How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy.

A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture.
April 26 2007 7:19 AM

Spirit Tech

How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy.

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Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, suggests focusing on genes associated with dimethyltryptamine, the only psychedelic known to occur naturally in the human brain. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman presents evidence that endogenous DMT underpins mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.

Our natural mystical capacity, Strassman speculates, might be enhanced with genetic modifications that boost the production of DMT or of the enzymes that catalyze its effects. A clever, unscrupulous geneticist might even transform us all into mystics without our consent. "I can envision a situation where a cold virus is tinkered with to turn on our methylating enzymes," Strassman says, "spreads around the world in a couple of years, and there you have it."


Good Old Psychedelics

Psychedelic (or entheogenic, literally God-containing) compounds such as LSD and psilocybin represent by far the most mature mystical technology available. Legal research into the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics collapsed in the late 1960s after the drugs were outlawed but is now undergoing a renaissance.

Reseachers at UCLA, the University of Arizona, Harvard, and other institutions are treating post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety with psilocybin and MDMA (aka Ecstasy). Last year, a team at Johns Hopkins University reported that psilocybin had triggered profound spiritual experiences in two-thirds of a group of 36 subjects. "Psilocybin, the active ingredient of 'magic mushrooms,' expands the mind," the Washington Post noted drily. "After a thousand years of use, that's now scientifically official."

Psychedelics still pose risks. Peyote triggers nausea, MDMA has been associated with neurotoxicity, and psilocybin caused panic attacks in some subjects in the Johns Hopkins study. Future research could identify regimens and compounds that yield greater benefits with fewer side effects. Independent chemist Alexander Shulgin has identified more than 200 psychotropic compounds that have potential as therapeutic and spiritual catalysts.


Our current mystical technologies are primitive, but one day, neurotheologians may find a technology that gives us permanent, blissful self-transcendence with no side effects. Should we really welcome such a development? Recall that in the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA funded research on psychedelics because of their potential as brainwashing agents and truth serums.

Even setting aside the issue of control, mystical technologies raise troubling philosophical issues. Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist, once wrote that a perfect mystical technology would bring about "the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment." When I asked Shulgin to elaborate, he said that if we achieve permanent mystical bliss, there would be "no motivation, no urge to change anything, no creativity." Both science and religion aim to eliminate suffering. But if a mystical technology makes us immune to anxiety, grief, and heartache, are we still fully human? Have we gained something or lost something? In short, would a truly effective mystical technology—a God machine that works—save us, or doom us?


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