[Paleopsych] Inner Worlds: Origins of spirituality in human evolution: what happened when our species learned of our own mortality.
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Origins of spirituality in human evolution: what happened when our
species learned of our own mortality.
[Again, this is a dubious site.]
The Beginnings of Spirituality and Death Anxiety in Human Evolution.
brainsci at jps.net
Mommy, mommy, I feel sick.
Run for the doctor, quick, quick, quick.
Doctor, doctor, will I die?
Yes my dear, and so shall I.
Human spirituality had an origin in our history. It began soon after
we acquired our language skills, and is related to the linguistic
aspects of our sense of self.
If we didn't have language, it would have been very easy to go into a
total denial of the fact of personal death(1). Nobody has ever
experienced their own death. You have to figure it out while you're
How do you know you'll die? Unless you have some fairly intense
psychic powers ( and you believe in reincarnation), you won't remember
dying, and even then your memories will bear other interpretations.
Most people, most of the time, only know that they will die because
they've learned it, usually during childhood.
"Does everybody have to die, Daddy?"
"Do dogs go to Heaven?"
"Can people in Heaven see us?"
"Is it a long time?"
As children grow up, they experience the deaths of those around them,
and learn that people actually die. Their religions tell them about
life after death, making sure that kids think about it in their own
terms as soon as they learn to think about it at all. Tales are told.
Death is heaven and hell.
Death is rebirth.
Death is where the ancestors are.
Death is a lush spirit world.
Death is being in the arms of God.
Cultures and religions have co-opted death, turning it into a story
written by living cultures, for living people. Near-Death studies have
found that experiences very much like traditional afterlife stories
(or something like them) can actually be found in near-death accounts.
This can explain the source of these stories, but this chapter is more
about why humans have the need for these stories in the first place.
When we first appeared as a species, our brains expanded in two
important areas. The frontal lobes, which have to do with planning,
anticipating things, and projecting into the future, and the temporal
lobes, which have to do with memory. Both of these large areas have
many other functions, but these two stand out when we are talking
about understanding death. The temporal lobes expanded, and now
included language comprehension areas, and the frontal lobes grew to
include language production areas. The human sense of self changed to
include a component that dealt in language, so that we began to take
words personally, and to feel our selves' affected by what others say
Our minds were re-shaped with a new 'top priority': talking to others.
Each person had to fit the way they related to others into a
vocabulary they shared with others. The process of actually
identifying with others was probably enhanced as well. We were more
able to assume that our experiences were like those of others, and
that their experiences were also like ours, because they used the same
words and gestures we do. This must have enhanced our capacity for
bonding, but it also introduced a defense mechanism that helps people
to feel that anyone who seems to experience the world differently than
themselves is somehow less than fully human. Other nations were
thought of as though they were other species. We began to judge
others. Not just dislike them, but actually entertain thoughts that
they shouldn't be the way they are.
At this point in our evolutionary history, a fundamentally new
experience became possible. A person could look at a dead body,
remember the experience, think about it, personalize the whole thing,
and conclude that the same thing is going to happen to them. Language
skills are utilized, and the sentence appears in the mind: "I will
die." The conclusion is reached without the person having any first
hand experience at all.
The concept is very threatening. Our new cognitive skills would allow
a lot more imagination than before, and it would have been very
adaptive for us to use this skill to imagine as many way of dying as
possible. The more ways of dying we can imagine, the more ways we can
avoid. But death anxiety is very stressful. If we were aware of our
death at all times, we would be at risk for several psychoses, like
the ones that follow the development of the normally fear-laden
temporal lobe seizures. (2, 3).
Persinger (4) has theorized that we developed a mechanism that shuts
death anxiety off. Spiritual experience.
You have to know something about how the brain creates emotion before
you can understand how this works. It starts with a structure called
the amygdala. Actually, there's two of them, one on each side of the
brain. The one on the right is specialized for negative feelings,
especially fear and sadness. The one on the left manages positive
There's an idea that keeps re-appearing in my work. That when a
negative emotion becomes intense enough, it can actually create bliss.
Here's how it works: As a negative emotion, especially fear, deepens,
it involves more and more of the right amygdala. The source of the
emotion stimulates it from within. When a certain point is reached, it
'overloads', and the activity spills into the amygdala on the left.
All of a sudden, the left amygdala, which has been operating at a low
level, is filled with activity, and the person is filled with bliss,
joy, ecstasy, and a sense of meaningfulness.
The point where this happens is very deep in the experience of fear or
My interpretation of these events is that they're a rare example of a
state of consciousness that's usually a part of the death process (5).
