Disproving the Borg Study

In the Previous Chapter John Hick was quoted as saying that study that claim to evoke mystical experience often do not use the M scale. This is not true of Griffiths but it is the case for another study done in Sweden by several scientists: Jacqueline Borg, Psychol., M.Sc., Bengt Andrée, M.D., Ph.D., Henrik Soderstrom, M.D., Ph.D., and Lars Farde, M.D., Ph.D. The study is called “The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences.” I will refer to this study as “Borg” or the “Swedish serotonin study.” While it claims to measure “spiritual experiences” I will show that it dose no such thing. The study determined the density of serotonin in the respondents and then compared those who scored high on their test (Swedish version of the Temperament and Character Inventory self-report questionnaire).

OBJECTIVE: The serotonin system has long been of interest in biological models of human personality. The purpose of this positron emission tomography (PET) study was to search for relationships between serotonin 5-HT1A receptor density and personality traits. METHOD: Fifteen normal male subjects, ages 20–45 years, were examined with PET and the radioligand [11C]WAY100635. Personality traits were assessed with the Swedish version of the Temperament and Character Inventory self-report questionnaire. Binding potential, an index for the density of available 5-HT1A receptors, was calculated for the dorsal raphe nuclei, the hippocampal formation, and the neocortex. For each region, correlation coefficients between 5-HT1A receptor binding potential and Temperament and Character Inventory personality dimensions were calculated and analyzed in two-tailed tests for significance. RESULTS: The authors found that the binding potential correlated inversely with scores for self-transcendence, a personality trait covering religious behavior and attitudes. No correlations were found for any of the other six Temperament and Character Inventory dimensions. The self-transcendence dimension consists of three distinct subscales, and further analysis showed that the subscale for spiritual acceptance correlated significantly with binding potential but not with the other two subscales. CONCLUSIONS: This finding in normal male subjects indicated that the serotonin system may serve as a biological basis for spiritual experiences. The authors speculated that the several-fold variability in 5-HT1A receptor density may explain why people vary greatly in spiritual zeal.

This test, the Swedish version of the Temperament and Character Inventory self-report questionnaire (TCI) is the major issue. If one can’t determine what a mystical experience is then it’s foolish to claim that one has produced it through chemicals. This test is not a measurement of mystical experience. It was not made to be a measurement of mystical experience. Borg and her colleagues are making assumptions based upon preconceived notions of mystical experience without consulting the literature then back reading those assumptions into their data based upon a similarity between one or two characteristics. The TCI is based upon Cloninger's psychobiological model of personality.

Cloninger developed a dimensional psychobiological model of personality that accounts for both normal and abnormal variation in two major components of personality, temperament and character. The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) is a self-administered dimensional questioannaire constructed to assess the seven basic dimensions of personality. TCI maintains the strong theoretical and empirical support of previously developed psychobiological models while overcoming some of their limitations for clinical use. CloningerÂ’s model of personality has a tremendous potential to provide comprehensive insight into human personality at multiple levels of analysis, including including the genetics of personality, neurobiological foundations of behavior, the cognitive emotional structure and development of personality, the behavioral correlates of individual differences in personality dimensions, and the interactions of personality constellations with developmental factors in relation to the vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. Within emerging neuroimaging technology, CloningerÂ’s model of personality will provide novel opportunities for elucidating the characterization of neural correlates of personality, and enable a better understanding of normal and pathological states. In this article, both underlying theory and empirically valiated findings along with its potential use in in both general population and psychiatric patient population were reviewed.

