Religious and Mystic Experiences in Human Evolution

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The Role of Religious and Mystic Experiences In Human Evolution:
An Hypothesis.

Todd Murphy, 2010

This is a draft of a paper that appeared in the Journal, NeuroQuantology (Vol 8, No 4 (2010) under the title:
The Role of Religious and Mystic Experiences In Human Evolution: A Corollary Hypothesis for NeuroTheology

Summary: The adaptive value of maintaining a portion of our population subject to religious, mystic or spiritual experiences is discussed. An evolutionary mechanism, which may be unique to humans, is posited in which all humans have the neural pathways supporting mystic experiences, but only a small portion of our population experiences them. Those that do will display signs and personality traits that associate with Temporal Lobe lability. These traits motivate behavior that benefits their social group. The cognitive and affective styles displayed by mystics ensure that multiple perspectives are expressed during collective decision-making processes (e.g. tribal councils). The perspectives mystics make available to their societies increase the variation within the human “ideational pool”. These perspectives improve their chances for advantageous choices in times of threats or opportunities. Such an adaptation, producing variety in problem-solving skills, might be the source for the exceptionally wide range of personality types found within our species.

1) Mysticism and Temporal lobe signs & behaviors.

Individuals reporting Religious and mystic experiences appear in all cultures. The dramatic impact of such reports, which often form the basis for widespread religious beliefs, suggests that individuals prone to such experiences may be a feature of our species and part of our evolutionary strategy.

It has been proposed that the psychological advantage of spirituality for individuals lies in it’s attenuation of death anxiety , which allows us to feel that death isn’t threatening while remaining mindful of threats to our survival. Religious beliefs tell us that we don’t die, but rather survive death and go on living in heaven, a spirit world, or reincarnate, becoming a human again. The belief that that no one ceases to exist when they die is critical to every religion.

It’s well established that living in complex culture is our primary survival strategy. We will explore the idea that that religion is an integral part of our complex cultures. Religion may be, or once have been, an evolutionary adaptation that contributes, or once contributed, to our survival.

It’s worth noting that no hereditary mechanisms might be needed for such an adaptation to spread through the population. Social rewards might well suffice to motivate people to first acquire religious beliefs in childhood, and then to integrate their implications into their cognitive styles and habituated thought patterns. In the absence of intellectual challenges within the relatively closed social groups of our earliest ancestors, the prevailing religious beliefs could have become very complex, developing, over time, into sophisticated belief systems, able to address enduring religious and philosophical questions.

Seeing death as an illusion is a matter of belief. It’s easy to see how such a trait would sharply reducing death anxiety, and thus contribute to our survival. However, belief may not the only feature of religion with adaptive value. The capacity for religious or mystic experience and the propensity to report psychic perceptions, appearing in a small section of the population in every known culture, may play, or have played, a role in our survival.

We won’t examine the adaptive value of mystic experience for individuals. Rather, we’ll look at the advantage of maintaining groups of people prone to such experiences within our populations. Temporal lobe (TL) activity, especially in its deeper limbic structures, appears to be the source for religious experience . There is normative data for people prone to elevated temporal lobe activity. This data tells us that TL sensitivity exists in a continuum in the human species. Some people never have altered state experiences, some have them constantly, and most people have them somewhere in between. It’s not a bell curve. It’s a continuum. The number of people who are exactly average is the same as the number of people at the extreme ends of the ‘spread’.

There seem to be several groups with higher-than-normal activity in the temporal lobes. The first, and best-known, are those with complex partial epileptic seizures. Others include people with frequent spiritual experiences , some artists and poets , and people with certain psychiatric disorders. Our species maintains as many people with frequent otherworldly experiences as it does people who never have them at all.

