The Neuroscience of Self-Realization

We Are Divine Beings

If we are, indeed, one with God in our divine Self, why don’t we know it? How can such a stupendous and powerful Reality that is our own high potential remain so thoroughly hidden from us?

There are many answers to that question, but as I explore in my book, Break Through the Limits of the Brain, the neuroscientific answer is surprisingly simple: Most of us, by late childhood, have unintentionally rendered ourselves neurally blind to everything except what our senses reveal–our physical body and the physical world around us. From earliest childhood onward we were encouraged to learn to operate exclusively within the physical world and as we did so our brain wired more and more neural circuits to support only that purpose. By the time most of us reach our teens, all of our brain’s neural circuitry has wired to focus our mind’s eye view, attention, thoughts, memories, emotions, and actions on the physical world around us and on our myriad reactions to what’s happening in it.

We were not, however, born neurally blind to the subtle reality in which we exist. Young children, in fact, are known to perceive many things that their parents no longer do. For example, there are many stories of children seeing angels:

My youngest daughter used to have conversations with angels every night. One night when she was just two and a half, she asked me to tell them not to have so many in her room because she was tired and wanted to sleep some more. I told her to ask the angels not to stay that night, and we did it together. The next morning when I asked her how she slept, she told me that only “Michael” had stayed at the foot of her bed to help her sleep more peacefully. I got chills…I’d never told her angel names—I always let her tell me. —Wayne Dyer, Memories of Heaven

The societal deck, however, is stacked against such subtle perceptions. We live in a time when many in our society consider the avowed perception of subtle realities, such as seeing angels, to be fraud, misguided imagination, or mental illness. Given the societal climate of disapproving disbelief, few parents encourage their children to trust their perception of things unseen.

We’re born psychic and children are especially open to seeing and hearing the subtle signals and energetic patterns that emanate from other dimensions. Sadly, we’re conditioned, fearfully taught to ignore spirits and psychic messages, so that as kids are increasingly socialized, they quietly shut down their innate psychic senses. —Website: The Psychic Well

We Need Neural Circuits to Operate in the Physical World

We are deterred from the perception of subtle realities not only by society’s bias but also by the necessity to adapt to the physical world. As children we need to develop the ability to function in the physical world; in doing so our attention moves away from more subtle realities.

From the day we are born, we begin rapidly developing neural circuitry to help us function in the physical world—and we do so at a prodigious rate. A one-year-old child, in as little as a single day, can cause millions of new neural circuits to form in her brain. These neural circuits connect various neurons responsible for contracting and relaxing particular muscles and eventually form into thousands of what I think of as neural habit circuits.

Many neural habit circuits, when they activate — or fire as neuroscience would have it — make any one or more of thousands of physical movements almost automatic. Once supporting neural circuits form to support any habitual physical movement, much less concentration is needed to perform that movement.

Neural Circuits Connect Us to Thoughts, Memories, and Emotions

Beyond forming neural circuits that automate movement, we also form neural circuits that interact with our interpenetrating nonlocal energy body, also called the astral body, to stimulate thoughts, memories, and emotions. Neural circuits that form to interact with our nonlocal energy body are like presets on a car radio—press a preset button on your radio and it automatically tunes your radio to a particular station. Music from that station does not originate from your radio. Your radio only makes audible the radio waves being broadcast by that station. Neural circuits that form in our brain to interact with the energy body are like presets—stimulate such a preset neural circuit and you automatically tune into a particular nonlocal train of thought, association of memories, or flow of emotion. Such thoughts, memories, and emotions don’t originate in the brain. The brain merely stimulates them.

By adulthood, we will have formed from hundreds of thousands to millions of neural circuits that, when firing, initiate automatic responses to nearly everything we experience—from thinking to moving, from physiological responses to feeling emotions. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares how our automatically firing neural habit circuits—fast thinking, as he calls it—dominate our behavior. Unless we deliberately pause to consider our choices in a particular situation—engage in slow thinking—we are on neural autopilot.

Neural Habit Circuits Can Become Complex

Our neural circuits can become interconnectedly complex. Such complex neural circuits can simultaneously stimulate many different types of experience, including the physical—perception and movement—and the subtle—emotion, thought, and memory. Because neurons that wire together, fire together, when any neuron in a complex neural habit circuit fires, all the other neurons will fire as well, thus automatically causing physical movements, physiological responses, and stimulating nonlocal emotions, thoughts, and memories.

