Experiencing God

The Neurology of the Spiritual Experience

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it. The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and the world of thought. He [the experiencer] looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole"
--Albert Einstein




Why This Essay

I've had a lot of interesting experiences in my life. Among these are experiences of God. I've had the experience of just knowing that Jesus is right beside me in times of great trials. I've heard that still, small voice advising me about matters spiritual. I've had dreams that were convincingly real, featuring dead relatives, explaining convincingly that the spiritual path I was on was the right one, and to stay with it. I've had all the experiences that often convince people to change their lives, to take up spiritual paths, and that often change their very personalities. I've had life-changing spiritual experiences.

By rights, I should be a convert. I should be a deeply religious person, with an abiding conviction in the reality of the unseen, the infinity of God, and the spiritual unity of man with the universe.

But, as Einstein wasn't, I am not either.

I am not because I am also a rationalist. I believe in following the lines of reason and logic as a more sure way of coming to the truth than following an emotional reaction to an experience. For years, I puzzled over the meaning of my experiences, and whether they were grounded in reality. I now believe that I have found the answer.

Hearing the Voice, Seeing the Vision

The experience of the 'infinite sublimity' as Einstein described it, is an old one. Rock paintings in Australia, Africa, Europe and the Americas show clearly that the shamanic experience of the mystical goes back to the earliest times in human history.

And the experience of the mystical is a common one. Millions of Americans can describe 'out-of-body' experiences, many more can describe 'near death' experiences. Many more can talk about how, in a blinding flash of an all-consuming experience, they have felt, even seen the presence of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or of any other particular religious personality. They talk about how, in minutes, or hours, or even days, they had experiences that convinced them that God is real, Jesus or whoever else is real, and that there is no question but what there is a guiding presence in their lives.

With all that testimony, the testimony of millions, how could science doubt the reality of the experience?

For many scientists, the whole question of the "god experience" was a matter they didn't want to undertake - not because they feared the outcome, but because they feared the difficulty of undertaking the research. With a reductionist view, trying to explain an experience that was not reproducible in the laboratory made the whole investigation of the spiritual experience to be one that was far too difficult to research, and one that was unlikely to be reproducible to the extent that research could be published and verified.

In recent years, all that has changed.

Interest in the science of the mystical experience began with the observation that many of the aspects of mystical experiences are a constant part of the everyday experience of the world by persons with certain brain dysfunctions. For example, it was noted some years ago 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 siezures 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.

Viola! Instant God Experience!

Dr. Michael Persinger, working at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, has pioneered a method for inducing the religious, spiritual experience of the shaman. Without drugs, herbs, hypnosis or invasive surgery, he can quite literally flip a switch and induce the experience of "god."

Using an ordinary striped yellow motorcycle helmet purchased at a sporting goods store, which he has modified with electromagnetic coils, he can place the helmet on your head, connect the wires to a device he has constructed that generates the proper signals, and when the magnetic fields produced by the coils penetrate the skull and into the temporal lobes of the brain, the result is the stimulation of those lobes and a religious experience results.

In common with the Hindu view that a confrontation with God is a confrontation with the self, the nine-hundred plus people who have undertaken the experience produced by Dr. Persinger's helmet have had some very profound experiences. Four out of five say that they've had experiences so profound they would be life-changing had they not understood the mechanistic underpinnings of what they had experienced.

How does Dr. Persinger's helmet work? It works by inducing very small electrical signals with tiny magnetically induced mechanical vibrations in the brain cells of the temporal lobes and other selected areas of the brain, located in the skull just above and forward of the ears. These lobes are the portions of the brain that produce the "Forty Hertz Component" of the brainwaves detected in electroencephalograms. These mysterious "forty hertz components" are present whenever you are awake or when you are in REM sleep. They are absent during deep, dreamless sleep. What the "forty hertz component" does is not well understood, but we know that it is always present during the experience of "self." We cannot have a "me" experience without the forty hertz component being present.

What this means is that the forty hertz component is essential to our experience of self. We cannot experience our sense of individuality without it. It stands to reason, then, that if the forty hertz component could somehow be suppressed, the sense of individuality would be suppressed with it, and indeed, this is what Dr. Persinger's helmet does. It turns off the forty hertz component and with it the sense of individuality which your brain uses to define "self" as opposed to "rest of the world."

When the brain is deprived of the self stimulation and sensory input that is required for it to define itself as being distinct from the rest of the world, the brain 'defaults' to a sense of infinity. The sense of self expands to fill whatever the brain can sense, and what it senses is the world, so the experience of the self simply expands to fill the perception of the world itself. One experiences becoming "one with the universe."

But What About the God Experience?

There are two temporal lobes in the brain, one on each side. The one on the left, in most people, is the dominant one, responsible for language, which becomes dominant when we first learn language as children. The one on the right, non-dominant, contributes to the sense of self with constant communication with its opposite colleague. But being on the far side of the brain, sometimes the communications get out of whack, often as a result of stress or disease, and the forty hertz component falls out of sync. When this happens, the result is that the normally silent right-hand sense of self becomes experienced as a separate presence by the left-hand sense of self.

This is the experience of the God presence. There is an overwhelming sense of presence, an inescapable feeling that someone is there. But when the forty hertz component is deeply attenuated or entirely absent from, say, the left side, and there's no "self" experience occurring, the feeling of unity with infinity is occuring with a sense of an overwhelming presence resulting from the continued operation of the right hand side, there is no way to describe it other than feeling that one has experienced the "infinite presence." Hence the God experience.