The overall levels of temporal lobe activity are measured using questionnaires that query for complex partial epileptic signs (Temporal Lobe Signs). These are common altered-state experiences that occur for people with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). A few examples are: déjà vu, jamais vu, the ‘sense of a presence’, hypnogogic imagery, vestibular sensations, and parasthesias. Elevated temporal lobe signs have been found both in people who do spiritual practices, and who have a history of mystic experiences. For example, people who report paranormal experiences are also likely to display temporal lobe signs . The same is true for people who report religious experiences . TL signs are more frequent in people who meditate . Under certain conditions, people with elevated specific TL signs are more likely to have Out-of-Body experiences . These signs happen for those with TLE, but are also found in people with higher levels of temporal lobe activity (or sensitivity) stemming from other causes.

The measure of the frequency of a person’s TL signs provides a rough indicator of their temporal lobe’s sensitivity and propensity for producing altered states. This includes those with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, some psychiatric disorders, and a person’s tendencies towards mysticism, including its concomitant paranormal and/or religious beliefs . TL signs and behaviors appear in clinical populations and we conclude that they will also appear in mystics.

Some of those prone to TL signs have them more often than others. Those who have them more often display greater behavioral correlates, most importantly in the way they speak with other people. One trait in particular would have a strong impact on their social group. Their common talkativeness (‘viscosity’) would provide a regular, if not constant, motivation to do so, both privately and in groups.

The continuum of temporal lobe lability was uncovered by examining some of the more common altered state experiences, such as déjà vu, sensing a presence when no one is there, parasthesias, vestibular experiences, olfactory illusions, and feelings of meaningfulness, to name only a few. These more common altered-state experiences offer a context for the study of altered states throughout the population. They show less variation between individuals, and are less subject to personal interpretations than the less common, but better known, religious experiences. Further, mystic experiences are rare. Not many people have them, and the ones that do usually don’t have them often.

We must wonder why our species would consistently produce a percentage of people who have mystic experiences, as well as people who don’t have even their subtlest variations. Here, mystic experiences refers to such things as seeing God or spirits, out-of-body experiences, episodes of meaningfulness, spirit mediumship, vision quest experiences, prophesy, and hearing the voice of spirit guides, to name only a few. We should remember that these experiences occur in a range of intensity, and with a range of frequencies. Few people see God, but many sense His presence during prayer. Mystic experiences range from subtle and mild to compelling and intense.

The meaning of the phrase “Mystic experience” comes from the world’s spiritual traditions, while psychiatric symptoms are defined within psychology and neuroscience. Artistic inspiration, which has been found to correlate with elevated TL activity, is defined by the artists and poets who experience it. Outside neuroscience, there are no commonly-shared criteria that will include all the types of people with elevated temporal lobe activity.

In this work, we’ll define the term mysticism as the propensity to experience positive altered states of consciousness, as well as the propensity to engage in behaviors that increase their probability. This definition implies both intense and subtle positive altered state experiences

The answer to why our species consistently includes people motivated to do spiritual practices, or who are prone to spiritual experiences, may lie in the cognitive and emotional styles found both in people with frequent altered-state experiences, as well as those who only have them only rarely, or not at all.

Data from temporal lobe epileptics is used to make inferences about mystics because both have elevated temporal lobes signs and both share many behaviors and personality traits. This follows the principle that “mental forms follow neural function”, suggested that there is a common source for these signs and behaviors, occurring in two different groups.

There are behaviors that associate with complex partial seizures. In one study , four behavioral traits emerged for temporal lobe epileptics. One was hypereligiosity, the tendency to fixate on spiritual themes and to find spiritual interpretations for events. Another was hypergraphia, the tendency to write at length (a trait that can also emerge as absorption in graphic arts). When speaking in conversation instead of writing, this emerges as difficulty in ending a conversation or changing the topic (“viscosity”). TLE patients will often continue a flow of words, in writing or speech, far longer than others. Another is irritability, the tendency to experience frequent, but short flashes of anger. The fourth was altered sexuality, which refers to an either greater than average interest in sex, or a complete, or almost complete, lack of interest in it.

Other researchers found a much longer list of possible traits:
Altered sexual interest
Anger and hostility
Hypergraphia (excessive writing)
Philosophical interest
Sense of personal destiny

The exact set of personality traits that appear for each TL epileptic will depend on the locus of their seizures. Similarly, the traits that appear in any individual mystic depend on which areas of the brain supports their experiences. Presumably these will be areas of greatest sensitivity, which are heavily active during the mystic experiences and make greater than average contributions in to the content of their consciousness and behavior at other times.

