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Our Father Who Art In Our Mind

 article about religious
St. Paul, Joan of Arc, and Ellen White of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, are three of the many religious figures and prophets who have claimed to have seen demons, angels or heard the voice of God. However, are these reported sightings reliable or were they simply all in their head after the person suffered an epileptic seizure. A recent field of neurotheology is examining what specifically happens within the brain when a person undergoes a religious experience. Indications are that not only does a persons brain activity change in particular areas while that person is experiencing a religious epiphany, but many epiphanies can be occasioned, for those susceptible to epilepsy, by stimulating various parts of the temporal lobe in the brain. Amongst the proponents of such a theory is Dr James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain."  Austin maintains that in order to feel that time, fear and self-consciousness have disappeared and various brain circuits must be interrupted. For example, activity in the amygdala, which monitors the world around us for threats and records fear, must be damped."  Parietal-lobe circuits, which orient a human being in space and create the distinction between self and world, must go quiet."  Both frontal and temporal lobe circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness, must disengage."  Should this occur, then as Austin concludes, "what we think of as our 'higher' functions of selfhood appear briefly to 'drop out,' 'dissolve,' or be 'deleted from consciousness'."  In a sense, a religious experience is invoked. Can religious experience stem from a brain disorder? Can the brain really cause belief in religion?   Indeed, a long relationship exists between religion, in particular Judaism and Christianity, and possible accounts of epileptic visions. It has long been thought by many that St. Paul, whilst on the road to Damascus, had a temporal-lobe seizure that made him hear the voice of God. Similarly Moses, when he heard the voice of God from a burning bush. Furthermore, in Islam, it is known that Muhammad composed large parts of the Koran after epileptic seizures. Most interestingly though is Dostoyevski, an epileptic and a writer infatuated with religion and philosophic themes. Shortly before his epileptic attacks, whilst in the stage of the aura, Dostoyevski would experience a sense of incredible ecstasy and well-being, the supreme satori a sense that would exclaim, Yes, God exists!   Amongst the scientific evidence first used to support a relationship between religion and temporal lobe epilepsy came from monitoring how temporal lobe epilepsy patients and those believed to be at a higher than normal risk of having a temporal lobe epileptic seizure, responded to a set of word cards. Dr Persinger, a Canadian scientist, set out on this task. Three word categories were used, neutral (usually everyday nouns such as table), sexual and religious. Sweat sensors were used on the skin of each individual in the selection group. Interestingly, those that were not prone to temporal lobe epilepsy showed more of a response to the sexual words. By contrast, those that were prone to temporal lobe epilepsy showed a far greater response to religious words. What is just as extraordinary though is those prone to temporal lobe epilepsy found the sexual words were even less exciting than the neutral ones creating a great distinction between the two groups. Moreover, Persinger attempt to stimulate the brain using an electromagnetic, and therefore induce religious experiences. It has been found that such experiences were easily induced in the brains of those who were more prone to epileptic seizures. Indeed the ultimate test came when Persinger attempted to induce a religious experience in the world famous militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, unfortunately although experiencing strange feelings; a thoroughly disappointed Dawkins did not experience a religious vision. It was later found that Dawkins has a very low susceptibility to epilepsy, backing up Persingers claim further that there is a link between religion and the brain.  

  As an amateur philosopher and a sufferer of temporal lobe epilepsy, such an issue does fascinate me. Unfortunately though, whether God exists or not is not something that neuroscience can answer. For instance, if we take a brain image of a person when they are looking at a picture, we will see various parts of the brain being activated, such as the visual cortex. But the brain image cannot tell us whether or not there is actually a picture 'out there' or whether the person is creating the picture in his or her own mind. To a certain degree, we all create our own sense of reality. Getting to what is real is the tricky part. Any collective effort made to prove whether God exists is destined to end in failure; therefore neuroscience alone has no chance of success. Nevertheless, the apparent link to neuroscience and region is an interesting one and scientist such as Persinger must be applauded for bringing the issue to the forefront of scientific and religious debate. Nevertheless such issues are often something that scientists shirk away from and leave to the philosophers and theologists.  Despite all such discussion though, scientists maintain that only a small minority of temporal lobe epileptics experience religious hallucinations (although some estimates do put this as high as 70%). Unfortunately I must be one of the remaining 30% of sufferers, as I have never experienced anything close to a "religious experience".     by Stephen Irving  


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