Monday, May 19, 2014

Is Religious Experience All in One's Head?

I will be blunt: I increasingly view far right conservative Christians - and fundamentalist Muslims too - as suffering from some form of mental illness typified by fear of uncertainty, fear of change, fear of anything that rocks their artificial reality world construct.   A new book, “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery” may lend credence to my somewhat cynical view of the deeply religious.  A piece in Salon looks at this book and the history of neuroscience it covers.   One possible finding?  The possible connection between religious experience and brain disturbances, especially epileptic seizures.  Here are some article highlights:

The answer may be epilepsy. At its most basic level epilepsy involves neurons firing when they shouldn’t and stirring up storms of electrical activity inside the brain. Neurons can misfire for many reasons. Some misfit neurons were born with misshapen membrane channels and can’t regulate the flow of ions in and out. Other times, when axons suffer damage, neurons start discharging spontaneously, like frayed electrical wires. Sometimes these disturbances remain local, and just one location in the brain goes on the fritz, a so-called partial seizure. In other cases, the seizure short-circuits the entire brain and leads to either a grand mal or a petit mal seizure. Grand mals (now called tonic-clonic seizures) start with muscular rigidity and end with the stereotypical thrashing and foaming; they’re what most of us think of when we think of epilepsy. Petit mals avoid the thrashing but usually cause “absences,” in which the victim freezes up and her mind goes blank for a spell.

[F]or some reason—perhaps because the nearby limbic structures get revved up—auras that originate in the temporal lobes feel emotionally richer and often supernaturally charged. Some victims even feel their “souls” uniting with the godhead. (No wonder ancient doctors called epilepsy the sacred disease.) 

Temporal lobe epilepsy has transformed other people’s lives in a similar way. All human beings seem to have mental circuits that recognize certain things as sacred and predispose us to feeling a little spiritual. It’s just a feature of our brains (Richard Dawkins excepted, perhaps). But temporal lobe seizures seem to hypercharge these circuits, and they often leave victims intensely religious, as if God has personally tapped them as witnesses. Even if victims don’t become religious, their personalities often change in predictable ways. They become preoccupied with morality, often losing their sense of humor entirely.

Based on these symptoms, especially the rectitude and sudden spiritual awakening, modern doctors have retrodiagnosed certain religious icons as epileptics, including Saint Paul (the blinding light, the stupor near Damascus), Muhammad (the trips to heaven), and Joan of Arc (the visions, the sense of destiny).

[W]hile epilepsy might well have induced their visions — the idea makes sense — it’s important to remember that Joan of Arc, Swedenborg, Saint Paul, and others also transcended their epilepsy. Probably no one but Joan would have rallied France, no one but Swedenborg would have imagined angels eating butter. As with any neurological tic, temporal lobe epilepsy doesn’t wipe someone’s mental slate clean. It simply molds and reshapes what’s already there.

What do readers think?  It certainly would explain the cause of sudden religious conversions that the Christofascists like to describe triumphantly. :-)

1 comment:

BJohnM said...

A key component of religious experience, especially of the fundamentalist variety, is the "conversion experience." This is part of what I think you are referring to. Within fundamentalism especially, it is often accompanied by intense emotions. There have been a few studies of this, and these experiences are not all that hard to induce with the use of images, intense experience, music, etc. An evangelical church service in other words. So it really doesn't require a misfiring of the brain.

That said, those who have studied these sorts of things do note that it is significantly easier to induce these feelings in people with lower education, and those predisposed to manipulation.

Couple that with the ability to literally scare the hell out people, and you've got a pretty potent mix.

It is sad really that so many evangelicals get themselves wrapped up in religion out of fear. They are afraid of what will happen to them after death, and this is something successful evangelical pastors are very adept at exploiting.