Because we are exploring the idea that having some of our population prone to mystic experiences is part of our evolutionary strategy, we will make the supposition that spiritual experiences are not epileptic events. Rather, we will regard the spiritual content of many seizures (as well as the religious behaviors that TLE patients frequently display) represent the seizural and interictal activation of sets of limbic and cortical pathways whose organic functions include mystic experiences. These pathways, being both active and / or labile only in some people, are expected to be recondite in most of the population. Not all mystic experiences are the same, and some have them more often than others. Some are faint and subtle, and others are overwhelmingly salient. Because these pathways are taken here to be a feature of our evolutionary strategy, their activation (even only in a minority of the population) cannot be considered evidence of a disorder. Mystic experiences may occur in certain pathologies, but that does not make them pathological. Elevated temporal lobe activity is found not only in those with temporal lobe epilepsy, but also mystics and artists.

Mysticism seems to impose certain behavioral patterns on its practitioners, and these reflect the activity (or greater than normal sensitivity) of the temporal lobes (TL) of the brain. Increased contributions to ideation and affect from the TL impose specific tendencies in cognitive and/or emotional style.

2) Brain Regions involved with Mystic Experiences.

Mental forms follow neural functions. In most cases, a mystic’s experiences will reflect the activity of one neural region. The most labile structures in the brain are the amygdala and hippocampus. Because of this, these are the two areas most likely to become unstable. When the experiential correlates are negative, we should expect psychiatric problems. When they are positive, we should expect mysticism and spirituality to appear. The amygdala is an affective structure, and hippocampus is a cognitive structure. The difference in their functions will give rise to some mystics who emphasize thought and others who emphasize emotion. Of course, these two structures are heavily interconnected, so very few mystics will emphasize one to the exclusion of the other.

We will find the structures most implicated in mystic experience are the right hippocampus (RH) and the left amygdala (LA), so we can speak of right hippocampal, and left amygdalar mystics (or shamans). These are the two most sensitive areas of the brain Of course, these would not be the only structures involved in anyone’s mystic experiences, but the majority of reports of such experiences strongly implicate dominance by one or both of these two structures. Our populations consistently include a percentage of mystics of each type (more oriented towards prayer and faith in God (LA) and those more oriented towards meditation and insight (RH)).

Very strong mystic experiences will be supported by larger neural events, which can (like other dramatic events affecting the brain) selectively ‘prune’ (through “synaptic dropout”) out those inhibitory synapses that would ordinarily inhibit less powerful variations of the experience, but were unable to inhibit them when it occurred with sufficient energy. Frequent experiences involving the right hippocampus or the left amygdala will tend to make microstructural changes both to these two structures, and their connections to other areas with related functions. As these make critical contributions to personality and the sense of self, these changes predictably alter personality, always tending toward disinhibition of related function. If the LA and RH are the primary sources for mystic experiences, then the onset of mystic experiences will make alterations in LA and RH functioning, creating emotional and cognitive changes. Because the way we think and feel are critical components of our sense of self, changes to these structures can create the perception that one’s ‘being’ has changed . The onset of mystic experiences (through a seizure, high fever, head injury, hallucinogenic compound, or by some other means) can be thus experienced as a ‘rebirth’, a ‘spiritual death’, or the perception that one’s ‘soul has been cleansed’. One is then ‘twice born’, or stands in a new relationship to God, or might renounce their previous ways of living; baptized in the spirit. They might say things like “I am not as I was”.

