The Biochemistry of Spirituality

by Iain Carstairs - 

Oxytocin is generating a lot of interest recently.

Oxytocin, made in the hypothalamus is released via the pituitary gland: its construction sequence is cysteine – tyrosine – isoleucine – glutamine – asparagine – cysteine – proline – leucine – glycine 

Researcher Paul Zak, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, has shown that subjects who inhaled oxytocin gave away 80% more money than subjects who inhaled a placebo. 

Researchers found that when participants were given oxytocin through a nasal spray, participants were 80 percent more generous in their offers to split the money.

“People left the lab with less money,” said Zak. “But they weren’t necessarily unhappy.” 
“We are designed to care about others. The reason we are charitable is that we can’t help it – we have a built in brain mechanism that connects us to other people.”  [Carla Williams, ABC News] 
Generosity is emphasized in all mankind’s scriptures, and shown by example in the lives of individuals to whom the birth of religions can be traced. 

Generosity has without doubt always been intimately connected to spiritual beliefs, and qualities such as kindness and gratitude are now proven through biochemical studies to have a soothing effect on the brain. 

I suggest something further – through other mechanisms, perhaps such as retrotransposons which continually alter the brain DNA through a person’s lifetime, it may be that acts of kindness, displays of sincerity and gratitude and adherence to truth have a beneficial impact on the brain DNA which is passed to the next generation – somehow elevating their hard-wired starting point. 

Oxytocin, released into the blood from the pituitary gland, is also delivered to the brain through nerve channels.

The supraoptic nucleus, a component of the hypothalamus generating, among other things, oxytocin and vasopressin has been the subject of much interest in neurophysiology as it is relatively self-contained (about 3,000 neurons) and because its morphology is “remarkably plastic”. 

Vasopressin neurons fire in longer, uncoordinated bursts rather than the pulse-like activity of oxytocin neurons. 

Both types produce small amounts of many other very important neurotransmitters, meaning the supraoptic nucleus is a hive of varied activity with relatively large neurons in a community of manageable size. All in all, a great area to study. 

Acts of Generosity and Kindness

The soothing effect on the brain from acts of generosity and kindness is the reason service to others is emphasized in spiritual texts, helping combat the daily effects of frustration and stress on the delicate neural structures. 

Protective Mechanism

It is the brain’s essential hygiene, aiding evolutionary forces during a lifetime but the presence of moral qualities in the families producing genius points towards a significant genetic effect as well. 

As is well known, the brain cannot feel pain. But, signaling irritation and then anger, it registers its distress at conditions abusing or over-taxing its resources. 

The aim is always to motivate the individual to remove the source of annoyance or remove themselves – and the brain – from the scene. 

Brain damage: as a safety mechanism (comparable to the pain reflex within the skin or muscles) the brain does everything possible to alert the individual to conditions endangering it or taxing it beyond its limits.

The protective feelings towards spiritual texts and the uncontrollable anger some feel at attempts to ridicule them must have a deep-rooted biological basis in the evolutionary requirements of man’s brain: the brain itself is guarding its protective mechanisms and protesting their destruction. Muslims expressing uncontrollable anger at a US Pastor’s threat to publicly burn the Qu’ran.

Partner in Evolution

Since empathic personalities, creativity and genius are known to come from families with stronger moral backgrounds and since materialism and greed seem to give birth to de-sensitised, less empathic individuals – and in extreme cases, sociopathic monsters – the emotional behaviour of the individual must contribute toward the gradual evolution or degeneration of the human race. 

The human brain – unlike that of the almost completely instinctive animal world – is a partner in evolution by virtue of the conscious personality’s own actions. 

This is the secret of the scriptures: they present a hygiene for the human brain, enabling a calmer environment less in conflict with its gradual, healthy evolution towards an ever higher state of consciousness. 

The image of a human incorporating a perfect moral example or even an incarnation of divinity is central to all religions, and imprints a comprehensible evolutionary goal onto the highly plastic and suggestible brain. 

The powerful imprinting mechanisms of the brain are often abused by demagogues and dictators but imprinting a tangible image of divinity is to encourage the gradual evolution of the mass mind towards these higher goals. 

