Neurotheology – With God In Mind

Addressing the general meeting for the “Society of Neuroscience” in 1997, Dr. Ramachandran made comment that “there is a neural basis for religious experience.” Ramachandran’s radical statement catapulted neurotheology well into the public eye. The aim of neurotheology is to question and “explore theology from a neurological perspective…helping us to understand the human urge for religion and religious myth” (Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause 2001, p177). Neurotheologians address this through varying scientific methods. Ultimately, can such a movement disprove the existence of God?

Newberg and D’aquili(2001, pp3-10) explored the relationship between brain function and spiritual experience in Tibetan Monks and Franciscan Nuns as they engaged in deep meditation and prayer. Injecting a radioactive tracer into the arm of the subject, on cue as they entered into deep meditative state, the tracer detected areas of the brain where there was an increase in neuronal activity and blood concentration. Images taken by SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computerised Tomograph) picked up a dramatic increase of neuronal activity within the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with attention and concentration. However the parietal lobe, the area associated with time concept and spatial orientation, showed very little activity. With limited neuronal activity, the parietal lobe is unable to distinguish the boundary between the external world and the physical self. This could account for the mediators reporting a ‘sense of unity’ with the universe and a ‘mingling with God’ during intense trance (Newberg et al 2001, p7).

Newberg et al, 2001, (p40) describes the state achieved during meditation as ‘Hyperquiescence’, a state of “extraordinary relaxation”. Intense evocation during meditation leads to the subject entering into a state of total tranquility where personal feeling, bodily sensations and thoughts are restricted from invading consciousness.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, believe they have found the ‘God Spot’; an area of the brain which becomes hyper sensitive and stimulated during moments of deep religious reflection. Located within the frontal cortex, this area is concurrent with where Eastern Religions perceive the ‘Third Eye’. Some ancient religious sects practiced ‘tapping’, an operation to cut a small hole into the skull around this area, as they considered it to enhance personal spiritual awareness. (Peet, 1998).

During the 1950’s, Penfield conducted a series of experimental operations on patients who suffered seizures within the frontal cortex area and temporal lobe areas. Using only local anesthetic, Penfield asked the patient to vocalize their feelings and emotions as he accessed different areas of the brain. Akin to the reported enhancements caused by tapping, patients responded to sensation within the temporal lobe, experiencing feelings of a paranormal, spiritual presence and ‘cosmic consciousness.’ Significantly, it was noted that harsh manipulation of the temporal lobe during the operation caused the patient to experience an emotional imbalance to negative effect, (i.e) feelings of fear, yet gentle stimulation evoked feelings of elation and joy. (Chapman )(date unknown)1.

Beaumont, Kenealy and Rogers (1999, p ) comment that “There is a clinical impression that some patients with right hemispheric temporal lobe lesions experience increases in religiousness, sometimes to the extent that the term ’Hyper religiosity’ is applicable”. This statement is upheld by Joseph (1997) who notes that development of epilepsy in the temporal lobe and limbic hyper-activation often cause the patient to obsess over religious characters, texts and ideals. Many patients claim to ‘meet’ God during seizures and subsequently begin to act in ‘religiously significant’ ways; for example obsessive preaching or evangelising. Ramachandran noted that temporal lobe epileptics tend to have “a heightened response to religious language, specifically religious terms and icons”, along with obsession over ‘religious matters’ (Newberg et al 2001, p32 & 185).

Based on observations of the condition, radical theologians and neuroscientists have noted a strong possibility that some charismatic religious forefathers; such as Moses, St. Paul and Mohammad were sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy. This is due to the fact that reports of their behaviour appear to match closely with those of temporal lobe epilepsy sufferers. Mohammad, as myth states, first encountered the Angel Gabriel after being ‘roused’ from sleep, and was recorded as often entering into prophetic trance after losing consciousness. St. Paul’s hyper religiousity can be traced through life, first as a Zealot, through the Damascus transfiguration and into extensive evangelisation (Romans – Thessalonians). Moses, dramatically appeared to have suffered ‘Kluver-Bucy’ syndrome (intense sexual and deviant desire associated with temporal lobe epilepsy) along with hyper religiousity and exaggerated aggression. However, as these characters existed more than 2,000 years ago, and with no testable evidence remaining, one can only speculate as to the extent of their conditions.

More contemporary examples may be noted in two specific cases. Ellen White, founder of the ‘Seventh Day Adventist’ movement suffered a brain injury at the age of 9, in 1836, which completely altered her personality. Subsequent to the event, it is stated that White began to receive ‘powerful religious images’, akin to those of Paul on the road to Damascus. This inspired the formulation of the secular group. (BBC 2002).

“Sightings” Magazine (Vol 2, Iss 8, p44-47) reports on the case of Georgio Bondiovanni, a devout Catholic and sufferer of temporal lobe epilepsy. Claim has been made that during seizures Bondiovanni has developed stigmata. Upon recovery Bondiovanni reports of having received prophetic messages from God.

Dr. Persinger, professor of neuroscience as Laurentic University, Canada, claims that people can experience a sense of timelessness, paranormal visions and even come ‘face to face’ with God by wearing his unique ‘God Machine’ (Ford 2002). The ‘God Machine’ is a specially designed helmet which gently stimulates and causes a temporary influx of neuronal firing in the limbic system, much like as occurs during natural temporal lobe epilepsy. During Persinger’s experiment, subject’s sensory input is restricted, eyes are covered and ears are blocked, as means of detracting from the influence of environmental stimuli. When the helmet is in pace, electrodes pulsate currents to the brain, causing a ‘magnetic field pattern’ in the right hemisphere (Martin 2002). This can enable ‘micro-seizures’ to be generated. Manipulation of the limbic system has caused subjects to report feelings of ‘forced motion’, physical distortion and hyper emotionality (Ford 2002). Stimulation direct to the temporal lobe has been noted to inspire a sense of spiritual well-being, paranormal experience and feelings of hyper-religiousity. 80% of subjects recorded experiencing a feeling that they were ‘not alone’ and sensed a ‘spiritual presence’ when their temporal lobe was stimulate (BBC 2003).

Persinger’s work leads to the question of why such reactions occur when these specific areas of the brain are stimulate. Persinger argues that over stimulation and unsyncopated reaction in one area of the temporal cortex can cause a misinterpretation of ‘the self’. During moments of neuronal imbalance in the left hemisphere of the temporal cortex (an area concerned with the sense of self), the brain interprets the presence of the right hemisphere as a personified ’other entity’, or God (Ford 2002).

In conjunction with the physical reaction in the temporal cortex, the closely inter-linked limbic system, specifically the amygdala (seat of higher emotion) and hippocampus (seat of stored memory/experience) becomes hyper-stimulated. This can generate feelings of arousal and induce hallucinogenic visions. Vast concentrations of opiate receptors located in the amygdala coupled with the release of large quantities of enkephalins during hyper stimulation can give rise to feelings of euphoria and rapture (Joseph 1996).

Are certain people predisposed to their experiences through temporal lobe epilepsy by what Bishop Sykes(2003) called a ’talent for religion’? During an interview given to BBC’s ’Horizons’ programme (2003), temporal lobe epilepsy sufferer Gwen Tighe, a devout Christian, made claim that during a seizure she had become convinced that she had given birth Christ. Tighe claims to have experienced intense visual hallucinations and physical reactions as though in late stages of labour. On recovery from seizure Tighe reported feelings of a prolonged sense of euphoria and intense spiritual enlightenment.

It is possible that predisposition plays a vital role in the individual’s experience during temporal lobe seizure. Rudi Affolter, believer in the esoteric and agnostic, claimed to encounter alien beings and suffer near death experience when suffering epileptic fits. At no time did Affolter make mention of divine experience. Affolter’s belief in the paranormal appeared to produce ‘paranormal’ experience during seizure (BBC 2003). Considering this case in contrast of that of Tighe, it is possible to conclude that sufferer’s seizure experiences follow expectations based upon their personal beliefs. A Christian, for example, is more likely to ‘encounter’ God at such an event than an agnostic.

Undertaking Persinger’s experiment, Professor R.Dawkins, scientist and renowned atheist, claimed only to experience mild limb pain and slight respiratory difficulties. Dawkins certainly did not ‘meet God’, nor encounter any unusual or achieve an enlightening experience. Persinger was not disheartened by Dawkins’ response. Theorising that different individuals have varying levels of sensitivity to the magnetic field the helmet generates; Persinger suggested that Dawkins’ naturally has a high level of resilience to the magnetism, while an epilepsy sufferer has high sensitivity. This could account for the anomalous result (BBC 2003).

Sensitivity to Persinger’s generated magnetic field may be a result of persistent maladjustment within the temporal cortex. Evidence suggests temporal lobe epileptics maintain slightly elevated levels of activity in the left cortex during periods of functional continuity (Ford 2002). This may account for the depth and explicitly of experience generated both naturally and artificially.

Bental2] (date unknown) considered the reason why some temporal lobe epileptics and experienced meditators claim to hear the ‘voice of God’. Bental suggests this phenomena is due to a simple misattribution of the ‘inner voice’, during periods of sensory isolation. The brocca area of the brain, responsible for speech and language recognition, remains active during meditation and seizure. Restriction of sensory information causes the brocca to misjudge the internal voice as one generated by external stimuli. This misinterpretation can lead the individual to confuse their internal monologue with the “voice” of an external entity. Occurrence during meditation or a ‘religiously experiential’ seizure could lead the individual to believe they are hearing the voice of God, especially in situations of solitude. Ramachandran also noted that temporal lobe epileptics tend to have “a heightened response to religious language, specifically religious terms and icons.”

Not all limbic hyper-activation is the result of temporal lobe epilepsy. Scientist have discovered that hyper-activation can be induced by means of taking certain narcotics. Lilly (1972) experienced “the presence of spiritual, god-like beings” after combining sensory and social isolation with taking LSD. Hallucinogenic narcotics alter the natural biochemical processes and affect certain neurotransmitter sites. Increased levels of dopamine are released into the body and serotonin blocked in the amygdala generates feelings of euphoria (Chapman 3 date unknown 1) . This holds relevance to religious histories. It is well documented that Shamanistic tradition and American India ritual incorporated drugs such as mescaline, peyote and psilocybe by means of achieving heightened spiritual sensation (Schultes, Hofmann & Ratsch).

Intense sensory stimulation, such as dancing or chanting, also arouse the limbic system and assist in heightening a ‘religious experience’. The deactivation of certain neuronal activity from reaching other areas of the brain by the hippocampus and extensive limbic stimulation can produce hallucinations. Newberg et al (2001, p42) describe such occurrence as “Hyperarousal with Quiescent Breakthrough” . Intense active stimulation can induce an “ecstatic rush of orgasmic-like energy”, assisting in the tagging of special significance to such action.

The concept of perception must also be regarded. Neuronal activity cannot always discriminate between real events and those one perceives to be real. Newberg suggest that although spiritual experience can be traced though neuronal activity, it does not necessarily mean that these experiences are due to “neurological illusion” alone (Ford 2002). There is little difference between how the brain processes the experiential, either real or supposed. The difference lies in how the individual perceives experience. It could be said that the only distinction between experiencing God and seeing a tree is that a tree is a tangible physical object, which we can all agree exists.

Does God exist? Newberg et al (2001 p37) believe yes, but only as a concept or ‘reality’ in the mind of the believer. Persinger expressed similar view, a position generated by the results of extensive work. Todd (1999) states, “there is no God separate from the believer.“ Dawkins considers the human brain to hold an “evolutionary advantage” with its capacity to believe in God. It is a product of advanced intelligence that concepts such as faith exist (BBC 2003).

Neurotheology is not without its opponents. Evangelical Christian groups demonstrated outside Persinger’s office, considering both the helmet and Persinger to be “demonic” (Peet 1998). Intellectually, theologian Haught has argued that “[neuroscientists] have isolated one small aspect of religious experience and are identifying that with the whole of religion” (Martin 2002). Religion is far more than ‘experiencing God’, Haught states; religion is about commitment, suffering, myth, unity and community. The problem with neurotheology is that it does not encompass the totality of what ‘religious experience’ really consists of. It is a unifying principle which brings people together, sharing the same beliefs and encountering similar experiences. These are aspects which science cannot replicate in a lab.

Believers counter-argue the neuroscientific position on the existence of God. Naturally a deity who advocated discourse would design the human brain to allow interaction. Ramachandran considers that brain circuitry, as Persinger has identified, could be tantamount to an antenna which assists the believer to communicate with God (BBC 2003).

It is the job of science to make sense of the world around us, and for some that includes religion. Since there is no real way one can truly determine the existence of God, both believers and neurotheologians must rely on faith to ‘stand fast’ on their position. Neurotheologians such as Persinger and Newberg do not condemn religious belief; they simply offer an explanation as to why some encounter religious experience. In fact, Newberg(2001) considers the beneficial effects of participation in religious activity; observing that participation in prayer enhances the immune system, lowers heart rate and restricts the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream (p131). Significantly, belief in God can offer reassurance and unconditional love in times of crisis. Science cannot. Maybe it is time to follow our hearts (and our heads) and come to our own conclusions.

Perhaps Nietzsche was correct in stating, “God is dead”. With the field of neurotheology expanding rapidly, it is possible that science will kill off the deity once and for all.

Author – Victoria Powell,
University of Westminster, London.
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