For example, let’s say you love drinking coffee. On a carefree Sunday afternoon, as you walk by a coffee shop, the sensory stimulus of the smell of coffee coming from the shop activates your entire neural coffee-habit circuit—beginning with a wave of pleasure.

Simultaneously firing neurons in your well-developed coffee-drinking circuit send signals all over the brain, signals that activate other areas of the brain and central nervous system and that set many physiological processes in motion—salivation, increased heart rate, increased breath rate, release of extra glucose, release of adrenaline, increased muscle tone, and contraction and relaxation of the facial muscles to form a smile.

Additional simultaneously firing neurons in your coffee circuit stimulate various nonlocal trains of thought and memories associated with coffee—the taste, the feel of the cup in your hand, goodies you’ve eaten while drinking, friendly caffeine-enhanced conversations, a question about how coffee is prepared in this coffee shop, a long history of how coffee is prepared around the world, and your treasured opinion about the best way to prepare coffee. To all of those thoughts and memories, you are likely to react with increased emotional pleasure.

Your increased emotional pleasure can in turn cause neurons in your neural coffee-habit circuit to release dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that, among other things, can enhance physical pleasure. This feedback cycle (pleasure, dopamine release, more pleasure, more dopamine release) may continue—especially if you’ve already gone into the coffee shop and are now drinking a cup of coffee you thoroughly enjoy—until all the pleasure-enhancing dopamine receptors in your neural coffee-drinking circuit are saturated.

Amazingly, all of the automatic behavior and automatic physiological, mental, and emotional responses activated and stimulated by such a well-established and complex neural habit circuit can be triggered by a single stimulus. The stimulus can be a sensory experience, a physical movement, a memory, a thought, or an emotion. In the coffee-habit circuit example above, the smell of coffee was like a single firecracker setting off all the other firecrackers in a woven chain of firecrackers.

Our Brain Provides a Continuous Fireworks Show

Rather than just a single woven string of firecrackers going off, however, the chain-reaction firing of complex neural circuits is more like a continuous fireworks display because one complex neural circuit will most often be interconnected with and therefore activate another. The continuous noise of a fireworks display can be compared to the continuous sensory input we experience when awake. The big explosions of light and color can be compared to suddenly having a thought or memory, or to experiencing an emotion. In our wakeful mind it is nearly always the Fourth of July—and, like children at a fireworks show, we are captivated.

The well-established physical world-supporting neural wiring of most people is so thoroughly and continuously engrossing that they become experientially convinced that there simply can be no other reality of which they could be aware. This daily reaffirmed conviction makes it very difficult for them to actually believe the testimony of saints, sages, and near-death experiencers that other worlds, other realities, and other levels of awareness exist and are accessible to us—or that we are anything more than our physical body.

Without the Fireworks We Have Transcendent Awareness

We would, however, perceive reality entirely differently if the billions of neurons we have devoted to functioning in the physical world did not fire automatically in response to stimuli. Were we to die, so that our local physical brain was no longer functioning, the saints, sages, and, especially, near-death experiencers tell us that we would immediately and automatically begin to be aware of heavenly realms, heavenly feelings, and heavenly knowledge because we would be free of the automatically firing neural circuits that compel us to be aware of the physical world.

I often say that we are conscious in spite of our brain, not because of it. It’s not increased activity in any brain region that leads to such extraordinary phenomenal experiences. It’s actually the brain turning off. —Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon, near-death experiencer, author, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife

We do not, however, need to die to escape the neural compulsions of the brain, as you might think after reading the quotation above. On the contrary, we can methodically rewire the brain to allow us to bypass the usual fireworks-storm-creating neural circuitry that keeps us preoccupied with our sensory perception of the physical world. We can rewire our brains to support subtler perception, intuitive thinking, and higher feeling. We can rewire our brains to support the direct experience of our divine Self in God.


The notion of rewiring our brain is relatively new. For most of the twentieth century, it was popularly believed that the brain was hardwired from birth and gradually deteriorated over time as irreplaceable brain cells died. A bleak prospect! It was also believed that the functions of the various regions of the brain were fixed and did not change or adapt to new conditions. We know now that the brain is astonishingly changeable and exhibits a high degree of what is called neuroplasticity.