Immediately we see two things: The measurement of mystical experience is not designed to measure mystical experiences. It’s a personality designed to validate a theory about the level of brain chemistry in personality. This also tells us that the researchers studying serotonin as a cause of mystical experience are assuming up front that mystical experience is the result of a personality trait brought on by brain chemistry. Thus if any association is between personality traits and serotonin they have proved their thesis as far as they are concerned. But is this actually measuring mystical experience? We will see through looking further at the study that this conclusion is based upon only one similar trait. In the chapter 4: studies, we learned that the M scale avoids the pitfalls of many scales such as MMPI because they don’t correlate with Stace’s categories but only rely upon the assumption that one or two characteristics correlate to mystical experiences. This same criticism seems to fit the TCI scale as well (see chapter 4 fn 73 and 74). The superiority of Hood’s scale is clearly demonstrated. There have been other scales, especially in the 70s and 80s before Hood made his major contributions. There are other scales that could have been used. One can’t help but wonder if the choice of the TCI isn’t the result of biased assumptions on the part of the researchers?
Because religious experiences very widely, Borg and her colleagues felt that the shared qualities must have a biological explanation. They chose to explore serotonin because it is naturally occurring and drugs such as psilocybin used in previous studies such the Good Friday study merely mimic what serotonin does. The subjects were scanned using MRI for serotonin density. The more dense their serotonin the more they should tend to exhibit symptoms of self transcendence, because serotonin calms you cown and works on receptors that would tend to contribute to self transcendence. The TCI is a “personality assessment.” This is how the asses the mystical experience they are supposedly evoking. Borg explains:

Personality Assessment
The Swedish translation of the Temperament and Character Inventory self-report questionnaire was used. The Temperament and Character Inventory consists of 238 items covering the four temperament dimensions of novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence and the three character dimensions of self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence. The Temperament and Character Inventory has been developed according to a suggestion that the four temperament dimensions reflect inherited behavior, whereas the three character dimensions are thought to be influenced by environment. For the first five subjects, the Temperament and Character Inventory was administered retrospectively less than 8 months after the PET examination. For the remaining 10 subjects, the Temperament and Character Inventory was administered on the same day as the PET.

The PET is given with MRI and is related to the serotonin measurement. When she gets down to talking about mystical experience in the study the only trait she talks about that is linked to mystical expertise is “self transcendence.”

The values for binding potential correlated significantly with the self-transcendence dimension but not with any of the other six Temperament and Character Inventory dimensions (Table 1). The self-transcendence dimension is a composite of three distinct subscales that describe aspects of spirituality. After the demonstration of statistical significance for the self-transcendence dimension, correlations for each of the dimension’s three subscales were examined. Scores for spiritual acceptance versus material rationalism correlated significantly with 5-HT1A binding potential for all three regions (Figure 1). No significant correlations were found for any of the remaining two subscales (Table 1).

The only control on mystical experience is a test that is not designed to determine mystical experience, they are just assuming that personality traits measured by the test will correlate, but give no basis in data for those conclusions. The only trait that is correlated is self transcendence and they break that down into subscales that describe “spirituality” but are “spirituality” necessarily the same thing as “mystical experience?” Stace’s categories are derived from his reading of all the major mystics, and they validated with the M scale by applying it to real actual living modern mystical experiences. But Borg is just assuming that personality traits double for mystical experience. What is this “spirituality” that makes up her assumptions about self transcendence?
Borg explains the subscales that make up the self transcendence dimension: “The self-transcendence dimension consists of three subscales representing several aspects of religious behavior, subjective experience, and individual worldview. Of interest, in the extended analysis, we found that the correlation of self-transcendence was shown to be fully dependent on the spiritual acceptance scale, whereas no correlation was found to the other two subscales.” The Spiritual acceptance scale measures a person’s acceptance of phenomena that can’t be measured by demonstrative evidence. Subjects with high scores might endorse extra sensory perceptions, ideation, or named deity or commonly unifying force. This is from Coloninger’s TCI inventory. The researchers are assuming the similarities from previous studies justify the assumption that the presence of high density of serotonin in the subjects with high scores on this scale must be causality related. What they are really measuring upon this scale is a lot of things that have nothing to do with mystical experiences and they are just assuming they because they sound “religious” or because they themselves have a lot of incredulity about them. For example esp has nothing to do with mystical experiences.

