The Biology of Spirituality

Vera Tarman

By Roger C.

Doctor Vera Tarman, a specialist in addiction behaviour and treatment and the Medical Director at Renascent, a treatment facility for men and women suffering from alcoholism and addiction, recently shared her views on the neurochemical basis of recovery and spirituality in a talk at the University of Toronto.

Her talk was called “The Biology of Spirituality.”

Few of us will question that our “state of mind” when we consume alcohol is affected by our biology. From the first feelings of wooziness to slurred speech, blurred vision and sometimes – horrors – a blackout, it is all a question of our body’s chemistry and biology. And a hangover! The mental anguish and physical distress feel like a form of imprisonment, incarceration in our own body.

It is logic then that tells us that each and every “state of mind” we experience directly relies on, and is connected to, our biology.

To begin her talk, Dr. Tarman offered a “catchword” definition of spirituality: “Anything that pertains to a definition of self, mission or purpose.”  She distinguished it from religion, which is more about dogma or specific belief systems.

The biology of spirituality begins with an understanding of the divided brain.

In fact, what Dr. Tarman portrayed often amounts to a war between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In this war, there are often casualties, and one of those is the addicted human being.

Let’s first look at the left side of the brain.

According to Dr. Tarman, “the left side of the brain is analytical, numbers oriented.” It is very logical. It follows sequences. It is orderly.

Moreover, “the left side of the brain is the ego, it’s the ‘me.’ It’s the ‘I know this because I know this experience.’”

It’s all about organizing the information it has already acquired. “It is not really open to new information. It takes the information it already has and organizes it.”

The left hemisphere is the belligerent side of the personality. “It’s going to work if you do it my way,” is the not uncommon directive from the left brain.

The drug most associated with the left side of the brain is dopamine. “The left brain responds to dopamine, it’s action-oriented, it anticipates a reward.”

And that yearning for a reward can lead to addiction and alcoholism.

Now, the right side of the brain.

“It’s the right side of the brain that can actually take in new information,” Dr. Tarman reported. “It’s the novel seeker, it can take in new information and synthesizes it with old information. It recognizes that it doesn’t know everything. It has to know that it doesn’t know everything to see something new.”

And it is the “spiritual” hemisphere of the brain.

The right side of the brain is “very visionary, not very time-focussed, usually very good at relationships, and more imaginative.”

The drug associated with the right side of the brain is serotonin.

Serotonin produces the sensation: “I have, I’m good, I am a part of (fellowship).”

So, how do these two hemispheres work with each other?

Dr. Tarman argues that the right side of the brain should be the master but in today’s society, it’s not. It’s the servant. The master is our rational brain, the left brain.

She quotes Iain McGilchrist who, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, talks about how the mind’s a terrible master but a wonderful servant.”

The rational mind, the left side of the brain, is the master in today’s world.

“When it’s engaged, it will overpower the right brain,” Dr. Tarman argued. “The left brain closes off the playing field so that it can focus on what it’s got.”

Dr. Tarman then tied the left and right hemispheres in with other parts of the brain, and in particular the limbic system, which finds itself largely between the hemispheres.

But hardly “caught” in the middle.

She argued that this middle part is a very powerful and instinctual part of the brain.

“The limbic system is like the savage beast within and you have to sooth that in order to access the right brain / left brain,” Dr. Tarman said.

Part of the limbic system is the amygdalae. It is the fear button in animals, including humans. “If I see something that I am fearful of, it will take over and my thinking is toast.”

The amygdalae trigger the stress response, the fight/flight/freeze response. It makes us do everything we can do to get out of danger fast. “So it trumps the relaxation response. There is something after me, I have to look and pay attention and make sure that I am safe.”

How to deal with the raw savagery of the amygdalae and limbic system?

We can go left-brain, which for some people may involve a quick rewards, addiction reaction.

But Dr. Tarman argues that it is far better to focus on right-brain techniques. The best way to counteract the stress response is the spirituality of the right hemisphere. Using this hemisphere activates drugs within the brain such as serotonin.

“You want to have a nice platform of serotonin and oxytocin, which is meditation, spirituality, fellowship, gratitude.”

