Quote of the month:
"Ooops. My brain just hit a bad sector." (Anonymous)
Why God Won't Go Away, by Newberg and D'Aquili, the first chapter is a
fine example of science, the rest a good illustration of scientists climbing up
mirrors to justify their ideological biases.
page on research on brain injuries, where you can find the latest in this
fascinating field of study..
of the Rational:
Essays About Nature
& Humanist Web
Imagine you are about to have a mystical experience. You may be absorbed in
prayer in the silence of your room, or perhaps you are meditating and—helped by
the lack of distraction to your senses—you are about to experience a feeling of
unity with the universe, an experience that will reinforce your conviction that
there really is another world out there; that what we call reality is only a
pale reflection of the real thing. The question is: what is going on in your
brain while all this is happening? Are your mental powers, in fact, allowing
you to, at least temporarily, gain a higher view of the universe? Or, is your
brain simply malfunctioning under unusual circumstances and playing tricks on
you? In the following, I will lay out the evidence as best as we can assess it;
by the end of this essay, you may wish to look into this matter more carefully
and decide for yourself.
Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, two researchers interested in the
neurobiology of mystical experiences, carried out an intriguing set of
experiments. They asked Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns, respectively,
to try to achieve a state of deep meditation or prayer while in an isolated
room in a laboratory. The subjects were hooked to a computerized scanning
machine that could visualize which parts of their brains were unusually active
or inactive. The results were very similar in the two cases. For one thing—and
not surprisingly—the brains of the meditators and nuns activated areas that are
associated with intense concentration: praying or meditating is an intellectual
activity that requires effort on the part of the brain. More interestingly,
Newberg and D’Aquili saw that another region of the brains of their subjects
was going almost completely dead: the posterior superior parietal lobe. This
area is known to be in charge of determining the boundaries of one’s body, a
fundamental task for any living being because it allows us to navigate a
complex three-dimensional world with no more accidents than occasionally
spilling the coffee.
We know that the posterior superior parietal lobe plays that particular role
because there are patients with damage in this same region who literally cannot
move around without falling, missing the chair they intended to sit on, and
generally having a fuzzy understanding of where their body ends and the rest of
the universe begins. It is a truly awful condition, one of many that have
taught neurobiologists so much about the inner workings of the human brain.
Now, what is interesting is that Newberg and D’Aquili’s subjects described
their mystical experience in an uncanny similar way to the reports of
brain-damaged patients: they said that, at the peak of their meditation or
prayer, they felt “one with the universe,” feeling a dissolution of their
bodies into the wholeness of reality. The brain scans supported their
interpretation of what was happening: because of the low level of sensorial
stimuli (the experiments were being conducted in dark rooms with no sounds) the
brain was fed little in the way of information about the outside world and
simply shut down the corresponding areas (possibly to save energy: the brain is
by far the metabolically most costly organ we have).
The question is: where the Franciscan nuns and Buddhist meditators really
accessing an alternate reality, or where they simply experiencing an odd side
effect of putting their brains under unusual circumstances?
Michael Persinger is a Canadian neurobiologist who, like Newberg and
D’Aquili, is interested in scientifically investigating mystical experiences.
He has started out with the known fact that some patients who suffer from
seizures in the temporal lobes are subject to auditory or visual
hallucinations, which they often interpret as mystical experiences. Some of
these patients are convinced that they talked to God and that, as a result,
they gain a special “cosmic” insight into reality, consciousness, and the
meaning of life. Persinger set out to literally repeat these experiences under
controlled laboratory conditions. He built a helmet that causes small, intense,
and directed magnetic fields inside the brain to simulate micro-seizures that
do not cause any permanent damage. In perfectly Victorian tradition, the good
doctor has experimented upon himself and found that magnetically induced
seizures in the temporal lobes do indeed generate the same sort of
hallucinations and mystical experiences reported by the patients.
Again, what is going on? Is Persinger’s helmet a machine that can
potentially put everybody in direct contact with God, or does it show that many
mystical experiences are in fact caused my seizures, that is by a malfunction
of the normal brain circuitry?
Here is where the facts end and the theorizing begins. From the point of
view of purely logical possibilities, the
‘faulty-brain-under-unusual-circumstances‘ and the
‘triggered-real-mystical-experiences‘ interpretations are both possible, and we
are free to believe whatever fits better with our general outlook on such
matters. However, I would argue that by far the simplest and most reasonable
explanation of the facts is indeed the naturalistic one (i.e., that we are
witnessing a temporary malfunction of the brain triggered by abnormal
conditions such as sensorial deprivation or seizures). Why? First, this
interpretation fits with all we know about the brain, the phenomenon of
hallucinations, and even the natural tendency of human beings to invent
explanations when faced with unusual sense data. Second, if God really built
that ability in our brains for the purpose of communicating, why did He choose
to make it much easier for some individuals and essentially impossible for
others to achieve such a state of blessing? Third, it is interesting that
different subjects interpret their experiences differently, depending on their
cultural background and previous beliefs, again something that fits better with
a naturalistic explanation than with the refined plan of a supernatural being.
Either way, you’ll have to use your brain to reach a conclusion, but how do
you know that you are not having a seizure that is biasing your judgment? Isn’t
the human brain a wonderful thing to ponder with and about?