Neurotheology 2 - Three Neurotheological Experiments

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Here we conclude a 2 part examination of God on the Brain, a BBC2 TV programme on neurotheology shown last year (17-04-03) in the Horizon slot.

4 Ramachandran's Experiment

The narration next introduces some experimental work Ramachandran did into the link between the temporal lobes of the brain and religious experience. Note the programme's assumption that there is indeed such a link.

The experiment involved testing emotional responses to words flashed up on a screen, as measured by changes in skin resistance: the set up seemed to be operating along similar lines to lie detector testing. The words were of 3 kinds: neutral, e.g. table, sexual, e.g. sex, religious, e.g. God. Those tested were TLE sufferers and people who do not have epileptic seizures.

Neither group responded significantly to the neutral words, but both did to the sexual and religious words. The difference between the two groups was that the non-TLE subjects responded more strongly to the sexual words, whereas the TLE subjects responded more strongly to the religious words.

Clinical evidence

With a touch or two of the usual hype, the narrator coos:

This was the very first piece of clinical evidence that the body's physical response to religious imagery was definitely linked to activity in the temporal lobes of the brain.

We might enquire how far words like GOD and HOLY, the examples seen, stimulus words in large white capitals against a dark screen background, qualify as religious imagery. Indeed, why were words chosen for the experiment, rather than religious pictures? Would religious pictures generate the same results in tests comparing them with pictures with sexual content?

We might also ask if there has been any consideration of the connotations of the religious words selected. For instance, might it be that TLE patients would respond similarly to other words suggestive of hope and comfort for the sick, words like cure, particularly as in miracle cure, or new drug, mother, nurse, doctor? If so, then the link may not be between TLE and religion as such, but between TLE and any possible relief from illness.

Again, has it been established whether TLE patients associate religious words with death, whether any emotional response to religious words is related to fear of death? After all, death is when a person supposedly meets God face to face.

Conflicting connotations

Indeed, what about the possible ambiguity of religious key words, their possible associations with both hope and fear simultaneously. Isn't there a good chance that a strong emotional response would be triggered if the brain tried to deal with conflicting connotations in religious stimulus words?

We might additionally point out that people subject to awful seizures probably have a very different experience of life generally to those who enjoy robust good health. On the one hand, might TLE indirectly, if not directly, lessen their sexual response? Doesn't it tend to drag you down?

And on the other hand, doesn't it seem very possible that TLE sufferers, being victims of a serious condition, might tend to be far more interested in religion than the norm, regardless of the specific bodily location of their illness? After all, these are individuals whose past has been marked by terrible seizure episodes and by the shadows that those must cast over life as a whole, and whose future may seem threatening: they may not know from one day to the next when another attack, possibly fatal, is going to strike.

Maybe Ramachandran and his associates have these sorts of issues covered in the design of their experiment, but the programme could not go into that level of detail. Maybe, for example, TLE patient responses have been compared with those enduring other similarly chronic conditions, or with those of the elderly. In which case, somebody will hopefully point this site to the results. The principles of neuroscience are not the issue here, just neurotheology.

5 Persinger's Sensed Presence

Moving to the next section of God on the Brain, the narration starts with Scientists now believe, another familiar cliché from science hype programmes, suggesting a consensus of the whole scientific community. However, in the same paragraph we get This explosive research and this controversial new science of neurotheology. Now, you can't have it both ways: it's got to be either consensus or controversy. In fact, it seems safe to conclude that there isn't a consensus and that Scientists here means a few scientists.

We are told that the explosive research into the controversial new science is being conducted In a remote region of Northern Canada. It sounds as though it's something so dangerous or secret that it has to be kept well away from large populations or prying eyes: like that place in New Mexico or wherever, where they are supposed to have those aliens they won't admit to.

The visuals accompanying this bit of narration, with background music to suit, are so ridiculous they need to be seen to be believed: university buildings shown in the style of the The Blair Witch Project, with a jerky hand-held camera and low quality night vision.

A genuine religious revelation

In the event, the experimentation turns out to be no more than Dr Michael Persinger using what looks like a modified crash helmet to test the effect of an electromagnetic field on people's temporal lobes. The narration says that with this equipment, which in typical fashion it has labelled a machine unlike any other, Persinger can produce religious experience in most people:

he can induce a moment that feels like a genuine religious revelation

Obviously, this represents a significant extension of the scope of neurotheological research. From Ramachandran's TLE patients, we move to the population generally.

But straight away, there are problems with the claim that the narration makes for Persinger. First, there's that word revelation again. As we've seen, revelations are messages associated with specific religious traditions. It hardly seems possible that you are going to get that kind of thing just from electromagnetic stimulation that produces a momentary feeling.

