by Todd Murphy
from ShaktiTechnology Website
Let me begin by saying that I do not
believe in 'God' in any of the traditional ways that people
believe in 'him'. I'm a scientist.
If the experience of God,
as I will argue here, is caused by a certain pattern of brain
activation, the possibility will still remained there is a real God,
one outside of ourselves, whose presence creates the same pattern.
Nevertheless, it's unlikely that any test could be devised
that would prove decisively that the brain activation now known to
be associated with the experience of God comes from within through
organic means, or comes from without through the divine action of a
being that has no physical existence, and whose will is sufficient
to make changes in the world.
What he told me was to begin my prayers with ritual words,
The next step was to offer thanks.
It didn't matter what I was being grateful for, only that I began my prayers by looking for gratitude.
The next step was
to offer prayers for other people especially people who were in
fear, poverty, illness, or anything else that prevented him from
enjoying their lives. In the last step, I pray for myself and my own
needs. I was taught to do this soon after getting out of bed in the
One of the many names of God you find among American Indians is "Wakan Tanka".
I don't know who I'm praying to, and it doesn't matter. I'm praying to a mystery.
With close to one trillion possible connections between neurons in my brain. God is mysterious whether he exists in it or not. But that's a personal experience, and not a piece of scientific reasoning.
Science is not a religion. It doesn't require
that its adherents practice it in their daily lives, or to set an
example for others to follow. Religion involves perfecting ones
being, while science strives only to perfect its explanations for
The group received the prayers responded to their treatments more readily than those who did not.
While this finding
is very controversial, and needs to be replicated more carefully, it
opens the door for asking questions about the benefits of prayer in
Gathering together as a group may well have accomplished this, as petty irritations, rivalries, and disagreements had to be set aside in order to participate in the ceremony. It also put each person's basic needs and responsibilities directly in front of their group. Rites of passage allowed young people to step into the full set of adult responsibilities quite seamlessly.
I could go on, but I think I've made the point.
Religions usually have a fairly wholesome moral code, so when an
individual did seek out some advice or psychological healing,
they're usually given advice that encourages adaptive behavior, or
discourages maladaptive behavior.
Even though believing in God may be very adaptive behavior,
it's not enough to explain how our species has it as a trait.
Temporal lobe epilepsy is a variety of epilepsy that is confined to the temporal lobes of the brain.
The temporal lobes of the brain have lower thresholds and are more sensitive than other areas of the cortex. This means there is a degree, an intensity, above which seizural activity will spread outside the temporal lobes. less than that, and the seizure will stay in the temporal lobes of the brain.
The temporal lobes are very intimately connected to the limbic
system, and sometimes this variety of epilepsy is called limbic
Wilder Penfield published a case in which an epileptic patient saw Jesus descending from heaven, and framed as though he were in a picture.
Others are simply filled with a bliss so intense that they can only attribute it to God. Others sense his presence, while others hear his voice. Although visions of God are not common epileptic experiences, they do occur once in awhile.
What is common,
is a fascination, or even obsession with God in the personalities of
those who have temporal lobe epilepsy.
One patient ritually recorded in a ledger everyday that he was free of seizures.
To his astonishment, multiple religious conversions were common among these patients.
A man who developed temporal lobe epilepsy in his 30s abruptly became interested in religion; volunteering daily for religious organizations and determining to become a minister. His sermons dealt with moral issues in highly circumstantial and meticulous detail.
This hyper religiosity can appear in people deny religious faith.
One patient with this trait was an atheist because he felt the clergy,
interrupted a church service by going to the pulpit to debate in
I had temporal lobe epilepsy as a child. It appeared around the age of 7 and subsided around the age of 10.
This is the time in
childhood when it most commonly appears. Temporal lobe epilepsy
almost always subsides with the onset of puberty, but the
personality traits it brings out usually stay with a person for the
rest of their lives.
There was an adult in the room, and being out of my body, I thought I was going to get in trouble. I thought I'd be caught and punished for it. I had some idea that kids weren't allowed to leave their bodies. I remember being completely terrified. Utterly and absolutely filled with fear.
This fear, called ictal fear, is common in temporal lobe seizures.
In the literature of temporal lobe epilepsy, the words I've read most often to describe it have been,
It's not that out of body experiences are frightening, but rather that out of body experience seems to be based in the right hemisphere of the brain.
One structure, the amygdala on the right side, is specialized for fear. What happened was that the seizure had spread out beyond the structure where it began, and included another so that two very very different experiences, being out of body and being afraid, could happen at the same time, and even seen connected.
that out of body experiences were somehow frightening, but there is
no way that could ever have inspired as much fear as I felt.
In macropsia, you have the illusion that things are larger and farther away than they actually are. For example, if you're sitting in front of your computer, and the monitor is two feet from you, and 1½ feet tall, macropsia could allow you to see its as 20 feet tall and 15 feet away.
Another illusion, called
micropsia, gives you the
impression that everything is smaller and closer than it actually
is. People have said they felt that they and all the world around
them would fit into a Matchbox.
I would lie awake in my bed at night having a very powerful experience. Everything around me was absolutely enormous. Not only were they gargantuan exaggerations of themselves, but they also seemed to be incredibly dense. I once talked to a fellow would have the same experience during an episode of fever delirium, but I haven't heard of it in any other contexts.
At the same time as I felt that everything, including my own body, was incredibly dense, I also had the sense that I was incredibly strong just to be able to move my own arm.
This amazing sense of power later reminded me of the verse in the Rig Veda:
In order to escape the frightening, huge, but commonplace objects around me, I would shut my eyes. But that only made things worse.
What I saw with my eyes shut was an infinite space in front of me. It was utterly black, and yet conveyed the impression of a velvety texture, punctuated by spiky bits. Even more compelling than its total blackness, was the enormous, even infinite, size of it.
Directly in front of me, an unimaginable distance away, was a tiny point of extremely brilliant white light. That light was the single most frightening thing I'd ever seen. It had an emphatic quality, as though it were utterly determined to do its thing. Its job, of course, was to kill me.
I felt like it was my
death, not just waiting for me, but adamant about accomplishing its
mission. Later, that would allow me to understand what epileptologists meant when they spoke of "the fear of impending doom
One of these experiences was very disturbing. I remember looking at someone and suddenly finding that they seemed terribly alien.
This experience, called
Jamais Vu, is a
sort of opposite to déjà vu. In déjà vu, things seem extra familiar.
In Jamais Vu, things, even very familiar things, like your own hand,
become completely unfamiliar, even alien.
While its happening, colors seem a bit more vivid, the sharp edges of objects would appear more crisply defined, and my sense of living in three dimensions would become quite intense.
It would be impossible for me to look at an object without
really noticing its depth.
The cow returned to
the shadows from whence it was made, and I fell asleep.
As such, they have neural representation. Parts of the brain (or better still, sets of pathways widely dispersed throughout the brain) that have no other function.
exist solely to provide human beings with this special class of
experience. Further, if they exist at all, and are to be found in
every human brain, no matter how high or low their thresholds for
each person, they must be the result of evolution.
Again, to keep things in perspective, it must be emphasized that only a very small percentage of the people who have received his procedures have had this experience - about one percent. Nevertheless, in spite of the small percentage, the number is large enough, about 20, to allow some conclusions about which parts of the brain are most involved in the experience of a divine visitation.
The amygdala is a very social, and a very emotional structure. It recognizes the emotional content of other People's facial expressions. It's sensitive to tones of voice. On the left side, it supports experiences of joy, bliss, elation, and happiness. The literature of neurology as far more reports to offer about the functions of the amygdala on the right.
There, it supports the experience of fear, anxiety, and apprehensiveness.