The features of visitor experiences, in which a person experiences a meeting with a nonphysical being, are expected to follow the functions of deep temporal lobe structures, especially the amygdala, the most labile structure in the brain. Some of the manifestations involve cosmic meaningfulness, visits from nonphysical beings, vestibular experiences, and elaborate visual imagery. After intense experiences, behaviors similar to religious conversions will appear . These include: widened affect, a strong sense of the personal, a desire to ‘spread the word’, and concern about Man’s destiny (which also happen between seizures for temporal lobe epileptics). When these traits were acted out in our early cultures, they would have been acted out by proselytizing and carrying out spiritual teaching , with their authority buttressed by the shamanic credentials conferred by their mystic experiences.

3) Psychology of mystics

The majority of mystic experiences seem to be dominated either by the right hippocampus or the left amygdala, so we should expect to find two types of mystics. The first will have personality traits and experiences reflecting activity in the left amygdala, and the second will have personality traits and experiences reflecting activity in the right hippocampus.

4) Psychology of Right Hippocampal mystics.

Recalling that our definition of mysticism includes the criteria that the mystic’s experiences must be positive, the most likely candidate for a right hemispheric limbic source for mysticism is the right hippocampus. Experimental stimulation of the brain with a complex magnetic signal derived from hippocampal activity found it was significantly more pleasant over the right hemisphere than the left . This structure is the primary (and possibly the only) source for theta activity observed through EEG . Theta activity in the brain is associated with meditation , hypnosis , dreams , trance and other states characterized by the inhibition of external perceptions and processes (“introspective states”).

The hippocampus on the right is a cognitive structure that processes non-verbal information. It’s also involved in spatial perception, music appreciation, as well as memory creation and consolidation . It’s a major source of dream imagery. The right hippocampus, like its contralateral counterpart, is intergrown with the adjacent amygdala, a structure heavily involved in fear.

A mystic whose experiences appear from an unusually responsive right hippocampus is expected to report experiences dominated by right hippocampal (RH) phenomena. The RH role in spatial reasoning and memory implicates it in experiences of ‘infinity’, the “infinite void”, spaciousness, and the experience that the space occupied by the sense of self is limitless (“one with the universe”), or existing in ‘one-pointedness’ (phenomena suggestive of macropsia and micropsia). The RH role in non-verbal information implicates it in the experience of inner silence, or freedom from ‘mind chatter’. Its cognitive functions implicate it in the experience of ‘knowingness’, and ‘insight’, in which understandings appear spontaneously. The right hippocampus’ role in processing non-verbal information would give such mystics a propensity for experiences that are ‘beyond words’ or ‘too subtle to be explained”. It’s role as the source for dream imagery suggests that its also involved in the experience of ‘alternate realities’, ‘other dimensions’, the ‘astral plane’, the ‘dream time’, as well as the fleeting images that appear in hypnogogia, and even artistic visual inspirations. Its role in creating and retrieving memories suggests it may be crucial in accessing inner images, including symbolic, spiritual, and artistic images. Its production of theta activity suggests it’s crucial in trance and meditation . Our earliest ancestors may have ‘practiced’ staring at fire , gazing at water, or remaining still for long hours while waiting for game. For some individuals, with a more sensitive right hippocampus, the resulting spontaneous meditation could affect their personalities, ideation, and behavior over time. A person with an unusually active or sensitive right hippocampus needed only to stay awake, tending the fire to spend long periods in meditation, especially between midnight and 4:00 am , when melatonin levels are at their peak, making altered states more probable. Watching a fire, or gazing into a moving stream can create a state of consciousness well-suited to eliciting subtle RH mystic experiences.

Brain regions outside the hippocampus are recruited in all significant hippocampal functions. The hippocampus is heavily connected to the frontal lobes, though the routes of connection are long, through the cingulate gyrus . More closely connected structures, termed the hippocampal complex (the parahippocampal gyrus, the entorhinal cortex, and the perirhinal cortex), work in tandem with the hippocampus. There are also extensive connections between the hippocampus and the temporal lobes.

All other conditions being equal, trauma to the brain is more likely to cause the loss of inhibitory pathways than excitatory ones . A person can become a mystic through a dramatic neural event affecting the RH (a seizure, a vision, an event that dramatically lowered their self-esteem, a head injury, etc). That event; functioning as an initiation into mysticism, could easily could cause the dropout of synapses that would have previously inhibited communication from the RH to one or more of the areas connected to it. This can mean eliciting new cognitive skills. These pathways, and their firing thresholds, will be different for different people.