Because these states are ordinarily reserved for the end of life, they
might manifest only when a person only feels that their lives, their
self' is threatened with extinction. When that threshold is crossed, a
spiritual experience can occur, one that takes a part of the death
process, and uses it to end a painful episode.
Many near-death phenomena have appeared at times that a person only
thought they were about to die, even when they weren't in any danger
at all, as though the belief that one is about to die is as much of a
trigger as death itself. There are many recorded accounts of
near-death-like experiences happening because of threats to the sense
of self without any threats to the person's life.
Here's one such case (4) :
"When Fred died, the world collapsed around me. I could not eat or
sleep, everything seemed to lose its color-food was tasteless, I
couldn't swallow because of this lump in my throat; it would not go
away no matter how much I cried. My mental pain would come and go like
chill waves. Sometimes I would forget for a few minutes and think it
was all a bad dream. Other times, the reality of it would hit me like
a cold shower. The fourth night after he died, I lay in bed, trying to
piece my life together. I lay there for hours. Suddenly, I felt Fred's
presence beside me in the bed. I looked over and saw him standing
beside me. He was dressed in his old work clothes and had a big smile
on his face. He said "Don't worry Maud. I'm in heaven now, God has let
me come to you. All our friends are here too. Its all true, what we
believed about God ...this is only a temporary separation." I went to
sleep and didn't wake for hours. The next day I felt good, the sun was
shining again; there was meaning to my life."
Maud probably identified herself as Fred's wife. When he died, she
died. Her sense of herself, that is. Her brains activity can be
guessed at: when her grief passed a certain point, her left amygdala
was triggered, and its positive contribution to her sense of self was
restored. When objects identified with the self are lost, so is the
self. In fact, one study found that the most prominent predisposing
factor in sensing the presence of a deceased spouse was that their
wife or husband had died unexpectedly (8). Without time to prepare
themselves mentally, they weren't able to resist their own grief, and
the threshold was passed.
The human sense of self is partly a social thing. If a person
experiences too much rejection at the hands of others, as in child
abuse, their self-esteem can be lowered below a certain point, also
triggering this process. There are several studies on child abuse that
support this idea (6). As the cycle of abuse proceeds, dissociative
states that first appear as ways to escape from the abuse can become
permanent options, traits.' (7)
The following case (author's collection-paraphrased) illustrates the
"As a child, I severely abused in every way a child can be. I grew up
never having even one toy. I would be locked in a closet for days at a
time. I spent my whole childhood wanting to die. He (her father)
wouldn't give me any food or water. I lost all sense of time in there.
I felt myself falling into a space I came to think of as the pit of
despair'. Eventually, I came to the bottom. There, I found angels
waiting for me. They held me and comforted me and told me how my I was
being prepared for something important that would come later on in my
life. They promised me that they would never leave me and that they
would always protect me. Now, when I do massage, these same angels
appear and give me spirit guidance. They helped me to become a healer,
and I can't imagine anything I'd rather be. I can't say that I'm glad
I was abused, but having been abused is a part of my life, and I like
my life. Now."
There are several points that both these stories have in common with
near-death experiences, such as the angels and meeting a dead person.
It seems as though they both felt they were dying, and used the
mechanism for healing these feelings that appears in the death
A lot of my work is devote to exploring the idea that mystic
experiences are instances of the death process occurring outside of
their normal context. I don't see these as pathological instances of
the experiences. It seems more likely that our continually evolving
minds found additional applications of the new neural mechanisms
associated with the death process, and that is the source of human
In another article (This one), we have looked at the similarities
between romantic love and religious devotion. Love, however its
defined, has a powerful ability to lessen (attenuate) death anxiety.
The death-process, as revealed in near-death experiences, seems to
return, over and over, to the experience of love and being loved, of
being reunited with loved ones, and of looking at life in terms of how
much love we creat for ourselves while we live.
Both love and the experience of religious bliss lessen the anxiety
that threats to the sense of self create. Love from others heals
wounds to the self, which is partly a social thing. Religious bliss
and ecstasy heal threats to the more privately felt self. The death
process begins with the fear and resistance that helps us to try to
survive, but once death begins, and survival becomes impossible, the
fear that expectating death creates is replaced by a feeling that's
every bit as good as the fear of death was bad.
Our species is the only one that can hold the thought in our minds: "I
will die.' Ours is the only one that needs a way to cope with it, and
its long-term effects may be among the most important factors that
shaped our cultures.
As children, we might run to our mommies when we hear things that hurt
our feelings. As adults, we run to God when our feelings are hurt. The
fact of death is understood as an idea first, so its natural salve is
more ideas . Ideas like the ones that religion uses to assure people
that death, somehow, does not really exist. Any idea will do so long
as it makes it possible to face death without anxiety.