On a behavioral level, these drugs elicit perceptual distortions, illusions, a sense of insight, spiritual awareness, mystical experiences, and religious ecstasy. Of interest, such pharmacological effects induced by hallucinogens resemble the extrasensory perception and ideation endorsed by subjects scoring high on the spiritual acceptance scale.

This quotation would seem to suggest that they are also arguing form analogy based upon the assumption that hallucinations and delusions are part of mystical experience or religious experience at any rate. We see from the previous data sighted no such connection can be made. None of the major criteria form mystical experience includes such things as definitive. One can only speculate that a good deal bias had gone into the assumptions guiding the research. She doesn’t actually say “mystical experience involves delusions” but why site the issue at all if she’s not trying to imply a connection?
When we ask what does this study really prove? We can only respond that it proves there is some relationship between serotonin levels and certain personality traits some of which may be linked to religious belief in general, and religious experience in general and maybe one of them to mystical experience. The study can’t even demonstrate that it produced any sort of mystical experience or it measured mystical experience because the measuring stick it used wasn’t even designed for the task and because the assumptions made were not adequate to the task. We already knew there’s a connection. The things that Newberg was quoted as saying in the previous chapter (Chapter 7, God Pod) should relieve any fear that a link between neurology and RE disproves a role of the divine in the process. We know that physical processes are part of our lives and that if there is any role of the divine in lives it has to interact with physical processes at some point. If serotonin calms us down and feeling God’s presence must illicit serotonin so we will calm down. Skeptics assume the argument is about miracles. It’s a miracle when we feel the presence of God. But this may be a misguided perception on the part of the believer. IT need not be viewed as a miracle. It could be quite naturalistic. That does not mean its’ not a trace of the divine. The real bottom line of the argument turns not upon the amazing nature of the experience as it is felt when its had, but upon the long term positive effects of it latter. How could this Borg study demonstrate a connection there when it doesn’t even have the right set of characteristics in mind to study the phenomena in the first place?
The real bottom line on the issue of counter causality is this: is there anything that demonstrates a real cause of mystical experience as wholly rooted in the natural processes of the world and bears no relation to what we should expect from the trace of the divine? We have to answer at this point, not in relation to brain chemistry and mystical experience. This is because (1) it can’t be demonstrate that mystical experience has been evoked by any manipulation of or study of brain chemistry. (2) Even if it was that would not prove the case unless all the phenomena could be accounted for wholly in
Naturalistic terms including the term results of having had the experience. This is far from being the case. But even then there’s a further argument the reductionisms cannot answer. It’s one thing to find a correlation and suggest the possibility of counter causes based upon association between a chemical and sensation. But it’s quite another to demonstrate that everything mystics experience and learn can be accounted for only in these terms. The inability to account for all of the phenomena includes the phenomena relating to the phenomenological upshot of the experiences themselves. When include this kind of material the reductionism view is totally inadequate to account for it. This is analogous to the argument property dualists make that consciousness is irreducible. The long term positive effects and experiences of encounter with the divine are irreducible.


J. Borg et al, “The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160: (Nov 2003) 1965-1969. Online Version URL: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/...ll/160/11/1965
last visited 7/17/2009.
Samuel Kose. “A Psychobiological Model of Temperment and Character (TCI),”American Journals Database. Yeni Semposium 2003. Online version http://www.journaldatabase.org/artic...al_model_.html
Online full text: http://www.yenisymposium.net/FULLTEX...003_41_2_6.pdf visted 7/17/2009.
Borg, et al. Ibid.
this has noting to do with “ID” or Intelligent Design. I am not an “ID” person.
Andrew New Berg, Why We Believe What We Believe, op cit 128.
Julian Baggnini and Peter Fost, A Very Short Introduction to Atheism: A Conpendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods. Oxford University press, 2002. Baggini edits Philospher Magazine, Fost is listed as “Transylvania University.”
Ibid, 16