questions back to me. He didn’t give me an answer, which I really appreciated. We were not brought up in a particularly religious or spiritual household. I was born as a Reform Jew, and got bar mitzvahed, but for the most part it was a lot of questioning. And I guess I thought, “Well, somebody’s got to solve this problem.” And so I started to think about this question, and so I guess in many ways to me the primary question is, “What is the nature of reality, and how do we as human beings know what that might be?” And so it started me on this path of trying to answer that question, and I think my first thought was that, “Well, it had to have something with the human brain. If the human brain is taking in all this information and helping us to construct our perspective on reality, then part of it has to do with what’s going on in the human brain.” But as time went on, I realized that just looking at science and just trying to look at things from this “objective” vantage point, and I’ve used “objective” in quotes, wasn’t quite enough. And so I started to read about what other people had come to, and read Aristotle and Plato and Descartes and all up to the modern philosophers and phenomenology and so forth. And so that all started to happen probably around the time I was in high school and into college, and then in college, even though I was very interested in medicine as a career, I was fortunate to be able to take a lot of courses in Buddhist thought, Hindu thought, comparative religions, formal logic, as well as the science courses, chemistry, biology, and so forth. And so all of this was really kind of swirling around in my brain up until the point where when I was in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, I wound up deciding to do this extra year, they called it, and that was really this kind of pivotal moment in my life where I wound up finding, amazingly, two incredible mentors to work with. Usually most people are lucky to get one. And one of them was this Dr. Alavi, who was one of the brain imaging experts, and he’s got a CV that spans about 45 pages or more, and he’s got 1,000 articles.
Rick: If I interview him, I won’t read the whole thing.
Andrew: Exactly. I mean, he’s just a world-renowned expert in imaging, and so I started to work with him. I had the fortune of meeting up with a psychiatrist named Eugene d’Aquili, who was a psychiatrist but also an anthropologist by training. He was a PhD in anthropology. And he had been asking these questions, some of the same ones that I had, and thinking about the relationship between religious and spiritual ideas and the human brain as early as the 1970s. So when I connected with him, we started to work on ideas and questions. But then at some point, I was thinking, well, gee, if I’m scanning the brain of somebody with Alzheimer’s or somebody with depression, why can’t I scan the brain of somebody who’s meditating or praying or feeling spiritual? And then that was what really launched the whole aspect of neurotheology and trying to look at what’s going on in the brain and how that’s related to the religious and spiritual side of ourselves.
Rick: Did you yourself latch onto some spiritual practice or discipline at any point?
Andrew: Well, for me, it really has been this path. And so I do get that question a lot.
Rick: Yeah, like some meditative practice or something.
Andrew: Yeah, and people say, “Well, what do you do?” And I don’t do one particular type. I suppose I’ve explored a few in my day, but it has really been a little bit of my own concoction of a kind of philosophical meditation. And I have actually spent a lot of time in that kind of meditative thought process. In fact, in How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, I talk a little bit about my personal experiences through that process, which in many ways had elements that seemed sort of mystical or it was very difficult to understand what they meant. But that also even further fueled my interest in understanding what other people had felt so that I could see where the similarities and differences were with where I was going in my own thought processes.
Rick: You’re what they call a jnani or a jnana yogi.
Andrew: Well, I don’t know if I would go that …
Rick: It’s the path of knowledge.
Andrew: I was certainly looking for it, although interestingly … and I don’t know if you were going to ask me specifically about this, but it was actually between my college and medical school where I thought, “I’m about to enter medical school. I’ve got to figure this out. I can’t just continue to have this incredible disturbing angst in trying to understand it.” And so I really took that summer off and spent a lot of time in this kind of deep contemplative type of state. And at one point in pursuing as much as I could the answer to these questions, my process was that if I wasn’t sure about something, I would say, “Well, I don’t know,” and so I would doubt it, and I would say, “Well, that goes into this ‘realm of doubt,'” but then I’ll keep moving. And I eventually, as I kept pursuing the questions, I eventually got to this point where I felt like I couldn’t go any further and kind of harken back to something that one of my Hindu professors had talked about, that you can strive for things, but then sometimes you just have to let them come to you. And so I thought, “Well, I’m just going to wait and see what comes,” and had an experience that I’ve only been able to describe as infinite doubt. And in that infinite doubt experience, realized that there was nothing I could ever know. And it was interesting that when I talked to my writing colleague, this Mark Waldman, and I explained this to him, he said, “Well, that must have been one of the worst experiences ever. I mean, here you are trying to find an answer, and you’ve come to the conclusion that there is no answer.” And I said, “But it was actually just the opposite. It was one of the most peaceful, blissful, calming experiences that I ever had, and it put all of what I was doing in my own mind into perspective, and somehow also allowed me to continue to have the questioning, but to do it on a different kind of level that wasn’t disturbing anymore. It was sort of part of what the universe was all about for me, and I continue to do that to this day.”
Rick: I’m sure you’ve heard the term “don’t know mind” in Zen, you know? And I think it was Ramana Maharshi or someone, or maybe Nisargadatta, who spoke of enlightenment as a state of perpetual freefall, and he said, “The good thing is there’s no ground where you’re going to go splat.”
Andrew: That’s a good, perfect analogy. And one of the things I always talk about, hopefully in my life, and I’m part of the mentors who I found who were so wonderful to me, they really had this essence of what I call a passion for inquiry. They just love to ask the questions, and it’s actually the asking of the questions which is where it’s at, that’s the power of it. It’s not finding the answers, it’s asking the questions, and that was just, again, part of that whole process and continues to be.
Rick: Yeah, I had your point about the sea of infinite doubt highlighted here, actually, because that was the next thing I was going to ask you. And one thing you said in that context was, “All beliefs were equal and none were better or worse or more right or wrong than others,” and in parentheses I put, “Really?” Because obviously, is the moon made of green cheese or is it made of rock? Okay, I think we’ll lean toward rock. It’s like in the scientific method, as I understand it, you form hypotheses and those hypotheses either gain or lose credibility as evidence warrants.
Andrew: Right, exactly. And in that absolute infinite doubt, there really isn’t anything that is more knowable than anything else. However, as you mentioned, and actually something that was always instilled in me by my father was sort of the practical side of things. And so that’s also part of why, to me, science does continue to be of great value, because it does say, “Well, there’s a much higher likelihood that the moon is made of rock than it’s made of cheese, and we have a lot of evidence to support that. We can measure its mass, we can look at its gravity,” and so forth. So yes, when we sort of bring everything back into the practical realm and we bring it into the world in which we live, then we bring in all of these probabilities which have a huge emphasis and influence on the way we think about things. But at some very fundamental level, we don’t really know what the universe is all about. And even from a scientific perspective, you think about what quantum mechanics is, and the atom is mostly nothing. How do we decide, is the moon really rock? It’s actually mostly nothing.
Rick: It’s true. And there’s always the chance that some astronaut will come back with a cheese sample.
Andrew: You never know.
Rick: You open to that possibility.
Andrew: They have a very nice Jarlsberg up there.
Rick: Okay, now on this note, I like to think of everything every religion has ever said, or mystic has ever talked about, as a hypothesis that could be explored. You know, a lot of religion is all about belief, but in my opinion it would be more sensible, more practical, more useful to approach everything that anybody has ever said, but religions in this context, as an hypothesis that we could explore experientially, at least theoretically or potentially. What do you say to that?
Andrew: Well, in many ways it’s a perfect statement in the context of this field of neurotheology. I mean, that is to me what neurotheology is about in many ways, which is how do we explore the experiences that we have? How do we explore our religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, experiences? And there are multiple levels at which that can happen. So yes, I’ve scanned maybe 300 people’s brains while they’re doing different practices, and obviously we’ll talk about that later on. But there’s also just the idea of what do people actually think and feel? Can I explore what you’re feeling and thinking? One of the things that we talked about in our book, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, is the data from a survey where we asked people about their most intense experiences. And simply, what we’re saying is let’s not rely on what Buddha said. Let’s not rely on what the great mystics have said. But let’s just ask people, what do they feel? What are they experiencing? What is it like for them? And are there commonalities? Are there similarities, differences, and so forth? That we can actually gain a lot of information about the investigation of those experiences. So I completely agree with you. I mean, to me that really lies at the heart of neurotheology, which is that ability to explore, and whether it’s biologically exploring, whether it’s looking at what other people are feeling and thinking based on how we ask them questions, or what we do personally. And as I said, to me it’s all going together. It’s not just me contemplating these questions for myself, it’s me asking you what was experienced in your own mind, and it’s saying, well, what else is going on at the level even of the human brain or our consciousness?