Mystic experiences reflecting brain activity in and around the right hippocampus will also include many of its ‘partner’ structures. However, different ‘right hippocampal’ mystics will have more extensive connections to different neighboring structures, creating variations in the cognitive skills they display. For example, enhanced visualization skills would be expected if RH activity supporting mystic experience included sets of neurons in the entorhinal and parahippocampal cortices , known to be involved with mental imagery. If RH mystic experiences recruited pathways reaching to the frontal lobes (via the cingulate gyrus) we would expect the mystic to display enhanced social skills, moments of creative problem solving skills, and other ‘executive functions’. If RH mystic experiences include pathways reaching to the temporal lobes, we would expect the mystic to display an increased interest in music, drumming, and chanting. We would also expect them to have altered state and/or mystic experiences more frequently than other RH mystics, and be more prone to “exotic ideation”, as they focus their attention on ideas and concepts that “feel” right, instead of those that “make sense”. This would reflect their higher than usual amount of right hippocampus-to-right-temporal-lobe connections, and the expected concomitant lower than usual right-hippocampus-to-frontal-lobe connections.

5) Psychology of Left Amygdalar Mystics.

In most people, the right hippocampus is neither the most labile structure in the right hemisphere, nor the structure on that side of the brain most likely to precipitate altered state experiences. That distinction belongs to the amygdala. However, the altered states dominated by the right amygdala will be expected to be negative; dominated by fear, anxiety, and depression . As such, they could not be mystic experiences, which we have defined in terms of positive altered states of consciousness. Our definition for mystic experiences compels us to see altered states dominated by the right amygdala, with its fearful phenomenology, as psychiatric disorders.

In contrast, a mystic whose experiences appear from an unusually responsive left amygdala is expected to report experiences dominated by left amygdala (LA) phenomena. Its role in supporting positive affect implicates it in experiences of bliss, religious ecstasy, joy, gratitude to God, and other emotional spiritual states .

The amygdala assigns an affective tone to events so that we experience them as positive, negative or neutral, which helps us immediately respond to what those events mean for us; the rewards or threats they imply. This important affective skill, which humans do not all have in equal measure, is taken as also supporting the feeling of meaningfulness. This implicates the left amygdala in the experience of meaningfulness that accompanies most left-hemispheric mystic events . In contrast, right-hippocampal mystic experiences are more likely to be accompanied by dispassion, detachment, or equanimity. When the sense of meaningfulness arises out of the left amygdala, we expect the person to anticipate a positive event. When the sense of meaningfulness appears out of the right amygdala, there is a sense of foreboding, dread, or apprehensiveness, as though something negative is about to happen. If the features of meditative states of consciousness are generalizable to other right-hemispheric mystic states, then the sense of meaningfulness will be significantly less than for left-hemispheric states. Indeed, meditation students are routinely taught to avoid assigning lending meaningfulness to their meditation experiences.

The left amygdala’s social functions, including the capacity to recognize what others are feeling, along with it’s role in the ‘sensed presence’ experience, implicate it as the source for ‘visitor experiences’ (referring to visitations by putative non-physical beings), which are interpreted as manifestations of the right hemispheric sense of self , projected into the awareness of the left hemispheric sense of self. The mystic’s “visitor experiences” appear in many variations, from subtle (sensed presence) to compelling (angels and deities), and are subject to different interpretations in different cultures. The amygdala recognizes the emotional tone of speech . It’s role in processing affective components of language (whose centers are on the same side of the brain) implicates it in ‘linguistic’ mystic experiences, such as spirit mediumship, or the experience of having poetry or prose ‘write itself’, or be written by a being outside one’s self. It’s role in relating to others suggests that it may be instrumental to prayer, traditionally understood to be a social act; communication involving two beings, both capable of understanding language. The above are taken as being specifically left amygdala-dominated mystic states because when similar states are dominated by the right amygdala, they are overwhelmingly negative, and hence outside our definition for mysticism.

