When God and Science collide, what is the collateral damage? In the bold new field of neurotheology they are colliding on a regular basis. The studies and debates of the field regularly find themselves picked up in the news due to the polarization and high emotions of the materialist/mystical rift in today’s society. Science becomes the front for our culture wars. As a result it often loses resemblance to science anymore.
Neurotheology is the study of the brain activity involved in religious experience. It includes studies that have proclaimed that Buddhist meditators have thicker cortex in brain regions associated with attention. Magnetically stimulating someone’s temporal lobe causes them to sense a presence in the room. Temporal lobe epileptics are obsessed with religion. It is the field that seeks to study the brain by scanner while voluntary acts such as meditation or prayer are performed. Basically, neurotheology is the field where the battle is fought over whether God is an illusion programmed by a specific group of neurons in the brain or if God is communicating with us via structures in the brain specifically designed to transmit and receive his holy word. The field really developed and rose to prominence around a device called the Koren Helmet, better known as the “God Helmet.” Two scientists, Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger developed the helmet to study the effects of a weak magnetic field on the temporal lobe of the brain. Persinger reported that 80% of people wearing this helmet sensed a presence in the room. This was most often interpreted as an angel, deceased persons known by the subject or a group of disembodied beings. These very interesting finding then thrust Dr. Persinger into the spotlight through several subsequent TV documentaries. Persinger reports that many people experience “mystical and altered states” when wearing the helmet. Wired Magazine sent a reporter to chronicle the experience himself. Here in this link if you are interested.
There are some real problems with the science behind the God Helmet. You see, in over 20 years no one else have ever been able to build one and create the same sensation. In science, if you make a machine that causes a certain reaction and the reaction is real, others should be able to recreate it. It appears that many of the subjects who reported having these mystical encounters were not properly blinded. They came in expecting to feel something and, by golly, they usually did. It may be that these folks are just quite suggestible. It seems to be an interesting Rorshach test. One parapsychologist, Susan Blackmore reported “When I went to Persinger’s lab and underwent his procedures I had the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had… I’ll be surprised if it turns out to be a placebo effect.” On the other hand, famed atheist Richard Dawkins wore the helmet and reported “It pretty much felt as though I was in total darkness, with a helmet on my head and pleasantly relaxed.” Persinger then suggested Dawkin’s result was due to “low temporal lobe sensibility” as measured by his personality tests. From my reading, it isn’t clear to me that there was ever a placebo group asked to describe what happened if the helmet was not turned on. Even if there was, it is hard to have an effective placebo if you can tell when the helmet is on or off. You can attribute whatever sensation you want to the feelings you get when the device is on.
There is clear evidence that magnetic fields can affect the brain and such devices are being studied medically. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been shown to definitively turn on certain areas of the brain, but only at magnetic field strengths a million times stronger than this helmet. This leads me to some serious skepticism. It has not kept Persinger from publicity and fame. With a name like the God helmet how can the media keep away? It is very interesting to me that so many of the subjects involved see the transcendental experiences of the helmet as proof of an ability to actually receive communication from beyond. It seems to be people with faith that felt the most from this experiment. The reasoning of its most enthusiastic proponents seems to be that if we can isolate what is happens in the temporal lobe to cause us to sense ghosts or angels, perhaps we can started proving their material existence and known what makes them tick. We may learn to measure the spirit or revelation beams sent from God and scientifically prove his existence and know it’s really him talking. Other atheists dying to prove religion a hardwired module in the brain have enthusiastically embraced the findings as well to aid them in their rhetorical battles. Other atheists, Dawkins included, see the failure as proof that spiritual experience is much too easily triggered when expected or wanted. Therefore it cannot be trusted as any way to receive truth about the world. I don’t know, it could be that Dawkins and others are just hardwired to think that way, so I am not so sure I can trust them, what with the low temporal lobe sensibility and all.