Rick: Yeah, in chapter 1 of your book, it’s entitled “The Happy Prison of the Brain,” and I think that can kind of relate to what we’re saying here. In other words, well, why don’t you explain the phrase rather than me?
Andrew: Sure. Well, I always say, and this was again part of the crux of my problem of, well, how do we … we’re kind of trapped within our brain. We are looking out at the world around us and trying to make some sense out of it. So to some degree, it is a prison. All we ever know is what our brain informs us about the world. So everything that we see, when we see colors out in the world, when we see trees, animals, when we hear sounds of traffic or whatever, that’s all being processed by our brain. And as long as we’re inside of our brain, which is basically where we are, we’re never totally sure if what we think on the inside works with regard to what is out there on the outside. We never know if it’s an absolute one-to-one correspondence. And in fact, part of what we’ve looked at in even some of our previous work is that our brain actually … I mean, it does a remarkable job on one hand, but it also does make a tremendous number of mistakes, both in our perceptions of the world, the way we think about the world, the way we believe about the world. So it really is in many ways this prison that kind of traps us inside with no clear way of getting out. Now, part of why I call it a happy prison is that our brain basically keeps telling us that even though we are very limited in trying to understand what is essentially an infinite universe, we seem to be okay with that. I mean, we don’t go through the world thinking, “Oh my gosh, the world is going to end because I have no idea what’s really going on out there.” Our brain keeps telling us, “You’ve got it all figured out. You understand the world, and when you get into the car and turn the key, the engine’s going to go on, and you know what streets to take to get to work,” or whatever. So we kind of rely on all of that, and we go through life very blissfully happy with regard to most of that in general. And any time the brain makes a mistake, it usually just keeps it right on going and never bothers to tell us. So that’s why to me it really is this kind of prison that we’re all in. The question is, is there any way of ultimately escaping it? Do we need to escape it, and what would that ultimately do for us? I mean, it gets back almost to the allegory of the cave in Plato, that you’re kind of trapped looking at things in one particular way, and then sometimes you have an opportunity to turn around. But how many times do you have to keep turning around or keep going to that next level? And as we were joking right before we went on, you know, the next universe, the next dimension? Our brain is just right here, so it’s a real challenge.
Rick: Well as you know, enlightenment is sometimes synonymous with the word “liberation,” and the idea there is that what we really are is not this little tiny meat puppet, but that we are eternal, unbounded, universal consciousness, which is not constrained by even the universe, much less a brain. And that enlightenment is the shift to realization of our true identity as that, and so at that point it would seem, one has been released from the prison of the brain, and yet one is still functioning. That universality has come to a point where, in this body at least, it is able to function as a living reality through this particular instrument.
Andrew: Well, so what you said is very much something that I’ve said in a slightly different way, but what I always say to people is that part of why I got into the study of spiritual experiences, and particularly the mystical ones as you mentioned, is because those are the only examples of human experience that I’m aware of where the person does escape the brain, or at least reports that. They hit some universal consciousness or universal mind or whatever it is, or some infinite oneness of the universe. That’s the only place where you ever actually hear of somebody theoretically doing it. So to me, those are the most important experiences for us to look at if we’re going to get to the answer to that question of, well, what are we supposed to think about in our brain, in our mind, about the world? Because that may be the only avenue that we have out, and again, and I agree with you as well, that part of where, again, the neurotheology piece comes back into it is not just thinking about what that experience is, that infinite oneness or that infinite consciousness, but how does it then come back and relate to ourselves, to our brain? Are we creating it in our brain? Are we receiving it in our brain? As you mentioned, just sort of an instrument through which these processes work, and what would all of that ultimately mean in terms of who we are as human beings and how we are to eventually understand the universe itself, our place within it, and what those kinds of mystical or enlightenment experiences actually are. So I would wholeheartedly concur with that thought, and that to me is part of why I really have spent so much time trying to key in on what those experiences are and how we can understand them as part of the larger process.
Rick: Yeah. I’m sure some skeptics would say, “Yeah, you are creating it with your brain. It’s ridiculous to suggest that you are some kind of universal consciousness, there is no such thing. Your brain is somehow tricking you into having this experience.” But on the flip side, some ancient traditions would say, “Well, consciousness is really the foundation of it all, and everything that we see as apparently physical is in fact consciousness sort of interacting with itself and giving rise to the appearance of physicality, and that consciousness somehow has this agenda where it evolves more and more complex, sophisticated forms through which it can experience itself as a living reality in an embodied sense, and that enlightenment or liberation is a sort of end goal of that whole universal process. We finally come back home from whence we started, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot.
Andrew: Right. An early article that I had written with Eugene D’Aquili addressed this very issue where we were talking about consciousness and the brain, and I agree. To me, there are two very basic ways of looking at it. There are probably multiple ways, but to me there are two very basic ways of looking at it, which is the scientific way, which says the universe is matter, and out of that matter consciousness arises. The problem of course with that is we have no explanation as to how consciousness would arise out of matter, and to my knowledge, even though there have been books written called “Consciousness Explained” or whatever, no one has really put together how that would actually happen. So to me, that’s a limitation of what science can say. Now, maybe science will figure it out someday, but at the moment we seem to have this pretty fundamental limitation. On the other hand, as you mentioned, there’s the alternative where we say, “Well, the universe is consciousness, and somehow the material world arises out of that,” whatever that means. We struggle to understand how that would happen. What is that? Everything that you said, that the consciousness ultimately kind of manifests itself into a physical universe, but how does that happen? And why would there be a speed of light? Why would all of these things happen in a very physical kind of way? So it seems to me that at the moment, whether one takes a totally spiritual path or a totally material path, neither of them quite get us all the way there. And to me, again, this is where I find some value in the idea of neurotheology as a way of saying, “Let’s take both paths together and see where they ultimately meet in the middle.” I’ve always said, I’m not sure if it’s 50/50 or 90/10 or whatever, but somehow we need to understand what those different sides of the coin are, and maybe that’s just it. And sometimes I’ve even mused over the possibility that consciousness and matter are basically two ways of looking at the same thing, and in an analogous way, not to invoke quantum mechanics per se, but in an analogous way, when we look at an electron as either a particle or a wave, for example, it depends on how you measure it, how you look at it. It may relate to the entire universe, that if we look at it from the perspective of consciousness, we find consciousness, and if we look at it from the perspective of measurement, we find the material world. I don’t know, but again, those are to me the questions that need to be explored as part of this process.
Rick: Yeah, it’s interesting to note that many enlightened people have said, “Well, when I look at the world I see myself. I’m seeing that same stuff of consciousness, as it were, that I had known myself to be at some point earlier on.” Maybe initially there was some glimpse of pure awareness, but the world seemed separate and concrete still, but eventually even the appreciation of the world is in terms of the self, and so that’s a kind of a unity state in which there’s really only one thing, and that’s consciousness.
Andrew: Right, right. And again, it gets back to your point about how can this be investigated, and there can be some very creative ways. There’s a very large literature out there of people looking at how consciousness can manipulate matter, and at a distance, whatever that means, but at least from a physical perspective it looks like it’s at a distance. And so there have been some very creative approaches to that. The data has been very compelling, obviously controversial as well, because it ultimately entails a pretty substantial paradigm shift in terms of how we understand our mind and our brain. There’s even a very interesting study that a colleague of mine has been working on looking at near-death experiences, and part of what happens in a near-death experience is this experience where you rise out of your body and you kind of float up to the top of the ceiling and look down on things. Well, he had this very clever idea that if you could go to trauma bays where it’s likely that somebody’s going to die and have a near-death experience, if you could put a shelf in above somebody’s head and put some picture on the opposite side of it, like the Eiffel Tower or something like that, then if somebody has a near-death experience and then you come back and you talk to them about what they saw and what they felt, if they say, “Yeah, I floated up to the room and it was the strangest thing, but suddenly I saw a picture of the Eiffel Tower,” that would have some huge implications as to maybe their brain really is able to separate from, or the other way around, maybe consciousness is able to separate from the brain. So there are ways of looking at these kinds of questions both in a very personal, reflective, which goes back to what the mystics would say about their own experiences, but to be also able to apply a bit of a scientific perspective that might actually bring some very exciting kind of results. So we have a lot to look forward to, I hope, but it’ll be very interesting to see whether we’re able to explore those issues and find some information that will radically change the way we think about our world.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve heard you say that neurotheology is kind of in its infancy and there’s a huge range of potential progress for it to make over the coming years, decades, centuries.