Then there's the genuine. You have to wonder what criteria are in play here: how does the Persinger team know how a genuine religious experience (let's call it that) actually feels, as opposed to a non-genuine one, whatever that might be.

Something beyond yourself

We learn that when subjects are tested with the apparatus in an isolation chamber one of the most common results, pronounced bizarre, of course, by the narration, is a feeling of somebody else being present, what Persinger calls the sensed presence. He explains that this presence may be experienced as:

something beyond yourself, perhaps bigger than yourself, bigger in space and bigger in time

The experience could be generated merely by stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain, especially the temporal lobe. Subjects were not told the true aim of the testing and 80% sensed something with the machine switched on.

Persinger believes that his equipment might be simulating the effects of electromagnetic fields occurring in nature, that this could explain experiences not only of God, but of other entities as well, such as ghosts. It is claimed that reports of sightings of ghosts increase, and also of seizures, when there are solar storms that affect the Earth's magnetic field, causing the Northern Lights, for instance.

Persinger's understanding seemed to be confirmed when he and an associate did a piece of psychic detective work. They were able to trace the terrifying spirit that a girl was experiencing in her bedroom to a bedside clock radio which was generating an electromagnetic field like the one used in their isolation chamber.

The narration says that Persinger believes that

most, if not all spiritual and religious experience can be explained away

by electromagnetic influence on the temporal lobes.

Celebrity appeal

Calling on celebrity appeal, the programme shows Persinger's cutting edge work being given its ultimate test by having Richard Dawkins as a subject. However, Dawkins does not experience the sensed presence effect. Persinger's conclusion is that Dawkins is at the well below average end of the spectrum of observed responses. Given that Persinger expects a range of responses from very marked to negligible, no one subject, even one of the world's most strident atheists, as the narration calls Dawkins, was ever going to provide the experimental set-up with a scientifically ultimate test.

The Anglican bishop, Stephen Sykes, now makes a point that is of particular interest to this site. Apparently, there is a debate, presumably in religious academic circles, about the possibility that some people may have a special talent for religion. It sounds as though Protestants may be coming to terms with the problem that most people are not capable of personal experience of God.

In general, this site finds no problem with Persinger's sensed presence as a phenomenon observed in the laboratory. The idea that the laboratory experiments are reproducing effects seen in the wild, so to speak, presents no difficulty either.

But then, there was no difficulty in accepting the programme's very first claim: that temporal lobe epilepsy patients may have visions with religious content. As then, the issue is what conclusions can be drawn from the observational data.

Important considerations

There is no disputing that people have been reporting visions, ghostly apparitions and presences since time immemorial. And if you don't believe in the supernatural and have eliminated fraud, then you are pretty well forced to conclude that the phenomena are manufactured inside the brain. So all neuroscience is doing is pointing to where in the brain and in what physical circumstances the production of visions etc takes place. How that advances us in the understanding of religion is hard to see.

Let's remind ourselves of a few important considerations. Firstly, the content of visions is culture specific; religious visionaries generate experiences from materials drawn from their own religious context. Secondly, visions etc do not of themselves somehow create new religious movements; they mainly serve as signs of divine approval for the visionary, whose teachings will create the new movement, along with corresponding institutional innovations.

Homeopathic doses

Thirdly, religion cannot be accounted for on the basis of the experience of an elite. Although 80% of people may experience some sort of sensed presence induced in an isolation chamber, only a tiny minority ever do so naturally. Consequently, it is hard to see how the sensed presence phenomenon could have translated into religious belief on the massive scale we still observe today. Like William James, Persinger assumes that religion can be accounted for in terms of the exceptional experiences of a minority: as if homeopathic doses of first hand religious experience by an elite somehow generate the religions of whole societies.

The media supernatural

Interestingly, the girl with the clock radio was not experiencing a benign God, but a terrifying ghost, as seems to be frequently the case with the sensed presence as experiened naturally. This being so, if the phenomenon really does have an important role in shaping religions, you would expect ghosts to figure far more prominently in them than they actually do.

In fact, we may suppose that the girl's perception of her sensed presence had more to do with the scary and spooky media supernatural, as in films like Poltergeist and TV shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, than with any religion of the supernatural.

6 Loss of self

The programme now makes a leap from its concern with the temporal lobes to another area of the brain, with the narration again failing to distinguish between religious experience and religious belief:

religious experience is far more complex ... Many scientists now suspect there must be far more to the relationship between the brain and belief.

