F Rosa Rubicondior: Religion And Neurological Disorders

Sunday 29 April 2012

Religion And Neurological Disorders

Lobes of the human brain
Neurotheology is a branch of psychiatry which studies the correlation between neural phenomenon and 'spirituality' or religious experience. These 'experiences' can be

  • The perception that time, fear or self-consciousness have dissolved
  • Spiritual awe
  • Oneness with the universe
  • Ecstatic trance
  • Sudden enlightenment
  • Altered states of consciousness

The American behavioural neurologist Norman Geschwind identified a collection of signs and symptoms associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, and particularly associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, now known as Geschwind's Syndrome, which include hyper-religiosity and hyper-morality or more precisely hyper-moralising, fainting spells and pedantism.

In the 1980s cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger claimed to be able to induce a religious state by electromagnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes, though the validity of these results have been questioned.

The features of seizures beginning in the temporal lobe can be extremely varied, but certain patterns are common. There may be a mixture of different feelings, emotions, thoughts, and experiences, which may be familiar or completely foreign. In some cases, a series of old memories resurfaces. In others, the person may feel as if everything—including home and family—appears strange. Hallucinations of voices, music, people, smells, or tastes may occur. These features are called “auras” or “warnings.” They may last for just a few seconds, or may continue as long as a minute or two.

The 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was himself an epileptic, gave a vivid account of an epileptic seizure in The Idiot:
He remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up with vigor and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second…in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible.

Next moment something appeared to burst open before him: a wonderful inner light illuminated his soul. This lasted perhaps half a second, yet he distinctly remembered hearing the beginning of a wail, the strange, dreadful wail, which burst from his lips of its own accord, and which no effort of will on his part could suppress. Next moment he was absolutely unconscious; black darkness blotted out everything. He had fallen in an epileptic fit.

Saul seeing the light on the road to Damascus
(Tonic phase)
Now compare that with this account, reputedly by Saul of Tarsus, though he probably didn't write Acts in the Christian New Testament:

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, What shall I do, LORD? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

Acts 22:6-11
So here we have an excessively religious, moralizing Jewish pedant, exhibiting Geschwind's Syndrome, suddenly hallucinating, seeing bright lights, just like Dosyoyevskey's 'Idiot', hearing voices, and emerging from the experience an excessively religious moralizing Christian pedant complete with a Greek version of his Hebrew name.

And just about all of the subsequent growth in early Christianity can be attributed to Paul's excessive religiosity and moralizing pedantry.

I don't think we need look too far to see the neuropathological cause of Christianity. I wonder how much temporal lobe epilepsy and other neuropathies like schizophrenia contributed to other religions, and what part it plays today in the excessively religious, moralizing pedants who try to tell us how to behave, who to vote for, who and what to hate and when to kill them.

Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief. During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.

Jonathan Edwards, Olympic Gold Medallist, Atheist.
Former Evangelical fundamentalist Christian and presenter of BBC TV religious programmes.


Ten Reasons To Lose Faith: And Why You Are Better Off Without It

This book explains why faith is a fallacy and serves no useful purpose other than providing an excuse for pretending to know things that are unknown. It also explains how losing faith liberates former sufferers from fear, delusion and the control of others, freeing them to see the world in a different light, to recognise the injustices that religions cause and to accept people for who they are, not which group they happened to be born in. A society based on atheist, Humanist principles would be a less divided, more inclusive, more peaceful society and one more appreciative of the one opportunity that life gives us to enjoy and wonder at the world we live in.

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  1. Meh, if arguments like these are intended to undermine the truth of Christianity, they'll be flatly unconvincing. Much of neuroscience is devoted to understanding how the brain comes to hold accurate, reliable, true information. If correlating brain activity with certain beliefs is supposed to undermine those beliefs, then I imagine you are shooting yourself in the foot.

    1. Doubtless then you could have dealt with the specifics of the blog and explained in what ways the account of Saul's 'conversion' differed from a temporal-lobe seizure had you wished to, rather than making infantile displacement noises.

      I wonder if people can guess why you chose not to.

  2. I would be careful where you tread on this one. Especially with the diagnostic criteria for psychosis and "thought insertion". You might find that everyone gets an ICD 10 classification of schizophrenia especially if you believe in mythical memes.

  3. Hello! BBNews here. With a link I'll recommend you to study, Rosa (and other interested people). See: http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/data/Journals/NP/3847/498.pdf .

    From the abstract: Religious experience is brain-based, like all human experience. Clues to the neural substrates of religious-numinous experience may be gleaned from temporolimbic epilepsy, near-death experiences,and hallucinogen ingestion. These brain disorders and conditions may produce depersonalization, derealization, ecstasy, a sense of timelessness and
    spaceless ness, and other experiences that foster religious-numinous interpretation.
    delusions are an important subtype of delusional experience in schizophrenia, and mood-congruent religious delusions are a feature of mania and depression.

  4. Now all you have to do is find examples of this new "find" for the 12 apostles and Jesus.

  5. It turns out religion is a neurological disorder.


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