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HOLY VISIONS:

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE OR BRAIN MALFUNCTION?

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Sponsored link.

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About the origin of the God experience:

Probably millions of North Americans believe that they have had a God experience. They have sensed the presence of Jesus (or the Buddha, the Goddess, Jehovah, Krishna, etc., depending on their cultural tradition). This happens more frequently during times of fasting, prayer, meditation, anxiety, and/or stress. Christians often report hearing a still, small voice that they regard as coming from the Holy Spirit -- the third person in the Christian Trinity.

bulletReligious folks of various faith traditions generally regard these as real manifestations of the presence of their deity, or of a great spiritual teacher, or of a channeled Ascended Master.
bulletHowever, some psychologists and neuroscientists seek other explanations. They suspect that these mystical experiences may be caused by natural processes functioning (or malfunctioning) inside one's brain. One method of building support for this theory would be to find a way to artificially induce a mystical experience in the laboratory. Another would be to show how a natural disorder, like epilepsy, can produce hallucinations that simulate the God experience. Both methods are described below.

This difference between the religious and the secular beliefs is probably not resolvable. It is doubtful whether either side can collect sufficient evidence to convince the other.

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How the brain can create a God experience:

Author Jack Hitte reported that: "In his controversial 1976 book, 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,' Julian Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, argued that the brain activity of ancient people -- those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic, reason, and ethics -- would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics. Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, the ancients heard voices, summoned up visions, and lacked the sense of metaphor and individual identity that characterizes a more advanced mind. He said that some of these ancestral synaptic leftovers are buried deep in the modern brain, which would explain many of our present-day sensations of God or spirituality." 1

Author Curtis Peters explains the dynamics by which a brain might create a God experience: "There are two temporal lobes in the brain, one on each side. They are in constant communication with each other. The lobe on the right controls our sense of self. When communication between the lobes is interrupted, during an epileptic seizure for example, the result is a separate sense of self on the right side, to that of the left. Because of this, there is a sense of presence. The feeling is usually undeniable and unexplainable." 2

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Sponsored link:

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The epilepsy connection:

Some have suggested that the processes functioning in a person suffering from epilepsy might produce a God experience:

bulletGregory Holmes, a pediatric neurologist at Dartmouth Medical School, has noted that Ellen White suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. She was the principal founder of the Seventh-day Adventist religious movement, and was viewed as divinely inspired because of her religious visions. 3
bulletAuthor Scott Bidstrup writes: "that persons who have epileptic foci in the temporal lobes of their brains often have hallucinations that have a mystical component to them. When the foci are destroyed surgically, the seizures and the mystical experiences associated with them, go away. It was also observed that persons whose parietal superior lobes were damaged or destroyed, suffer an agonizing disability, in that they experience great difficulty in distinguishing between themselves and the rest of the world. This condition makes it difficult, for example, for the patient to walk, because he's unsure of where the floor ends and his foot begins, or even to sit down, because he doesn't know where his body ends and the chair begins. This is not unlike the mystical experience that is reported by deep meditators, of being 'at one' with the universe. For these patients, being 'at one' with the universe is such a constant experience, performing tasks that require the simple differentiation between 'self' and 'world' become extraordinarily difficult." 4

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Experiments by Michael Persinger, and team:

Michael Persinger, is a professor of neuroscience at the Department of Psychology of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. He wondered whether religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences had a natural rather than a supernatural source. He speculates that we are somehow programmed so that they can generate religious experiences via our brain's internal processes. He had noted that there were many points of similarity between seizures experienced by some individuals who suffered from epilepsy, and the types of mental and spiritual experiences that St. Paul, Moses, and many religious mystics had reported. 3 Persinger wondered if visions, a sense of the immediate presence of God, and other mystical experiences could be artificially created in the laboratory by magnetically inducing changes in the temporal lobes of a person's brain. He notes that "The deep structures of the temporal lobe are electrically unstable and sensitive to all sorts of things, including the biochemistry of stress, psychological distress, insufficient oxygen, and fasting. That could explain why, when mystics go through self-induced  stressful rituals and yogis go to high mountaintops and fast, they report transcendental events." 5 The use of fasting to induce mystical experiences is found in many spiritual disciplines throughout the world, in Native American religion, Shamanism, Christianity, etc.

