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Main Point

Religious experience is a natural product of the brain.

When Tibetan Buddhists meditate, neural activity is increased in the brain’s frontal lobes alongside a decrease in activity within the temporal lobes. Increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex is correlated with decreased activity within the left superior parietal lobe (Newberg et al. 2001).

When a Carmelite nun prays to “God”, there is significant neural activity in the: “…right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobes” (Beauregard and Paquette 2006, 186), as well as in the “right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulated cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem” (Beauregard and Paquette 2006, 186). Notably, the superior parietal lobe is utilized for spatial perception of the self; when this region is activated, the believer feels like they’re in the presence of something greater than themselves.

When a Christian speaks in tongues (glossolalia), there is a decreased amount of activity in the prefrontal cortices. Since the frontal lobes are utilized for attention focusing tasks; a decrease in neural activity leads a glossolalia practitioner to feel like they have less control over their actions (Newberg et al. 2006).

The Temporal Lobes

Religious experience can be replicated using magnetic fields:

"During the last 15 years experiments have shown that the sensed presence of a “Sentient Being” can be reliably evoked by very specific patterns of weak (<1microT) transcerebral magnetic fields applied across the temporoparietal region of the two hemispheres … Re-analyses with additional data for 407 subjects (19 experiments) showed that the magnetic configurations, not the subjects’ exotic beliefs or suggestibility, were responsible for the experimental facilitation of sensing a presence" (St-Pierre and Persinger 2005, 1079).

Dr Persinger from Laurentian University, found that 80% of normal people will feel a sensed presence within the room if you stimulate a person’s temporal lobes with magnetic fields (Persinger 2009).

Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

phantoms in the brainphantoms in the brain

“Dr Persinger’s observation was not a complete surprise to me as I’ve always suspected that the temporal lobes, especially the left lobe, are somehow involved in religious experience. Every medical student is taught that patients with epileptic seizures originating in this part of the brain can have intense, spiritual experiences during the seizures and sometimes become preoccupied with religious and moral issues even during the seizure-free of interictal periods" (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998, 175).

“Many a patient has told me of a “divine light that illuminates all things,” or of an “ultimate truth that lies completely beyond the reach of ordinary minds who are too immersed in the hustle and bustle of daily life to notice the beauty and grandeur of it all.” Of course, they might simply be suffering from hallucinations and delusions of the kind that a schizophrenic might experience, but if that’s the case, why do such hallucinations occur mainly when the temporal lobes are involved?” (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998, 176-177).

“When you hear the word “epilepsy,” you usually think of someone having fits or a seizure – the powerful involuntary contraction of all muscles of the body – and falling to the ground. Indeed these symptoms characterize the most well known form of epilepsy, called a grand mal seizure. Such seizures usually arise because a tiny cluster of neurons somewhere in the brain is misbehaving, firing chaotically until activity spreads like wildfire to engulf the entire brain. But seizures can also be “focal”; that is, they can remain confined largely to a single small part of the brain. If such focal seizures are mainly in the motor cortex, the result is a sequential march of muscle twitching – or the so-called jacksonian seizures. But if they happen to be in the limbic system, then the most striking symptoms are emotional. Patients say that their “feelings are on fire,” ranging from intense ecstasy to profound despair, a sense of impending doom or even fits of extreme rage and terror … But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communication with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They might say, “I finally understand what it’s all about. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.” Or, “Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos” (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998, 179).

Sudden religious conversions

“Mabille [33] discusses religious hallucinations associated with epilepsy, and presents four case histories with hallucinations of a religious nature. Only one of these cases is interesting. After the seizure the patient declared that God had given him a mission to reform the world by law. He also heard the voices of God and the Virgin Mary who commanded him not to eat until his project was finished.

...Two patients with ‘a greater awareness’ are mentioned by Mullan and Penfield [36] in a study of 214 patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. Karagulla and Robertson [27] discuss four temporal lobe epileptics with visual hallucinations. One of them—a 32-year-old female with a right temporo-occipital focus—had a seizure pattern which included a vision of ‘Christ coming down from the sky.’

... In a phenomenological study of epileptic experiences, Sedman [45] mentions states of ecstasy in which the victim sees the Heaven open, hears God speaking, and feels himself transfigured and even believes that he is God.

...In their study of the schizophrenia-like psychoses of epilepsy, Slater and Beard [49] found that mystical delusional experiences were ‘remarkably common’. Patients were convinced of the reality and validity of their religious experiences” (Dewhurst & Beard, 2003, 78-79).

“The mystical experiences of schizophrenics and temporal lobe epileptics, which may be at the extreme end of the “normal” distribution of religious experience, also exhibit intense sensory activity. These may help to inspire new religions(Atran, 2002, 16).

“Recent studies indicate that in largely secular societies, like our own, where there is a history of separation between Church and state, extreme mystical states are generally attributed to cerebral pathology” (Atran, 2002, p. 194).

God On The Brain

Pentecostal religious experience

“Using routine EEG measures, Persinger (1984) tracked a Transcendental Meditation teacher for 10 seconds during a peak experience and a member of a Pentecostal sect who experienced protracted intermittent episodes of glossolalia (speaking in tongues). Neither subject had any psychiatric history. EEG patterns exhibited transient, focal, epileptic-like charges in the temporal lobe” (Atran, 2002, p. 186).

Recommended Reading

religion explainedreligion explained in gods we trustin gods we trust Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society The future of an illusion The Neuroscience of Religious Experience

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