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Shroom with a view

Richard Dawkins should try mushrooms. A few years ago, in an exploration of religion, he tried the "God helmet", a device that attempts to stimulate religious experience in the brain by applying a shifting magnetic field. It got him nowhere. Psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, might prove more enlightening.

Towards the end of March, researchers will gather at King's College Hospital to discuss the nature and neuroscience of mystical and religious revelation. One of the speakers is Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College. His research sounds like a hoot. In his latest experiments, he gave volunteers psilocybin, then put them in a scanner to examine how blood flows altered in the brain.

He also asked them what it was like. Most reported mystical experiences in which they lost their sense of themselves and felt they became absorbed into everything around them. That analysis was corroborated by the scans, which showed altered blood flows in parts of the brain known to handle our concept of self. It's bona fide research, in case you're wondering, peer-reviewed and published by the US National Academy of Sciences.

Such results are not entirely unexpected. The same thing has been observed in experiments scanning the brains of Franciscan nuns at prayer and Buddhist monks deep in meditation: the sense of self disappears and eternity and infinity take over.

Neither are they a scientific mystery. Reduced blood flow to the parietal lobe of the brain explains much of it. You encode your sense of self and your body image on the left of this region. On the right, you represent the space and time in which this self resides. Reduce the blood flow and the two disconnect - and away you go. In Carhart-Harris's research, the reported intensity of the mystical experience matched the degree of disconnection between these parts of the brain.

Perhaps most interesting of all is that the volunteers for the psilocybin experiment - like many religious people - struggled to put their experiences into words. Though profoundly affected, they could not articulate what they had experienced or why they felt it mattered so much. The experiment illustrates the problem with rational debate between those who define themselves by their religious views and experiences and those who have never had such an experience, yet would strip all religion away.

It is difficult for science to acknowledge a phenomenon that no one else can verify and that no one can describe to the satisfaction of others. Yet it rests on something real, physiological and pleasurable - and is undoubtedly useful.

The recent reporting of the power of LSD in overcoming alcoholism provides one example. A review of studies carried out between 1966 and 1970 showed that a single dose of a psychedelic drug is as effective as any standard treatment. Patients often felt it gave them "significant insights into their problems" and "a new lease on life". As the sacked former government drugs adviser David Nutt told the BBC, a rewiring of the way you see yourself can be a lifeline for someone on a self-destructive trajectory.

Big picture
Even scientists are not immune from the desire to see themselves as part of something bigger. The scientific mantra that we are an assembly of atoms forged in stars does it nicely, as do the frequent attempts to get across just how small and insignificant we are in the cosmic scale of things.Dawkins's delight in evolution, in which humans are just the most recent innovation in a process that has continued for billions of years, looks rather similar. Scientists, theologians: each to their own - to exactly the same end, it seems.
Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible