Part 4: God on the Brain and Other Weird Stuff
Spirits That Haunt the Mind
In addition to the genetic and natural selection aspects of religious feelings discussed in Part 3 of this series, there are many other physiological factors that can and often do, to a greater or lesser extent, contribute to or reinforce belief in a transcendent or supernatural force of nature, with the operative word, again, being “nature.” Some of these include the following:
1. Lateral Lobe Epilepsy– Referring to the brain’s temporal lobe, lateral lobe epilepsy (LLE) is much less common than mesial lobe epilepsy, which the type that most epilepsy victims have. The significance of LLE to this discussion, however, is that it most often presents with what the clinicians call ‘‘ecstatic’’ seizures. During an episode of LLE, patients describe sensory hallucinations, erotic/pleasure sensations, a religious/spiritual experience, and feelings that don’t comport with human experience; e.g., mystical.
From a 2003 clinical study by Bjørn AAsheim Hansena and Eylert Brodtkorba, faculty members in the Department of Neuroscience, Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, the authors make the following observations:
“Religious experience is brain-based, like all human experience. Mystical and religious sensations are hypothesized to be evoked by transient, electrical micro- seizures within deep structures of the temporal lobe. [Seizure related] religious experiences have been found to be frequently associated with hyper-religiosity [between seizures] and religious conversion.”
Famous folks who may have had epilepsy, possibly lateral lobe epilepsy based on their reporting of religious or mystical experiences, include Ezekiel, Socrates, Julius Caesar, Paul of Tarsus, Mohammad, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Joseph Smith, Jr., Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Anther epileptic who may be of interest to Humanists is Karen Armstrong, who, when she was diagnosed with it, reportedly exclaimed that it was “an occasion of pure happiness.”
The point here being that epilepsy may have actually influenced our cultural and religious history more than previously thought. Where, for example, would Christianity be today if St. Paul hadn’t had an epileptic-induced spiritual hallucination on the road to Damascus?
2. The God Spot in the Brain – Want to have a near death experience without being, well, near death, and see the proverbial “white light,” or maybe feel the love of your favorite deity, or the presence of deceased relatives? If so, then take a trip to Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, and get an appointment with Dr. Michael Persinger, who is a neuroscientist there at Laurentian University. He will then set you up in a quiet, dark room and ask you to put on a slightly modified snowmobile helmet; affectionately known as the .God Helmet
The God Helmet works by inducing very small electrical signals that create tiny magnetically induced mechanical vibrations which are aimed at the temporal lobe and other selected areas of the brain. According to Dr. Persinger, the electrical induction from the Helmet is to suppress what’s called the “Forty Hertz Component” of the brainwaves that are detected by electroencephalograms. This forty hertz component is present when you are awake, or when you are in REM sleep, but absent during deep, dreamless sleep. Supposedly, this forty hertz component allows us to experience our sense of identity and the world around us. In any case, the God Helmet supposedly turns off this sense of self-realization by interfering with the forty hertz component, whereupon the sense of self is limited to whatever the brain can sense in a quasi-unconscious state, as in a near death experience, or, as some have reported, while in a coma. Many have reported that the experience is like becoming “one with the universe.
So far, according to Dr. Persinger, there have been about 900 or so people who have tried out the God Helmet (as of the date this is written.) The vast majority, 80%, say they had very provocative experiences, so much so that they would consider them life-changing had they occurred outside the laboratory and without the helmet.
Before you plan your trip to Laurentian University, however, you might want to check with a group of Swedish researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden. They have attempted to replicate Persinger’s experiments but were unable to consistently reproduce the effect, thereby falsifying Dr. Persinger’s claims. It’s also interesting to note that the prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, volunteered to try out the God Helmet. Reportedly, Dawkins says that he did not have a “sensed presence” experience, but instead felt at times “slightly dizzy”, “quite strange” and had sensations in his limbs and changes in his breathing. “It pretty much felt as though I was in total darkness, with a helmet on my head and pleasantly relaxed,” saith the Gnu.
3. The Real Deal in the Brain – But Dr. Persinger may still be on the right track. Researchers led by Cosimo Urgersi at the University of Udine in Italy have found a direct correlation between levels of the previously discussed “self-transcendence” (what Freud called “oceanic feelings”) and changes in certain regions of the brain.
