Searching for God in the Brain

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Searching for God in the Brain

Persinger thus argues that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain. He opines that the religious bents of even the most exalted figures—for instance, Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha—stem from such neural quirks. The popular notion that such experiences are good, argues Persinger in his book Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (Praeger Publishers, 1987), is an outgrowth of psychological conditioning in which religious rituals are paired with enjoyable experiences. Praying before a meal, for example, links prayer with the pleasures of eating. God, he claims, is nothing more mystical than that.
I found this article quite intriguing.
 

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  • #2
Astronuc
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One thinks. Therefore . . . .

or

Perceived reality is in the mind of the beholder.
 
  • #3
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If perceived reality is in the mind of the beholder then the idea that perceived reality is in the mind of the beholder must be in the mind of the beholder.

Interesting stuff.
 
  • #4
hypnagogue
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The notion that mystical experiences are good is sort of like the notion that laughing jovially is good, or that feeling in love is good. The experience itself is inherently positive. It's laughable to hold that you have to be conditioned in order to think it's good.
 
  • #5
Evo
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The notion that mystical experiences are good is sort of like the notion that laughing jovially is good, or that feeling in love is good. The experience itself is inherently positive. It's laughable to hold that you have to be conditioned in order to think it's good.
Don't forget that there are scary/frightening mystical experiences also. I can see where the practice of pairing religious feelings with good things would make sense in creating/teaching a religion and making it popular.
 
  • #6
Moonbear
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Belief IN "God," a god, gods, goddesses, etc., are of course neural...they are beliefs, just as any other belief is neural. That is different from saying "God is in the brain." Belief in something, real or fictional, is different from the existence of that thing. Despite the thread title and the last sentence of the quoted text, which I actually haven't found within the article yet (I haven't read it in its entirety yet...it's rather lengthy), the article is referring to neural activity associated with religious beliefs, not trying to claim those beliefs are where god actually resides.

This is a caution for those posting in the thread (not that anything bad has been posted yet) to be sure to focus upon the neural side of this issue as it pertains to people holding strong beliefs, and not upon whether this is any kind of evidence for or against the existence of God. The former is acceptable within our forum guidelines, the latter is not.
 
  • #7
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The quotation can be found in the fourth paragraph on the second page.
 
  • #8
Monique
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By stimulating certain areas in the brain with electromagnetic radiation you can stimulate a "religious experience" (e.g. feeling the presence of a being when you are alone in a room). Some people might be more sensitive than others for this kind of brain stimulation.
 
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By stimulating certain areas in the brain with electromagnetic radiation you can stimulate a "religious experience" (e.g. feeling the presence of a being when you are alone in a room). Some people might be more sensitive than others for this kind of brain stimulation.
Indeed. Richard Dawkins actually tried the method and failed.

Persinger’s chamber — one of whose visitors was the British arch-atheist Professor Richard Dawkins (he experienced nothing) — is what might be called a “mainframe” version of the portable Shakti equipment that Todd Murphy will be demonstrating at the conference.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/features/article418611.ece
 
  • #10
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Searching for God in the Brain
I found this article quite intriguing.
From the article:

Mystical Misfirings
Scientists and scholars have long speculated that religious feeling can be tied to a specific place in the brain. In 1892 textbooks on mental illness noted a link between “religious emotionalism” and epilepsy. Nearly a century later, in 1975, neurologist Norman Geschwind of the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital first clinically described a form of epilepsy in which seizures originate as electrical misfirings within the temporal lobes, large sections of the brain that sit over the ears. Epileptics who have this form of the disorder often report intense religious experiences, leading Geschwind and others, such as neuropsychiatrist David Bear of Vanderbilt University, to speculate that localized electrical storms in the brain’s temporal lobe might sometimes underlie an obsession with religious or moral issues.
I stopped reading there because the writer has garbled the facts of the sentence highlighted in red. Geshwind was not the first person to describe temporal lobe seizures by any means.

TLE [Temporal Lobe Epilepsy] was first recognized in 1881 by John Hughlings Jackson, who described "uncinate fits" seizures arising from the uncal part of temporal lobe and the “dreamy state."
http://www.emedicine.com/NEURO/topic365.htm

Geschwind's, quite separate, contribution was to observe that many people with temporal lobe seizures demonstrate a constellation of specific personality traits:

A distinct syndrome of interictal behavior changes occurs in many patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. These changes include alterations in sexual behavior, religiosity, and a tendency toward extensive, and in some cases compulsive, writing and drawing.
http://archpsyc.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/32/12/1580

The "religiosity" can be, but is not necessarily, a matter of being directly religious. Geschwind summarizes: "In their preoccupation with moral and philosophical issues the writings of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy appear to reflect a deepening of emotional response in the presence of relatively preserved intellectual function." What often manifests as a religious impulse is, more generally, a kind of hyper-emotionality. People with temporal lobe seizures are generally much more emotionally intense than other people.

The book Seized, by Eve LaPlante, comprises an extemely comprehensive study of the personality traits of temporal lobe epilepsy. Her main focus is a group of famous writers and artists who also had seizures, but she goes into the possible connection between seizures and some well known religious figures as well, and also includes case studies of a few "average" suffers of TLE and how Geshwind's syndrome plays out in their lives.
 