Andrew: Sure, I hope so.
Rick: Yeah, and I love the whole science-spirituality interface, even though I have no scientific training, but I really feel like spirituality can benefit tremendously from the sort of empirical rigor of a scientific approach, in which we don’t get all caught up in moods and imaginations and God knows what, but we’re able to proceed in a careful, verifiable, experiential manner. And there have been some spiritual teachers who’ve talked that way. I think the Buddha kind of did, you know, he didn’t want people to get all caught up in fancies, he wanted them to have direct experience. He said, “Don’t even believe what I say, prove it in your own experience.”
Andrew: Exactly, exactly. And so, and I completely concur with that idea of trying to understand, I think there’s huge value in each of us working within that prison of our brain to explore the questions for ourselves. Part of what I also, one of the things I talk about in my book, Principles of Neurotheology, we talk a lot about some of the aspects that we need to think about methodologically, and it gets back to what you were just saying, which is part of what I think science can help us understand a little bit are the biases and the beliefs that we have, and how we invoke them in different ways. You know, when I do talk about these topics, and you mentioned, you know, an atheist, for example, who might come at this in a different way, you know, what are the beliefs that any given individual has, how are they using those beliefs, how does it change the way they think and address these kinds of questions? And I think sometimes being able to demonstrate that for people can be very valuable, and so whether, again, whether it’s a survey of people’s beliefs, you know, so often we just inherently assume that we know what somebody believes because they call themselves a Buddhist, or because they call themselves Catholic, or whatever, as opposed to actually asking them the questions, as opposed to asking them what they really feel, and trying to understand however they’re defining something, whether it’s the same way that we’re defining it. And we’ve already, in this interview, talked about a variety of terms like consciousness, like spirituality. What do they mean? You know, what is consciousness?
Rick: Yeah, I think we really should nail all that down somehow.
Andrew: Right, and you know, my very first principle of neurotheology is the principle of definitions, that while, you know, it’s always going to be a challenge to truly come to a universally accepted definition of virtually any of these terms, to at least start with that, at least start with, when I say consciousness, what do I mean? What do you mean when you say consciousness, and can we use that information so that at least we know what we’re talking about, and then we walk from there? But definitions also have some very interesting issues as well, because what’s the source of a definition? Let’s talk consciousness. I mean, should the definition of consciousness come from Buddhism? Should it come from a monotheistic tradition? You know, I’m a doctor, so when I say somebody’s conscious, that really just means they’re awake. You know, that doesn’t refer to the consciousness that we talk of in terms of self-reflective consciousness, and it certainly doesn’t refer to any kind of universal consciousness. People have looked at the relationship between consciousness and quantum mechanics, so there’s a physics element to it, there’s a philosophical, and in all of those, how do we then begin to craft what consciousness may be, so that we can then better understand what we mean when we talk about it and help us to better understand it?
Rick: Yeah, I think an underlying point to the point you just made, and which we discussed earlier, is that regardless of our understandings and attitudes and opinions and perceptions and so on, there must be some kind of actual reality out there that is not subservient to our understanding. You know, a stop sign is a stop sign, and you know, if some people see it as a giraffe or something, that’s not the stop sign’s problem. And so what we’re all trying to do is the old blind man and the elephant metaphor, you know, feeling different parts of the elephant and coming up with completely different descriptions. And what we’re trying to do if we really want to understand what’s what, is arrive at a congruence between our perception and understanding and the actual reality of things, and ideally, a collective one, where we’re all sort of on the same page, we’re far from that, but that should be a goal maybe.
Andrew: Well, absolutely, and that is very much so. I mean, part of what I see the value of neurotheology is helping people to understand the differences that we have in terms of our beliefs and in terms of the biases and so forth that we each hold, but also, again, coming back and saying, “But you know what?” Part of the thing is that we each have a frontal lobe, we each have a temporal lobe in our brain, and so all of those different parts of our brain for each one of us is looking at the world and interpreting the world. And so we bring in our genetics, how we were raised, what sacred texts we may have read when we were a child, we all had different teachers and different life experiences. Maybe some of us lost a parent or a sibling, maybe some of us had very happy childhoods, very sad childhoods, and all of this brings us to wherever we are in the moment as we now look at the world and then try to make some sense out of it. So I think that, again, trying to do that in a very systematic way and in a way that can try to bring in not just what the spiritual side says and not just what science says, but to bring them together in a way that hopefully helps to inform both sides as well as ultimately helps to inform us. And in fact, part of why I also enjoy the field of neurotheology is that when I go and give a talk, when I do an interview, it’s exciting to me because each person, each group can take different things from it. So my discussions with a group of psychiatrists where we might get into, well, is a mystical experience a psychotic delusion or not? That’s an interesting, fascinating discussion for a psychiatrist to have. That’s not necessarily the kind of conversation you’re going to have with a group of people in a church or a synagogue or a group of mystics who might hold those experiences as the highest type of experiences we can have. It might be interesting for them to know that sometimes people think that they’re psychotic, but also why are they not psychotic? What are the reasons why it isn’t that way? And how do we build all of that information together?
Rick: Yeah, a thought that occurs to me is that if you had a large collection of people that had “attained enlightenment” and had broken out of the happy prison of the brain and had realized their true nature as universal awareness, that is not to say that they’re still not going to have different perceptions and attitudes and opinions as individuals. I know people who probably fit that description who are all across the political spectrum, who have different attitudes about this and that. I mean, you know, Papaji, for instance, a famous sage in Lucknow, hated Pakistan because he had grown up there and his family was kicked out when India was divided, and he used to just be screaming his head off during India-Pakistan soccer matches, you know, rooting for India. And so that was his attitude. There could be some enlightened guy in Pakistan who had the exact opposite attitude. So this universality we’re talking about doesn’t necessarily totally infuse into individuality.
Andrew: Exactly, and some of the things, as I mentioned when we were talking earlier about just my background and training, I was very struck by when reading the Bhagavad Gita and sort of the idea, obviously I’m sure most of the listeners would know, but the idea that you could attain enlightenment, but sometimes you still have to go to battle. I mean, sometimes you still have to live and do certain things because of the way our body manifests. And so, you know, now, I don’t know, I mean, maybe someday we will achieve some new evolutionary enlightenment and no longer need a physical body or whatever, but there will always be certain elements of whatever the universe is that we have to contend with, even though we may understand it fully. And there’s a similar parallelism to science. I mean, we may be able to understand the nature of the atom or what quantum mechanics is, but at the end of the day, we’re still going to put the glass on the table or we’re still going to fill up our tank of gas in our car so that we can go somewhere. So we understand that even though we might look at some incredible aspects of the world, what do they ultimately mean on a very practical level? And even though we may understand the dynamics of airspeed and all that, we may still want our football team to win or we might still want our soccer team to win. And that’s a different kind of experience for people. But I do think that, and I mean, this is part of what has come out of some of our surveys, is that there are certain elements that, and perhaps maybe a way of saying it is appreciations or compassions, that helps us to understand that even though I may not like Pakistan, I understand what a Pakistani person is and that they’re part of this universe. And so I can say, “I want my team to win,” or “I want this to happen,” but you kind of operate on another level as well. And I think that that’s part of what those experiences are about, and again, I think that’s part of what we see when people report back from having these experiences, that they do have a new appreciation and an understanding for other people and a compassion for the idea that people have different viewpoints.
Rick: Yeah, certainly universal love and compassion is kind of a traditional characteristic of enlightened beings.
