How the Brain Creates the Experience of God:
An easy to read explanation of a controversial hypothesis. The God Experience.
The word God has two meanings for some, and two connotations for others. In one, God is the savior. He ‘saves’ people. You can pray to ‘him’ and ‘he’ will give you what you want, or perhaps the wisdom to go on with your life if you don’t get it. Or, perhaps, ‘he’ will hear your prayer. The savior offers you the option of not being alone. For some, he’s ‘always present’. For others, he’s there ‘when they need him’.
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In the other meaning of the word, God is the creator of the universe; the demiurge.
In Asia and India, and many of the cultures in the rest of the world, the ‘personal savior’ and the creator aren’t the same thing at all.
In the west, the God who made the universe, and the God who saves, are one and the same. It’s quite an awe-inspiring thought. That the creator of the cosmos is personally interested in YOU.
However, when science looks at God, this gets to be a bit of a problem. The personal savior is a matter of personal experience. The creator of the universe isn’t. Although I’ve met people who claimed that they ‘know’ that the universe has a creator, I’ve never met anyone who claimed to have been there when it took place. Science responds to the question ‘where did it all come from’ through its search into the origins of the physical universe. That turned out to be a matter of cosmology, and eventually brought us to the Big Bang Theory.
On the other hand, many people have had personal experiences of God. Mohammad (BUH) and Moses both heard his voice, they say. So did Saint Francis. So did Saul on the road to Damascus.
The list of historical accounts is long, but it’s nothing compared to the list of people who have had the experience of God during Near-Death Experiences.
Thousands of people have had the experience of meeting God while they were clinically dead. Not all Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) include meeting God, and not all people who were revived from clinical death had NDEs to tell about.
Nevertheless, There is a body of evidence about ‘seeing God’ for science to study, and a is picture emerging about how it happens.
The conclusion that’s taking shape has a lot in common with the traditional Hindu view (shared by many Buddhists) that if one comes face-to-face with God, one is actually being confronted with one’s self.
And the self is now a matter of brain science. It has fallen to the neuroscientists for two reasons. There’s a neurological disorder that sometimes leaves people seeing god, or at least claiming to. And there’s a neurological picture of the self emerging.
Within neuroscience, both the self, and the disorder that seems to make visions of God concern the limbic system, the middle and lower portions of the temporal lobes, parts of the brain that are activated very easily. More easily, in fact, than any other parts of the brain.
There are two pieces of evidence behind this. One is that psychological ‘disorders of the self’ usually involve differences in the limbic system. A schizophrenic hippocampus is different from normal one. A depressed person’s amygdala (there’s two – one on each side) works differently from a normal one.
The other important evidence is a thing called “The Forty Hertz Component.” It’s a component of a typical EEG readout. It appears from the temporal lobes, and its there when a person is awake, there when the person is in REM sleep, but it’s absent when a person is in dreamless sleep.
We cannot remember dreamless sleep, but we can recall dreams, and what happens in ordinary, waking consciousness. And those are the times when the 40hz is present. A conclusion follows. One that a lot of people don’t like too much. The ‘self’ is what we experience when a specific pattern of brain activity is happening. It might BE that activity, or it might only require it. In either case, “we” aren’t completely made of any sort of spiritual or divine energy. Some of what we are, at least, can be measured, recorded, ‘logged in as data’, and all that.
I’ve seen evidence that ‘we’ can exist outside the body, as well as the brain, during the out-of-body experiences that can happen during near-death experiences, but that’s a rare circumstance. Throughout most of our lives, most of us are living within the framework of our bodies, including our brains.
When ‘we’ exist, we’re always using our brains in specific ways, and one of the few constant ways we do it is by maintaining the ’40hz component’.
The 40hz activity appears out of the thalamus, deep in the brain, and includes the temporal lobes. Its pathways have come to be understood after studies of people who had trouble in the temporal lobes (epilepsy, head injury, etc.) and two of its deeper structures, the amygdala and the hippocampus.
More to the point, it involves these two sets of structures, on two sides of the brain. We have, two selves, or two senses of self. One on the left, and one on the right. They’re not equals, though. The left-sided sense of self is dominant in most people. It’s the one where language happens. It becomes dominant when we learn to speak in childhood. After that, we use language as our main way of relating to others. We maintain an almost constant stream of inner words, inner monologue and thoughts, in words, about almost everything we experience.
One the other side of the brain, following the rule that each thing on one side of the brain does the opposite of what the same thing on the other side of the brain does, we get the conclusion that there is a non-linguistic sense of self on the right side of the brain.
Ordinarily, our two ‘selves’ work in tandem with one another. The one on the left is sort of in charge of things, but constantly gets input from the sense of self on the other side. Both of them are accustomed (or habituated) to this arrangement. But, once in a while, (or for some people, quite often) the two fall out of phase with one another, and the left-sided ‘self’ manifests by itself.
When this happens, we experience our own, right-sided, silent sense of self coming out where the left sided sense of self can and does experience it.
