brain chemistry and mystical experiences

Todd I. Stark stark at dwovax.enet.dec.com
Mon Oct 4 19:52:24 EST 1993

In article <199310030206.AA01624 at kepler.unh.edu>, dmn at kepler.unh.edu (There's a seeker born every minute.) writes...
>    What methods are used to determine which chemicals are being
>secreted by one's brain at any given moment (say time T)? 
>If we aren't yet capable of doing this, how long do you suspect it
>will be before we _can_ do this?

Some thoughts on this ...

Glands secrete specific substances, which then influence remote cells
in the body.  The mechanisms used by the brain are similar but a
different variation of this mechanism, much more elaborately

The brain is composed of a very large number of individual cells,
neurons and glia, which communicate by means of a bewildering variety of
both electrical and chemical means.  The brain does not secrete a particular
chemical at a particular time all over like a gland, though it may have
specific regions or pathways which have an identified functional aspect
involving the use of specific chemicals to communicate between cells,
or modulate the response of individual cells.  This is 'difficult' to
observe in real time in a living subject.  It is mostly inferred from
post-mortem, behavioral, animal, pharmacological, and other sorts of
data.  The closest thing I know of that we have to this kind of
information is a scan of which regions of the brain are taking up 
particular tracer-tagged versions of natural brain chemicals at a 
given time.  

Most human brain cells are too small and too inaccessible in any
kind of humane or ethical experiment to measure their chemical
activity directly in vivo.  This is also true to some extent for
most animals.

>    I had an interesting, albeit morbid, idea the other day...
>Some folks (specifically who I don't recall) have speculated that
>death-bed/near-death mystical experiences might be caused by the release 
>of particular chemicals by the brain. 

Nearly everything that the brain does is related to or at least influenced
by particular chemicals and their influence on ion balances across cell 
membranes, and the resulting changes in electrical and chemical activity
patterns.  Isolating the particular changes associated with the simplest
activities in some of the simplest organisms has only fairly recently been

You'll probably find that reaching into elaborate speculations about
psychological states, even the mundane, much less the mystical, is probably 
anaethma to most cellular and biochemical brain scientists at this time, 
though there may be a few exceptions.  Karl Pribram, Michael Persinger, and 
others have occasionally written about such things as 'clinical
mysticism,' where supposedly mystical experiences were produced by
stimulation or seizure activity in specific regions.  I'm not aware
of a particular single-neurotransmitter pathway or particular 
neuromodulator implicated in this, but I'd think it's entirely possible ...

						kind regards,

| Todd I. Stark				  stark at dwovax.enet.dec.com           |
| Digital Equipment Corporation		             (215) 542-3573           |
| Philadelphia, Pa. USA                                                       |
|    "(A word is) the skin of a living thought"  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.   |

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