Not long before the death of her beloved mother-in-law, Harriet Brown had a vision that was both confounding and deeply comforting. Inspired by that revelation, she set out to explore the theories and neuroscience behind it all.
I'm driving away from from my mother-in-law's house, crying. Vivian has been a mother to me in every way that matters, and now she's dying of cancer. For months my husband, brother-in-law, and I have been taking turns caring for her in her home. As I pull away this November morning, I know I probably won't see her alive again.
I cry and cry, and after a while a strange feeling bubbles up from my chest into my throat. It takes a minute to recognize it as joy, and I'm horrified—how can I feel joy at a time like this? But it's irresistible. I'm laughing and crying and all the while a small part of me is wondering what the hell is going on. And then suddenly I'm having a...for lack of a better word, vision. I'm not asleep; I'm not hallucinating; I know my name and the date and I'm still driving the car. But an image comes to me: I'm in an underground cavern, on the edge of a vast lake, looking at the water with the feeling of joy still bubbling up inside me, and somehow I understand that the water is actually love, and that love lies under every step I take. I understand that even though my mother-in-law is dying, I will never be alone or unloved. That I am inextricably, inexplicably connected to every living thing on the planet.
Five years ago, I didn't believe in spiritual experiences. Or at least I didn't believe I would ever feel anything transcendent or mystical. I knew others did, or said they did, but those people were seekers. They went to energy healers and astrologers. They prayed and meditated and maybe, I thought, talked themselves into believing they'd had an out-of-the-ordinary moment.
I wasn't that type of person. Though I'd love to believe in a higher power, I just don't. I'm a science journalist, an agnostic empiricist who appreciates the cultural aspects of being Jewish but not the religious ones. So when that image of water and love enveloped me in a sense of peace I'd never felt before, I didn't know what to make of it. It wasn't the sort of thing I could easily bring up with others; I couldn't imagine saying, "By the way, last week I had this vision—let me tell you about it!" Eventually, though, I described it to a friend who said, "It sounds like you've had a spiritual experience."
It turns out I'm in good company. According to a study at the University of Chicago, about half of all Americans say they've had such an experience, which might range from a sense of well-being while watching a sunset to a classic near-death journey. These occurrences are, necessarily, deeply personal and hard to articulate.. "What one person calls a religious experience—which could be intense and life-changing—another might call a simple ten-second prayer," explains Patrick McNamara, PhD, director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine.
But no matter what they're called, these events share certain characteristics. Andrew Newberg, MD, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, is one of a new breed of "neurotheologians" studying the intersections among our brains, religion, philosophy, and spirituality. Newberg surveyed about 3,000 people who'd had spiritual experiences and identified a few common elements. Number one was a strong sense of what he calls realness. When you wake up from a dream, he explains, you know it wasn't real, no matter how vivid it felt. Not so with transcendent experiences, which feel authentic not only at the time but years later.
Mona de Vestel, a creative writing teacher from upstate New York, still remembers a moment that literally changed her life nearly 30 years ago: At 16 I had pneumonia and typhoid fever. I knew I was dying. One afternoon I was lying in bed and heard the door open. I didn't open my eyes, but I thought, Mom's coming in. She sat on the bed; I felt the weight. She put a hand on my cheek, and I got the most powerful feeling of well-being. I felt that she was telling me, "You're going to be fine." Later, when she came back, I said, "When you came in earlier and put your hand on my cheek, it felt so good." And she said, "I didn't come in here." Around the time I'd thought she was with me, she was in the kitchen doing dishes and heard the rustling of clothes. She turned around, but no one was there. She'd been praying to her mother, who had died, to help.
De Vestel says that from that moment on, she began to recover, and her attitude toward the spiritual world shifted. "It's not just 'those people' who have 'weird' things happen," she says. "It's something that can happen to anyone."
Newberg also found that spiritual experiences usually occur during times of strong emotions—euphoria, fear, grief, or some combination, as I felt that day in the car. A third defining element is a feeling of connectedness, of not being alone. Spiritual leaders might interpret this as evidence of a higher power. Scientists tend to look for answers elsewhere: in the physical structure of the brain.
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.