Specific personality and behavioral changes will depend on which specific structures were affected in their initiation into mysticism. These structures would thereafter support each individual mystic’s experiences. If the left amygdala (LA) dominates, the mystic can be expected to show traits from the left amygdala (and from the left hemisphere more generally), such as irritability, a tendency to be verbose, elevated self-esteem, verbal skills, extroversion, and logical reasoning. They should also be expected to reflect LA phenomena in their spiritual beliefs, such as a strong faith in God, and the belief that the social order is divinely inspired. In our early history, mystics would have had an investment in the society’s structure, and a corresponding advocacy of adherence to the social rules (avoiding sin and cultivating virtue). Prayer would probably be the most fulfilling spiritual practice for them.

6) Behavior and traits associated with Right Hippocampal Mystics.

The more the right hippocampus or the left amygdala dominates a person’s personality, the more behavioral correlates of LA and RH sensitivity they should display, according to the principle that mental forms follow neural functions.

If the right hippocampus is dominate in a mystic’s altered states, then they would be expected to show behaviors and display traits that reflect right hippocampal functions. Their expected low-self esteem would tend to make them taciturn and better able to listen carefully to other’s opinions before stating their own, a habit that would tend to give them leadership skills. The right hippocampus’ well-known role in spatial perception and maintaining our inner maps and navigational memories might confer an enhanced ability to remember their tribe’s past movements, making their advice about their tribe’s nomadic movements more reliable. Such a skill, appearing in a few individuals in a nomadic culture, might confer distinct advantages.

A sensitive or very active right hippocampus provides a source for reports of enhanced intuition, reflecting its production of theta waves. In studies applying circumcerebral neural stimulation using complex magnetic signals (whose rates of change in frequency shifts, when the signals were moved from one pair of solenoids to the next, were in the theta band, around 6 Hz) , this stimulation, fully described elsewhere , was found to enhance the accuracy of remote viewing perceptions as well as facilitating telepathy between intimates who presented as pairs of subjects . When the RH is the mystic’s most sensitive brain structure, we should expect them to have a greater propensity to report psychic perceptions than the rest of the population. This is a highly adaptive behavior, when their perceptions prove to be veridical. Within the closed societies of our early ancestors, psychics who made in accurate predictions probably did not retain positions of respect.

The RH role in non-verbal and non-linear reasoning suggests that RH mystics will often find themselves unwilling or unable to offer explanations for their words and actions. The sense of mystery surrounding their activities will tend to create a feeling of meaningfulness in some people, further supporting their shamanic authority.

Such individuals should also be found to be more musical, reflecting the RH’s and right hemisphere’s role in the appreciation and production of music . The presence of such individuals in our early social groups would tend to increase our use of music in sacred contexts as well as for entertainment. Both of these would further tend to increase the number of memes operating within a culture, which would increase the number of shared behaviors, creating stronger social bonds. This process would elicit greater cohesion within the whole social group.

The introspective tendencies appearing in people with higher than average RH activity, or with lower than average RH activation thresholds would tend to make them more thoughtful, and it’s extensive connections to the right amygdala would give their cognitive style a tendency to apprehensiveness. They would be more likely to think things through, and see the ramifications of decisions more readily, especially with regard to potential threats. A few individuals with such a tendency would increase the chances for survival for all individuals within early social groups, as they consistently voiced opinions in councils that erred on the side of caution.

7) Behavior and traits associated with Left Amygdalar Mystics.

Mystic experiences appearing from an extra sensitive or unusually active left amygdala will most commonly be visitor experiences . The spectrum of visitor experiences includes all putative encounters with “nonphysical” beings. The first-hand experience of God is understood to be on the extreme end of the spectrum of visitor experience . At the other end of the same spectrum, we find the comparatively mild sensed presence experience. In between, there are a range of other experiences including visitations from dead friends and relatives, ghosts, and even aliens, as well as the experience of spirit mediumship and “channeling”. Visitors of this type may be seen, heard, or just “sensed”. The focus of activity is expected to be in the left amygdala when the presence is a positive or pleasant one and in the right amygdala when the presence is a negative or fearful one.