All of this has been verified not only experimentally with Dr. Persinger's helmet, but by use of high-tech brain scanning machines similar to the CAT and MRI scanners that many of us have experienced.

And The Sense of Timelessness and Spacelessness in Prayer and Meditation?

Many deeply experienced meditators feel, when deep in meditation, an experience of transcendance of the here and now. They feel a sense of being outside of time and space. How is this experience produced?

Two researchers, Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, have taken a particular interest in these experiences. Through the use of a brain-scanning technique called SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography), they have determined how these experiences arise. The researchers have produced images of the brains of Tibetan Buddhists who undergo deep, profound meditative experiences as the result of years of practice. They have done the same with a Catholic Franciscan nun, who, after 45 minutes of deep prayer, had her brain scanned to determine what centers were active and what centers were not.

The results show that in both cases, the pre-frontal cortex, which controls attention, is highly stimulated. This is not surprising - meditation requires a great deal of concentration. The subjects are clearly deeply attentive to their task. But the superior parietal lobe, the center that processes information about space, time and the orientation of the body in space, is suppressed, and is almost totally quiet. The result is that any sense of time, space or being in the world is suppressed along with the activity in the superior parietal lobe. And not feeling "in the world" leads to an "other-worldly" experience. So it is not surprising that those who have this experience describe it as being in the "spiritual realm." Persinger has been able to reproduce this by electrically supressing activity in the superior parietal lobe using his helmet - and when he performs this experiment on Tibetan monks and the Franciscan nun, they all report that the experience is identical to what they experience in their own meditative practice.

What About The Near-Death Experience?

The near-death experience that is described by many patients who have been revived from life-threatening events contain elements of all of these and a few more.

We have seen how the presence of the "god" feeling arises from the result of the shutting down of communications between the temporal lobes. And we have seen how the sense of timelessness and infinite space arise through the supression of activity in the superior parietal lobe. But what about the vision of the tunnel with the light at the end? And the sense of rising out of the body?

The sense of orientation is lost when the superior parietal lobe shuts down. The 'self' no longer feels anchored to the body, because the sense of self being in the body is lost, and one often seems to be rising to 'heaven.' We now know that the vision of the tunnel is produced by the visual cortex being disconnected from sensory input, and beginning to shut down. Same with the light at the end of the tunnel, which is an artifact of the brain's visual cortex 'looking' for sensory input it cannot 'see.' The visions of a beautiful summer garden or lovely mountain landscapes are the result of the memory centers acting on the centers of the brain that organize visual input into things we recognize, which is operating in the near-total absense of sensory input. All of these brain activities together produce the familiar being of light at the end of a tunnel, and the entrance into the beautiful summer garden.

These experiences have a deep, even profound feeling of reality to them. This is simply because the centers of the brain that are producing the experience are cut completely off from sensory that would dilute the 'realness' of the experience - those centers that analyse experience for us in real time and allow us to evaluate it for its correspondence to reality - in other words, the centers of the brain that enable us to discern the difference between dreaming and wakefulness, real versus imagined. Hence, the subjects who report these experiences describe them as being so real they were not at all like a dream. Indeed, they weren't - they were dreams undiluted from sensory reality checks and the evaluation of sensory data for its validity.

But What About "Brain-Dead" Patients And Their Near-death Experiences?

What is now understood is that these phenomena can occur with very minute amounts of electrical activity in the brain. Most of the brain can be shut down and these phenomena are still possible - with electrical activity so small it is not possible to measure it through external devices. Remember, our brains don't come with "diagnostic ports" like a modern automobile's engine computer - what we measure with our electroencephalograms is the "leakage." It's like trying to discern what's happening inside a computer by listening to the static it creates in a radio sitting next to it. A lot can be happening without making enough noise to hear it on the "radio."

What Does All This Mean?

It is clear that the meaning of the understanding of these phenomena are easily explained in detail through well-understood neurological processes in the brain. What are widely regarded as evidence for the existence of a spiritual realm can easily be explained by the material, the mundane. So in the light of that reality, what does the religionist have to say?

Those who have communicated their interpretations to me say that they remain unconvinced that this means any new. I disagree. For most who write to me regarding my essays about the reality of a metaphysical universe, I have but one thing to say: your most powerful, persuasive evidence, namely your own powerful, personal experience, can now be easily and rationally explained, in all its features. No metaphysical explanation is necessary. Because no metaphysical explanation is required to explain your experience, your "evidence" is no longer evidence of anything metaphysical.

So now, religionist, how do you prove your case?


Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from Amazon.com by pursuing the links here):

The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience Eugene G. D'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg. This book is one of the more comprehensive books on the subject. A complete and thorough explanation, it does not get lost in the arcanities of neurophysiology. If you can read Scientific American, you'll be able to comprehend this book. It's one of the best around.

Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, by Andrew Newberg M.D., Eugene G. D'Aquili Ph.D., Vince Rause. This book is a great explanation of the biology in this essay. Frequently cited by both religionists and atheists alike, this book explains the physical basis of the 'god' experience, without being a polemic against religion. At the same time, it also undermines the position that the experience of God is a purely spiritual phenomenon, without a physical basis. While some of the book is wasted in philosophical musings, the explanation for the biology of religious experience is there, and is reasonably complete.

The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs And Perceptions, by Joseph Giovannoli. This excellent, highly readable book discusses how our neurobiology has interacted with our belief systems to create the meme complexes we call religion.

The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark is Carl Sagan's last book, and in it, he predicts the outcome of the research outlined in the books above years before the work was done. Its prescience is classic Carl Sagan.




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