The experience has many forms, possibly a different form for each person who has it. And maybe a slightly different one each time they have it. Dreams do that too. And so does the sensation of having a self. Of being ‘me’.
All together, they’re called ‘visitor experiences’. In its most subtle form, it appears as the feeling that one is ‘not alone’ or that they’re ‘being watched’. They might feel a ‘presence’ in the room with them. When they turn to look to see who’s there, they find themselves alone.
In another one of its many faces, a person who’s engrossed in a job, like writing or doing art, might find that they no longer feel that ‘they’ are doing it. The words they write; the pencil lines that appear; seem to be coming from somewhere else. The right-sided self has taken over the job, and its presence is manifested through its behavior. Absorbed, the person working with such a ‘muse’ has no attention left with which to stop and ‘sense a presence’.
The sensed presence is on one end of a spectrum. Actually, it’s two spectra.
One spectrum is of intensity. The other is of feeling.
Let’s look at intensity first. How ‘powerful’ the experience is. The Sensed Presence is at the lower extreme. It’s easily ‘shaken off’. The experience involves the few brain parts we mentioned before.
However, if there is enough electrical activity in these structures, (the experience gets more intense), it will ‘spill over’ into other, nearby structures.
And that’s when things get really interesting.
How the experience unfolds from here depends on which brain parts the activity spills into.
If it catches some of the visual areas, the experience can become a vision of an entity of some kind or other.
If it involves the olfactory areas, the person can find that the visitor has a unique smell.
If it involves the parts of the brain that help us perceive our own bodies from within, we might find ourselves having tingly feelings. Or that we are being lifted up, or thrown down.
If it involves the language centers, we might hear a voice, or music, or noise.
If it involves areas that deal in long-term memory, we might find that the experience includes an episodic ‘vision’. Not just a flash of an image, but an inner world where the person interacts with others, feels real emotions, and so on.
That’s all in the spectrum of intensity. The other spectrum is of feeling.
There doesn’t seem to very much in the middle of this one. Just at the extreme ends.
On one extreme, there is the ‘demonic’ or evil visitor, and on the other extreme, there are more angelic visitors. It depends on which emotional center (amygdala), left or right, is more active.
If the negative one (meaning the one that supports fear) is more active, the visitor experience will become a visitation by a demon, Satan, or a terrifying ghost. On the other extreme, it could be an angel, a spirit protector, or even God.
The experience of God seems to be an extreme example of the visitor experience, which can be either good or bad. The chart below shows how positive and negative visitors can be very similar. They involve the same experiences, but with the opposite emotional ‘tone’.
THE VISITOR EXPERIENCE
It takes extreme circumstances to manifest these experiences, of course, but the experience of God doesn’t have any features that don’t also occur in other brain-derived experiences.
If God is actually a part of ourselves, then prayer might just be a way we talk to ourselves to bring out that usually silent self. There are types of prayer that traditional spirituality respects most, like those of thanksgiving, prayers for others well-being, and healing, and prayers to be granted spiritual gifts, like healing skills, wisdom, insight and faith. When a person prays in these ways, they divide their attention between positive thoughts, and positive feelings.
Because positive thoughts (involving the right hippocampus), and positive feelings (involving the left amygdala) are on opposite sides of the brain, prayer changes the balance of activity on the two sides. Whenever that’s happening, the chances of the activity on the two sides (for these areas) falling out of phase with each other goes up substantially. Sensed presence experiences become more common until the day arrives when God’s presence is something the person feels at all times.
Their behavior matches the mood of their prayers more and more. Eventually, the day can arrive when the person’s experience of God goes past just feeling his presence, and begins to appear as a guide, even one with a voice, The person can surrender to what they feel is ‘divine will’, and ‘let go of their ego’.
Remember we’re talking about the sense of self here. This process can unfold to the point where ‘they’ are all but gone, and the boundaries between their self, and God’s presence begin to blur. Carry that to its extreme, and you might find people saying things like “I and The Father are one”. And we all know where THAT can lead …
In this small neuroscientist’s opinion, there is no God separate from the believer. But there is such a thing as godliness, which others can recognize in us.
And one of the simplest and most widespread ways of achieving it is to believe unreservedly in God, and to make God one’s constant companion.
Murphy, Todd, “Re-creating Near-Death Experiences: A cognitive approach” Journal of Near-Death Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, Summer 1999 261-265
Persinger, Michael A. “Religious and mystical Experiences As Artifacts Of Temporal Lobe
Function: A General Hypothesis” Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1983, 57 1255-1262
Persinger, Michael A. Ph.d. “Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs” Praeger, 1987
Persinger, Michael A. Geophysical variables and behavior: LV. “Predicting the Details of Visitor Experiences and the Personality of Experience: the Temporal Lobe Factor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1989, 68, 55-65
Persinger, Michael A. Ph.D. “The Sensed Presence As Right Hemispheric intrusions Into The Left Hemispheric Awareness Of Self: An Illustrative Case Study”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1994, 78, 999-1009
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