[This is part 2 of a 3-part series entitled, “Neural Correlates of Enlightenment: The Buddha Helmet.”]
In order to create an effective and specific Buddha Helmet that will affect specific brain functions, those functions need to be localized in the brain. More importantly, the functions that we’re looking for need to be ascertained. Is compassion an empathetic emotion, a conscious thought, an effortless motivation? Is the ego a sense of bodily self, a compilation of the 5 aggregates, is it consciousness? And what was his enlightenment experience really like?
Unfortunately, unlike Einstein’s brain, Buddha’s brain was not preserved in mason jars for study. The only legacy Buddha left behind were his teachings, stories and allegories. Fortunately, many of these describe the Buddha’s mind, the most obvious of which suggest that he possessed limitless compassion, no ego, and had an enlightenment experience where he envisioned his past lives. I believe it is possible from these depictions of the Buddha to reverse-engineer a tentative model of what his brain may have been like. By pinpointing characteristic qualities of Buddha’s mind, one might reasonably investigate the localization of these functions within the brain—essentially, find which neurons control limitless compassion, what structure creates our sense of self, and how one can recreate the quintessential Buddhist enlightenment experience. That is, all under the assumption that Buddha’s neuroanatomy is reasonably similar to others’.
What is the nature of limitless compassion? If compassion were an emotion, it is likely that brain imaging studies would find activity in the amygdala, traditionally the center of emotions. However, if compassion were a conscious decision, frontal lobe regions more associated with executive functions might be involved. In the Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso notes that the Buddha has a non-conceptual mind and has no need to develop a motivation to help others. Thus, I believe the most implicative study was conducted by Dr. Liane Young of MIT, where patient’s abilities to make normal moral judgements effectively disrupted—by using TMS on the right temporal parietal junction, patients ended up making decisions on the outcome, rather than moral principles, in a very utilitarian fashion. This almost seems to suggest that while higher level reasoning behaviors may underlie most decisions, there is a more immediate moral response.
One of the most important characteristics of both Buddhist practice and of the historic Shakyamuni Buddha is that one of Right Understanding should not regard anything as an Ego. Some theories suggest that the sense of a physical self is rooted in the angular gyrus, others point to the frontal lobe and executive functions as the self-awareness, still others theorize that each portion of the brain has a certain level of consciousness and that combined, they form what is called the ego: “First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.” It would seem that the potential for a complete ego loss lies in either disrupting the physical sense of self in the temporal parietal lobe, angular gyrus, and/or insula, or experiencing such substantial loss through endogenous DMT or a related chemical. Interestingly enough, these same possibilities would likewise contribute to Buddha’s vision of previous lives – neurologically this is important, as this is the first, and certainly not the last, sign of the interconnectivity of not only the human brain but of the Buddhist enlightenment model.
The previous lives of Buddha detail his cultivation of merit and act as a great catalyst within his enlightenment. That vision arguably led to the formation of the Four Noble Truths and can be seen as the logical foundation of Buddhism itself. Indeed, upon seeing his past lives, it is said that Buddha saw the true nature of Samsara, the cycle of rebirth. Of course, the belief that one has seen past lives opens up a number of possibilities, the two most prominent of which will be discussed here: stimulation of the angular gyrus and the release of endogenous hallucinogens. Stimulation of the angular gyrus can produce an out of body experience, as well as the sensation of 2 bodies. Dr. Olaf Blanke carried out some studies at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, where they implanted electrodes on two neuronormal female patients and found that “stimulation of the left angular gyrus gave the patient a sensation of a shadowy person lurking behind [but] the shadowy figure is actually a perceived double of the self” and “stimulation of the right angular gyrus resulted in an out-of-body experience, as if the patient were floating from the ceiling, looking down at herself.”
The topic of drugs in relation to religion, has been greatly contested in many arenas, from their spiritual use in the 70’s to proponent Timothy Leary to the book Zig Zag Zen, describing how similar revelatory experiences are to those gained from drugs. In the book “DMT: The Spirit Molecule,” Dr. Strassman chronicles his investigation, of what he believes, to be the endogenous chemical source of near-death experiences and mystical experiences: while DMT appears to fit the description, Strassman notes in his book that even though the light at the end of the tunnel, welcoming hands and voices, and revelatory out-of-body experiences have considerable effects on one’s mental status and mindset, they are not lasting. Where a drug user may remember his or her hallucinatory experience, it does not result in a lifetime of serenity and compassion—though it must be noted that a natural occurrence, such as a near-death experience (NDE) or out-of-body experience (OOBE), may be much more potent of an episode than that of a manufactured, artificial one. Theoretically, if Siddhartha had sat meditating for days upon days with minimal nourishment, it’s not unreasonable to assume that his body, believing that he was near death, had released its endogenous stores of DMT. Such a trip would likely differ greatly in nature from that of smoked, injected, or ingested DMT. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to conjecture that certain physiological changes occurred that facilitated the formation of a completely different molecule. Thus, the specifics of DMT’s hallucinations must be taken into account—DMT produces some very characteristic visions and sensations. Strassman plainly states that there was a difference in NDE’s and the effects of DMT, however noting the similar grandiose extensions of reality that are perceived.
While the search for a chemical constituent of Buddhist enlightenment may continue for some time, DMT, while not necessarily the answer, strongly suggests a related tryptamine structure, perhaps found within the pineal gland. As more research explores the field of hallucinogenics, it will become easier to identify molecular suspects that bear significant resemblance to key experiences: a complete ego loss, compassion, serenity, and increased significance. Another example, perhaps much closer in nature to that of an enlightenment experience than that of DMT, is dipropyltryptamine (DPT). It features increased significance found in music and color, a pleasant, warm buzz or vibration may be felt, along with complete ego loss. This ego loss may become so intense that boundaries between objects may become difficult to distinguish. Instead of the personal entity contact noted with DMT, DPT appears to give the user a perspective more akin to that of an observer. Lastly, and most importantly, the user may have the feeling of living the life of someone else or having had all possible experiences at once, even seeing the universe from different locations in space and time.
While undeniable that further research is needed to both augment positive characteristics and combat negative characteristics, studies such as those listed above might suggest whether a Buddha Helmet would best utilize TMS or drug regiments.