Neurons are not inherently specialized. They all perform the same basic function—to pass on an electrochemical signal to another neuron. It is not the neuron itself but the neural circuit in which it is wired that determines the function that any specific neuron performs. A specific neuron may send a signal to another neuron to activate a certain muscular contraction. That same neuron can rewire and end up sending a signal to a different neuron to stimulate a certain memory.

This phenomenon is often seen in stroke victims who regain functional control over a part of their body. It is now understood that the neurons in undamaged areas of stroke-victims brains have rewired to make new neural connections in order to restore the functions of the damaged areas.

The inherent plasticity of the brain, however, is not limited to the need to regain functions lost to brain damage. The brain can and will change, to a remarkable degree, in response to any new condition, behavior, emotion, or thought. This change may take the form of entirely new neural circuits or of new functions added to existing neural circuits.

One of the reasons that the brain is so plastic is that every neuron can grow more than one connection to other neurons, and in doing so bring additional functionality to any neural circuit. These connections to other neurons are called dendrites; a single neuron is capable of growing as many as ten thousand dendrites to form ten thousand connections to other neurons. Once a new dendritic connection is made from, say, neuron one to neuron two, if neuron one fires then neuron two automatically fires as well. Thus a single neuron that has myriad connections to other neurons has the potential to make as many as ten thousand other neurons automatically fire.

In our first three years of infancy, we go through a period of what is known as transient exuberance during which our brain is making as many as 700 new dendritic connections per second between the various neurons in our original complement of one hundred billion neurons. The making of additional connections by new dendrites does not stop as we grow older, but the rate of rewiring tends to slow down once we’ve mastered the basics of body control and communication. At any age, however, our brain’s neurons can make new dendritic connections to other neurons to support whatever it is we repeatedly do, think, or feel.

Far from being fixed from birth the brain is easily the most changeable organ in the body. Repetition of a behavior, whether mental, emotional, or physical, rapidly causes new neural circuits to form in the brain. Even as few as half a dozen repetitions of a new behavior can cause a new circuit to form in the brain to support that new behavior.


The most effective tool for rewiring the brain for subtle perception is meditation. It enables us to slow, and, ultimately, stop completely, the automatic firing of our habitual sense-supporting brain circuitry, thus slowing down or stopping the continuous neural fireworks show that leaves us dazzled and preoccupied with the physical world, thereby effectively crowding out any possibility of subtle perception.

Stillness and inward absorption are the keys to deep meditation. From the perspective of neuroscience, physical stillness reduces the number of sensory nerve signals coming from body to brain, and, in consequence, calms the fireworks storm in our sense-supporting neural circuits. Meditation also calms the fireworks storm by methodically drawing our attention inward and away from our sense-stimulated and ongoing chain-reaction of thoughts, memories, and emotions.

Meditation, however, goes beyond simply not stimulating our habitual brain circuitry. Relaxed concentration at the point between the eyebrows—a common feature of many meditation techniques—activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The activation of the prefrontal cortex naturally deactivates the rest of the brain. As the circuits in the rest of the brain deactivate, the fireworks display of continuous thoughts, memories, and emotions slows dramatically.

As our awareness of our physical body fades, and our stream of thoughts, memories, and emotions slows, we naturally and effortlessly perceive the more subtle realities that lie beyond sensory awareness. We may feel the thrill of our life force moving in the core of our being. We may feel our heart opening, like a clenched muscle relaxing, and we may experience moving feelings of peace, love, harmony, and joy. We may see light or have inspiring intuitive insights. And that is only the beginning.

Meditation Rewires Our Brain for Stillness and Inward Absorption

Regular practice of meditation, like any repetitive behavior, forms supportive new neural circuitry. Once neural circuits form to support meditation, whenever we sit to meditate neural meditation-habit circuits will fire to relax or contract various muscles to support sitting with stillness, as well as to slow breath and heart rate. Neural circuits will fire to increase blood flow, and thus energy, to our pre-frontal cortex making concentration easier. Other neural circuits will fire that inhibit sensory information from reaching our awareness—just as sensory information is inhibited from reaching our awareness when we are asleep. Other neural circuits will fire that inhibit physical movement—just as physical movement is inhibited when we are asleep.

In the same way that we can much more easily play a musical instrument once we’ve practiced long enough for supporting neural circuits to form, stillness and inward absorption, too, become much easier to achieve with the formation of supporting neural circuits. Better yet, just as the continued dedicated practice of a musical instrument will form ever more complex neural circuits to support playing our instrument with greater and greater proficiency, so continued dedicated practice of meditation will form ever more complex neural circuits to support more and more profound transcendent experiences.

