Death, the Dark Brain and Transformations in Light

Many people may be surprised to learn that the surface of our brain is actually dark and that this darkness has consequences for our experience of consciousness and transformation itself, including our ultimate transformation at death. It also has consequences for the most subtle form of light we know, the light we associate with religious and spiritual experience. Light and death stand as great rivers in human experience, unavoidable and woven inexplicably close.

The dark mosaic of the human brain has also been revealing itself more each year to medicine and the complex scientific instruments we have devised to explore it.  However, in our modern rush to understand we sometimes forget that long ago our ancestors in the temples and per ankhs or “houses of life” in ancient Egypt, West Africa and southern India as well as Europe, explored through their various contemplative disciplines, this paradoxically dark and luminous brain and its encounter with what we know and believe about death.

These early scientists realized through their own empirical exploration as well as internal reflection that within the brain sleeps the potential to activate a profound and deeply personal connection, not merely to the unconscious level of mind explored so thoroughly by Freud, Jung, and the others of early twentieth-century psychology, but also other natural forces in nature.  Those ancient explorers demonstrated that there appears to be a higher or supramental realm of the mind better known to mystics, people deeply moved in spiritual experience and also gifted individuals in moments of artistic and scientific inspiration. They experimented with merging this subtle inner light experienced and observed deep in the brain with the vaster outer light of what they experienced as god or the sun or the cosmos itself with all its stars and forces (1). They recorded their experiences in the writings of the Egyptian’s Book of the Dead, in the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, in the writings of the early Christian mystics as well as other texts. A minister on Sunday morning, with soaring and rhythmic incantation, exhorts the congregation to rise up to this level, even if only very briefly.

 This supramental or Superconscious level appears at times as a realm or force that is paradoxically both dark and yet luminous, full of certain kind of internally perceived light. The whole body and spirit at times feels like it is lifted up in light and ecstasy, i.e., “moved by the spirit.”  The whole trajectory of these services and rituals, like the early “mystery schools” of Africa, Egypt and India, was to develop empirically derived methods of active prayer and meditation so as to align themselves with this inner and deeper reality so intimately associated with the subtle mystery of the brain and the outer wider cosmos. In our own day we realize scientifically that most of the light and energy of the cosmos, anywhere from 93% to 96 %, is actually unseen, a mysterious complex of what is known as dark matter and dark energy.

Historic images of the inner light

This inner light or force in its most intense form was called the Ureaus by the early Egyptians and Kundalini by the Hindu yoga traditions.  Other traditions from our world’s diverse cultures have their own names for it.  What is crucial for us is that it appears to be a genetically rooted or an innate bio-luminous impulse or power in us serving not only as the wellspring of our intellectual and creative genius as individuals, but also for spiritual transcendence itself in its many forms. It is often simply called the serpent power.  Psychological science today is coming to recognize it as the intelligent, conscious, and still unfolding force of evolution itself in our species. Evolution did not stop with our Australopithecine ancestors, nor with the early Homo sapiens forms, nor has it suddenly stopped with us! It continues today. It is described as “serpentine” in the various spiritual traditions because of its observed motion through the body and its shape and association with the shape and contour of the human spine up from the base and into the brainstem, the dark brain core’s areas, the brain’s dark surface and beyond (2).

 That inner swaying motion experienced during different worship services is this phenomenon. In the contemplative traditions and disciplines, this innermost light is reached by way of ultra-quieting of the body and mind so that its perception is realized. This is seen in different forms of prayer and yoga. In the activating disciplines this is achieved by various forms of hyper-arousal of the body and nervous systems. The two approaches complement each other.

In the hyper arousal methodologies, it is stimulated at times by coordinated foot stomping, flexing of the lower back and hips in the sacral (sacred) area, hand clapping, syncopated rhythm and coordinated call and response. This coordinated activity appears to set up a vibration in the physical heart-aorta system and the brain’s dense gel and crystallized structure, creating what is known as a kind of piezoelectric effect, where the mechanical stress and energy stimulated converts these waves of vibration in the brain’s dense gel into an electric current capable of ultrafine focusing and amplification of an already existing subtle current in the brain and spinal line. Incantation by words, voice, and phrasing, along with this foot stomping and that lower back sacral flexing, helps capture and conduct this living energy flowing through the individual along the spinal line. Our different spiritual disciplines all have favored methods to expedite this process.

The goal of every discipline of meditation, regardless of methodology, is the awakening and raising up of this force and the passing through or dissolution of the ego and thought-mesh in human experience. It allows the embodied soul or self to cognitively disengage from dense mental and emotional constructions of all kinds and enter into a progressively extended range of consciousness that unfolds beyond it. The advantage of recognizing the Ureaus or kundalini is that, like the Clear Light experience of meditative practices, it has a clear psychophysical fingerprint in experience and its emergence in consciousness vastly outshines conventional conceptualization and thought itself, at least briefly, until stabilized. This encounter, and the planes of consciousness that arise, may afford a brief glimpse into what appears to be on the evolutionary path of our species.

The ancient Egyptians knew a great deal about the physical body and brain based on centuries of battle field trauma medicine and the art of mummification.  In their academies or “houses of life” they conducted medicine and psychospiritual experimentation. Their experience led them to represent the Ureaus as twin serpents in alternating curves and balance, coiling themselves seven times around the spinal line until meeting in the apex of the brain where it spawned wings and took flight, i.e., spiritual flight.  It was seen as a sign of an awakened consciousness in the double serpents or urai of the pharaoh’s royal crown. This crown appears to have flowed out of the light sensitive pineal gland situated in the mid center of the brain’s two hemispheres. It was the focus of psychological training and progression in the mystery schools for years, advancing the student from neophyte all the way up to the “sons and daughters of light.”

 Certainly the early desert fathers of Christianity knew of its existence. The Kabbalistic seers would perceive it as that internally luminous tree of life. The Hindu yogis have a similar tradition as do many of the peoples of West Africa. This knowledge would later find representation in the now familiar image of the Greco-Roman staff of Hermes with its serpents coiled seven times around the spinal column until similarly reaching the apex of the brain and with wings taking flight. This medical caduceus symbol remains the predominant symbol used in medicine today. So when we visit a physician’s office we are implicitly paying homage to this tradition.

Personal bliss and cosmic consciousness

The contemplative traditions of the pyramids and deserts of Africa as well as Israel and the classical meditative disciplines across the earth have studied this phenomenon for millennia. The testimony of practitioners is that, when awakened by various disciplines and means, this biogenetic force unfurls along the spinal column up into the brain, opening and connecting our individual consciousness with the cosmos, suffusing it with awe and bliss.

In the Christian tradition, it is the “passion of Christ” or various saints, with other traditions delineating their own terms(3). The process fuses our highly energized and awakened consciousness with the wider implicit consciousness of the universe itself enfoldedwithin the dark matter and dark energy of the cosmos. This has been the observation and testimony of the greatest heroes of our species across the Ages. At the root of creativity and spiritual genius across innumerable cultures and civilizations, this intelligent force appears to transform us and create portals that literally enfold time, space and the luminous matrix of reality itself.

Once this biogenetic process is released it begins to unfold a series of experiences or planes of awareness only dimly intuited at our normative level of consciousness. It moves up through what the Egyptians termed the Amenta or Primeveal Waters of NUN, what we term today as the unconscious mind with its drives, primordial fears, awes, and dynamisms rooted that appear to be midbrain limbic structures developed during the era of our Australopithecine progenitors millions of years ago. This was the level of consciousness that Freud and his contemporaries explored so well. However, it then moves up and through the most sublime of emotions and conceptions of this dark covered cerebral cortex and prefrontal lobes before eventually transcending even ideation itself in a current of energy and bliss, opening into a seamless subjective apprehension of a boundless radiant intelligence appearing to pervade all of existence.

This boundless intelligent light is described in the spiritual traditions as arising for all embodied human souls at the moment of death. This has been meticulously documented in the medical and clinical literature of NDE or Near-Death-Experiences, be they in the hospital ER or other places. It is not due to a loss of oxygen in the neural structures nor is it a delusional system arising during panic. It is given many names depending on the tradition. In Tibetan Buddhism it is the Fundamental and Mother Clear Light; Christians describe seeing the Light of Christ; different indigenous people meet the Great Spirit, etc. The Kemetic Egyptians described the arrival of the luminous ‘bird of Light’. The crucial point is that at the moment of ultimate transformation, regardless of cultural setting, the literal light of the living brain encounters a light vastly beyond itself that is intensely conscious. The different disciplines describe their methodology for merging and identifying with this intelligent light. There is often what is described as some kind of panoramic life review.

 It is extremely significant that the meeting with this liberating light and life review in our experiences opens in us a vast intersubjectivity in which we see what our actions and the consequences of our actions have been and internally felt like to everyone we have ever encountered while on earth in our traditional waking state consciousness. It is the apotheosis of empathy. It appears to be a glimpse into a spectrum of consciousness experienced by only a few in states of expanded awareness and spiritual ecstasy. In a very real way the sub-quantum sea of light energy below and deeper than the biological substrate of the brain that underlies the neural structures has briefly merged with this dark light that is implicit and yet pervasive in the cosmos. This brief merging is what is understood to naturally arise at the moment of death.

Yes, this is a biological phenomenon innate in all of us but it arches far beyond our biological substrate.

Drawing from research in quantum and relativistic physics, neuroscience, and biochemistry, as well as the most recent findings from the emerging field of neurotheology, or what brain science tells us about spiritual reality, along with the ancient traditions from Africa and India, new research in this dark and paradoxically light infused force and phenomena is called Dark Light Consciousness. It appears to be intimately connected to the living dark matter of our brains termed neuromelanin(2). 

