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Integrative Psychiatry

Neuroscience and Spirituality with Joan Borysenko, PhD

Watch this video with Dr. Joan Borysenko as she talks about Neuroscience and Spirituality.


One of the things that we’re going to be looking at is that much of the research has to do with asking people to write down or to speak spiritual experiences that they’ve had. And it turns out, we can change our brain, activate different parts of the brain that we’re going to look at, and kind of install that activation, link neurons together.

The Neuroscience of Spirituality: An Overview

The first thing is a personal spiritual experience. And so what was happening in my brain just a few minutes ago, is that we would have been seeing increased activity in the nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal, attentional and ventromedial, the bottom middle part of the prefrontal cortex. And this is pleasure and reward circuitry. Different kinds of spiritual experiences, of course, are going to activate different areas of the brain.

Concentration meditation, for example, if you’re just concentrating on breath, or concentrating on mantra, or concentrating on a visual, like a candle, those kinds of concentration experiences, plus a verbal prayer, let’s say, doing the rosary.

Neural Networks of Ego and Present Moment

And that is a midline network, it extends from the orbital medial prefrontal cortex, back to the posterior cingulate cortex. And it includes the amygdala and hippocampus. And that, as I’ve said before, is the source of mind wandering and rumination. And that’s also called the self-referential network, thinking I, me, mine, and that, of course, can really depress you after a while. And this is the network that allows us to constantly bring back up our well-practiced narratives, that, you know, I’m a victim of that. This always happens to me, whatever it is, we all have our stories.

Identity Narratives: Borderline Personality Disorder

There’s actually quite a lot written about our stories, our narratives, and how they create our identity.

Identity, the Buddhist kind of idea is that we have no fixed identity at all, they have a word called Anatta, no self. And we’re constantly creating identity with the stories that we tell ourselves. This is good news. Because if we tell ourselves a new story, then our ego identity, which we do need some ego identity, of course, to move through this world, is going to be much more benign.

Can we challenge our brain volitionally?

And of course, the foundational work of Donald Hebb tells us neurons that fire together, wire together. Inner strengths of any kind, including flow, are grown from experiences of those strengths. In other words, the state has to be activated for the neurons to be firing so that they can wire together. And once you’ve got activation of the state, you can install temporary states as traits. And this is of course very much also the work of self-directed neuroplasticity.

Just little bits of meditation during the day can help put you in a better state and give rise to a more balanced mood.

Frederick Barrett is a cognitive neuroscientist with training in behavioral pharmacology, and the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Dr. Barrett has been conducting psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins University since 2013, and his research in healthy participants and in patients with mood and substance use disorders focuses on the psychological and neurological mechanisms underlying the enduring therapeutic and other effects of psychedelic drugs. In 2017, he received an NIH “R03” grant as Principal Investigator to investigate biological mechanisms of psilocybin effects, the first federally funded research since the 1970s administering a classic psychedelic to people with psychedelic effects as the primary focus. He has developed measures of subjective effects of psychedelic drugs, and has also published first-in-human studies characterizing the acute and enduring effects of psilocybin on the brain. He is currently leading clinical trials to investigate the use of psilocybin to treat patients with major depressive disorder and co-occurring alcohol use disorder, and he is leading a number of ongoing studies aimed at better understanding the psychological, biological, and neural mechanisms underlying therapeutic efficacy of psychedelic drugs.

Will Van Derveer, MD is co-founder of Integrative Psychiatry Institute (IPI), along with friend and colleague Keith Kurlander, MA. He co-created IPI as an expression of what he stands for. First, that anyone can heal, and second that we medical providers must embrace our own healing journeys in order to fully command our potency as healers.

Dr. Van Derveer spent the last 20 years innovating and testing a comprehensive approach to addressing psychiatric challenges which transcends the conventional model he learned in medical school at Vanderbilt University and residency at University of Colorado, while deeply engaging his own healing path.

He founded the Integrative Psychiatric Healing Center in in 2001 in Boulder, CO, where he currently practices. Dr. Van Derveer regards unresolved emotional trauma as the most significant root cause of psychiatric symptoms in integrative psychiatry practice, along with gut issues, hormone imbalances, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and other functional medicine challenges. He is trained in Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, and other psychotherapy techniques. His current clinical passion is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which he mentors interested doctors in providing. An avid meditator, he has been a meditation instructor since 2004.

For the past several years Dr. Van Derveer has taught psychiatrists and other psychiatric providers integrative psychiatry in a number of settings, including course directing the CU psychiatry residents’ course as well as with Scott Shannon and Janet Settle at the Psychiatry MasterClass. In addition to his clinical work and teaching, he was co-investigator in 2016 a Phase II randomized clinical trial, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He continues to support this protocol, now in a Phase III clinical trial under break-through designation by FDA.

Dr. Van Derveer is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine (ABoIHM) since 2013, and he was board certified in the first wave of diplomates of the new American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABIM) in 2016.