Most beginners find meditation a challenge. It is difficult to stay still. The mind is as restless as the proverbial monkey. But if you stay with your meditation practice, your newly forming neural circuits will come to your rescue. In time meditation will feel as natural as thinking. In time you will also find that your neural meditation circuits will fire even in the midst of activity and automatically stimulate meditative calm, clarity of mind, and awareness of subtle feeling.

The difference between most of us and a saint or sage is that through their deep and regular practice of meditation—and the resulting deep and repeated immersion in subtle realities—they have formed strong and complex neural habit circuits that make subtle awareness as normal as physical awareness. The saints and sages, however, also remain able to function in the physical world. In fact, they become more productive, creative, and energetic. Even when fully engaged with people and projects, however, they remain immersed in transcendent peace, love, and joy, in the constant realization of the Self in God. They have the best of both worlds.

Meditation Rewires All the Brain

The second way that meditation rewires our brain is to enable positive mental, emotional, and physical health. Just as a rising tide raises all boats, so too the experience of deep states of relaxation, transcendent joy, or sacred expansion into our greater reality, effectively, efficiently, and beneficially rewires not just the prefrontal cortex but all of our brain.

Meditation has been proven to make lasting structural changes in the brain in support of a variety of activities:

  • increasing theta waves to deepen our attention
  • enabling positive emotion and empathy by effecting changes in the amygdala
  • reducing or inhibiting fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions
  • improving learning and memory
  • helping to overcome childhood trauma
  • positively altering behavior and mood

The changes that occur in your brain while you are meditating build up over time to produce remarkable shifts in cognition and brain structure. The meditating brain is a very cool thing. —Richard Davidson, Founder, University of Wisconsin’s Madison Center for Healthy Minds

By reducing stress, meditation also stimulates healthy physiological processes such as detoxification, elimination, digestion, promotes healing, and even activates genes that affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. Meditation becomes, in time, the most significant positive influence on our health and wellbeing.

It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life. —Dr. Britta Hölzel, first author of the groundbreaking Harvard University study on meditation and physical change in the brain

The Deeper Our Meditation, the More Rapidly We Rewire the Brain

The more deeply we meditate, the more our attention shifts from the physical world to more subtle realities; the more deeply our attention shifts from the physical world to more subtle realities, the more rapidly our brain is rewired.

People who have had near-death experiences, who have experienced profound emotional release and surpassing heart-opening feelings, often share, even years after their experience, that their lives were profoundly changed. Long afterward they continue to feel different. Not only were they mentally, emotionally, and spiritually transformed during the experience itself but, on returning to awareness of this world, they even found a significant degree of that transformation remained permanently. The neural habit circuits that support even deeply rooted, habitual negative emotions, such as fearfulness, buried anger, emotional wounds, or lifetime anxieties, in rare instances have been, as the result of deep and powerful transcendent experience, instantly rewired into new and positive neural habit circuits.

An Enlightenment experience radically rearranges many neuronal connections in a relatively short time. The result is a tremendous benefit to our brain and body as we discover new positive ways of thinking, feeling, and experiencing the world around us. [I]ntense spiritual practices…can break down the neurological circuits that keep old beliefs firmly rooted in place and transform the ways we think and behave. —Dr. Andrew Newberg, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain

In deep meditation…the relaxed energy of the mind, concentrated in the brain, [goes] deep into the brain grooves where habits are secreted, and cauterizes [negative] habits. —Paramhansa Yogananda, Kriya Yoga Master

Deep transcendent experience also changes the mental and emotional convictions held in our energy body. When those mental and emotional convictions go through rapid change, the neural circuitry of our brain is equally rapidly and permanently rewired to support our new mental and emotional convictions.