Dr. Urgersi and his associates interviewed 88 patients who were scheduled to undergo brain surgery for removal of cancerous tumors that were located on certain areas of the brain and were asked about their religious beliefs and given other related questions from the Self-Transcendence (ST) portion of Dr. Robert Cloninger’s personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory. (See Part 3 of this series for more on Self-Transcendence.) Within each patient group, half were to undergo surgery involving the anterior portion of the temporal cortex (near the front), and the other half were scheduled for surgery to the posterior portion (near the back.) The main question for the researchers was to determine what effect, if any, the removal of a tumor in the anterior versus posterior areas of the temporal lobe might have on the patient’s ST. The results showed that surgery to frontal region decreased Self-Transcendence, while surgery to the posterior region increased it. Further, they found that surgery on the posterior area had the most pronounced affects overall. Researchers also noted that patients who had undergone similar operations to the posterior region several months earlier reported that the feelings of ST had actually increased.Although this report is tantalizing, it, like all scientific research, is being challenged by other cognitive scientists. However, if nothing else. It shows how our brain forms an association with connectedness to the outside and that that effect is the result of a change in physicality; specifically, the brain.
4. Is the Right Brain the Right Brain or is the Right Brain the Left Brain? – That material between our ears has evolved over the eons to develop language, to use our imaginations, to become excellent problem solvers, and to contemplate its own navel as well as that of the universe. As a result of that evolutionary process, the brain has ended up with two distinct, but interrelated dualities: The right hemisphere/left hemisphere duality and the conscious/unconscious duality. As this graphic shows, the right side is our “feeling” brain and the left side is our “reasoning” brain. And from the characteristics of each hemisphere, it’s easy to see that they may often be in conflict. While the feeling of self-transcendence may not be a problem, an objective analysis of religious doctrine might prove extremely difficult. For example, asking a person with a deeply felt religious belief to “reason” that faith out of existence is, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, a fool’s errand. Belief and faith are strongly rooted in the right brain to the point where the left brain is useless as an arbiter of reason.
(For a more extended discussion of this right-brain, left-brain relationship in regards to religion, I highly recommend Discussion of right-brain vs left-brain thinking/doing by Susan Sayler. It provides an excellent overview.)
5. Going Asleep in Church – So, not only do we have right-brain, left-brain issues, but there is also the impact on religiosity by virtue of the conscious and unconscious duality. In an excerpt from his book, “The Social Animal – The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement,” David Brooks writes,
“This inner realm [the unconscious mind] is illuminated by science, but it is not a dry, mechanistic place. It is an emotional and an enchanted place. If the study of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis, study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception. If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection— those moments when self- consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of another or the love of God.”
Now, Brooks, an editor and columnist for the “New York Times” and a political pundit who often appears on the Sunday morning talk shows, is obviously not a neuroscientist. But he has done extensive research and the conclusions he provides in the book are provocative to say the least. It certainly provides fodder for philosophers and cognitive scientists alike. For Example, Brooks quotes Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia from his book, ‘Strangers to Ourselves,” who writes that the human mind can take in 11 million bits of information at any given moment but that we are consciously aware of forty of these. Wilson notes that some cognitive scientists have even proposed that the unconscious mind actually does all the work, making consciousness a mere illusion.
So, clearly, the unconscious mind is more affiliated with the right brain, while the conscious mind uses the left brain to make sense of it all. And there is also a kind of reinforcement of belief and faith with respect to the right brain/unconscious mind. This comes from the cultural aspects of the religion; the sights and sounds and smells and all the accoutrements that are part of a place of worship, along with prayers, invocations, meditation, Om’s, singing and dancing, and other religious rituals.
And Now For Something Completely Different
Quite often scientific studies of the mind get confused with or caught up in mysticism and the New Age movement; a Carl Sagan-meets-Deepak Chopra kind of thing. With that caution so noted, let’s check out the weird, wacky, wondrous world of quantum physics as it relates to religion.
A few otherwise highly regarded scientists in the field of quantum physics, including John Polkinghorne (late of Cambridge), and Amit Goswami (late of the University of Orogon), have proposed that God exists in the quantum world, that the entire universe (or multiverse) operates by rules of quantum physics, and that all of reality is really God. This is often referred to as “Quantum Theology,” which term was taken perhaps from a book with that title, written in 1997 by one Diarmuid O’Murchu, a Irish priest and psychologist.