Rick: You know, saintliness, that kind of thing. So I didn’t mean to malign Papaji there, it was just a personal point.
Andrew:We’ll let him slide on this.
Rick: Yeah, one little wrap-up point from 10 minutes ago I just wanted to say, it always puzzles me that a person could call themselves both an atheist and a scientist. You can call yourself an agnostic and a scientist, but an atheist? Because again, you’re being rigid about a hypothesis that you can’t really disprove.
Andrew: Right, well, yes, I mean I’ve always tried to make the argument that, again, we are all trapped within our brain, and the atheist as much as the religious and spiritual person, and so when a scientist says this universe is, it is measurable, it is something that we can observe, it operates based on certain rules and things that are observable to me and measurable, those are assumptions. Those are theories, ideas, assumptions that are made, ultimately they are beliefs, and they’re good beliefs, I mean they work and they can be very helpful and they help us to explore the world around us in a materialistic way, but I certainly know of a number of atheists who have said to me, “I don’t have any beliefs, everything that I know, I know,” and I’m saying, but look at the data, look at the data that shows …
Rick: seems so arrogant.
Andrew: Right, and the data is just the opposite, that no matter what any of us think about the world, we are ultimately, we talk about the prison of the brain, all we know, all I know right now is what’s going on in my room, I’m assuming that the electrons and so forth that are connecting me to you are doing it in a way that makes sense, hopefully I’m answering questions that are being asked and I’m interpreting what you’re trying to do in an appropriate way, but I’m just aware of what’s happening right around me and everyone is, so for anyone to come to some conclusion that they absolutely get it and they understand the world to the exclusion of other ideas, it goes back to your analogy also which I use a lot, the blind man with the elephant, we have an infinite universe, so for any of us to think that somehow we’re even close to understanding what the world is about to me seems, as you sort of said, very arrogant and not really aware of our own biases and issues that our brain brings to us.
Rick: And the history of science is littered with people who were adamant like that and then were later proven wrong.
Rick: So then there’s a whole … go ahead.
Andrew: Whenever anybody says to me, “Well, science is going to lead to the moral way of thinking about things in the right way,” and I say, “But how many scientists do you know?” I mean, scientists have been pretty nasty to each other over the years. As bad as the church was to Galileo, anytime somebody comes up with a new idea, whether it’s quantum mechanics or any variety of new ideas that come about, a lot of times the scientific community not only disagrees but goes out of its way to ridicule and destroy people’s careers and things like that. They’re human beings too, and we’re all in that same boat.
Rick: I remember hearing, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I remember hearing that surgeons used to, not routinely but on occasion, scrape a scalpel on their shoe before doing surgery just to ridicule Louis Pasteur.
Andrew: Well, right. It’s always amazing to me just how strongly scientists adhere to their own ideas and beliefs about the world, whether it’s health. The example I give a lot is when I was going through medical school, everyone believed that if you got a stomach ulcer it was because you had too much acid in your stomach, and then somebody said, had the crazy idea that it was an infection. I remember reviewing the articles and everybody said, “Oh, the articles are terrible and they’re poorly done, and these people don’t know what they’re talking about and how crazy that is.” Today we treat people with antibiotics.
Rick: H. pylori, right?
Andrew: H pylori, exactly. On and on it goes.
Rick: Anybody who’s interested in this particular topic would do well to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I believe that was the title of the book where he talks about the whole idea of paradigms and resistance to the change of paradigms, and then anomalies that bring it to the point where the paradigm has to shift, and how everybody gets drag kicking and screaming into the next way of seeing things. Someone else said, “Science progresses by a series of funerals.”
Andrew: Funerals, right. One funeral at a time. Now, again, here is where neurotheology has an opportunity to come in and say, “Okay, what goes on in your brain as a belief changes?” Take somebody who goes through an enlightenment experience. Why does that experience change the person? What is it about that experience which is unique about it, which is different than all the other experiences that we have? Let’s say somebody is listening to us right now. Maybe I say something that they’ve never heard before. Their brain has several options. They can either say, “Well, yeah, this guy has written a bunch of papers, but I don’t know who he is,” and blow off whatever I say. Maybe they will look into a book that I’ve written or some articles that somebody else has written and say, “Oh, okay, well, there is some information here, but it still doesn’t totally make sense.” Or maybe they’ll say, “Gee, that’s incredible. That’s a whole new way of thinking that I never thought about.” What does go on in our brain that helps us to evaluate an idea, a particular belief, a particular fact, whatever term one wants to use? How much information, how much data for each one of us do we need in order to convince us to think about things in a different way? We’ve talked about atheists a few times. One of my very good friends who’s a very, very staunch atheist said to me one time, “Well, look, if there’s really God, why doesn’t God just come down here, shake my hand and say, ‘Here I am, and from then on I will absolutely believe in God.'” I said, “No, you won’t. You’ll check yourself into a mental institution because you think that you’ve now had a psychotic break that you’re now seeing God.” If his initial belief is so much that you’re never going to believe that God exists, then no matter how much data you bring … At some point, there’s going to be enough data, theoretically, that would change somebody’s way of thinking, but exactly how much and of what type and how do we think about that? These are the questions that remain for us to look at.
Rick: Yeah. Some people think Jesus was God or the Son of God, and look what happened to him.
Andrew: Right. It brings back to the movies like Oh God and …
Rick: Right. Morgan Freeman.
Rick: Or Bruce Almighty.
Andrew: Yeah, right, exactly. How much do you need to be convinced that the world is different? The other movie that I always thought really captured it very well was Contact, the one that was written by Carl Sagan. It ultimately brings you to the peak moment where the Jodie Foster character, who is a pure scientist and does not believe in anything spiritual, has this unbelievable experience. She has no proof about it, and yet she feels that she needs to argue that that is the true experience of the universe. It’s a very touching moment where the person who is the spiritual person in her life says, “Our goals are one and the same,” which is basically the exploration of truth.
Rick: Yeah, that leads me into something I wanted to talk about with you. We were talking a few minutes ago about how a scientific approach could be really good for spirituality. I think that spirituality perhaps even has more to offer science than vice versa, because spirituality explores realms of reality and has the means to do so, at least ideally, which scientific instruments cannot explore. I often like to think of the human nervous system as the ultimate scientific instrument, oh, you probably thought that too, which if used in the right way, and it can be a nice rigorous systematic way, can open us up to realms of experience that no Hubble telescope or large Hadron collider could ever touch.
Andrew: Right, well in terms of my own approach to these questions, I again wholeheartedly agree with that point, that if I were to just look at any of these questions from just an externalized kind of scientific perspective, I would learn things. But to me, the far more important in many ways is the personal contemplative aspect of what I do, which I do feel is in many ways an experiment, a scientific approach to try to do something very systematically to understand the world around us. And so I also agree with what you were saying, that spirituality has a lot to offer. What science can say about the world. I think science also has things to be able to offer to the spiritual realm as well. But I think that there are these aspects of the world, I mean, you mentioned the Hubble Telescope, well, ultimately, when we see that incredible picture of these billions of galaxies that are millions and billions of light years away, that’s still ultimately an experience that we’re having. Whatever is captured on that film is just what that instrument does, but it’s the human person that’s now saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s a galaxy,” or, “That’s gravity at work, that’s Einstein,” or whatever. And so it still is, no matter how good the science is, it’s really in many ways meaningless unless there’s that human person, that human consciousness that can understand it a little bit more. But again, as you mentioned earlier, whatever the external world is, there’s that thing that’s out there that we keep trying to chip away at in one way or another and trying to figure it out. And again, I would agree that without that spiritual piece to it, I think we’re really going to fall short of the mark of trying to understand what the universe is all about.
Rick: Yeah, now as a neurophysiologist, I imagine you could hitch people up to the appropriate instruments, EEG and whatnot, put them in a separate room and you could be in the other room looking at monitors and you could tell whether they were awake or asleep or dreaming, right?
Andrew: To a large extent, yes.
Rick: To a pretty great extent, but you’d have a hard time telling what they were thinking in their waking state or dreaming about in their dreaming state and so on. The instrumentality can’t really detect that kind of thing. Go ahead, you want to say something to that?