Note the inconsistency about what scientists believe. At the start of the Persinger section of the programme it was claimed with apparent sincerity that Scientists now believe in the temporal lobe theory: as if the theory is a recent scientific breakthrough, accepted by scientists generally. But in this new section a different story is being told: that Many scientists now suspect that the matter is more complicated than the temporal lobe theory allows: as if for a large number of scientists the temporal lobe theory is out of date.

That's the trouble with preferring a good story to the truth: it's far more difficult to be consistent.

The work of Dr Andrew Newberg

At any rate, we learn in the new section of the programme that American researcher, Dr Andrew Newberg, and his team have been using brain scanning to observe what happens to the brain during the deep religious meditation of adepts. The work shows that, as a meditative state is reached, less and less blood flows to the parietal lobes of the brain, which process sensory data to generate a sense of the self. The observed loss of parietal lobe activity corresponds to subjectsreports of their meditation as involving a loss of their sense of themselves.

Newberg points out that the results are the same whether the subjects are Catholic nuns or Tibetan Buddhists. He suggests that the study points to lots of different brain structures being involved in this sort of spiritual exercise.

BBC spin

Of course, the narration has a whole lot more to say on the matter than that. Unfortunately, it is not possible to establish how much the construction built on Dr Newberg's results comes from the researcher himself and how much is merely BBC spin.

Certainly, the leading role assigned by the programme to one particular Buddhist, Dr Michael Baime, seems like spin. The narration suggests that the researchers got a flash of insight, a Eureka moment, after setting up a brain scanning system specifically to study Baime's brain during meditation:

It was the mind of Michael Baime that provided the moment of insight.

But we find from Newberg that not just Baime but various subjects were studied, Franciscan nuns as well as Tibetan Buddhists.

A special moment or a special state?

The narration says that the researchers:

examined what happened at the precise moment the brain had a genuine religious experience.

This suggests that the aim of meditation is to achieve some instant of peak intensity of religious experience. That does not tally with Newberg's report of blood flow to the parietal lobes gradually decreasing, nor to what one understands generally about religious meditation: that it is about decreasing, not increasing, mental activity, that it aims to achieve not a special moment of some kind, but a special state.

What the programme's understanding of meditation does correspond to, however, is the contemporary understanding of time. As is pointed out elsewhere on this site, people today see normal everyday time as something to be escaped. The aim is to achieve peak experiences called highs, buzzes, rushes etc, sometimes through courting danger, as in extreme sports, sometimes through moments of triumph at achievement, but mostly through alcohol and other drugs. See on this site Buzzes, rushes and highs in Human Time Today.

(Note that Newberg's finding of decreased blood flow during deep meditation is itself presented as the moment of insight, a Eureka moment that would give a natural high.)

Clearly, whoever wrote the narrator's script assumed that religious meditation must be just another route to achieving some kind of natural high. The scriptwriter was obviously incapable of conceiving that a person might be seeking a state of some kind, rather than a moment.

Religious climax

Again, as is pointed out elsewhere on this site, today's model for understanding escape from everyday time is sexual experience, with, for the male at any rate, its single climactic moment. So we should not be surprised to find that the narration talks about Baime's religious experience in these words: the highpoint of his meditative climax. The BBC's summary of the programme actually uses the phrase religious climax. This is the media reducing human experience to sexual terms.

Regarding the loss of self reported by those who meditate. the narration claims:

This strange sensation of loss of self is central to religious feelings in all the world's faiths.

Loss of self is central

What the narration does not point out is that meditation, particularly to the point of loss of self, is practised by only a tiny minority of believers. Thus, it would surprising if as many as 1 in 10,000 Catholics are involved, with 1 in 50,000 probably closer to the mark. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that loss of self is central to religious experience in Catholicism: it is extremely marginal. The same no doubt applies to the other religions.

Nor does the narration point out that deep meditation is difficult and has to be learned with the help of a teacher. We are looking not at something that comes naturally to people, but at a culturally acquired skill, like playing a musical instrument. Some humans are capable of it, but there is absolutely no reason to suppose that it is something that evolution has specifically built into some of us. Doubtless it was originally developed by Stone Age shamans, long before Buddhism or monotheism.

Making extreme religious experience of the kind examined in the programme central to religion is explicable in terms of various complementary factors. Three of these have been identified here already. The first is the influence of Protestant minimalism, as exemplified by William James, who brushed aside the religious life of most believers as second-hand. The second is neurotheological reductionism: it's extremely convenient to understand religion as being something essentially explicable in terms of the functioning of the individual brain and to ignore the highly complex doctrinal and institutional aspects.

The pursuit of the exceptional

Thirdly, we noted just above the particular way our society generally looks at life: in terms of a drab norm to be escaped into magic moments of one kind or another. It is to be expected that neurotheology academics fully committed to our society's values would see religion in terms of magic moments.

A further factor is the pursuit of the exceptional in our society generally and in the media in particular. We noted earlier how the narration labelled the religious experience under discussion as bizarre; the most recent quotation here includes the word strange and indeed we found TLE gratuitously labelled one of strangest of all brain diseases at the start of the programme. There must always be a tendency for researchers, particularly those who enjoy media exposure, to focus on exceptional phenomena.

This is not to ignore the role of the study of the brain damage in the quest to understand normal brain functioning, but that is a totally different issue. We argue elsewhere on this site against William James's 100 year old claim that the study of exceptional religious behaviour throws light on normal religious behaviour; the same arguments apply here. SeeExtreme testimonies.

Obscure curiosities

At the end of this section of the programme as at the beginning, the narration confuses religious experience with religious belief, claiming that the work of Persinger and Neuberg suggests that:

how or what we believe is deeply controlled by the basic physical makeup of our minds.

From what we learn in the programme of the two pieces of research, this is just not so. Persinger and Neuberg revealed nothing whatsoever about religious belief and no more about typical religious experience: they were looking at obscure curiosities, odd nooks and crannies with little or no bearing on the world's religious life overall.

Persinger linked the phenomenon of sensed presence with electromagnetic fields affecting the temporal lobes; Neuberg linked the phenomenon of loss of self with decrease of blood flowing to the parietal lobes. These are totally separate phenomena between which no scientifically meaningful connection has been demonstrated.

We know that people frequently use notions of the supernatural to account for phenomena they cannot otherwise explain. Or conversely, they use puzzling phenomena to attempt to demonstrate the reality of the supernatural. That's the connection between sensed presence and loss of self: some people explain them in terms of the supernatural; others prove the existence of the supernatural in terms of them.

7 Dawkins: Wiping Out Religion

There persists to the end the confusion between religious belief and the out of the way inner experiences explored by Persinger and Neuberg. Starting to wind up proceedings, the narration asks if this ability (to believe) can be explained as an evolutionary development. The narration suggests that religious belief may have survival value: for Studies have shown that religious believers live longer and healthier lives.

Dawkins suggests that the correct question to ask is actually:

what's the survival value of the kind of brain that manifests itself as religious belief under the right circumstances.

Present readers are invited to decide for themselves what that means. The narration seems to think that Dawkins means that belief is somehow a by-product of evolution, a quirk of nature, a trick of brain chemistry. [1] It conjectures that there may be more to the matter than just that.

God's Antenna in Your Brain

Ramachandran takes the point up, suggesting that a predisposition to believe may have been introduced by God:

it may be god's way of putting an antenna into your brain to make you more receptive to god.

This is a somewhat surprising remark from a c21st neuroscientist. It sounds as though Ramachandran finds it theoretically possible that God interfered with human evolution at some point by inserting a brain mechanism that would not otherwise be there: a machina ex deo. Such a consideration makes a mockery of evolutionary theory.

The narration concludes that neurotheology has demonstrated that belief has a basis in our brains. But from the evidence presented in the programme, this is, of course, nonsense. All the programme did was remind us of the existence of unusual mental phenomena of kinds that, in the absence of natural explanations, have long been assigned supernatural ones.

To Wipe Out Religion

The narration finally supposes that, given its basis in our brains, religion is likely to persist. Neuberg concurs and so too does Dawkins, regretting that:

The human religious impulse does seem very difficult to wipe out

This is clearly not reasonably objective science on Dawkins's part. [2] Something as widespread as religious belief cannot possibly be simply an evolutionary aberration to wipe out. Believing must be part of our essential humanity, something we need to understand, though on the programme's evidence neurotheology is not the way. With some serious understanding of human beliefs, we can start working on better ones, ones without the supernatural or any of its equivalents.


1 Viruses of the Mind

Dawkins had elsewhere previously branded religious faiths as viruses of the mind, a way of saying that religious believers have diseased minds. See Viruses of the Mind in B.Dahlbon (ed): Dennett and his Critics: Demystifying Mind (1993), republished in Richard Dawkins: A Devil's Chaplain (2003).

Feb 2006: Now see The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins.    [Back to Article]

2 Militant Atheism

About 35 years ago the present writer took out a year's subscription to both The New Humanist and The Freethinker, only to find them narrow minded, poorly informed about religion and thoroughly distasteful. Occasional monitoring over the years has detected no improvement.

Feb 2006: Now see The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins.    [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2004