Once such moral examples are replaced by fame-hungry, flawed individuals such as the media darlings of today, surrounded by a philosophy equating humans to rats and flies, the mind soon falls victim to decline. 

Both the disastrous rise in violent crime in the 20th and 21st centuries and the gangrenous mass of hideous individuals born without any moral compass, completely indifferent to the pain and suffering of their victims, form the genetic harvest of a materialism which has attempted to slice away the brain’s own systems of hygiene. 

The deep affection lasting thousands of years, for scriptures revealed through natural genius, arise from an instinctive understanding that they contribute towards the future of the human race. 

The attempt to discredit them is rapidly looking a little silly, since our biochemistry seems intertwined with ages-old wisdom! 

When what is above sacrifices itself to increase what is below, this is out-and-out increase… true increase is without artifice… herein is expressed the most basic principle of leadership: to rule is truly to serve. 

Enlightenment and Clarity

It is this spirit alone that has the power to help the world. It is the way of great enlightenment; the way of great clarity. 

Sacrifice on the part of those above for the increase of those below fills people with a sense of joy and gratitude which is of great value to the common well-being. 
“Generosity or dana in Sanskrit, is a power. Traditional teachings tell us that a life of generosity forms the ideal foundation for all other spiritual growth. We nourish this power when we offer a gentle word, an open mind or a gift of food or money. Dana flowers when we are content with things as they are, when we let go of what is not needed and when we do not take what is not freely given to us.” [] 
One day the Prophet Muhammad offered the prayer in the mosque and then hurriedly went to his house and returned immediately. 

A companion asked why he left and he replied 
“I left a piece of gold at home which was given for charity and I disliked letting it remain a night in my house, so I brought it to the mosque to distribute.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari) 
Our worldly possessions are bounties from God, who is Al Kareem, the Most Generous. Muslims believe that everything originates from God and everything will return to Him. 

Thus it is logical to behave as if that which we possess is merely a loan, something we are obligated to preserve, protect and ultimately share. 

Whenever Prophet Muhammad met a miserly person, he advised him to be more generous and charitable. 

Ibn `Abbas said that he heard Prophet Muhammad say,
 “The believer is not the one who eats when his neighbour beside him is hungry,” another companion heard the Prophet say, “The believer is simple and generous, but the wicked person is deceitful and ignoble.” 
Even in the direst of circumstances, a person who is a true believer in Almighty God is able to be generous. 

The people came to the Prophet Muhammad and asked, “If someone has nothing to give, what will he do?” He said, “He should work with his hands and benefit himself and also give in charity (from what he earns).” 

The people further asked, “If he cannot find even that?” He replied, “He should help the needy who appeal for help.” Then the people asked, “If he cannot do that?” He replied, “Then he should perform good deeds and keep away from evil deeds and this will be regarded as charitable deeds.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari) [Deen Show] 

It seems these ideas are by no means new – the above book, published in 2006, contributes to the field of neurotheology – the study of religious and spiritual practices on the brain – and seems to be a source of much neurophysiological detail. 

Oxytocin and Autism: 

Eric Hollander of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York is studying what happens when you give oxytocin to autistic adults. 

He has found that it improves their ability to recognise emotions like happiness and anger in people’s tone of voice, something autistic people struggle with. A single intravenous infusion produced improvements that lasted two weeks (Biological Psychiatry, vol 61, p 498). 

Hollander has also found that oxytocin increases his volunteers’ ability to recognise faces and interpret emotional expressions. 

Prior studies have already shown that when autistic people see faces, they activate brain areas normally used to recognise inanimate objects. 

Hollander says his preliminary results show that when given oxytocin intravenously, autistic people are more able to recruit the normal face-recognition area, the fusiform gyrus. Oxytocin also reduced their repetitive behaviours. 

Hollander is not the first researcher to connect autism to oxytocin. A 1998 study detected lower levels of oxytocin in the blood plasma of severely socially-averse autistic children (Biological Psychiatry, vol 43, p 270), and more recently variants in the oxytocin receptor gene have been linked to the risk of developing autism (Biological Psychiatry, vol 58, p 74). 

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