The brain’s “grey matter” is light sensitive

Neuromelanin (NM) is a brown/black material that is light or photosensitive. It is an energy conductive biopolymer and neural phenomena found in progressive amounts within the spinal line, brain stem, critical brain core areas, on the brain’s surface and indeed in the nervous system of all the higher life-forms on our planet. As we move up the evolutionary latter on our earth it appears more intensely in our nervous systems. It is most intensely manifest in the mammals, then more so in the primates, and humans have the most intense expression of the primates. Critically it is found in the inner spinal column itself as well as the four neuromelanin lined deep cavities of the brain’s ventricular system (CVO) where it acts as a semi-conductor and potentially a superconductor of current. In our deep cerebral hemispheres there are masses of these nuclei or centers of dark living matter called basal nuclei and include the caudate nucleus, putamen, globus pallidus, claustrum, amygdala, subthalamic nucleus, substantia nigra, all of which contain neuromelanin.  This dark innermost spine is actually composed of brain or neural tissue reaching from near the base of the spine up and eventually fanning out covering the entire surface of the brain(2).

Another critical area of neuromelanin concentration and activity is that small lump of neuromelanin near the top rear section of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. It is the area that orients or generates our sense of time and space or our temporal and spatial perceptions. There are actually two of these areas, one in each hemisphere of the brain. The right area is associated with our spatial coordinates, the left with our temporal. When these areas of neuromelanin are “activated” by this current as it passes through in meditation or prayer, our sense of space and time is ablated or experientially transcended and our sense of self enters into an eternal or dimensionless region of perception. What we might call mystical. (4)

The whole purpose of the disciplines of meditation and contemplation, be they Christian, Kabbalistic, Kemetic Egyptian, Hindu, or the deep rhythmic movements of ecstatic dance or any of the other methods developed by our species, is to initiate a resonate and entraining stimulation of the living dark centers in the brain in order for the biospiritual current to be free to ascend along through this nerve pathway and progressively pass through the brain core and beyond.

Because NM is light sensitive or orients itself toward light, it is capable of orienting us in the wider reality of not only the local earth, but perhaps, also the wider constellations and stars that is unfolded when an awakened inner eye is opened. It helps orient us in the wider milieu.  

 All of this is not to confuse simple surface skin melanin, which is variable from racial group to group, even varying greatly from person to person within the same family, with this more neurologically rooted NM, which is found in all humans regardless of surface differentiation. In fact again what is most significant is that the degree and intensity of neuromelanin directly and proportionally increases in amount in the brain as we progress up the evolutionary line from simple mammals to more complex ones to the primates, to the great apes and finally reaching its zenith of concentration in man(5,6) .

This NM is the so-called grey matter of the brain that is light sensitive despite being under the surface of the skull away from direct sunlight. Neuromelanin manifests an increasing capacity to absorb andtransduce waves of light itself into more complex forms, e.g., light, heat, vibration etc.  The research demonstrates how this dark-light of NM appears to serve as the biochemical infrastructure of what our introspective and spiritual traditions refer to as the “subtle body” or light body. It is crucial to the interface between the dense local body we see and feel and the more subtle energetic body we sense and radiate.  It is the backdrop of our existence, felt but unseen. It is much like cold dark matter that, together with gravity, forms the infrastructure of the cosmos, holding together the galaxies and constellations.  The classical disciplines of psychology and contemplation teach how to safely awaken and stabilize this biogenetic and biospiritual energy through meditation practices, breathing exercises, as well as other disciplines such as yoga, in order to prepare the subtle body for more expansive and illuminative experiences. This again is the whole trajectory of the mystery schools.

These disciplines of the Ureaus or Kundalini provide modern psychology and psychiatry as well as the contemplative disciplines with explicit maps and empirically based methodologies for the exploration of these experiences. We owe a debt to the classical scholars of Egypt, India, West Africa, indeed the whole ancient world.  We are now doing our part in the rediscovery of what our ancient forefathers knew and explored on the banks of the Nile and Ganges untold millennia ago. ◆


1.Bynum, E.B. (2021). Our African Unconscious: The Black Origins of Mysticism and Psychology. Inner Tradition & Bear Company, Rochester, VT.

2. Bynum, E.B. (2012). Dark Light Consciousness: Melanin, Serpent Power and the Luminous Matrix of Reality. Inner Traditions and Bear Company, Rochester, VT.

3. Medwick, C. (1999). Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul. Knopf, NYC, NY.

4. Newberg, A., E. D’Aquilli, and V. Rause. (2001) Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Ballantine. New York.

5. Barr, F.E. 1983. Melanin: The organizing molecule. In Medical Hypotheses 11.

6. Moore, T.O. (2004). The Science of Melanin. Zamani Press, Redan, Ga.

Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is a clinical psychologist and the director of behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts Health Services in Amherst. A student of Swami Chandrasekharanand Saraswati and a winner of the Abraham H. Maslow award from the American Psychological Association, he is the author of several books, including The African Unconscious. He lives in Pelham, Massachusetts.