Unfortunately our need to recognize threats is more pressing in our need to recognize potential benefits, so I believe nature has equipped us with the right amygdala that is more sensitive than the left overall.
Interestingly, and perhaps validating the idea that the
experience of God relies upon the brain part that response to faces,
one author, a minister who interviewed children about their
religious alliance, found that when asked to draw a picture of God,
the children overwhelmingly drew only God's face.
Applying these signals to the brain activates the structures the signals were derived from.
A magnetic copy of a
signal derived from the amygdala will activate it, and only it. In
this way, specific brain structures can be targeted for activation,
yielding a wide range of responses depending on the individual, and
which part of the head the magnetic coils are applied to.
As the amygdala on the right becomes more active the one on the left
quiets down. When the the second phase in this technique begins, the
quiet amygdala, the one on the left, suddenly becomes quite active.
The result, for a few individuals, can be a direct experience of
experiences can be very intense, and very personal. Some people
never speak of them at all, even though they may have them all the
Hearing the voice of God, either as a religious experience, an epileptic phenomena, or as a schizophrenic symptom, isn't uncommon at all.
Why? Because the amygdala on the left
supports the experience of God, and the temporal lobes of the brain
include crucial language centers. In fact, there are no important
language centers on the right side of the brain at all.
many words used to describe God that has connotations of light. God
is radiant. God is resplendent. God is glorious. God, when depicted
as a man in the person of Jesus, is surrounded by light, shown as a
With very little hesitation, she replied,
Both of these have been elicited in Dr. Persinger's laboratory through stimulation of the left side of the brain using the amygdala's signal.
Research on the brain's
involvement in the experience of God may not just be an exercise in
the meeting of science and spirituality, or the creation of a new
field before philosophy, but they actually one day allow physicians
to create cures utilizing a neural mechanism whose action, until
now, has been taken as miraculous.
Traditionally, these have been omnipotence,
omniscience, omni-presence, and eternal existence. God exists, we're
told, in all places and it all times. God knows everything, and "he"
Should such an experience happen at the same time as a
vision of God, it would be hard to avoid the impression that God was
This arises out of the hippocampus's very cognitive functions, as well as its structure.
Unlike other structures in the limbic system, the hippocampus is not composed of blob-like nuclei. Instead, it's made of many layers, each one structured very much like the ones next to it.
The hippocampus is involved in the experience of retrieving memories, and if it's activity was high enough, many of the inhibitory synapses might fail to inhibit layers not being used. It's easy enough to imagine that the experience might be one of knowing everything, all at once.
This is a bit speculative, but still allows us to see how God's "all knowing" attribute might arise from hippocampal activity, just as his presence might arise from amygdaloid activity.
There are many
published near death experiences that include accounts of people
feeling that they knew all the secrets of the universe. Some of them
included being in libraries where all the information in the
universe was available. Perhaps the organization of information in
these libraries reflects the organization of the hippocampus.
The right hippocampus, (especially in conjunction with an area on the surface of the brain above the occipital lobes, and behind the parietal lobes) is involved in spatial perception, and the ongoing maintenance of one's body image. Again, if you imagine activity in the structures intense enough, you can see how the experience of being everywhere at once might arise.
Another experience that could arise from the same set of structures
in a high state of activation (as well as being perturbed, or a bit
detoured) is the experience of being "one with the universe".
The important connections here seem to be between the hippocampus and nearby areas of the cortex, the brain's surface.
When connectivity between these two
break down, the past and the present can seem to occur at the same
time. The sense of being everywhere all at once, such a very
different experience, may only be slightly different from the
experience of déjà vu, when seen in terms of brain activity.
If it's true that prayer is a worthwhile spiritual technique, even though there may not be any God to pray to, it may also be true that contemplation and reflection on the divine attributes may offer support to those who use God, no matter how strongly or lightly they hold onto their beliefs.
The ancient theologians knew what they were doing. They chose these attributes of God because they believed they were real and true, but had they chosen divine attributes that did not echo human experience, their theologies would have been forgotten.
In spite of
being based on ideas that are not true from the scientific
perspective, they still have value for those with God-based
lobes, and the temporal lobes. Both of them became dramatically
When the temporal lobes and the frontal lobes expanded as
we became the species we are today, an interesting ability appeared.
It became possible for us to look at a dead body, remember it, and
extrapolate into the future to conclude that the same thing would
happen to us.
Until very recently, only a handful of people who began to go through the death process returned from it to tell their stories. Never having been there, we could not know that we would go there. At least, not from experience.
power that words gave us allowed us to grapple with our situation
through words. Those words are "I will die".
Nearly every religion in the world teaches, in one form or other, that there is no such thing as death.
It's anything, anything at all, except death.
The antidote for the thought that one will die is religious belief.
Our fear of death motivated us to look for
ways to stay alive, and that had tremendous payoffs for our
evolution. At the same time, it introduced a new threat to our
mental health: death anxiety.
bliss, happiness, up to and including mania associate with
activation of the left amygdala.
According to the theory of interhemispheric intrusions, developed by Dr. Michael Persinger, what happens is that in moments of extreme stress and anxiety, up to and including the fear of imminent death, the right amygdala is activated.
When the activation becomes too intense, that activity can spill over to the amygdala on the left, via the anterior commissure. By monitoring the effects of magnetic stimulation on only one brain part at a time, Dr. Persinger has established that activating one brain part can reduce activation in other brain parts to which it is directly connected.
This means that
in moments of extreme fear, the intense activation of the right amygdala happens along with a de-activation of the one on the left.
If the right amygdala is active enough that the activity spills over
to the one on the left, the one on the right will tend to shut down,
at least for a little while.
What they all have in common is a breakdown, a
failure to communicate, or a disturbance between the two
If we lose an argument, we sit around thinking about what we should have said. To a large extent, our self-esteem is nothing more than what we think other people think of us. And we are more influenced by what they say to us than anything else.
stones may break your bones, but words can really hurt you.
You feel that someone is standing behind you, but when you turn to look, there's no one there.
This mechanism explains why we sometimes get to a sense of a presence, as well as why sometimes we might see or feel the presence of a ghost, an angel, a spirit, or, as can also happen, a demon.
It seems as though the most direct path to God is through fear, or some other extremely unpleasant emotions.
The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha was beset by the daughters of the King of evil, and was attacked by his armies. Jesus, on retreat in the desert, met Satan face-to-face. One more recent Hindu Saint, Ramakrishna, had his awakening after a period of being convinced he was about to die.
I heard from a woman who told a story about an enlightenment experience, after months of wrestling with cancer. These, and many other stories like them find spiritual awakenings coming after spiritual travail. The dawn of understanding or God consciousness after the dark night of the soul.
The activation of
the left amygdala following activity by the one on the right.
When we stop to think how intensely social our early cultures must have been, with tribes living together their whole lives, and the need to avoid conflict and strain between people so absolute, then perhaps this mechanism where we fall out of phase with ourselves, and find the gaps smoothed over outside of ourselves, may have offered its first important advantage in helping us to love one another.
Romantic love certainly seems to involve
projecting a part of ourselves onto another. At least, we see our
lovers as we want to see them instead of seeing them as they are all
Nevertheless, to me it looks possible that traditional religion may be right in one of its classical statements.
If that is true, then we should preserve the God of our experience even as the God in the brain becomes more and more apparent.
Saint Augustine once said that if someone wanted to enrich their spiritual life but did not believe in God, they should pretend that there was a God. Then, he said, real faith became more possible.
I think it would be a good thing to live in the world where people believed in God, but knew they were only pretending, received all the benefits and comforts that prayer and spiritual community can offer but, like children playing pretend, don't mind when other people play differently.