Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Religious Experiences in the Brain

An Israeli epilepsy patient recently had a sudden religious experience. This is not necessarily uncommon, but the difference this time is that he was hooked up to an EEG machine at the moment he experienced what he interpreted as the presence of God. While a number of studies have been done tracking brain activity in meditators, such practice is much more deliberate and controlled. Sudden experiences are unpredictable, which makes them hard to investigate.

According to the authors, Israeli researchers Arzy and Schurr, the man was 46 years old. He was Jewish, but he had never been especially religious. His supernatural experience occurred in hospital where he was undergoing tests to help treat his right temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), a condition which he had suffered from for forty years. As part of the testing procedure, the patient stopped taking his anticonvulsant medication. Here’s how the authors describe what happened:

"While lying in bed, the patient abruptly “froze” and stared at the ceiling for several minutes, stating later that he felt that God was approaching him. He then started chanting prayers quietly, looked for his Kippa and put it on his head, chanting the prayers more excessively. Then, abruptly, he yelled “And you are Adonai (name of the Hebrew God) the Lord!”, stating later that god had revealed to him, ordering him to bring redemption to the people of Israel.

The patient then stood up, detached the EEG electrodes from his skin, and went around the department trying to convince people to follow him, stating that “God has sent me to you”. When further questioned, he said that he does not have a concrete plan, but he is sure that God is going to instruct him what he and his followers should do on their way to redemption."

What makes this so interesting is that the patient was undergoing online EEG recording at the time of his unexpected messianic moment – right up until he ripped the electrodes off. Arzy and Schurr were therefore able to examine the neural correlates of the behaviour. It turns out that there was an increase in activity in the low-gamma band (30–40 Hz) localized to the left prefrontal cortex, which occurred during the onset of the ineffable event.

There have been a number of studies over the last twenty years showing that advanced meditators can induce gamm brainwave activity via their practices. But many of those studies were done back in the 1990's, when EEG technology was less sophisticated. As such, they were only able to track aggregate rather than localized activity. Studies done over the course of the last decade generally include that information, but up until now I don't know of any case where a patient had a sudden religious experience while being monitored.

What's especially interesting is the significance of gamma-frequency brainwaves observed in all of the meditation studies and during this singular event. It suggests that gamma-frequency firing is important to religious experiences of all types, not just those brought on by years of deliberate practice. They likely are important in creating magical effects and experiences as well.

Since the effect seems to be focused in the left prefrontal, it would be interesting to see how it interacts with brain hemisphere dominance. Since about three quarters of the human population are left-dominant, I'm guessing that is the case for this individual as well - though there's no information one way or the other given in the article.

Michael Persinger's "God helmet" induces religious experiences by stimulating the right hemisphere more strongly than the left, but some people report no effect from the device. It may be that for right-hemisphere dominants the magnetic fields he uses need to be inverted - that is, stimulation of the non-dominant hemisphere may be the mechanism that produces the sense of an external presence rather than stimulation of one hemisphere or the other.

But let me be clear - I'm not one of those people who believes that all there is to religious experiences is neurons firing in a particular region. For example, the "religious experiences" produced by the Persinger device are nowhere near as intense as what happened with this patient, even though his device is easily capable of producing outwardly similar firing patterns.

Consciousness needs to be taken into account as well when addressing experiences like this, which relates directly to the "hard problem" that we still have not solved after decades of advanced brain research. But since we can't measure it directly, the next best thing we can do is look for neural firing patterns that correspond to particular states.

Once I get my Emotiv Insight up and running, this prefrontal gamma is one of the things I'll be looking for during magical rituals. This exact situation is why I needed the positioning sensor and couldn't just go with the older and less precise EPOC. It's exciting to see a lot of the brain data on religious experiences and meditation begin to converge, and I expect that I'll find something similar for magick.

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