The sensed presence feels like another being; often one we can interact with. Prayer was perhaps the most obvious way to try to elicit visitor experiences in our early evolutionary history. In trying to deliberately invoke the presence of God, Prayer will tend to activate the sets of pathways that support visitor experiences. These are believed to be based in the amygdala/hippocampal complex , crucial in maintaining our emotional and cognitive habits. An individual need only have minor success in prayer in order to experience changes in their emotional and cognitive style. This is because the areas that we expect to be activated through prayer also help maintain anacastic cognitive and affective habits. Some changes in this area would tend to buttress the development of religious faith, often motivated and amplified by visitor experiences. In principle, regular prayer may make sensing a presence that can be interpreted as God more probable. They will also constitute spiritual learning and “growth”. The experience of the sensed presence is common enough that we can not unreasonably say that we may be a species with a propensity for prayer.

The ability to detect subtle personality patterns seen in many mystics (presumably those with sensitive RH) make them ideally suited to offer personal advice and counsel, often making them ideal therapists. The extra insight into the putative ‘will of God’ or ‘the Gods’, expected in those who have unusually sensitive LA, will confer the ability to extrapolate specific guidance from their religious beliefs, even practicing spirit mediumship. This, together with the verbosity often found in such people, would also make them ideally suited to offer advice to individuals. Both types of mystics, amygdalar and hippocampal, can offer adaptive counsel, both to individuals and to their whole social groups.

The pathways that support mystic experience might well be activated in other ways. For LA Mystics, these might include the experience of love, whether romantic, filial, maternal, or the experience of sexual fulfillment. If the method of prayer involves sensing the presence of the deity one prays to, then it should tend to activate the pathways that support the sensed presence experience. For RH shamans, moments of deep calm, silence, solitude, visual imagination, hypnogogia, and paying attention to one’s breathing could do the same.

The pathways supporting LA mysticism can be expected to recruit structures outside the amygdala on the left. If these include the insula on the left side, we can expect the mystic’s behavior to include frequent expressions of love and for them to empathize with others, and to counsel compassion and understanding whenever possible. If these include the language centers on the left side of the brain, we can expect a strong verbal component to the mystic’s experiences and behaviors. For example, they may hear voices (“locutions”) easily attributable to a god or spirit. In more extreme examples, a person might “channel” an entire scripture, as for example Neale Donald Walsch, the Author of “Conversations with God” . They may also tend to proselytize the people around them, and find themselves compelled to focus on the spiritual aspects of anything being discussed. They may also include reciting sacred verses in their spiritual practices, and find hidden or subtle meanings in them.

In a way not unlike seizural ‘kindling’, mystic experiences should be expected to recur, recruiting the same underlying neural pathways repeatedly, allowing the person to learn to access them more readily over time. This would tend to make stable, if unusual, personalities in those who have them. The cognitive habits that appear in each mystic would also tend to be stable and be integrated into their social behavior over time. These personalities would become increasingly reliable sources of proposals for adaptive actions by the social group.

8) Anthropology

One of the enduring postulates of anthropology is that the social structures found today in hunting and gathering societies, as well as those practicing primitive horticulture, are valid exemplars for the social structures existing during our early evolutionary history. If this is so, then our early ancestors gathered regularly in tribal councils to make important decisions, which were confirmed by the chief. The chief’s job was often to give voice to the general consensus, rather than making decisions.

Our brains appear to be pre-wired for mystic experiences, even if only some of the population encounters the triggers to sensitize them. Dynamic stabilization of these pathways would give much of the population of the feeling that the teachings offered by the mystics of their tribe are valid in some way, and the opinions of mystics are worthy of a special respect.

The opinions and concerns voiced in early tribal councils would reflect the emotional and cognitive styles within the social group (to underscore that most of our discussion concerns tribal societies early in our evolutionary history, we’ll refer to “social groups” as “The People” following the convention of most indigenous peoples). When confronted with an opportunity or a threat, The People would gather and discuss the matter.

The greater the number of cognitive and emotional styles, the more options and choices would be included in these discussions. Those shamans with sensitive left amygdalas would tend to council action and encourage The People to be confident. Those with a sensitive right hippocampus would tend to advise caution and long reflection before important actions are taken . The more choices The People have, the better their chances for encountering the one best suited to their needs. Those with normal levels of temporal lobe activity, constituting the bulk of the population, would display a normal range of emotional and cognitive skills when responding to any threats or opportunities that present themselves.

The majority of the population would have normal levels of activation in the temporal lobes, so that their frontal lobes would make more contributions to their emotions and cognitions than those whose temporal lobes are more active than usual: i.e., mystics. As the frontal lobes function to enable planning, anticipation, and foresight, especially in social situations, those with normal levels of sensitivity would be better able to recognize practical plans. However, given the association between creativity and enhanced temporal lobe sensitivity, it’s probable such people were more likely to offer novel solutions to problems. People with less active temporal lobes would be less likely to conceive new solutions, but more able to review, approve, and act on them them. The contrast between the mystic’s linear and the more common non-linear cognitive styles might have created an organic division of intellectual labor, ensuring a continual source of creative and practical responses to threats and favorable circumstances. In times of cultural or environmental change, solutions to new problems would appear more readily if a section of our population has elevated temporal lobe sensitivity, making them reliably more creative. Once living in complex cultures was established as our evolutionary strategy, protecting our cultures also served our biological survival, so that many decisions tribal councils faced had adaptive ramifications even when they had nothing to do with our immediate survival.

A population of mystics within a social group keeps more perspectives available within it, enhancing the group’s versatility and ability to respond to crises and opportunities. Because of their greater dream recall, as well as the visions they might have, and their tendency to be more verbal at times, mystics are more able to introduce new memes into their cultures, expanding them as they do so. This would tend to foster deeper cohesiveness within the social group, as well as alienating, to varying degrees, rival nations who do not share their cultural forms. The tendency to view the people of other nations with suspicion would also tend to strengthen the integrity of their culture.

The speech of mystics often focused on the moral code of their social group, and how it can be observed. In many hunting and gathering societies, the Shaman carries an authority that exceeds that of the political leader (e.g. chief). Their tendency to be judgmental (MMPI) and ‘hypermoral’ would make them natural police for their social groups early in our evolutionary history. Their spiritual authority would lend weight to the political authority they presumed when they acted out these traits. These same traits, existing in a small section of the population, would ensure that the political ideology of religious adherence was always expressed in tribal councils. In our early history (unlike today), such ideologies would tend to both encourage a wide range of adaptive behaviors, and maintain cultural cohesion.

Those who’ve either rejected dominant religious beliefs, or found themselves unable to live within their tenets may have had a more difficult time finding mating partners. It’s possible that learned religious behavior may have become integral to our species, as those unable to accomplish this learning were slowly “bred out” of our species. Religious belief, including the belief that one continues to exist even after death may be an example of Baldwinian adaptation. Of course, the question of whether consciousness continues after death is separate from the advantages of believing so.

The social, affective, and cognitive skills conferred on mystics may have contributed to the survival and/or success of their social group.

The continuum of temporal lobe lability existing in the human population is a major source of diversity. Human diversity, in turn, offers an almost limitless source of behaviors from which people can select. Just as random mutations offer new traits to a species, which are then selected according to their adaptive value, variations in human cognitive and emotional styles can engineer new behaviors, some of which will be selected for repetition. It’s not impossible that at one time, the consistently occurring percentages of our population with psychiatric disorders, capable of displaying random behaviors, were also a source of potential memes; random behaviors from which the group could select.

The continuum of temporal lobe sensitivity may have contributed to our survival, by ensuring that a broad range of emotional and cognitive styles were expressed during the collective decision-making process, believed to have dominated the political life in our earliest ancestor’s time. This would have allowed them to more effectively respond to both opportunities and threats.


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