A story comes to mind. When I was in India, I was walking in a main
street in Jaipur. I came on a small crowd gathered on one side of the
street, and went up to see what it was about. When I got in, I saw
that they were staring at a very pale man lying on the ground, wearing
only a loincloth. He was covered with a loosely woven cheese cloth.
Next to him was a battered aluminum bowl with some money in it. I
noticed a cheerful-looking man standing next to him wearing the khaki
shirt and brass insignia of a government worker.
I went up to him and asked: "What are you doing?" You can ask that
sort of thing in India.
He said: "I am collecting money for this poor fellow." "I work in
municipalities office." I asked: "what's the matter with him?"
He answered: "Nothing is matter with him. He is just dead. We need
money to burn his body. You put money. Very good for you."
This man wore the Hindu tilak that advertised his beliefs about death
and dying. I looked at the man, now knowing that it was a corpse. As
if he could read my mind, the agent said: "Very soon he is child
again. Nothing Worry." I put down 20 Rupees.
The man's comments illustrate the ease with which the mind can remove
the threat of death, and turn it into something trivial. "He is just
dead. ... Nothing Worry."
Just a few hours before the present, I was in the grocery store. While
I waited in line , an old man got in the line behind me, and quite out
of the blue, he said "I'm 83 years old. Last week, I knew I was going
to die soon, but I don't care. I tried to tell my son, but he didn't
wanna listen." I told him, thinking of Near-Death Experiences, that
I'd heard that the after life was usually a pretty good deal. He said
"Oh...I don't believe in any of that horseshit." The man seemed very
happy. I asked him about it, and he said "Oh ...I smile all the time
Feeling the approach of death to be certain, whether real or imagined,
natural or not, expected or not, can initiate experiences that
commonly occur at death. Threats to the more subtle sense of self are
handled differently, in more social ways, like receiving comfort from
others, but the brain structures involved seem to be much the same.
We use language to amplify the fear of death and that creates a deeper
need to avoid it than any other species has. Our thoughts of death
gave us a reason to want to be immortal. Our death-process, which
continues our consciousness after death for a time makes it possible
for us to feel its true while we're still alive. And feel that we are
safe from dying.
(1) Persinger, M.A. "Death Anxiety as a Semantic Conditioned
Suppression Paradigm" Perceptual and Motor Skills 1985, 60, 827-830
(2) Slater, E, & Beard, E.W., "Schizophrenia-like psychoses of
Epilepsy" British Journal of Psychiatry, 1963, 109 95-150
(3) Umbricht, Daniel, Et Al, "Postictal and Chronic Psychoses in
Patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy" American Journal of Psychiatry,
1995, 152:2 224-231
(4) Persinger, Michael A., "Neuropsychological Bases of God-Beliefs",
(5) Murphy, Todd, "The Structure and Function of Near-Death
Experiences: An algorithmic reincarnation hypothesis" Journal of
Near-Death Studies (in press)
(6) Hunt, Harry, Et. Al, "Transpersonal Effects in Childhood: An
Exploratory Empirical Study of Selected Adult Groups" Perceptual and
Motor Skills, 1992, 75, 1135-1153
(7) Perry, Bruce, Et, Al "Childhood Trauma, The Neurobiology of
Adaptation, and Use-dependent" Development of the Brain: How "States"
become"Traits," Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol 16, No. 4, Winter
(8) Simon-Buller, Sherry, M.S. "Correlates of Sensing the Presence of
a deceased Spouse" Omega, Vol 19(1) 1988-89
Shakti - Magnetic Brain Stimulation
Deja Vu Darwinian Reincarnation
Consciousness Romantic Love and the Brain
Origins of spirituality in Human Evolution
Sacred Lands "The Sensed Presence"
Glasses For Enhanced Visual Acuity
God in the Brain Spiritual Aptitude Test
Stimulating My BrainAs A Spiritual Path
Inventing Shakti Sex_and States of Consciousness
The Gay Male Brain - Evolutionary Speculations
Visions The Spiritual Personality
Enlightenment And the Brain
Archetypes A Diet For Epileptics?
Odd Experiences - Online Poll Results
Brain_News Out-Of-Body Experiences
Near-Death Experiences - Thai Case histories
The Big Bang Meditations from Brain Science
Near-Death Experiences in Thailand - Discussion
Downloads The Terrorist Brain
Publications by Dr. M.A. Persinger
Credentials Hippocrates on Epilepsy
2. mailto:brainsci at jp.net
4. mailto:brainsci at jps.net
8. mailto:brainsci at jps.net
More information about the paleopsych