Friday, September 15, 2006

Neurotheology

Proving God, through neurology.

There's been some advance in the field of neurotheology, which is the attempt to understand how the brain mediates the human mystical experience of God. The expectation among neurotheologists was that there would be a God module in the brain, a specific region of the brain that would light up on screens when a human was experiencing God mystically.

It turns out, however, that this model is incorrect.

In a new study published in the journal, Neuroscience Letters, 15 Carmelite nuns volunteered to be tested by reliving a mystical experience of God. Which makes sense, since it is pretty hard to get those things to occur on demand. And the results were fascinating.
Rather than reveal a spiritual centre in the brain, a module of neural circuits specifically designed for religious experience, the study demonstrated that a dozen different regions of the brain are activated during a mystical experience.

In other words, mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems normally implicated in functions such as self-consciousness, emotion and body representation.

This research, by the way, neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. It merely points out that there is a consistent template in the brain of various regions that are acted upon [if one believes in God] or interact themselves [if one prefers God neutral language] to mediate our understanding of the human mystical experience of God.

Though I do wonder the differences one would find in the areas that light up between Carmelite Nuns and Jihadists, for example, whose mediated experience of God is far more violent. For even in such areas as mysticism, there is, of course, a great deal of cultural baggage that is carried by the generations, extraneous to the originitive intuition of God - to get Hegelian for the moment, or at least to borrow his terminology from the Philosophy of Religion.

Another point worth knowing is that this line of research developed from the observation that epilectics were prone to religious hallucinations.
Speculation about the God spot was triggered when a team at the University of California, San Diego, saw that people with temporal-lobe epilepsy were prone to religious hallucinations.

This led Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Laurentian University in Canada, to stimulate emporal lobes artificially to see if he could induce a religious state. He found that he could create a "sensed presence".
The fact that this state can be induced also proves or disproves nothing. In point of fact, drugs can sometimes replicate the mystical state as well. Creating a mystical state "artifically" does not mean that such experiences are not real. Particularly, I would say, for the person experiencing them.

Meanwhile, this phenomenon makes me recall a related fact, that Prince Myshkin, the main character in The Idiot, by Fyodor Doestoevsky, a man of great religious and mystical sensitivity, is also an epilectic. Which is a very interesting observation on Doestoevsky part.

For example, Sir John Taverner, the well known composer, has spoken openly about how his late onset epilepsy has effected his music.
He has also suffered in recent years from temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition associated with out-of-body experiences and quasi-religious visions.

Does he ever wonder whether his angel of inspiration might be a trick of biology?

"My neurologist kept asking me after my first attack, 'Has your music changed?' and I said, 'In a way it has, yes, it has become more contemplative.' He told me about the conversion of St Paul, that they knew in some form that he had epilepsy. But, my neurologist said, this in no way discredits the authenticity of the experience of a vision - indeed medical conditions can actually bring about this spiritual state."

So if his music is divinely inspired, what is he, as a composer, adding to it?

"Well, when I return from my walks, my ideas get noted down on different pieces of manuscript - probably in the end there are a hundred little jottings and scribblings strewn all over the room. That's where the medieval concept of composer as craftsman comes in.

"The ideas that come from that other place, wherever it is, may seem chaotic, but they are not. That's what's really mysterious. I look at all these sketches and scribbles and see there is a connection between all of them. That is the stage at which I wrestle as a craftsman with the mathematics of the composition, the form and structure. But that's a wonderful wrestling, there's no angst involved, no ego."

Does he worry that one day the angel will stop visiting him?

"Yes. As I draw near to the end of a piece of music, I have an almost obsessive desire to start another one, just in case. Nowadays I have faith that it will happen, but even if there are two hours when there is music not actually coming to me, then that bothers me. It's very difficult for me to relax in that sense, because I've always said that writing for me is prayer, it's my umbilical cord, my reason for existing."

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