People over the millennia have reported having deeply moving religious experiences and a portion of those experiences have been encounters with what the person regards as “God” or “ultimate reality.” In a survey of thousands of people who reported having experienced personal encounters with God, Johns Hopkins researchers report that…a majority of respondents attributed lasting positive changes in their psychological health—e.g., life satisfaction, purpose and meaning—even decades after their initial experience. —John Hopkins Medicine online bulletin

I was lying in a field under a tree thinking rather deeply of love and the joy it brings. Suddenly…all materialism disappeared completely, and I felt like a torch burning in the darkness. I seemed to be filled with the rays of the sun. This experience lasted for about three minutes. It is interesting to note that my behavior pattern has changed since this experience. —Anonymous contributor to the book Seeing the Invisible

Even though awakening experiences typically only last from a few moments to a few hours, they frequently have a life-changing effect. Many people described an awakening experience as the most significant moment of their lives, reporting a major change in their perspective on life, and in their values. —Steve Taylor, The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening

We may not ourselves have such a dramatic or sudden life-changing experience as those described above, but any meditation during which we directly and movingly experience subtle reality will change our mental and emotional convictions; the deeper the experience, the more rapidly our brain is rewired. Meditation taps into a power that changes us, taps into an “unseen source” that uplifts us, taps into a Joy that moves us as nothing else can.

Meditation Is the Key to Self-Realization

Meditation rewires our brain to experience subtle reality. The more deeply we meditate, the more completely our brain is rewired to allow clear awareness of our indissoluble unity with the infinite Consciousness from which all creation springs.

This is the experience of God, or, just as meaningfully, the experience of our Self or Soul. Because we are godlike in our essence, inextrica­bly one with God, the experience is not reserved only for cloistered nuns or yogis in remote Himalayan caves. Anyone, anywhere, who achieves deep stillness and complete inner absorption share the same universal experience.

The higher our mind is raised to the contemplation of spiritual things the more it is abstracted from sensible things. But the final term to which contemplation can possibly arrive is the divine substance. Therefore the mind that sees the divine substance must be totally divorced from the bodily senses, either by death or by some rapture.
—St. Thomas Aquinas

Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. —Paramhansa Yogananda

The body, the earth, the stars, the galaxies melted into a big unity—and I was a part of this unity. Unlimited and timeless my consciousness hovered in a pulsating eternity. —Frédéric Lionel, French philosopher

Oh, wonder of wonders, when I think of the union the soul has with God! He makes the enraptured soul to flee out of herself, for she is no more satisfied with anything that can be named. The spring of Divine Love flows out of the soul and draws her out of herself into the unnamed Being, into her first source, which is God alone. —Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic

This new experience bestows new enlightenment which places the experiencer on a new plane of existence. There is an indescribable feeling of elation and indescribable joy and Bliss. He experiences a sense of universality, a Consciousness of Eternal Life. It is not a mere conviction. He actually feels it. —Swami Sivananda

One becomes wholly Mind, the One Mind of God, in which exists all-knowledge, all-power, and all-presence. —Walter Russell, sculptor, musician, author, philosopher, and mystic

That light is the very essence, the heart, and soul, the all-consuming consummation of ecstatic ecstasy. It is a million suns of compressed love dissolving everything unto itself, annihilating thought and cell, vaporizing humanness and history, into the one great brilliance of all that is and all that ever was and all that ever will be. You know it’s God. No one has to tell you. You know. —P.M.H. Atwater, near-death experiencer

The possibility of the realization—the complete experience and awareness—of our Self in God is con­firmed again and again, in every age and in every culture, by saints, sages, saviors, and near-death experiencers. Such experience has inspired the mystical teachings of all religions. Such experi­ence is the essence—and the promise—of all religions.

Lest self-realization seems too high a mountain to climb, the good news, for those who, like me, have yet to master perfect stillness and complete inner absorption, is that meditation brings many benefits long before full self-realization is achieved. The benefits infuse one’s entire life: reduced physical and emotional stress, a feeling of well-being, enhanced clarity of mind, increased vitality, improved health, and deepened compassion and love—to name but a few.

  • Practice meditation regularly and you will discover an inexhaustible well of Joy that will imbue your life with happiness regard­less of outer circumstances.
  • Practice meditation more deeply yet and you will discover a loving and intelligent Presence responding to you and sending waves of love and joy coursing through your being.
  • Practice meditation to perfection, attaining perfect stillness and inner absorption, and you will realize your Self in God.

In deep meditation…the relaxed energy of the mind, concentrated in the brain, [goes]deep into the brain grooves…and cauterizes habits. -Paramhansa Yogananda

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Selbie’s new book, Break Through the Limits of the Brain, Red Wheel/Weiser, offers fascinating scientific support for Yogananda’s intuitive insight into neuroplasticity and explores in depth the neuroscience of meditation and Self-realization.