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Phantoms in the Temporal Lobe

In 1997, UC researchers Jeffery Saver and John Rabin claimed that the limbic system of the brain (an area within reach of the temporal lobes involved in emotion) plays an important role in religious experiences. In their journal article of the same year, they went on to identify a type of person prone to religious experiences that they consider to have a “temporal lobe personality”, which is for the most part something associated with temporal lobe epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a complicated disorder caused by the misfiring of neurons that result in seizures. In epilepsy, lightning fast impulses that normally send information resulting in thought travel around in an electrical circuit in your brain, misfiring and eventually causing a seizure. What, then, does epilepsy have to do with religious, mystical or spiritual experiences? Saver and Rabin claimed it had everything to do with them, suggesting religious figures in the past may have displayed temporal lobe epilepsy symptoms, and their visions were the result of seizure induced hallucinations.

Hallucinations temporal lobe epilepsy do typically encompass visual, emotional, and memory based episodes that commonly related to an individual’s past experiences, meaning if we are to associate any seizures to spiritual experiences these type appear to fit the bill. The feeling of “Deja Vu” has also been linked to this area, and a similar (but far smaller) misfiring of the brain in non-epileptic individuals. Deja Vu is often reported as a spiritual or mystical experience so it is clear Rabin and Saver’s hypothesis holds some water.

So are religious experiences no more than a mis-firing of the brain? While Ramachandran associates up to 25 percent of all his research subject’s religious experiences with the onset of seizures, this does not necessarily serve as proof of causation. Do seizures cause the onset of spiritual experiences, or do spiritual experiences present superficially with the symptoms of seizures? At present, it is impossible to say. Neurotheology admits to the correlation (that is, relationship) between seizure like activity in the brain and spiritual experiences but cannot at present determine the causation.

Saver and Rabin argue that the brain is the cause, stimulating pathological brain activity that leads to an altered state of consciousness which, when pleasant, is associated with God, but this is not the be-all and end-all of the matter. One might observe that an increase in ice cream consumption in major US cities is highly correlated to murder rates. Does this mean ice cream causes crime sprees? Or that criminals comfort eat? The discerning individual will realise that the two factors while related do not cause each other. They are mediated by a third factor: heat. Crime and ice cream consumption both increase and can be caused by heat waves.

The question within neurotheology is a similar one: are the two factors, neurology and religion, causal or are they mediated by a third factor which causes both? Proponents for religion argue that this third factor is spiritual, and a force not yet understood, for as Beauregard points out: “…most people who have RSMEs are not epileptics and very few epileptics report RSMEs during seizures.”

References

Kyriacou, J. Are we Wired for Spirituality? An Investigation Into the Claims of Neurotheology.

Gloor, P., Olivier, A., Quesney, L. F., Andermann, F. and Horowitz, S. (1982), The role of the limbic system in experiential phenomena of temporal lobe epilepsy. Ann Neurol., 12: 129–144. doi: 10.1002/ana.410120203

GLOOR, P. (1990). EXPERIENTIAL PHENOMENA OF TEMPORAL LOBE EPILEPSY FACTS AND HYPOTHESES. Brain, 113(6), 1673-1694.


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