Worship, Hypnosis and the Neuroscience of Spirituality
Recently I did something I haven't intentionally done for a long time. I went to church. It was an environment I was familiar with. One of those funky places where hipsters serve you espresso, middle aged preachers are squeezed into way-too-tight skinny jeans, and the dimmed lighting makes you feel like you've accidentally been transported into a rock concert. The irony wasn't lost on me as I recognised my former self in the busy futility of attempted relevance. Perhaps my hiatus from organised religion has given me fresh eyes, but despite my familiarity with the environment, I felt like an alien visiting a foreign culture. It all seemed so strange and not at all like the real world that I engage with on a daily basis. Sunday Trance Induction? One of the things that particularly struck me was the way in which the atmosphere is intentionally choreographed in order to move a group of people towards a desired end. The dark room, soft lighting, mood music … it's all there. For the outside observer, this could easily appear to be a form of mass hypnosis or trance induction. Emotions are manipulated with the highs and lows of the musical ride – alternating loud and soft, fast and slow, major and minor keys – to eventually end up in an eyes closed, trance-like state in which the music slows down to a simple, hypnotic, two or three chord progression and a particularly emotive lyric is sung repeatedly. Then while defenses are lowered in this state of heightened suggestibility, participants are asked to empty their wallets and listen to someone tell them WHAT to think, rather than HOW to think. Perhaps that all sounds a little cynical, but I am genuinely fascinated by the process that's at work and I do actually enjoy the music. Only recently I dusted off my guitar to play at a couple of events – one being a wedding on the beach – and noticed on both occasions that the songs I was asked to play had the same qualities. They all consisted of just two to four chords, started softly in a minor key before building to a major crescendo, and utilised simple, repetitive lyrics. The Spiritual Brain One of the gifts of music is that it can create an atmosphere, but what's happening below the surface? An interesting application of modern EEG technology – one that I have been involved with for many years – is neurofeedback, in which computer software is used to provide real time feedback about neural activity and train the brain to function more optimally. One particular form of neurofeedback known as alpha/theta training is a type of eyes closed, deep state training that encourages the brain to produce more of the relaxing alpha and theta brainwaves ... the same bio-electric frequencies that are dominant in seasoned meditators and perhaps in our group of worshippers. Alpha/theta training has proven very helpful in treating addictions, particularly alcoholism, as well as PTSD and anxiety. Something you won't read much about in the research literature, however – which is nevertheless well know among practitioners – is that people who undergo this deep state work often report experiencing profound spiritual encounters that are very meaningful to them. And the really intriguing thing is that their subjective experience is always in line with their particular belief system. So a Christian might report that Jesus appeared or spoke to them; someone from an indigenous culture might tell of receiving direction from their spirit guide; a Hindu might have a blissful encounter with one of their deities. You get the picture. And across the board these encounters are generally described in terms of being warm, loving, peaceful, transformative, and providing some kind of resolution.
This raises, in my mind at least, the following interesting propositions:
>That the realm of the spiritual is not external, but resides within; >That it is accessed from deeply relaxed states when alpha and theta brainwaves are dominant; >That divine encounters, including physical/emotional healing or receiving guidance, may be enhanced by meditative practices such as contemplative prayer; >That there's something bigger and more holistic going on than what our narrow tribal views of the divine allow us to see. None of this should really surprise us, but it appears that the reality of our own inner spiritual landscape is often hidden in plain sight. Religious people in Jesus' day were looking externally for a coming messiah – a rescuer from the outside – but they were consistently redirected by Jesus to the kingdom within. And how did Jesus personally access his own inner kingdom? The gospels show that it was his common practice to spend time away from the crowds in solitude and prayer. Yet sadly, many of Jesus' present day followers are still looking externally for Jesus to “come again” and fix everything, rather than doing their own much needed inner work. Exploring the Mystery Within Another challenging possibility with regard to the neurofeedback findings is that spiritual experience is nothing more than a neurological phenomena; a state in which our subconscious beliefs and biases are projected into conscious awareness. I'm still ruminating on that one, but I don't see it in any way as being contradictory to the points raised above. Science isn't the enemy and this isn't something to fear. If this is how we are, it is because we were created so. As the apostle Paul said, we carry this treasure in earthen vessels. This is the mystery. Somehow, God has been in us all along, but perhaps not in the way we were expecting. Consider for a moment the possibility that the divine life force is so entwined with our own as to be inseparable. My goodness, do we understand who we really are? A Well that Springs up So back to my friends in church … using music to create an atmosphere of expectancy, altering their neurophysiology, looking to create a divine encounter, and ultimately living out of the vain illusion of separation. Arms raised to the heavens as they seek a visitation from on high, they are totally missing Jesus' revelation that the living water they so desperately seek doesn't fall from above, but is rather a well that springs up from within. The spiritual awakening so many have been waiting for isn't “out there” and it certainly isn't about beseeching God in just the right way or believing the right stuff or being good enough or clean enough or holy enough. I've tried that. Believe me, such striving is wasted time and probably detrimental to one's health. So just be still. Know that you are loved and that you are enough. And in the field of contemplation, as you allow the cisterns of your own heart to be unplugged, it will surely be your joy to discover that the ancient springs that bubble forth with the life of the ages have been yours all along.
Mark Darling has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children. See all previous articles by Mark Darling