Recovery from addiction – the left-brain solution to the amygdalae’s “fight/flight/freeze” reaction to life – involves accessing the relaxation and security of the right brain.

It is about things like gratitude, fellowship and meditation.

“These are the things that make me feel alive and recovery is about doing those things, sometimes initially artificially.”

“If you do a gratitude list it’s like taking an anti-depressant. If you do a meditative practice for half an hour a day it’s like taking an anti-depressant.”

Fellowship is also important, a fact well known in the rooms of AA. It fosters the sense of being “a part of” rather than “apart from.” “You may not want to go to meetings but it’s enforced fellowship, which will then have some effect.”

At the end of her talk, Dr. Tarman placed a great deal of value on meditation. “When a person is in a relaxed state of mind, the right brain starts to emerge.”

“When we are relaxed the right brain is allowed to flourish,” she emphasized. “Recovery techniques and meditative techniques foster the relaxation response.”

A sense of well-being and recovery from addiction, then, are both a function of the calming effect of the right brain.

Dr. Tarman’s talk, on that wintry Saturday afternoon, with a combination of rain and snow falling from the sky outside, lasted some three hours.

It was a most calming experience. It could even have been described as “spiritual.”

She is a charming speaker. Her words are sprinkled with the occasional chuckle. She has an engaging manner and a gentle voice. The amygdalae in the brain are certainly at rest; the relaxation of the right brain at play and work.

It was a key talk for this reason: it reminded us that our thoughts and feelings are not independent of our bodies, our brain, our biology.

It could be summed up this way, as Dr. Tarman put it: “As an animal I need to feel safe, I need to feel fellowship, I need to feel a sense of meaning.”

Speaking of our mortality, W.B. Yeats once wrote that we are “fastened to a dying animal.”

We are also fastened to a living animal. “The Biology of Spirituality” joined the dots. It allowed us to better understand the components of our living, loving and growing. And, for some in the room, it gave us a new and helpful perspective on our recovery from addiction and alcoholism.

8 Responses

  1. Christopher G says:

    I like this line of reasoning. I think my sobriety and sanity are intrinsically linked to the educational variety of that thing called by most “spirituality”, which of late I am inclined to define as personality or psychic change/growth. The slippery thing is that definitions change too.

  2. Mark C says:

    “Spirituality?” Since the word can mean anything or nothing it is a meaningless, vacuous term in a strict sense. Simply ask someone who uses this word all the time, what “spirituality” is, then follow up their answer with a few more questions and they will reduce to incoherent babble within five minutes.

    Of course, “spirituality” in the Big Book, if taken literally, is an ardent Christian, theistic supernatualism. To take the presuppositions of Bill Wilson’s particular “understanding” of his Christian supernatualism, and attempt to secularize them and maintain that one “must” have “spirituality” or proceed on a “spiritual” basis in order to “live sober” is absurdity.

    Intellectual clarity is required to become more rational. Rational clarity is the basic platform upon which my sobriety is maintained.

    Perhaps the Stoics put it best, “Education begins with the definition of words.”

  3. Neil F says:

    Thanks for sharing this Roger.

    While I can recover and experience good long term sobriety without a detailed understanding of the brain, I find the brain to be fascinating. I am not an expert in this field, but the more I learn from neuroscience and psychology the more fascinated I become and the better I understand my addictions and recovery.

    Thanks again.

  4. Glenna R. says:

    I prefer to live a balanced life so I would question a system that pits one hemisphere against another for ascendancy. If the right brain is ascendant, than the part of the population which prefers the right brain would be more important. I agree with Carl Jung’s work that calls us to integrate not to focus our consciousness on any separate skill or faculty but to become individuated or whole.

  5. Roger says:

    Take your pick, methinks.

  6. Tim C. says:

    At its root, is the pursuit of a definition of “spirituality” part of science or philosophy and/or religion?

  7. Roger says:

    Unfortunately it was not recorded. But next time…

  8. boyd p. says:

    Dr. Vera Tarman’s insights move us toward understanding our common experience, our unity. As does spirituality being,”anything that pertains to a definition of self, mission or purpose.” Is the talk available on line, or other resources, by her?

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