Spirituality vs. Science at the Rubin

Zachary Quinto, an actor best known for roles in theater, film, and TV shows such as 24, Heroes, and American Horror Story, spoke about his lifelong spiritual journey at the “The Brain on Spirituality,” a Brainwave 2016 program at the Rubin Museum in Manhattan.

quinto rubin

Photo credit: Filip Wolak

Until he reached college, Quinto’s spirituality was formed by his family’s intense Catholic faith. In his 20s, his exploration of Buddhism and quest for spiritual understanding culminated in a trip to Peru. There, he began using ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant. His hallucinations were the focus of his conversation with Heather Berlin, M.P.H., Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Quinto believes that ayahuasca has helped him better understand himself and develop his spirituality. On the reason why, he believes, people use it, he said:

My understanding is that it exists naturally but that it only ever is ever released – and crosses the blood-brain barrier – the moment that you’re born and the moment that you die. People that are pursuing the insights that dimethyltryptamine as a chemical offers, are pursuing this kind of threshold moment between the human realm and the spiritual realm, and that only really potently naturally exists in those two moments.

In his own experiences, Quinto felt he had connected with people who had died, including his father, who passed away when he was 7-years-old, and the actor Leonard Nimoy, with whom he had a deep connection over their mutual role as Spock in Star Trek. He said ayahuasca was a medicine, not a drug, has and it had the ability to “open me up to another realm of spiritual experiences.”

Berlin emphasized that no evidence that consciousness can exist without the brain, and that these experiences are not anything more than an altered brain state. She compared Quinto’s experience to her own work with schizophrenia:

We can see in the brain that, when people are hallucinating, you get a similar neural pattern as when you’re actually seeing something and imagining it. Normally, there’s another part of our brain that can distinguish whether something is being internally generated or externally generated, but certain types of schizophrenia lose this ability to distinguish. They believe the things that are being internally generated are coming externally, that they’re real. Certain hallucinogens also create this. So, from that scientific point of view, even though we construct this story that these people actually exist and we’re really having a conversation, we can’t find any evidence for that. It’s really just your brain in another state having these experiences that you don’t normally have in your waking everyday life.

While she disagreed with Quinto on whether the experiences were based in reality, Berlin did agree that these types of experiences can have therapeutic value. Berlin told Quinto that she dealt with the death of her grandmother by allowing herself to suspend her reason and “talk to her,” because it was comforting to believe that was possible. She also mentioned a current study at New York University, where patients with terminal cancer are given psilocybin mushrooms under the guidance of a trained therapist to help them deal with anxiety. The patients felt less anxious and more accepting of their terminal condition after these guided experiences. One thing Quinto and Berlin did agree on is that, used properly, psychedelic drugs have the potential to help us better understand ourselves.

This year is the ninth year of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, where popular personalities are paired with neuroscientists for a themed discussion. Events will continue into July and tickets are available online.

– Ali Chunovic

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