Over the past 50+ years since much ink has been spilled (and pixels projected?) regarding the God region of the temporal lobe. The temporal lobe had been implicated as the location of religiosity previously by a group of psychiatrists in a case series of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia with in the 1960s, when 38% of these nonrandomly selected patients were discovered to be very religious. More recently, one patient with temporal lobe epilepsy, who reported feeling an uncanny presence during his seizures underwent a SPECT scan of the brain during a seizure that lit up his temporal lobe during the experience. This has led to a flood of materialists to proclaim victory. They now have epileptic seizures as a physical explanation for the visions of everyone from Mohammed to Joan of Arc to Joseph Smith. The problem is, as with most every idea in the popular imagination regarding higher brain function, this idea is much, much too simplistic. Temporal lobe epilepsy is THE most common type of epilepsy seen in adults. On the other hand, seizures associated with mystical or powerful religious experiences, known as ecstatic seizures, are very, very rare. There have now been at least two studies with hundreds of patients enrolled in each that show the number of patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy who have religious experiences is only about 1 to 2 percent. Even when ecstatic seizures occur, they almost never include formed visions or hallucinations. If they do include hallucinations, it is always the same and does not vary with each seizure.
Ascribing complicated functions of the brain and mind to a single geographic location in the brain is all the rage these days. If an functional MRI lights up when you think of snowmen we have unlocked their location for further study. If your temporal lobe is big, you are spiritual. If your frontal lobe is big, you are logical. It is really just a more modern version of phrenology. In the 19th century, phrenologists all claimed they could tell you all about your personality from feeling the size of bumps on your head. It captured the public imagination in it’s time and did not hold up to scrutiny. Is this really any different? How ironic that the new atheists in their zeal to discredit religion are replicating some of the same logical errors and bad science of the past that they regularly ridicule.
This isn’t to say people cannot have powerful spiritual experiences from seizures. Nineteenth century Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the most articulate and well known of these individuals. He wrote of his seizures,
“For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life. ”
Though he knew and recognized this event as a seizure, It did absolutely nothing to cast doubt on the singular spiritual reality of his experience. Even though the seizure was an event happening within his brain, he was convinced that it was an event that gave him a very privileged glimpse of the face of God. Far from throwing doubt on God’s existence, this experience drove him forward in the face of doubt, trials and discouragement. These seizures formed the foundation of his faith.
Here lies the root of the conflict and polarization of opinions. Does having a physical correlate for religious experience make it “all in your head?” My answer would be, in a literal sense, sure, but why is that surprising? Where else would it be? Why would that diminish the reality or importance of these experiences? We have isolated the area of the brain responsible for sensations of touch, taste, sight, sound and hearing and no one argues these areas of the brain are not sensing something real. Yet, there are ways to artificially stimulate or fool every one of these senses. In Mormonism, gaining a physical body is the central reason we are here in this life. It only stands to reason that there is a physical, measurable way that we think, feel and experience as we are material beings and came here to become so. It is evident to me that our senses can fail us, spiritual experience can fail us. The problem is that our experience of this world is really all we have to go on. We are imperfect in our ability to truly know anything. All we can do is all we can do. For this reason, it is certainty and dogmatism that I fear most. Those two things seem to be at the root of the conflict behind neurotheology. It is this clash of ideology that captures media attention and changes science into side show. Personally, my faith in God remains but this is more of a choice. I have found nothing in science that compels me to believe one direction or the other. There are, however, cultural groupings very determined that everyone else must agree with them or be labeled dangerous.
As a neurologist I am struck that the human brain is startlingly complex. While I am fascinated by the brain and amazed at how our knowledge of it is exploding, I do not believe it is entirely possible for us to ever completely understand our own inner workings. As a physician, I even worry a little about what would happen if we really did. What happens when man becomes no more than a machine? It was a computer scientist, Emerson Pugh, who summed it up this way, “ If the brain was so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” Whether the problem is the brain’s complexity or our simplicity I’ll leave for you to decide but I am afraid all this arguing back and forth over God speaking vs. chemical temporal lobe activity remains for me tinkling of cymbals and sounding brass.