The Oceanic Feeling

To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music.

-- Daniel Batson

Some years ago I briefly lost all sense of separation between myself and the world.  Since this was not the first (nor the last) time I experienced this peculiar state of being, I was not alarmed.  In fact, I was rather glad to be rid of me, if only temporarily.  It was not so much a feeling of oneness, which implies multiplicity, but rather of everythingness.  I woke up in the middle of the night and discovered there was no longer an inside or outside to me.  My breathing, my body, the bed, my wife sleeping beside me --- they were all seemingly of the same substance.  All sense of time and distance had dissolved.  I padded outside at dawn to get the morning paper and discovered there was no outside even to the outside.  The mailbox, the sky, the geese flying in formation overhead were all part of this odd conglomeration.  And so it went throughout the day and for many days thereafter.  Everyone I met seemed to be me in the guise of another.  You could say it was all me, except there appeared to be no center, much less any sense of personal possession.  I was simply a point of awareness amid many such points, sprinkled like stars throughout a vast galaxy of undifferentiated being.

Freud borrowed the term "oceanic feeling" from his friend Romain Rolland to describe this experience of ego dissolution.  A mystic and Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Rolland believed this subjective sense of boundlessness was the source of all religious sentiment, although he was careful to distinguish it from any particular religious institution or dogma.  Never having had such an experience himself, Freud was frankly puzzled by it, particularly when Rolland told him it was a feeling he was never without.  Freud eventually concluded it was a "restoration of limitless narcissism" characteristic of infants who had no yet developed ego boundaries to separate themselves from the external world.

In recent years, neuroscientists have begun using sophisticated brain imaging technology to try to pierce the veil of subjectivity surrounding mystical experience.  University of Pennsylvania radiologist Andrew Newberg and his colleague Eugene d’Aquili used imaging techniques to scan brain activity of eight Tibetan meditators and five Carmelite nuns during peak contemplative states.  A radioactive dye was injected into the bloodstream of these test subjects to track changes in blood flow to various parts of the brain, which might indicate heightened or diminished activity in those particular areas.  Their most intriguing finding was that all the test subjects showed diminished activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe during periods of deep prayer or meditation.  This area of the brain helps orient individuals in three-dimensional space by creating a clear cognitive distinction between the bodily self and its surroundings.  Newberg and d'Aquili hypothesized that reduced activity in the parietal lobes temporarily dissolves the boundaries of self and produces the subjective sense of oneness that is a hallmark of mystical experience.

Neuroscientists remain divided over whether the human brain is, in effect, hard-wired with neural pathways to God, or whether these neural pathways merely create the illusion of a divine presence.  From a neurological standpoint, Newberg contends that mystical states are as real as any other human experience and may point to a larger spiritual reality.  Some of his colleagues, however, have arrived at the opposite conclusion, maintaining that the subjective experience of God is nothing more than peculiar brainwave activity.  They note that mystical states can be simulated in test subjects by running a weak electromagnetic current through their temporal lobes.  Temporal lobe epilepsy, which is caused by abnormal electrical activity in that region of the brain, is known to produce similar effects.  Hallucinogenic drugs can do the same. 

The fact that the brain can manufacture its own sensory effects does not necessarily mean that religious experience is merely an illusion.  As far back as the 1950s, the pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was able to evoke life-like sights, sounds and smells in his epileptic patients by electrically stimulating their temporal lobes.   Yet no one suggests such phenomena exist only in the brain. The real question is whether our normal self-contained state presents a truer picture of reality than an unbounded view, or whether they are merely two sides of the same coin.  Freud, who was an atheist, dismissed the oceanic feeling as mere regression to an immature ego state.  By contrast, Jesus of Nazareth saw such "regression" as the pathway to higher truth: "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."   

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and It Discontents
Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, with Vince Rause,
Why God Won’t Go Away
Matthew 18:4

Home | Readings
© Copyright 2004-2011 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved