During the last years, considerable progress has been made toward understanding the neuronal basis of consciousness by using sophisticated behavioral tasks, brain-imaging techniques, and various psychoactive drugs. Nevertheless, the neuronal mechanisms underlying some of the most intriguing states of consciousness, including spiritual experiences, remain unknown.
To elucidate state of consciousness-related neuronal mechanisms, human subjects were given psilocybin, a naturally occurring serotonergic agonist and hallucinogen that has been used for centuries to induce spiritual experiences in religious and medical rituals.
In this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 50 healthy human volunteers received a moderate dose of psilocybin, while high-density electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings were taken during eyes-open and eyes-closed resting states. The current source density and the lagged phase synchronization of neuronal oscillations across distributed brain regions were computed and correlated with psilocybin-induced altered states of consciousness.
Psilocybin decreased the current source density of neuronal oscillations at 1.5–20 Hz within a neural network comprising the anterior and posterior cingulate cortices and the parahippocampal regions. Most intriguingly, the intensity levels of psilocybin-induced spiritual experience and insightfulness correlated with the lagged phase synchronization of delta oscillations (1.5–4 Hz) between the retrosplenial cortex, the parahippocampus, and the lateral orbitofrontal area.
These results provide systematic evidence for the direct association of a specific spatiotemporal neuronal mechanism with spiritual experiences and enhanced insight into life and existence. The identified mechanism may constitute a pathway for modulating mental health, as spiritual experiences can promote sustained well-being and psychological resilience.
Kometer, M., Pokorny, T., Seifritz, E., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2015). Psilocybin-induced spiritual experiences and insightfulness are associated with synchronization of neuronal oscillations. Psychopharmacology, 1-14. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00213-015-4026-7