The concept Quantum Theology is difficult to explain because, (1) there is no way I can cover all the concepts of quantum mechanics in this post, and, (2) I don’t really understand them myself. Nonetheless, here is a brief overview of a couple of aspects of quantum physics that are said by some to apply to theology. (The reader is encouraged to learn more of concepts describing the weirdness of quantum physics since they are sometimes associated with both metaphysics and cognitive science, and, as I said, with religion.)
One of the first concepts you come across in an idiots’ guide to quantum mechanics involves something called the “Wave/Particle Duality,” which is one of the earliest findings in quantum mechanics. It is a mathematical description of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and their interaction with matter and energy. This wave/particle property applies to everything – photons, electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms and even molecules.
Physicists have tested and proved this property of wave/particle duality many times and in many different ways. But the most common is known as the “two slit experiment.” The set up goes like this: On one end of a table is a mechanism for “firing” particles, say electrons; on the other end is a screen for collecting the electrons; and in the middle is a barrier with two slits. As the electrons are fired, they go through the slits as expected, but they also go through the barrier as well. The pattern on the screen shows that the concentration of hits is in the center with smaller and smaller concentrations lined up as they spread out from the middle. The only explanation for this phenomenon is that the electrons must have behaved as both a wave and a particle as they went through the double-slit barrier, thus proving the wave/particle duality.
But this duality presented a problem for physicists in trying to accurately measure the properties of particles. Coming to the rescue was Verner Heisenberg with his “Uncertainty Principle,” which says there is only a probability, or chance, of observing a given property of a particle, say momentum, and that the observation is to the exclusion of another property, say position. For example, if a traffic cop is trying catch a speeder at the sub-atomic level, then, according to the Uncertainty Principle, he can either record the speed with his radar gun, but not know where the speeder is, or he can locate the speeder but not know how fast she is traveling.
The wave/particle duality and its related uncertainty challenge not only classical physics, but the whole idea of determinism as well. And this is where religion comes in because determinism is a means of explaining causation. But the Uncertainty Principle undermines the idea of science being able to predict outcomes and explain physical behavior. This possibility that physics could be reduced to a matter of chance and probability was anathema to the scientists of the early 20thcentury; prompting Einstein to exclaim that “God does not play dice [with the universe.]” This universe-by-chance idea also presents a challenge to the religionists’ “cosmological argument,” which says there must have been a “first cause” and that that cause was God. Or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, the universe came about due to an “uncaused cause.” But today, of course, the Uncertainty Principle and most other aspects of quantum mechanics have become accepted science.
As some of you may know, one of the many projects being carried out at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, is a search for what is called the “Higgs Boson,” a.k.a., the “Higgs Field,” but know to the public as the “God Particle.” Although it is just conjecture at the moment, the so-called God Particle is thought to be the mechanism that adds mass to all the material in the universe. This is possible, say some scientists, due to the “God Effect,” so named from Brian Clegg’s 2006 book, “The God Effect: Quantum Entanglement, Science’s Strangest Phenomenon.” This idea of Quantum Entanglement is what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”
Quantum Entanglement explains how events across the universe can operate in split-second synchronicity despite the considerable distance between them. This implies that information is exchanged faster between Quantum Entangled particles than the speed of light, which is a no-no according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Nonetheless, a research team led by physicist Alain Aspect at the University of Paris, conducted an experiment in 1982, that validated the theory of quantum entanglement. And that experiment has been repeated many times since then with the same result.
In an effort to explain this phenomenon, a few quantum mechanically-minded scientists like David Bohm and neurophysiologist Karl Pribram came up with the idea (independently) of a “Holistic Universe,” which is based on the unique properties of a hologram of Now, one of the main features of a hologram is that, if it was cut into several parts, each part would carry the same information as the whole. So, if you cut a hologram of Albert Eienstein’s face into nine pieces, each piece would be a complete picture of Eienstein’s face, and not one-ninth of it.
Under this interpretation, if the whole universe is the equivalent of a hologram, then everything exists simultaneously everywhere and separateness becomes mere illusion. For example, if you poke a photon in New York and a photon in San Francisco says “ouch!”, it’s because they were never apart because, like a hologram, each has the same information as the other. This means, among other things, that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line – it is no line at all. Therefore, we can no longer consider objects as independently existing entities. (You may now go out and kick the dog.)
