Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Repost: This is Your Brain on God

Holy Hyrax's recent post made me dig up this old post:

It seems that I'm doing a good portion of my blogging these days in the comments section of other people's blogs. In particular, I've been having some interesting discussions with Mark at Pseudo-Polymath.

This morning, I wrote a comment I'd like to post here as an entry.

Mark posted about an experience Catholic writer Richard John Neuhaus had:

It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining room moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two "presences." I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences — one or both of them, I do not know — spoke. This I hear clearly. Not in an ordinary way for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: "Everything is ready now."

Mark correctly points out that many people throughout history have described similar experiences. He then goes on to imply, however, that such experiences provide evidence for religion:

But, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the other world religions all depend crucially on revelation as part of their history as well as their perception who is God and what does He want with Man.

Mark believes that skeptics think "no experience of Theophany is valid. That every one of the millions of experiences of this sort are all fraud or insanity (temporary or less so.)" Since Neuhaus's account appears to be neither fraudulent or evidence of insanity, therefore, it must reflect a legitimate revelation experience. Therefore, there is some evidence for the supernatural.

In my response, I point out that there are other options besides insanity and fraud, and in fact there are more convincing explanations for such experiences than supernatural entities:

I don’t think you quite understand my position on what you call "revelation." I believe, as do you, that such experiences as Neuhaus’s happen. I further believe, as do you, that they happen to people who are sane.

I disagree on the cause of such phenomena. The Wired Article This Is Your Brain on God describes an experiment in which researchers direct electromagnetic fields towards the temporal lobes in certain patterns and generate what you would call a revelation experience:

I’m taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada’s Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as “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.”

Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one’s grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn’t shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.

We’ve known for millenia that our minds are tricky things. There are scores of drugs which affect our perceptions and beliefs. If you drop some acid and see your chair talking to you, would you consider it revelation?

Furthermore, the various testimonies of people who’ve undergone such “revelations” contradict each other. Some see Mohammed — you, as a Christian, wouldn’t believe that to be a legitimate revelation experience, right? The most you could say is that there is some truth to the experience, but the person is interpreting it according to his or her own worldview.

Well, why not take it one step farther and say that everybody who undergoes such an experience is interpreting it according to his or her own worldview? Neuhaus experienced two presences and heard a sentence. He added the interpretation of who the presences were and what the sentence meant.

Surely Neuhaus was on medication and was in an unusual medical condition as well. The whole thing could have been an unusually lucid dream. For all I know, the two figures could have been a real doctor and a nurse saying that everything was ready for a procedure.

Once, when my middle-aged, normally sane father was in the hospital, he woke up from a nap convinced that he had to rush to the nearby university during the Final Four game because he was on their basketball team and they needed him desperately. Another time, free from sickness or medication, my father had a strong premonition that he was going to win the lottery. Normally a skeptical person who had never bought a lottery ticket in his life, he rushed out to buy one. He didn’t win.

I ended my comment there, but I'd like to post a few more excerpts from the article, which you should read in full:

Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.

Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."

Here's the author's description of his own experience:

When the door closes and I feel nothing but the weight of the helmet on my head and the Ping-Pong balls on my eyes, I start giving serious thought to what it might be like to "see" God, artificially produced or not. Nietzsche's last sane moment occurred when he saw a carter beating a horse. He beat the carter, hugged the horse while sobbing uncontrollably, and was then carried away. I can imagine that. I see myself having a powerful vision of Jesus, and coming out of the booth wet with tears of humility, wailing for mercy from my personal savior.

Instead, after I adjust to the darkness and the cosmic susurrus of absolute silence, I drift almost at once into a warm bath of oblivion. Something is definitely happening. During the 35-minute experiment, I feel a distinct sense of being withdrawn from the envelope of my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness, a deep sensation of waking slumber. The machines outside the chamber report an uninterrupted alertness on my part. (If the researchers see the easily recognized EEG pattern of sleep, they wake you over the speakers.) Occasionally, I surface to an alpha state where I sort of know where I am, but not quite. This feeling is cool - like being reinserted into my body. Then there's a separation again, of body and soul, and - almost by my will - I happily allow myself to drift back to the surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.

In this floating state, several ancient childhood memories are jarred loose. Suddenly, I am sitting with Scott Allen on the rug in his Colonial Street house in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1965, singing along to "Moon River" and clearly hearing, for the first time since then, Scott's infectiously frenzied laughter. I reexperience the time I spent the night with Doug Appleby and the discomfort I felt at being in a house that was so punctiliously clean. (Doug's dad was a doctor.) I also remember seeing Joanna Jacobs' small and perfect breasts, unholstered beneath the linen gauze of her hippie blouse, circa 1971.

Joanna was my girlfriend when I was 14. When I was sent off to boarding school, she and I recorded cassette tapes to one another. As a teenager, Joanna was a spiritual woman and talked a lot about transcendental meditation. Off at boarding school, I signed up and got my mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right around the time Joanna dropped me to move on to a tougher crowd.

If I had to pin down when I felt this dreamy state before - of being in the presence of something divine - it would be back then, in the euphoric, romantic hope that animated my adolescent efforts at meditation. That soothing feeling of near-sleep has always been associ-ated with what I imagined should have happened between Joanna Jacobs and me. Like the boy in James Joyce's The Dead, Joanna was a perfect memory - all the potential of womanly love distilled into the calming mantra-guided drone of fecund rest.

I'm not sure what it says about me that the neural sensation designed to prompt visions of God set loose my ancient feelings about girls. But then, I'm not the first person to conflate God with late-night thoughts of getting laid - read more about it in Saint Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, or Deepak Chopra.

So: Something took place. Still, when the helmet comes off and they shove a questionnaire in my hand, I feel like a failure. One question: Did the red bulb on the wall grow larger or smaller? There was a red bulb on the wall? I hadn't noticed. Many other questions suggest that there were other experiences I should have had, but to be honest, I didn't.

In fact, as transcendental experiences go, on a scale of 1 to 10, Persinger's helmet falls somewhere around, oh, 4. Even though I did have a fairly convincing out-of-body experience, I'm disappointed relative to the great expectations and anxieties I had going in.

It may be that all the preliminary talk about visions just set my rational left hemisphere into highly skeptical overdrive. Setting me up like that - you will experience the presence of God - might have been a mistake. When I bring this up later with Persinger, he tells me that the machine's effects differ among people, depending on their "lability" - Persinger jargon meaning sensitivity or vulnerability.

"Also, you were in a comfortable laboratory," he points out. "You knew nothing could happen to you. What if the same intense experience occurred at 3 in the morning in a bedroom all by yourself? Or you suddenly stalled on an abandoned road at night when you saw a peculiar light and then had that experience? What label would you have placed on it then?"

Point taken. I'd probably be calling Art Bell once a week, alerting the world to the alien invasion.

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