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Can dogs have spiritual experiences?

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Few of us would argue that dogs experience moments of true contentment. One look at a dog enjoying rolling in the sunshine or enjoying its owner's loving attentions proves that point. (© iStockphoto / Thinkstock) Few of us would argue that dogs experience moments of true contentment. One look at a dog enjoying rolling in the sunshine or enjoying its owner's loving attentions proves that point. (© iStockphoto / Thinkstock)
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By Jennifer Viegas
 

Research suggests spiritual experiences originate deep within primitive areas of the human brain -- areas shared by other animals with brain structures like our own. Many scientists, therefore, believe it's possible that dogs have moments that we may interpret as being spiritual.

One such scientist is Kevin Nelson, a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky. He thinks it is possible that dogs may go through near-death experiences, have mystical experiences, and feel the bliss that some people have associated with religious happenings. Says Nelson, author of the book The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: "In general, what serves to distinguish humans from animals is less the type of experience and the brain from which it springs, and more the spiritual interpretation the experience is given by humans."

Dogs and Near-death Experiences
People who come very close to death often report similar sensations, such as feeling detached from their bodies, moving through a tunnel and seeing a bright light. Nelson believes dogs and other animals are capable of experiencing these things as well.

  • Out-of-body sensation "In humans, we know that if we disrupt the region where our vision, sense of motion, orientation of the earth's gravitational field and knowing the position of our body all come together, then out-of-body experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch," says Nelson. Scientists can now even cause individuals to feel this sense of detachment in experiments, without the actual close-to-death moment. "There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat or primate's brain," says Nelson.
  • Moving through a tunnel "The tunnel sensation is caused by the eye's susceptibility to the low blood flow that occurs with fainting or cardiac arrest," explains Nelson. "As blood flow diminishes, vision fails peripherally first. There is no reason to believe that other animals are any different from us. What they make of the tunnel is another matter."
  • Going towards a bright light "All mammals experience REM (rapid eye movement) consciousness, and certainly in the higher mammal (including dogs and cats), the visual system defines REM consciousness," says Nelson. "So too, the light would seem to follow."

Dogs and Mystical Experiences
Mystical experiences are moments that inspire a sense of mystery and wonderment. They arise within the limbic system, says Nelson. Prior research conducted by other scientists has found that when specific parts of this system are removed from animal brains, mind-altering drugs have no effect.

Since dogs again possess similar brain structures, it is possible they experience mystical moments and may even enjoy what we could interpret as spiritual oneness, according to Nelson. It is possible that certain sensations are even more pronounced in dogs, given their heightened sensitivity to sounds, smells and more. As Jean Houston, co-director of the Foundation for Mind Research, says, dogs and other animals "are closer to nature and thus seem to be on a continuum with the natural flow of things." She believes "they serve as wonderful (spiritual) guides because of their simplicity and the naturalness of their being."

Dogs and Bliss
Few of us would argue that dogs experience moments of true contentment. One look at a dog enjoying rolling in the sunshine or enjoying its owner's loving attentions proves that point. Meditation, prayer, yoga and other practices can offer humans a similar feeling of bliss.

Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also believes non-human animals have spiritual experiences, which he defines as experiences that are nonmaterial, intangible, introspective and comparable to what humans have. Bekoff, Nelson and others hope future research will better illuminate the phenomena. "For now," says Bekoff, "let's keep the door open to the idea that animals can be spiritual beings, and let's consider the evidence for such a claim."

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Dog Daily. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animal, health and other science-related topics. 

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