Andrew: Well, right. And I teach a course at the University of Pennsylvania called Human Brain Imaging and one of the things I really emphasize to people is that as great as these scanners are at looking at blood flow and all these changes in the brain, if I don’t know what the person actually is thinking and feeling, all of those changes become irrelevant. So you need to have some subjective measure, whether you ask them, whether you watch what they’re doing or something that’s going on, so that you have some inkling as to what’s going on within their brain. Now, interestingly, apropos of your question or your point, there was a study that was done where they had people think about two different things and they scanned their brain when they said, “Think about thing A and think about thing B.” Then when they could say, “Okay, now you think about whichever one you want,” they could actually determine whether they were thinking about A or B with about 80%, I think, ability. So you can start to tell what’s going on in a person’s mind a little bit, but you still don’t know for sure until you ask them. Even on a very practical level, again, I teach a lot in terms of psychiatry and so forth, and I say to people, “Look, if I were to do a brain scan of you and it looked like somebody who had depression,” it was kind of the characteristic findings of depression, and I went into the person and I said, “Your brain looks like you have depression. Do you feel depressed?” If they said to me, “No, I feel great,” I’m not going to treat them. I mean, I’m not going to start giving them an antidepressant. And conversely, if I have somebody who comes in and I do a scan of their brain and it looks totally normal and they say, “I’m ready to kill myself, I feel so depressed,” I’m absolutely obligated to treat that person even though I’m looking at a “normal brain.” So whatever we see on a brain scan, you have to know what’s going on within the person themselves, whether it’s a spiritual issue or something clinical.
Rick: So based on what you just said, do you feel that the shortcoming is really with the technology, that if the technology were infinitely sophisticated there would be a correlation between what you were detecting with it and what the person was experiencing?
Andrew: Well, one of the things that I talk about in Principles of Neurotheology book is I realize that there’s a bit of an uncertainty idea, just like we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, there’s sort of a neurotheology uncertainty principle as well. And I actually think that it is not a limit. There are limitations in how good we can get at this point. And certainly when I talk about a brain scan and I say, “This area of the brain lit up, it got more active,” I mean, there could be 20 neurons in there, there could be 100 neurons, there could be a million neurons. I don’t know exactly what’s going on. So certainly we should theoretically be able to get better and better along those lines. So that is part of the process. But I think at some fundamental level, the neuron itself, there’s something going on with, whether it’s in a neuron or the complexity of neurons or whatever, that the thought arises. In fact, again, this is another point that I bring up with my students. I say, “Well, look, you’ve got neurons that are all interconnected with each other. You’ve got blood flow that goes into them. There’s an electrical signal that conducts down the length of the neuron to the next neuron. There’s neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that are released when they get there. There’s metabolic activity. There’s mitochondrial activity. There’s all these things going on. Where in all of that is the actual thought itself? Where is the consciousness itself?” And again, I mean, I personally think that we might do better and better at figuring out where … We might be able to exclude certain things, for example, but I think that we may ultimately run into an impossible gap to be able to bridge that we can never truly know. And much like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for those who aren’t familiar with it, basically says that it’s not our instruments. The closer we get at being able to measure something, ultimately we wind up affecting it in and of itself. So we never truly know what it is. And I think to a certain extent, I mean, ultimately if you could sort of change what somebody’s neuron is doing so that you can know what it’s doing, well now you’re changing what the thought … You don’t know what the person is actually thinking about in that moment. And even if they’re telling you what’s happening, they’re still telling you several seconds after whatever has happened has happened. So you never truly know. And I think it may always be a bit of an impossibility to get all the way there. And again, it gets back to your larger point of, “This is why you need the spiritual. This is why you need that contemplative part, because that’s part of what that … that’s the experience, that’s the thing that we ultimately need to find.”
Rick: One point that’s been in the back of my mind for a while, as we’ve been speaking in, which is why I brought up that thing about waking, dreaming, and sleeping, being able to tell what state you’re in, is that many spiritual authorities speak of higher states of consciousness as being distinct, unique states of consciousness, as different from waking, dreaming, and sleeping as they are from each other, both subjectively and physiologically, and that we have the potential to experience these states, not only temporarily but in an abiding way, but we just haven’t unfolded that potential. And so, much of the stuff you study might be considered to be variations of waking state, where a person is having a particular experience of this, that, or the other type, and then they continue on in waking state after they’ve had that experience. Whereas it might also be an interesting field of study, and maybe you’ve done this to some extent, to study people who report being in a completely different state of consciousness For instance, one characteristic of such a state is, which I have pages of notes on from various people who have reported it, is having a maintenance of pure awareness throughout waking, dreaming, and sleeping, even possibly during anesthesia. Not awareness of anything, not that your senses are functioning, but that awareness itself is awake to itself, even when the senses are shut down. So that would be an interesting thing to study, and who knows what other higher states there may be, that you kind of want to parse out what those states are, as opposed to speaking in tongues or things that might just be sort of variations or aberrations of waking state.
Andrew: Right, and so there’s some very interesting points you raise there. Now, we’ve touched on this in our work in several different ways. On a more philosophical level, I suppose, we talk about epistemic states, that each of these states are different ways of knowing the universe, essentially, and that they are, as you were saying, what the mystics might say, that they are fundamentally distinct states. In our model of these different epistemic states, we talk about the everyday reality state. That is a state in which we look at the world and we perceive objects in the world and we see how they interact with each other in certain ways, and maybe we use science or whatever, but that that is very distinct from a mystical state where we look at the world in a completely different way. What’s also interesting about these epistemic states is that we tend to look at people who are in the other state, from wherever we are now, as being in a less real or a state which is an illusion, and people use different terms to talk about it, but it’s not the same kind of state. Again, that’s part of where my profound interest in studying mystical experience is, because when we’re in a dream, when we’re dreaming and we wake up, for the average person, you’re in a dream, it can feel incredibly real, and your brain is responding as if that is the true reality. Then you wake up, if somebody’s chasing you in the dream, you’re out of breath, you’re scared.
Rick: Yeah, and probably your actual heart is pounding.
Andrew: And your heart is pounding, right, and you wake up, and for a split second you’re still scared and running in your brain, but the moment that you wake up, then you say, “Oh, that was just a dream.” You relegate it to an inferior aspect of reality. Now when people have the mystical experience, the same thing happens again, where you now look back on the everyday reality and say, “That was the dream,” or “That was the less real state, and now I’m in the real one.” But what’s also unique about the mystical state is that if people come out of that state, they still perceive that state to be more fundamentally real than the everyday reality experience. And then, as you said, some people will stay in that state.
Rick: Some people don’t come out of it.
Andrew: Exactly. And now it gets back to what you were also talking about. Again, here’s where neurotheology, I think, could come in, because we could hook up somebody to … and we haven’t, but you mentioned it would be great to be able to bring in somebody who …
Rick: I can refer you to some people.
Andrew: That would be wonderful. I would love that. It would be great to be able to look at what’s going on in that person’s brain and how that is relative, how that relates to a different person’s brain. Now we may not be able to find a distinction that’s valuable, in part because of the limitations of our science, but there may ultimately be … as I’ve often said to people, in some senses the most incredible finding I might ever have on one of my brain scan studies is that somebody has this incredible mystical experience and nothing changes on their brain, because maybe I would have actually captured something that wasn’t biological, but was that consciousness, that spiritual piece that didn’t specifically have anything to do with the biology of who we are.
Rick: Maybe, but isn’t there always a correlation between mind and body? Any thought we think, anything we experience, there must be something going on in the brain.
Andrew:There should be, there should be, yes. The point is how much of it is truly biological versus how much of it may actually be something beyond that. But yes, ultimately there could always be some biological signature. The other analogy that I sometimes make is that some of what we’re trying to do is trying to understand a boat by studying its wake. You can kind of see … you get a sense that it’s a big boat or a little boat, or it’s fast or slow or whatever, but you don’t know a whole lot. There’s still a lot that you’re not going to get from studying the wake.
