Gazing Into Psychics' Brains May Reveal Mental Illness Secrets

Deborah Brauser

November 20, 2012

A new imaging study that examined the brains of a group of Brazilian mediums while they were in a dissociative, or trance, state may shed light on "disastrous psychiatric conditions" such as schizophrenia.

Investigators used single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) to scan the brains of 10 mediums who were in a trance while performing psychography, a practice in which a deceased person or spirit is believed to write through the medium's hand.

Results showed that the mediums who were considered more experienced had significantly lower levels of activity in several brain areas, including the left hippocampus, the right superior temporal gyrus, and the frontal lobe regions of the left anterior cingulate and right precentral gyrus, during psychography compared with their nontrance writing state of consciousness.

However, less experienced mediums showed increased levels of cerebral blood flow in these frontal areas.

Dr. Andrew Newberg

"I thought this type of training effect between the 2 groups was interesting. When someone is more purposeful in their intent, they may work harder, as shown by higher levels of activation in the cognitive processing area," senior study author Andrew Newberg, MD, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told Medscape Medical News.

For example, someone who is first learning to play the piano is very conscious of moving their fingers and hitting the right keys. "But as you become an expert, you do it almost without thinking, and the brain activity decreases," explained Dr. Newberg.

"This is part of a large area of research, which asks: what is the impact of different spiritual practices and experiences on our well-being? If they support good cognitive function and good emotional state, they can be very beneficial for people."

The study was published online November 16 in PLoS One.

Spiritual Practices

Dr. Newberg and his colleagues have previously conducted research that examined brain function during practices such as meditation and prayer.

"Spiritual experiences affect cerebral activity, this is known. But the cerebral response to mediumship, the practice of supposedly being in communication with or under the control of the spirit of a deceased person, has received little scientific attention," said Dr. Newberg in a release.

For the study, the investigators focused primarily on the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate gyrus, areas of the brain that are known to be involved in the brain's attentional network.

In addition, they also assessed the hippocampus and the superior temporal region, which are involved with language reception, and the precentral gyrus, which may be related to writing.

Ten mediums between the ages of 33 and 59 years (60% women) from the area of Sao Paulo, Brazil, were included. Each one was right-handed, was considered to be in good mental health, and reported having performed 2 to 18 psychographies per month for 15 to 47 years.

Five of the mediums were considered to be novices (mean age, 48.6 years), whereas the other 5 had at least 20 years of experience (mean age, 48 years). None of them had ever been paid for performing psychography for others.

Absence of Focus

All participants were injected with a radioactive tracer and were scanned using SPECT to assess areas of the brain that were active and inactive during the practice of psychography, which included the medium entering a trancelike state, and during controlled writing activities in their normal state of consciousness.

The writing samples produced during both types of consciousness were examined and scored by a Brazilian language and literature expert.

Results showed that during psychography, the group of experienced mediums had lower levels of activity in the left culmen, left hippocampus, left inferior occipital gyrus, left anterior cingulate, right superior temporal gyrus, and right precentral gyrus than when they were performing normal writing tasks (P < .05 overall when compared with the less expert mediums).

The frontal lobe areas are associated with reasoning, planning, generating language, movement, and problem solving, perhaps reflecting an absence of focus, self-awareness, and consciousness during psychography, the researchers note.

The less experienced mediums had significantly increased levels of cerebral blood flow in these brain regions during psychography than during normal writing (P < .001 for all).

In addition, the complexity scores for all of the writing samples produced during psychography were significantly higher than for those during controlled writing (P = .007), as were the scores just from the experienced mediums (P = .04).

Neurophysiologic Correlates

"One speculation is that as frontal lobe activity decreases, the areas of the brain that support mediumistic writing are further disinhibited (similar to alcohol or drug use) so that the overall complexity can increase," explains the release.

"In a similar manner, improvisational music performance is associated with lower levels of frontal lobe activity, which allows for more creative activity."

Nevertheless, the investigators note that this activity, as well as states during alcohol/drug use, are "quite peculiar and distinct" from psychography.

"While the exact reason is at this point elusive, our study suggests there are neurophysiological correlates of this state," said Dr. Newberg.

He went on to liken the brain activity in these mediums with what happens to those who have learned a new language. At first, the person often tries to translate every word. But after a while, they switch over and begin to actually think in the new language.

"You're still speaking the same language. You're just changing the way your brain activates during that particular practice," said Dr. Newberg.

He noted that he is looking forward to future studies that will examine some of these issues.

"Different lines of research are coming together in a promising development pointing toward more profound comprehension of consciousness and dissociation," write the investigators.

"The present study provides useful preliminary data and points to the potential utility of epistemologically informed in-depth improve our understanding of the mind and its relationship with the brain."

Not Mystical

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Charles L. Raison, MD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the College of Medicine and at the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said the study is interesting — both specifically and in a generalizable way for psychiatrists.

Dr. Charles Raison

"This study showed that people had different patterns of brain changes when they were in dissociative experiences, which is something that has been looked at a lot in people with what used to be called multiple personality disorder and things like that," he said.

"So from a scientific perspective, we shouldn't be surprised by these findings. There's a lot of evidence that our mental functioning, the way we think and the way we feel and the experiences we have, seems to be created by the complex functioning of the brain."

As reported by Medscape Medical News, Dr. Raison and colleagues recently published a study in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience that showed that adults who underwent 2 months of either of 2 types of meditation training had a greater response to emotional stimuli in the right amygdala than those in a health discussion group.

"People have this incredible interest in meditation. And we've learned that meditation changes the way the brain responds to stuff. That's fascinating to people. But we also know you can grow parts of your brain by learning to juggle," he said.

"The question of whether spiritual practices in general and dissociative phenomena specifically can change brain functioning is also very interesting to people, but they really shouldn't be surprised by these findings. And I don't see anything particularly mystical about what these authors found."

Understanding Brain Changes

Dr. Raison, who was previously an associate professor and clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, added that it also makes sense that the more experienced mediums showed different patterns of activity.

"We can't get an overview of what a medium is actually doing or whether they're in an advanced meditative state. But over time, you get more proficient in an activity and it becomes more automatic. You're able to do it with more efficient circuits and less effortful control."

He noted that he would like to see a follow-up study that looked at whether or not inducing patterns of brain change seen in these mediums could then produce similar experiences or feelings of dissociation.

"It would be interesting to see what kind of perception and feelings copying these brain patterns might produce. If you could induce changes in those brain activities through neurofeedback, and you could show it relatively reliably, that would be pretty powerful evidence that these brain areas are generating these experiences," said Dr. Raison.

"That would be very useful for understanding certain phenomena in psychotic conditions, such as hallucinations in schizophrenia — especially the type that gives the sense of being controlled or driven by some outside force."

He added that the results are also relative for dissociative disorders. "These are terrible, catastrophic conditions. For these people, their consciousness is like Swiss cheese as they go in and out of awareness."

"For psychiatrists, mediumship might be a model for beginning to understand how the brain changes involuntarily in these disastrous psychiatric conditions."

The study authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

PLoS One. Published online November 16, 2012. Full article