But wait. There’s more. Quantum entanglement, when understood as holistic, proves that particles, once thought independent of each other, are actually in a single system, And since the entire universe is supposed to have originated with the Big Bang, a “Singularity,” this argument for interpreting quantum entanglement says that everything started as a giant cosmological hologram. As I understand this theory, all of the matter currently in the universe (and in us) was created within a few minutes after the Big Bang, This newly created matter was mostly hydrogen along with some helium and lesser amounts of the isotopes of a few other elements. The other naturally formed elements, including carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, were made in the fires of massive supernovae explosions from those star’s mostly hydrogen atoms.
And, therein lies the holistic theory of entanglement. Everything in us and around us can be traced back to and is part of the Big Bang. Therefore, If everything coming after the Big Bang maintains its connection with everything it interacted with, in a holistic way, then every particle in every star and galaxy that we can see “knows” about the existence of every other particle. Some scientists have tried to extrapolate this interpretation as a way of explaining paranormal events and even consciousness itself. Further, since matter and energy are never destroyed, we humans, along with all other life forms, are merely temporary vessels holding hydrogen atoms and other elements subsequently made from hydrogen atoms. Thus when we die, the elements in our bodies, mostly hydrogen, don’t; they merely undergo chemical changes. So, there really is an afterlife after all. (You may now go our and kick the dog again.)
But the problem with this holistic universe is that objective reality does not exist; what we see at the human scale is just a kind of mirage. Meanwhile, at the molecular and even the subatomic scale, there is no time-space, and classical physics do not apply. The implications of this phenomena for science, especially physics, are devastating. Chasing the Holy Grail of a grand unified theory – combining Einstein’s cosmological relativity with quantum mechanics – just got a whole lot harder. Besides which, this explanation for quantum entanglement fails to consider the effects of dark energy, dark matter, and many of the proven elements of quantum theory. In fact, Victor Stenger (“The God Hypothesis”) goes so far as to say in a February 9, 2011, article on the Huffington Post:
“Holism is nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of those who have the hubris to think that they are an important part of some cosmic plan.”
And speaking of holy, the implications for religion by virtue of a holographic universe are also significant. That explanation for quantum entanglement has been used to explain the oneness of all matter and energy, the integration of body and mind, the making of consciousness – God’s universe. Our separateness is thus an illusion; our reality an indivisible unity. It is the ultimate form of pantheism; God is not only IN us, He IS us! Yikes!
The Humanist Movement Caught in a Paradox
al·che·my; Noun; 2. A process by which paradoxical results are achieved or incompatible elements combined with no obvious rational explanation. (Concise Oxford Dictionary)
Quantum Theory – A branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. (Wikipedia)
Over the course of this series, “The Alchemy of Religion and the Quantum Theory of Humanism,” I have tried to show how Humanism as an institution qualities as a functioning religion based the common characteristics and attributes it shares with religion, that Humanist organizations and Humanists themselves can and are, under certain circumstances, considered religious under the (U.S.) law, and that religious belief and faith in the supernatural are so much a part of human brain/mind duality that denying that phenomenon is to deny human nature itself. I have also tried to show how the various Humanist groups are reluctant, if not adamantly opposed, to accept or at least acknowledge their religious side.
Such disparate views have thus resulted in what I call the Quantum Theory of Humanism, which says that Humanism, like quantum theory’s wave-particle duality, is both a religion and not a religion at the same time. It also finds itself in an “entanglement” with atheism, which, when poked by the Gnus, reacts as if on command. Such quantum effects only serve to diminish and even demean Humanist aspirations. And that leaves us with a dilemma wrapped in a paradox.
Fred Edwords, former president of the American Humanist Association, touches on this conflict in his essay, posted on the AHA website, titled “What Is Humanism?” Edwords actually sees it as one of several paradoxes;
“The fact that humanism can at once be both religious and secular presents a paradox of course, but not the only such paradox. Another is that both Religious and Secular Humanism place reason above faith, usually to the point of eschewing faith altogether. The dichotomy between reason and faith is often given emphasis in humanism, with humanists taking their stand on the side of reason. Because of this, Religious Humanism should not be seen as an alternative faith, but rather as an alternative way of being religious. These paradoxical features not only require a unique treatment of Religious Humanism in the study of world religions but also help explain the continuing disagreement, both inside and outside the humanist movement, over whether humanism is a religion at all.”
Of course, I argue here that Humanists do, in fact, have faith and that that faith is in humanity itself. If this were not true, then Humanism would be no more than a series of politically correct platitudes, and mere wishful thinking for civility, egalitarianism, and speaking truth to power.
As a final thought, I’ll end this post with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:
“The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me? … It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.”