Rick: Yeah, one thing, I mean, when I think of your field, there’s a maddeningly vast array of variables. It must be almost impossible to proceed with as much scientific rigor as scientists ordinarily like to. I mean, as you were speaking just then, I was thinking, “Okay, yeah, there’s the subtle body though, there’s the kundalini, there’s the chakras, there’s the nadis, there’s all this subtle stuff going on that could account for spiritual experiences that wouldn’t necessarily show up in the gross body.” And then, of course, you have hundreds and thousands of different techniques, and even if everybody’s practicing the same technique, they all have different nervous systems, different backgrounds, different conditionings, and so on. So it really seems like it’s going to have to be a mix of hard and very soft science for a long time. It’s hard to pin it all down.
Andrew:Yeah, and one of the things that I do say to a lot of my scientific colleagues is how this whole field may actually benefit science, because you’re right. We’re trying to study something which is not easy to study. We’re trying to study something which is subjective. We’re trying to study something which has a very individualized aspect to it. Trying to figure out if you lined up 10 mystics and they all felt oneness, did they all feel it the same way? And going back to the work that we did with our spiritual survey, our survey of spiritual experiences, some people said that when they had the experience, they felt oneness. Some people said they felt a force. Some people, they felt God. Some people, they felt an energy. Is that all the same experience that then is described differently based on how we use our language, or are they fundamentally different experiences? And again, I think you’re also touching on what we talked about earlier on, that neurotheology in many ways is in its infancy because there are so many huge questions and so many variables that if you had a billion dollars and you could study all thousands of techniques and experiences and individuals, then maybe you could start to say something a little bit more definitive about it. But you still have the experience itself, that consciousness itself, which may always be something which is a little bit beyond whatever our brain scans can show.
Rick: Yeah, and even if you had a billion dollars, I don’t think this is the kind of problem that you can just throw money at. I think it’s going to take decades, generations for this whole science to evolve. And maybe there will be eventually some highly advanced society which understands the spiritual dimensions and all the potentials of human experience as rigorously as we now understand Newtonian physics or something, but boy, it’s going to be a while.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely.
Rick: Okay, a couple of questions came in, let me ask them. This is from Francois in Glastonbury, UK. He says, “Can we explain experiences in the light of neuroscience? Experiences such as out of body, premonitions, visions, near death, having our awareness moving out of our being into something or someone else, etc. Experiences of oneness and bliss seem to be explained as a brain state, as in the case of Jill Bolte Taylor. How do we know there is a higher purpose underlying this?”
Andrew: Well, I think it touches on some of the things that we’ve been talking about. I mean, on the one hand, there are certain types of experiences that we do a little bit better at, you know, in terms of trying to isolate. So there have certainly been a lot of studies of different emotional responses, and we know that if so, if somebody feels love or if somebody feels compassion, then that is something that we might be able to show has something to do with the limbic system, for example. On the other hand, some of the more ethereal, non-material type of experiences, whether it’s something like a psychic phenomenon or premonitions or out of body experiences, we can potentially offer some ideas as to how that type of thing could happen. So for example, we might postulate, and I know we’ve done this when we did an article on near-death experiences, and people talk about the out-of-body experience component. Well, we know that there’s a sensorial representation of the body in the brain, and perhaps because of some neuronal shift, that sensorial sense of the brain, of the body, excuse me, can somehow be perceived as shifting outside. And so we now feel our body, but not in ourselves, but we feel it outside.
Rick: Yeah, but then you see something that was on a ledge outside the hospital window that you couldn’t possibly have seen and that kind of thing.
Andrew: Right. Well, and that gets back to the study I was talking about earlier, which is that theoretically, then, we should be able to find ways of … Theoretically, there are ways of testing those kinds of phenomena, and then if we can demonstrate that those phenomena do occur, we can still look at what’s going on in the brain. So again, an interesting study that we did was a study of Brazilian mediums, and so we had a bunch of people come up from Brazil who did a specific kind of practice called psychography where they got into a trance state, and they wrote down what they thought the spirits were telling them to write down. Now, and this is perhaps another really important point about neurotheology, which is that we always have to be very careful about whatever conclusions that we draw. We saw changes in their brain, and one of the things that we saw, for example, is that their frontal lobes, which are located right behind your forehead, tended to quiet down. Now, the frontal lobes normally help us to kind of think purposely about the world and help us to kind of figure out where we are in the world and what we’re doing in the world. So the idea that they may shut down to allow things to come to us more easily, that may make some sense. Now again, when I show that the frontal lobe changes in this person who’s experiencing the spirits, that just tells me what’s going on in their brain when they have that experience. It doesn’t prove to me that the spirits are floating around in the world or communicating with them. It doesn’t prove that they’re not. It just proves what’s going on in the brain when they have the experience, and again, that kind of comes back to we need that spiritual side to understand what that experience truly is, but we also may be able to find ways of trying to prove certain things. We may be able to identify something that theoretically this individual would never have known, or like you said, somebody feels that they’ve wandered down the hall and they see a patient in another room with red hair. Well, we might be able to show that or prove that, and so there are things that we might be able to prove. There are also certainly limitations that we’ll have to deal with.
Rick: Yeah, and of course repeatability is part of the scientific method.
Andrew: Which is hard.
Andrew: Which is hard in this instance.
Rick: Hard in this instance, yeah. I mean, ordinarily you read a scientific paper and they mention the exact kind of equipment they use and everything else, so somebody else could try to do the same thing and replicate it, but with this, I mean, theoretically those Brazilian mediums could teach somebody else to be a medium in the same way and potentially they could end up having the same experience, but then again there’s all kinds of questions about whether they’d be capable of it, whether they’re wired properly for that kind of thing. But then again, everybody’s not wired to be a nuclear physicist, and some experiments take decades before they yield results. So the whole spiritual experiment, maybe some people are more suited for it than others, they progress more rapidly and maybe even so it might take them 10, 20, 30, 40 years before they reach such and such that the Buddha described or something.
Andrew: Exactly. Now again, you could theoretically try to do studies to look at that. You could go to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet or something and you could scan all of the novices today and then go back 30 years from now and find out who got enlightened and who didn’t. But even there, well this raises a whole other interesting point, which we’ve talked about and some of my colleagues and I, which is, let’s take the specific point of enlightenment. Who makes that determination?
Rick: Yeah, good point. In some traditions the master has to kind of confirm it.
Andrew: Exactly, and we’ve often thought about having not only the subjective measure of the individual, but some external person being able to decide. I mean, wouldn’t it be fascinating to know that the master says, “Guy number 1, 7 and I don’t think I’ve hit it yet.” On the other hand, you may have number 3 who says, “Oh, I’ve been enlightened for years.”
Rick: And again, you do fMRI and EEG on them and sure enough, 1, 7 and 9 have it.
Andrew: Exactly, whatever that means.
Rick: You know, I’m in Fairfield, Iowa, I used to be in the TM movement, and Maharishi had this idea that students should ideally attain higher states of consciousness as they went through their academic program, and that part of the testing should be some kind of neurophysiological thing where you certify that they have not only learned something about literature or physics but they actually have attained such and such level of consciousness. That never really panned out, but it’s an interesting idea.
Andrew: Well, I think part of the problem, again, this also goes into trying to understand what an enlightenment … is there a singular path? At least again, our data suggests that there clearly is not. When we did this survey and we have about 2,000 people who provided narratives and information, some of them had experiences through drug-induced states, some of them had near-death experiences, some of them through meditation, and even through different types of meditation and things like that. To take it to a very practical level, there’s a lot of ways of being a really good tennis player. You can be left-handed, you can be right-handed, you can have a one-handed backhand, a two-handed backhand. It’s winning in the end that matters, and it doesn’t matter exactly how you get there as long as you get there. And so with enlightenment, it’s an interesting question to say, “Well, if somebody takes psilocybin or LSD and has an incredible spiritual experience or maybe even feels enlightened, are they?” Is that a justifiable, a legitimate way of doing it compared to the monk who spends 40 years in the monastery? And I don’t know, but when we looked at the survey, for example, the people who did it through “natural” means versus those people who did it through drug-induced, at least descriptively the experience seemed extremely similar.
Rick: Yeah, but were the drug-induced people still in that state?
Andrew: No, no, exactly.
Rick:As the woman I interviewed last week said, she was a lama, American female lama, she said, “It’s like taking psychedelic drugs, it’s kind of like climbing a tree in the forest and you suddenly get the panorama of the forest from a different perspective, but you still got to come back down the tree and keep on walking through the forest.” So maybe it gives you a glimpse of something, but you’re not there yet.
