F Rosa Rubicondior: A Fitting End To Religion?

Saturday 1 March 2014

A Fitting End To Religion?

Ecstatic epilepsy: How seizures can be bliss - health - 24 January 2014 - New Scientist

Only one of the following is a descriptions of religious experiences; the others are descriptions of a type of the aura experience by some epilepsy sufferers. I'll reveal which one later.

The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the 'All'.
64 year-old woman

... it is as if I were very, very conscious, more aware, and the sensations, everything seems bigger, overwhelming me.
53 year-old female teacher

...the most amazing feeling came over me... a feeling of complete and utter love - I felt as if I were radiating like the heat of the sun...
Middle-aged woman

You are just feeling energy and all your senses. You take in everything that is around, you get a fusion.
41 year-old architect

...a sensation of velvet, as if I were sheltered from anything negative.
37 year-old man

In 2000 M.E. Nielson produced a list of adjectives 66 adults rated as representing their 'religious' experiences.

66 adults rated the relevance of adjectives representing dimensions of affect and personality for describing how they felt during religious experiences. Adjectives, representing positive affect (enthusiastic, at ease), low neuroticism (calm, relaxed), and high agreeableness (soft-hearted, sympathetic), conscientiousness (conscientious, reliable), and extraversion (sociable, talkative), were rated to be descriptive of religious experiences. The failure of openness to discriminate religious experiences is consistent with Block's criticism (1995) of the five-factor model of personality.

Nielsen M.E.; Descriptions of religious experience using trait and affect adjectives; Psychol Rep. 2000 Feb; 86(1):308-10.

Here is how Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 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.

Bernini. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.
And here is how a Carmelite Nun, Saint Teresa of Ávila describes one of her many 'visions'.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...

Leaving aside the obvious sexual fantasy here, understandable in a celibate young women who went into a nunnery at the age of fourteen, there is that sense of presence, well-being and ecstasy again.

So, very clearly there is a close similarity, if not an identicality, between a 'religious experience' and some forms of pre-epileptic aura. These have been associated with temporal lobe epilepsy in particular and sufferers often describe a feeling great peace and well-being and that someone else is present. In a religious person with a pre-existing belief in a god, this presence is often interpreted as a god or a saint or some person of some significance in their religion. The problem was in identifying the precise area of the temporal lobe because the wave of excitation propagates so rapidly.

Some of my patients told me that although they are agnostic, they could understand that after such a seizure you can have faith, belief, because it has some spiritual meaning.

Fabienne Picard
Now however, a team led by Fabienne Picard, a neurologist at the University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland has shown that it may not originate in the temporal lobe but is a small area of the cerebral cortex called the insula. This area is thought to be responsible for integrating internal sensations such as the heart beat with external sensations such as touch. The anterior portion of the insula deals with how we feel about our selves, in other words, our sense of self or awareness of 'being'.

Now Picard's team have gone one step further and electrically stimulated the insula of one patient suffering from 'ecstatic epilepsy' via implanted electrodes. The patient, a 23 year-old woman, has confirmed that the feelings she experiences during artificial stimulation are identical to those she experience immediately prior to a fit. (Induction of a sense of bliss by electrical stimulation of the anterior insula. Unfortunately, behind a paywall).

I think that they [the number of people with ecstatic epilepsy] are probably underestimated, because the emotions are so strong and strange, maybe they feel embarrassed to speak about them; maybe they think the doctor will find them mad."

Fabienne Picard
Given how much store religions tend to give to 'mystical' religious experience, and how many people claim they are religious not because of any physical evidence they can produce but because of a religious experience they claim to have had, these findings must surely put paid to them as reliable testimonies. Of course many of them can be dismissed as fantasies in themselves at best, if not downright lies told to impress us or their religious friends (after all how special must you be for the creator of the Universe to have paid you a special visit and told you he has a special love for you?) but that still leaves a substantial number of pivotal moments in the official histories of religions which turn on a 'revelation' often to someone who was fasting. As Atheist comedian Billy Connolly said, "He was fasting in the desert for 40 days and a burning bush started talking to him! You try it!".

We have the often deranged prophecies of the Old Testament prophets, some of which read more like the psychotic ravings of paranoid schizophrenics, then we have the tale of St. Paul's alleged conversion. We know that at least part of this tale was a figment of the imagination of the author who was someone who didn't know the geography or politics of the place and time he set his tale in (the secular Jewish authority's writ in Jerusalem, Judea did not extend to Damascus in Phoenecia so 'Saul' could not have been going there for the reason stated) but his writing suggests he was familiar with ecstatic epilepsy since he describes it almost exactly. In fact, the 'conversion on the road to Damascus' may well be the first written description of the neurological disorder.

And we end up with the Book of Revelations of which the less said the better. Probably written by the same person who wrote 1 John, 2 John and 3 John. By their works so shall ye know them.

So where now for religions with no physical evidence for them to call on and personal testimony looking more and more like a pathological brain malfunction as time goes on and we discover more about how the brain works?

By the way, the third description above was the religious experience. The others were all Fabienne Picard's patients. Did you guess right?

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  1. Thanks for this excellent article from you, Rosa!

    Here are two links I'd recommend for those wanting more information: 1) http://neurotheology.50megs.com/whats_new_9.html ; and 2) http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/data/Journals/NP/3847/498.pdf .

  2. Yes, I chose #3 even as I read it; reading the final two did not cause me to change my mind. Yay, me!

    This wasn't very surprising. I blogged, some years back, about Swiss' scientists' findings that: stimulating a specific location in the brain will likely produce a NDE.

    Can the MRI/fMRI accelerate the total debunking of religious mysticism? One can only hope..

    1. No problem but you posted that three times. I have to moderate comments because of the volume of spam I get and the deranged abuse loving, forgiving and non-judgemental theists seem to imagine passes for reasoned argument. This means there is often a delay before they become visible.


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