Must read article by neuroscientist against the "(Death) Anxiety Management" theory of religious experience

Hi all,

This is an old article by Patrick McNamara (2014) but sharing because it makes so much sense.

Have been trying to track this one down for a while.

For all the meditation junkies out there…this is about the role of dopamine in religious experrience.

It touches on some “big ideas” in (Western) religious studies, such as the “death anxiety management” theory of religion.

It attempts to counter this with a brain based concept of religious experience as the “unexpected reward”.

Key point: the search for unexpected reward is probably a more important driver of religious experience than death anxiety (As already noted by “every mystic poet, ever”). Subjects did not score more highly on religious test after death prompt, more religious after “ocean view” prompt.

(Test was theistic- not sure how this would work out if anicca perception was tested).

I don’t have much opinion on the role of dopamine in fanaticism, however, as someone who has drunk coffee before, it is quite believable that dopamine has a role in positive emotions.

Just sharing, for anyone interested.


Where do you see this “so much sense”? Subjectivity - notion of self as well conceit “I am” is associated with perception of permanence. If so, it should be obvious that the fear of death is a very real phenomen. Perhaps many may claim not to experience any such anxiety, but another psychological concepts as “repression” or "inauthenticity’ can easily explain it.

And why neuroscientist should know more about conscious experience than average man? Such data on the first place can be obtained from introspection…or just generally by intelligent observation of experience, which isn’t a strong side of neuroscience, since it approaches to consciousness from the brain investigstions.

The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out but, in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.

This book is pro-science. I want the sciences to be less dogmatic and more scientific. I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them.

The scientific creed

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.

  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

  7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

  8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

In everyday usage, materialism refers to a way of life >In the spirit of radical scepticism, I turn each of these ten doctrines into a question. Entirely new vistas open up when a widely accepted assumption is taken as the beginning of an enquiry, rather than as an unquestionable truth. For example, the assumption that nature is machine-like or mechanical becomes a question: ‘Is nature mechanical?’ The assumption that matter is unconscious becomes ‘Is matter unconscious?’ And so on.

Rupert Sheldrake The Science Delusion

You are quoting a “parapsychologist”, who came up with as yet unobserved “morphic resonance” (whatever that means) and many such unobserved and possibly unobservable concepts, making them scientifically untenable. Just because he criticizes science or scientists doesn’t mean anything because what he does is not science nor philosophy of science. It is textbook “pseudoscience”.

Whatever is in that article may turn out to be completely wrong down the road but at least they are not winging it, unlike Rupert Sheldrake. A sampling of his “theories” is here Rupert Sheldrake - Wikipedia.

I’ve had the good fortune (!?) of experiencing both deep meditative states and intensely aroused spiritual states (which definitely were dopamine related). As far as I can tell they are very different, one is excitable and the other peaceful and still. So I’m not sure about the author’s claim that the Buddha’s qualitative experience is related to dopamine. But I definitely agree that spiritual experiences are often related to dopamine levels. This can become pathological/destructive in bipolar disorder and also psychotic episodes.

I would argue that if dopamine suppressing medications make your experience go away, it was a conditioned phenomenon and not a genuine spiritual experience in the Buddhist sense. So dopamine can lead to spiritual experiences but not to the awakening that the Buddha talked about. Dopamine is then a danger and distraction on the path, a close enemy maybe.

Interesting thread to follow. I recall Bhikkhu Anālayo’s article from a few years ago: Memento Mori: Recollection of Death in Early Buddhist Meditation

This is where I first learned about Terror Management Theory (TMT). I was taken aback at the thought that modern psychology might get people to willingly expose themselves to thoughts of death. (Presumably these are paid volunteers.)

I do this because of Buddhist practice. With enough regularity, as a lay person, to touch into the liberating benefits. But otherwise, no, I don’t think anyone could convince me to do it. No comparison with the promise of dopamine hits. Especially if I’m lost for whatever reason.

I do wonder whether, for some people – due to brain injury/disease or just outlandish, chronic physical pain – dopamine rewards are the closest they will get to remission of dukkha in this lifetime. If this is the only psychological and somatic space where they can ever touch into something outside themselves.

There’s a good 2020 article on the current state of TMT research here:

I have a subscription service where I can offer a handful of people free read-access for 7 days.
:heart_eyes: :pray:t3:

I’d offer that Dhamma practice is not about dopamine surges and exotic experiences, even intensely pleasurable ones. But is rather about understanding all conditional experiences as being unreliable for the ending of dukkha – and therefore developing the wisdom of letting go of all experiences, all the hindrances.

The above essay appears to be more about “getting” certain experiences rather than being unattached and unmoved by any of them.
I mean, we can learn from experiences, of course, but that’s different than seeking after certain mental states – dopamine-related or otherwise.

Just saying…


Your value judgement is based on data provided by the page which I don’t consider as a serious source of information in the most of fields. So it is unlikely that our further exchange could be fruitful.

Nevertheless, what surprise me, you seem to use the term “parapsychologist” dismissively as if it was a unscientific field and these phenomena were simply non-existent.

Crookes also introduced Tesla to a vigorous discussion of his experiments in mental telepathy, spiritualism, and even human levitation. As a member of the Society of Psychical Research and later president, Crookes was in good company. Other scientists who would rise to the helm of the psychic society included Oliver Lodge, J. J. Thomson, and Lord Rayleigh.37 Crookes straightforwardly presented a plethora of convincing evidence, including drawings by receivers that matched those created by senders, photographs from seances of ectoplasmic materializations generated by the clairvoyant Florence Cook, and eyewitness accounts of levitation by himself and his wife.38Those statements were enough to raise the eyebrows of anyone, and they served to rattle Tesla’s worldview. As a staunch materialist, up to that time Tesla had absolutely no belief in any aspect of the field of psychic research, including relatively tame occurrences, such as thought transference. But with Crookes’s documentation and the support of other members of the cognoscenti, especially Lodge, and with Tesla already exhausted from the strain of his severe schedule, the Serb’s mind began to spin.
Marc J. Seifer

But unlike Tesla you have Suttas and based on them you should treat dismissively pages which don’t recognise parapsychology as a valid field for the scientific research.

Perhaps, the danger is that these experiences are sensual and cause craving and attachment. So they may actually lead to more dukkha.

I agree, I don’t think the practices the Buddha recommends lead to dopamine surges. It is the absence of the hindrances that causes the pleasant experiences he talks about, not the addition of dopamine.

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