Andrew: Yeah, although again, when we do ask people about those experiences, there are some people who are transformed by them. They may not necessarily continue to be in this state, which is a different kind of thing, but yes, absolutely.
Rick: Well this kind of leads back to something we were talking about towards the beginning, which is common terminology, you know, what are we talking about when we use a word like enlightenment, and also something we’ve been talking about all along is how reliably can that be defined, how much can the definition be standardized in terms of not only the words we use to describe it, but the physiology of it. Because otherwise all kinds of … you were mentioning in your notes to me earlier something like “big E” and “little e” enlightenment, and I’m hesitant to even use the word “enlightenment” because it has this sort of superlative, final, static connotation and you don’t see any real examples of that.
Andrew: Right, and again, people have used many different descriptors to describe enlightenment and wisdom and knowledge, but also compassion, oneness, unity. These are very distinctive kind of statements and terms, so how do we decide on what some common theme is or common description is of that kind of an experience? And again, you raise other aspects of it, which the idea that there could be some experiences that are very small, some experiences which are very large, and that in and of itself, from a neurophysiological perspective as well as from a qualitative perspective, one thing I’m fascinated by is what my colleague and I used to talk about this as a continuum of experience, and on one hand, for the individual who attains that spiritual moment or enlightenment, whatever we want to call it, there seems to be a jump. There seems to be something very distinctive that happens. But if you actually get the descriptions of these experiences and you kind of line them up, it’s hard to find the actual jump. There’s some people who, again, if you talk about the unity aspect of it, I mean there’s some people who feel everything is one, and then there’s some people who feel everything is one in God, and then there’s other people that feel all humanity is one. Where are they? There’s different degrees to which it happens, and so on one hand it’s hard to find the jump, but on the other hand, for the person who gets it, there seems to be that jump that happens.
Rick: Yeah, one metaphor which comes to mind with this is that when Lewis and Clark went across the country, they had a very fuzzy idea of what was actually out there, and the maps that they came up with after their trip were still very, very crude and approximate, compared to what we know now, where we have the whole thing mapped out with satellites down to the square foot probably, and GPS knows exactly where you are and everything. So I think we’re still kind of at the Lewis and Clark stage in terms of understanding everything we’ve been talking about here, and there may come a time when it’s like it is now with our understanding of the topography of the country, you might be able to, 500 years from now or whatever it would take, a person could describe their experience, you could hook them up to certain instruments and tell precisely where they are on the map in terms of all the potential levels and realms and varieties of spiritual experience.
Andrew: Right, and not to take this to a whole other level, but the more and more we develop computers and electronics, people already implanting certain computers into brains, is it possible that we could find ways of achieving these different states in radically different ways than have typically been done? And then again, are they true experiences of enlightenment? Are they different? Is it ethical to do? There’s all kinds of really fascinating questions.
Rick: Yeah, I interviewed Shinzen Young and he’s hoping to come up with some kind of contraption like that that would jumpstart enlightenment.
Andrew: Right, well I mean, and there’s been people who have already started to do that in some ways. There have been a couple of people who have used things like transcranial magnetic stimulation and different electromagnetic waves to try to turn certain parts of the brain on and off and I think that one question that you had read mentioned Jill Bolte Taylor, who had that unusual mystical experience because of a stroke in her brain.
Rick: Which we wouldn’t want to make a standardized spiritual technique.
Andrew: Exactly, so it gets very interesting.
Rick: Yeah, it does. My suspicion on these contraptions to accelerate enlightenment or whatever, and there have been things around like that for decades, biofeedback and all this, they certainly can be helpful. I just have a feeling that there’s a lot that sort of has to be … it’s like a drug, I mean you’re not going to just work out all of your deep impressions, “vasanas” they call them, by popping some pill. It’s going to be more of a long-term process. I mean, I guess neuroplasticity doesn’t happen overnight radically, right? It’s something that takes time to happen incrementally.
Andrew: Right, well, there were two things I was thinking about, let me address that first. That’s another reason why these experiences to me are very fascinating because there seems to be something different about how they change the brain, which is very different than the way we normally think about the brain working. We learn math by learning addition in first grade and subtraction in second grade and division in third grade, and then you work up to algebra and calculus and blah, blah, blah, and you develop the connections in your brain to support that over time. These experiences seem to radically change a whole person’s way of thinking about things in a moment. So how does that happen? We don’t really have a good model by which we understand that, by which we understand how that may happen and how we may be able to change our brain that quickly.
Rick: True, and some of these people have been doing spiritual practices for many, many years and others, nothing. They’re tying their shoes one morning and all of a sudden, boom, big shift.
Andrew: Exactly, exactly. And even going back to what we were just talking about, we were also drawing a very distinctive line when we talk about a drug-induced state, for example. Somebody who, a college student who decides to do LSD or something like that, maybe they have an experience, but what would happen if we gave LSD to that monk who had been in the monastery for 40 years? Would that be a different kind of kickstart to the experience because of the background and the context and everything, and would that make more sense? I don’t know.
Rick: Did you ever hear of the story of Ram Dass coming to Neem Karoli Baba, who was his guru, and Neem Karoli says, “Well, where are the pills?” And Ram Dass takes out a little palm full of acid tabs and Neem Karoli drops them all and nothing happens to him.
Andrew: Right, right, exactly. I mean, you could already be in that state or your brain may be such that it doesn’t change things very much. So absolutely, fascinating issues.
Rick: One thing I want to talk with you about before we run out of time is free will. You’ve devoted a chapter of your book to it and there are a number of spiritual teachers and thinkers who insist that we don’t have any. Sam Harris is one of them, he’s not really a spiritual teacher but an articulate, intelligent guy, and I forget the guy’s name. Anyway, the number of gurus and teachers who say, “Not only do we not have free will, but there is actually no self, and the sense that we have either is some kind of illusion or delusion.” So, from your perspective as a neurophysiologist, what do you think about those points?
Andrew: So, the idea of free will and part of why I wanted to address it in the Neurotheology book was that, as with everything that we’ve been talking about, it’s a lot more complicated than being able to say, “Yes we do, no we don’t.” A lot of people who talk about the neuroscience of free will refer to a very limited set of studies in a very small number of people that basically showed that milliseconds before we make a conscious decision, or that we’re consciously aware of the decision, that we actually see changes going on in the brain. And the argument then is that it wasn’t our conscious choice to make that decision, but it was something that kind of welled up from our subconscious and that that’s what it was. So part of it is that we need a lot more data before we can even start to use that information to inform us about what free will is or if we have it. But it also gets back to our point that we talked about earlier, which is definitions. Part of what somebody like a Sam Harris will say, or somebody who will look at that study and say, “Well, here’s this activity.” Let’s just say for a moment that that study was perfectly done and it’s absolutely 100% right. So if there’s neural activity that occurs before we consciously make a decision, does that count as will? Because what people who say we don’t have free will, basically they’re saying is that somewhere inside of us is a little person who decides to make the thing happen, who decides to raise my arm or whatever. There’s another way of defining free will, which is that free will comes from all of me. That it comes from not just my consciousness brain, but it comes from my unconscious or subconscious brain. And that altogether, that’s part of where my willfulness comes from. So that’s another way of looking at it. And then you mentioned this, a whole other way of thinking about is free will something that doesn’t actually exist on the human level, on the human ego level, because that sense of self is really just more of an illusory type of idea. But there is some kind of universal consciousness and a universal free will that we are able to tap into. So there’s a lot of very interesting variations on this theme. I mean, obviously we don’t have time to kind of go into everything, but I think the short ultimately is that we need more data to look at these things. We need to have better definitions of what free will is. And the definitions of free will have to include what we know scientifically, as well as what we know from a religious or spiritual perspective. And then try to kind of put all of that together to hopefully have some maybe even testable hypotheses which we could then look at and try to better figure out whether we really have free will and what it means to have it and how that relates to our brain and how it relates to our consciousness.