  • #11
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As I read this thread I cannot help to wonder. Is it not yet well accepted (as far as I know it is) that thought is chemo-neuro-physi-sociological system? Our thoughts are not independent on the internal and external physical state. As we all know a thought triggers emotion which has feeling delivered by the chemical elements arriving in brain. The process works vice versa as well. One can be made angry just by exchanging ideas, one can even get angry onself just by thinking certain way. This is to ilustrate the simplest examples. Thought affects the physical and the physical can affect the thought. Why is it surprise that religious belief/experience does have physical correspondence? (any experience that can be recollect must be in physical memory, and if to be interpreted and understood certain way it must be processed by the brain..)
 
  • #12
hypnagogue
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Don't forget that there are scary/frightening mystical experiences also. I can see where the practice of pairing religious feelings with good things would make sense in creating/teaching a religion and making it popular.
Fair enough. Let me use this analogy. Falling in love also is not always peaches and cream. Sometimes it hurts a lot. The idea that falling in love is a good thing can also be propagated in a society if the idea is paired with good things repeatedly. But fundamentally, the core experience of falling in love, in its more positive aspects, is so inherently good on its own that anyone who's experienced it does not need societal conditioning to value the experience. Anyone who tried to advance the claim that we only value falling in love because of societal conditioning would rightfully be written off as not knowing what he was talking about by those who have actually experienced being in love.
 
  • #13
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As I read this thread I cannot help to wonder. Is it not yet well accepted (as far as I know it is) that thought is chemo-neuro-physi-sociological system? Our thoughts are not independent on the internal and external physical state. As we all know a thought triggers emotion which has feeling delivered by the chemical elements arriving in brain. The process works vice versa as well. One can be made angry just by exchanging ideas, one can even get angry onself just by thinking certain way. This is to ilustrate the simplest examples. Thought affects the physical and the physical can affect the thought. Why is it surprise that religious belief/experience does have physical correspondence? (any experience that can be recollect must be in physical memory, and if to be interpreted and understood certain way it must be processed by the brain..)
It is not simply a matter of correlation, but causation.
 
  • #14
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I think thats overly positive goal if thats true of that study was aiming at that.

Thought is very much integrated part of the system (system being physical world internal and external as well as social). Its wrong to think one can separate the thought from the system, they are one thing. And hence its impossible to view this system as correlations based. I cannot even perceive as one being the cause of the other. Its just a system, and as such it must be studied.

Lets examine this simplistic example: I meet R. Dawking and get into religious conversation with him, I will on purpose state some statements which will set of his thought/emotional system. I can observe suppressed anger in him. (Actually this example is on youtube when he talks to some christian high priest)
All that I gave him was a thought of god and thoughts related to it somehow (religion). Is my thought responsible for his physical state changing? I think partially, its his thought system which is wired through his past thought-environment interaction to triger this specific hormone and chemical release. Its the sense of necessity that one must has thoughts as he does.

Allow me brag a litlle more about necessity: Lets look at instincts. How about a very powerful one, the instinct of survival !! But, nay, a thought is able to override this powerful reflex. Lets take a soldier dying for a thought of something as nation, how bout suicide bomber, and other examples. Here we can see that necessity is powerfull thought. When a thought of necessity is attached to something it can override almost anything, and only other thought can undo this necessity. (Just like political disagreements, its the thought of necessity that the other one must have other thoughts than what he has right now, because ....... and here it would get too long, but it has to do with the system protection)

sorry if that seems off topic, but I wanted to somehow illustrate why I think thought cannot be thought separate from the system.
 
  • #15
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I hope people understood that this article is not to be trusted. The writer grossly misunderstood Geschwind's contribution to this subject, and may well have garbled what anyone else said. Any utterances or ideas attributed to any of the people mentioned are suspect in this context.
 
  • #16
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I see
 
  • #17
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Which isn't to say that finding and reading the actual papers and writings by Geschwind, Persinger, and Ramachandran wouldn't be interesting for you, mostly to de-sensationalize the subject and put what they actually said in perspective.

Waxman and Geschwind, who corroborated on the two papers that described what became known as "Geschwind's Syndrome" were not interested in drawing any conclusions about religious belief. "These changes are of considerable theoretical interest because they provide an example of a human behavioral syndrome associated with dysfunction at specific anatomic loci." They thought the syndrome was of importance because it linked specific behavioral traits to problems at specific anatomic locations:

"We believe that the interictal syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy may prove to be a useful model in the investigation of other behavioral syndromes. There are few functional disorders for which anatomical substrates have been demonstrated. The interictal behavioral syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy at least partially fulfills this criteria."
-from the above cited paper whose abstract I linked to.

The main other example of this is frontal lobe syndrome. The famous case of frontal lobe syndrome is that of Phinneus Gage, whose personality changed radically after a frontal lobe injury:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage."
http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/11/2/280?ck=nck [Broken]

Another case of frontal lobe syndrome is well described by Oliver Sacks in a chapter called "The Last Hippie" in his book An Anthropologist on Mars.
------
If I recall correctly, but I don't have a link for this, Ramachandran's notion of the temporal lobes as a "God Module" was an ill-thought-out (in his own later opinion) idea he got from interviewing two patients with TLE, who both subjected him to long discussions of a mystical/religious nature without being prompted by him. He regretted having thrown that idea out there without more care and thought when it became sensationalized and even hijacked as an element of an X-files plot.

I haven't read anything by Persinger about this specific subject. I'm not sure what he's claiming or positing.
 
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