Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, was 37 when she suffered a stroke that essentially shut down the left hemisphere of her brain—the side that processes language and logical thought. Taylor, who wrote about her recovery in the book My Stroke of Insight, described the feeling that resulted as being "at one with the universe." In the hours before she got help, she says, "I experienced an incredible deep inner peace and contentment." She suspects this sense of union came from the brain's right hemisphere, the half that was in control during her stroke. She thinks the right brain—which is associated with intuitive and subjective thinking—is what connects humans to "the bigger picture and the present moment, where there are no boundaries and [you're] a part of it all."
In most people, the brain's left hemisphere dominates, but Taylor suggests that if we can learn to better use the right side, we will increase our natural ability to experience transcendent feelings. (For tips on how to access your right brain, see "Tapping the Source," right.)
In a lab at Laurentian University in Ontario, cognitive neuroscience researcher Michael Persinger, PhD, has found a way to induce spiritual experiences (without the use of LSD or other hallucinogens). He uses a device popularly known as the God helmet, a modified yellow snowmobile helmet that delivers patterns of electromagnetic pulses to the brain's temporal lobes. People who have worn it report having out-of-body or other unusual episodes. I ask Persinger the obvious question: "Does that mean our brains make these sorts of things up?"
Not at all, he says: "It just tells you that if the brain is appropriately stimulated, you can have important experiences, with powerful healing effects." Persinger suggests that the brain is hardwired for transcendent experiences and a sense of connectedness. In fact, he sees this as an evolutionary strategy. As human beings developed language, he points out, we became aware of our mortality. "The anticipation that we would die was devastating, and interfered with creativity and adaptation, as anxiety does," he says. The brain's ability to feel a mystical sense of union with the world may have begun as a coping mechanism for dealing with that existential anxiety, one that frees us to carry on with the business of living.
After a recent cancer diagnosis, Elaine Sieff, 56, had an experience that helped her do just that: My mother came home from the hospital to die of breast cancer on December 21, 1990. I was diagnosed with the same disease on December 21, 2010. My mother died on January 14, 1991. I had my first appointment with the oncologist on January 14, 2011. As my husband and I drove home, I was looking at the mountains, and I had this weird feeling—a puff of air, maybe, like someone letting go. I looked at the clock; it was a little after 4 P.M. My mother had died at the same time exactly 20 years earlier. I felt like she was letting go, and the meaning I took was that I didn't have to follow her path and die from cancer.
Like many people who have such intense experiences, Sieff was at a turning point. "Maybe it's a health scare, or the loss of a loved one," says Joseph Dispenza, cofounder of the LifePath Retreat Center in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. "It's as if you'd lived one way for a long time, and now, because of this crisis, you're about to live in a totally different way." During these periods, everyday life feels more intense. In a sense, we become seekers for a while, trying to figure out how we'll go forward. It makes sense that we're more open to possibilities at moments when the ground shifts under us and we feel both the terror and the joy of being fully alive.
And that, I realize, is exactly what I felt in the car as I drove away from my mother-in-law's house. She died three weeks later, and her death changed my sense of the world forever. I don't know if the vision I had came from a sudden activation of neurons in the right side of my brain or from some Being above. I don't know what it means. And I don't need to know. In some way I can't rationally explain, I was given a gift: the gift of feeling that I am deeply loved. And that has stayed with me to this day.
Harriet Brown is the author of Brave Girl Eating (William Morrow).
We Hear You!