Rick: Yeah, there’s one issue that sheds light on it I think, which is that knowledge and experience are different in different states of consciousness. And so what you might perceive as free will in one state of consciousness, you might later recognize wasn’t your own individual will. It’s the will of God, it’s the three gunas or whatever. But that’s really, you can’t apply the rules or principles of one state to another state. That’s a kind of confusion of levels. And so that as long as you perceive yourself as having free will, you need to exercise it responsibly and accordingly. And if you reach a point at which it’s all God doing everything, then fine, but don’t pretend to have reached that if you haven’t.
Andrew: Right, right. And you know, one of the points that my late colleague Eugene d’Aquili and I did talk about at one point was when people have that mystical experience, what’s kind of interesting about it is that as our ego goes away, we sort of give our ego sense of will away, which is a scary thing to do.
Rick: Yeah, surrender.
Andrew: Yeah, and that’s surrender. But as you surrender, you get to this universal consciousness and this universal free will, however you want to define that, which then even though you’ve lost it on the ego level, as you said, you gain it on a different level and that is ultimately a very, very powerful kind of experience.
Rick: Yeah, I like your use of the phrase “free won’t,” that you might have, maybe thoughts and impulses bubble up and you don’t know where they came from, but there does seem to be a sort of a gatekeeper who can say, “Yeah, not that one. Okay, this one’s alright.” There seems to be some kind of choice in terms of whether or not we act on things, unless, you know, it depends on to what extent one is occluded or conditioned. Some people just can’t help but murder the guy, they’re so driven by their vasanas, their tendencies, their conditionings, and other people think, “I’d like to punch that guy, but I won’t do it.”
Andrew: Right, right.
Rick: It’s going to get me in trouble.
Andrew: Well and again, you can look at changes in the brain that might lead … there have been studies of violent criminals and we see how people can regulate their emotional responses and how much they can’t regulate them and there’s some interesting issues that come up with that. It’s good that you bring that up because there are some fascinating legal consequences. It ranges from the very esoteric of, well, if you take a Christian perspective of original sin and we have to have free will, all the way to did the guy who killed that person, were they insane or were they moral?
Rick: Whenever I hear that argument, I say, “Of course he was insane, he killed somebody.”
Andrew: Exactly, exactly. Like, why did you … right, exactly. But it does raise a lot of very interesting issues and problems and questions for us and this is again where I feel like neurotheology has an opportunity to be able to say, “Well, let’s look at the brain. When we make a moral decision, what are we doing? Are we using our thoughts? Are we using our emotions? Are we using certain parts of the brain to turn on or turn off? If there’s one or two areas of our brain which are particularly relevant to moral decision making, are they abnormal in people who have violent tendencies? Can we use that information practically in some way? Can we treat them? Can we at least make sure that we don’t let them out because they’re going to do something again, versus the person who we say, “No, maybe we can let them out because we know that their brain has changed,” or something like that.
Rick: Or they’ve rehabilitated, yeah.
Andrew: Yeah, exactly.
Rick: One interesting thing, I’ll let you go in a minute, but one interesting thing on this whole issue that I’ve heard is that as we evolve spiritually, we sort of work our way back to a more and more causal or fundamental level of the thought process until eventually we’re actually sitting at the switchboard, at the point from which thoughts initially sprout, and from there we do have sort of complete choice as to what’s going to bubble up or not. But if we’re far from that, if we’re way … it’s like a river, you know, if you’re sitting at the source of the river, maybe you could redirect it in a completely different direction quite easily, but if you’re way down at the mouth of the Ganges where it’s pouring into the ocean, you can’t have any effect on the whole river. So like that, somebody who’s heavily conditioned, who hasn’t gone through this whole spiritual process, they’re at the mercy of whatever comes up and have very little choice in the matter. But spiritual development can be thought of like traversing the river back to its source and then eventually living at the source.
Andrew: Right, right. And absolutely, and again, it gets down to, as you were saying, the different levels at which we see it. One of the thoughts that has crossed my mind at times is that I tend to, at least in my own personal belief, I feel like we probably have free will, at least again depending on how we wind up defining it, but I do think that whenever we try to find it, it’s a challenge to find it because we can always find, well, how were we raised and what’s in our genes and how much dopamine is circulating in our brain at that moment. You can figure out exactly how that theoretical process occurred, but again, that’s where the spiritual part comes back in, which is can we go back to that original source and maybe know or understand what the free will is starting from that point.
Rick: Yeah. Okay, well this has been a sampling of Andrew Newberg. I’m sure he and I could go on for many more hours, I could read all of his books.
Andrew: I’m sure we could.
Rick: I wish I had time to read all your books and maybe we’ll do another one of these one of these days and we’ll come up with a whole new batch of points to discuss.
Andrew: That sounds good.
Rick: Yeah, but before we wrap it up, is there anything you would like to say in conclusion that somehow you want to leave people with?
Andrew: You know, it probably goes back a little bit. I think what I would ultimately want to say to people, it goes back to some of the things that we talked about early on in the discussion, which is I think everyone needs to continue to search these questions for themselves. Another part of what I like about neurotheology is that I think sometimes it gives people a new language or a new perspective to bring to the table. It doesn’t eliminate the spiritual, it doesn’t eliminate consciousness, it doesn’t eliminate meditation, but it just helps us to understand things from a new perspective that we haven’t had before. By continuing to explore our world and to use that kind of explorative process, whether it’s personal insight, whether it’s using an fMRI machine, whether it is asking people about their own ideas, reading what other people have had to say, all of those are wonderful ways of exploring these questions and exploring that big question that we started with, which is what is reality and how do we understand it? It’s just so fascinating to think about the complexities of it and to some degree to be humble in the face of the immensity of the challenge and the infiniteness of the universe. So that’s part of what I think all of this can lead us towards.
Rick: It really is, and I still want you to have the last word, but another important thought came to mind, which is just that I think what you’re doing is so cutting-edge and so important. We’ve talked about how powerful science is and how much it has impacted our world, but it could be argued that it’s brought us to the verge of extinction. The oceans are full of plastic and the air is being polluted and the CO2 is rising, and all this can be attributed to science. So what is science missing that has allowed this to happen? And I think what science is missing is the dimension that spirituality brings in its pure form, and that you are a guy who is helping to marry science and spirituality, and that we could end up with something that is as beneficial as science has been, but benign at the same time, devoid of all the deleterious effects that science has given us.
Andrew: Sure, and I absolutely agree with that. I do hope that that’s where we can go in the future, which is understanding both sides of that process of what makes us human beings and try to use the wonders of science with the incredible aspects of compassion and love and stewardship of the earth and the universe and so forth, and of each other. I think it’s something that the spiritual or the religious does have an opportunity to bring to us. And again, not to go off on another tangent, but that’s part of what neurotheology also can help us with, which is what happens when spirituality goes well and what happens when it doesn’t go well. And there are certainly plenty of times where religious beliefs do not go in good directions, and certainly the atheists point them out all the time. So how do we foster the positive side of ourselves, the positive side of our spiritual aspects, and how do we use the best of the spiritual and the best of the scientific to hopefully move humanity to a new enlightenment as a species and as individuals?
Rick: Yeah, which opens up a whole other point which we could talk about next time, and that is, can the founders of the various religions really be held accountable for what’s been done in their names? How far have the teachings of various religions drifted from what the founder actually was experiencing and teaching?
Andrew: Right, well yes, that will be part two.
Rick: Yeah, okay, well thanks Andrew, I’ve really appreciated having this discussion with you and preparing for it as well. So I’ll be putting up a page for Andrew on batgap.com, as I always do, and I’ll have links to all of his books. And if people find this sort of thing interesting, most of your books are written for the layman, at least the ones you sent me, and so they’re easy to understand and really thought-provoking, and I think people who have enjoyed this conversation will enjoy those as well.
Andrew: Well thank you.
Rick: Yeah, so thanks for listening or watching everybody. Thank you again Andrew. Next week I’ll be interviewing a fellow named Terry Patton, who’s read another interesting book. So next week I have this 400 pages I’d like to really read, I never get it all, and it’s like, “Oh God!” Because his book looks fascinating too, and it’s just such a blessing to be able to have these conversations with people like you. I’m really honored to be able to do it.
Andrew: Well thank you for having me on your program, it was a pleasure.
Rick: You’re welcome.