Author Jack Hitte describes Persinger's theory as follows: " 'having a religious experience' is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a 'sensed presence.' " 1

Persinger developed the hypothesis that people who have experienced above average numbers of complex partial epileptic-like experiences might experience a "proximal presence" during an experiment in which a weak magnetic field was applied either to their right hemisphere, or to both hemispheres.

He built a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator, starting with a yellow motorcycle helmet, and outfitted it with build-in electrical coils that can create electromagnetic fields in the wearer's temporal lobes. These are the part of the brain which are linked to religious belief, "time distortions, dream states and assorted odd physic phenomena." 5 During an experiment, the subject sits in a quiet, dimly lit, room. Soothing music is played in the background. A "gently flickering strobe light" is provided. The subject's brain wave patterns are monitored by an EEG instrument.

By 2002, he had performed the experiment on over 1,000 volunteers. 80% had some sort of supernatural experience. 2 Many say that their experiences were "so profound they would be life-changing had they not understood the mechanistic underpinnings of what they had experienced." 4 About one in every 15 subjects reports an intensely meaningful experience. One saw a figure of Christ in the strobe light. Others, depending upon their cultural background, reported Elijah, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, or the Sky Spirit. Some have reported out-of-body experiences, a sensation of floating, and a sensation of "great meaningfulness."

His team conducted a study involving sixteen subjects. Six of the eight subjects who had previously experienced above average numbers of complex partial epileptic-like experiences sensed the presence of a sentient being during stimulation of their brain's right-hemisphere. A very weak, 1 μT (microTesla) frequency-modulated magnetic field was used. A microTesla is equal to about 2% of the Earth's magnetic field. Five of the eight noted a presence during bilateral stimulation. None of the eight subjects who had below average scores had this type of experience. 6

The helmet was given the ultimate test. The producers of the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Horizon science television series arranged to have Richard Dawkins try out the helmet. Dawkins is the well known author of "A Devil's Chaplain" and "The Blind Watchmaker." He is also a well known Atheist and skeptic. He was considered "the ideal candidate for a test of whether science can explain away religion, given his views of religion as a 'virus of the mind' and an 'infantile regression.' " Although Dawkins reported some strange experiences and tinglings during the experiment, no visions were forthcoming. It seems that Dawkins was not a likely subject for this experiment. He had previously scored low on a psychological test which measures proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity. Dawkins said: "It was a great disappointment. Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos." 3

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References:

  1. Jack Hitt, "This Is Your Brain on God: Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul," Wired Magazine, 1999-NOV, Issue 7.11
  2. Curtis Peters, "Experiencing God Through a helmet," The Inquisitor, at:  http://www.tcdsb.org/
  3. Dr. Raj Persaud, "Test aims to link holy visions with brain disorder," at:
     http://www.washtimes.com/
  4. Scott Bidstrup, "Experiencing God: The Neurology of the Spiritual Experience," Veritas Et Ratio (Truth and Reason) at: http://www.bidstrup.com/mystic.htm
  5. "The 2 AM WOW chamber," at: http://users.lycaeum.org/
  6. C.M. Cook, M.A. Persinger, "Geohysical variables and behavior: Experimental elicitation of the experience of a sentient being by right hemispheric, weak magnetic fields: interaction with temporal lobe sensitivity." Percept. Mot. Skills, 2001-AOR, 92(2), Pages 447-8. Abstract at: http://www.studiosra.it/ You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  7. Robert Hercz, "The God helmet," Saturday Night magazine, Volume 117, Issue5, 2002-OCT.

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Site navigation: Home page > Science v. religion > here

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Copyright © 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-MAR-25
Latest update: 2003-NOV-7
Author: B.A. Robinson

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