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Friday, June 11, 2010

Religious Experiences and Brain Science

I find the study of neuroscience fascinating. I believe that it has a lot to offer in providing natural explanations for religious experiences. I am not saying that it disproves the genuineness of a religious experience but, as Darwin's theory of natural selection did with regard to the origin of the species, it provides a way to understand the phenomena without resorting to a supernatural explanation.

In my last post on this subject, someone mentioned the video by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who experienced a stroke. It seems that it caused her to now have an affinity with eastern religions. Her story is fascinating:

There is also an interesting post at Epiphenom entitled: Religion and the case of the disappearing right-brain. Dr. Tom Rees discusses the findings of a study, published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology, regarding right temporal lobe atrophy.

Rees writes:

"Right temporal lobe atrophy" is a rare condition in which a major part of the right side of the brain simply withers away. You can see a particularly severe case in the picture (the right side of the brain is on the left...).

As you might expect, all these people had some serious psychological problems. But, for people with left-brain atrophy, the problems are obvious. That's because this side of the brain controls speech and (for most people) the dominant hand. You can pretty readily spot somebody with left-brain atrophy.

Right brain atrophy is altogether more subtle, and also weirder. These patients get lost easily. They find it difficult to recognise faces, and they have a variety of behavioural disorders, including disinhibition and obsessions. One patient insisted on having all the light switches in her house painted gold and silver!

And, interestingly, three patients were 'hyper-religious'.

Rees refers to two other studies in which damage to the right hemisphere of the brain resulted in increased religiosity (see here and here).

Another interesting and related subject is the effect of psychedelic drugs, such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine, on the brain. These drugs seem to create experiences much like mystical religious experiences. Aldous Huxley, was a pioneer in this research. His 1954 book, The Doors of Perception, described his experience on mescaline. He became an advocate for the use of hallucinogenic drugs to broaden one's perception of the world.

Below is a video clip of Christopher Mayhew, a member of the British parliament, actually experiencing the effects of mescaline and describing those effects. Later he recalled his experience as something that took place outside of time and which lasted months instead of minutes. He described it as "heavenly bliss." A team of theologians, psychologists and philosophers were asked to review the film and help the BBC decide whether or not to broadcast it. The conclusion of the team was "No." One of the theologians said that Mayhew had received his mystical experience "on the cheap." Others were concerned that it might promote the abuse of drugs in society.

In the 1960's, Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, experimented with LSD and advocated its use in order to achieve spiritual awareness. Because of the widespread problems with drug abuse in the 1960's which continues to this day, scientific research on hallucinogenic drugs has been infrequent. That is beginning to change, however, as researchers at Johns Hopkins University are now studying the effects of hallucinogens on the brain. Scientists in Switzerland are also studying the possible benefits that LSD might provide to cancer patients. It seems that with the knowledge that neuroscience now has of how the brain works, the scientific research on these drugs will produce more significant data than such studies in the 50's and 60's did.

Just to be clear, I am not advocating the use of these drugs for recreation, I am advocating research on how these drugs effect the brain and the connection that these effects on the brain have with mystical religious experiences.


  1. An interesting coincidence is that Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, and John F. Kennedy all died on the same day--Nov. 22, 1963. Peter Kreeft wrote a book in which the three men have a dialogue after death. Its entitled: Between Heaven and Hell.

  2. Did you know we can also induce people to experience different colors and physical sensations using LSD?

  3. I also think that further research on drug effects will be fruitful and fascinating. And there may be overlaps with the extensive NDE research now being conducted. Both these areas deal with what I'd call linkages between some kind of "spiritual" or "higher frequency" aspect of natural phenomena and that of our typical physical/psychological sensations and experiences of "ordinary life." These areas, plus a few other evidences, prompt me to remain "spiritual but not religious" rather than be a pure materialist in the sense of denying whatever is not yet explainable or measurable by "science." However, I don't believe it's helpful to posit a "supernatural" category that is separate from the "natural" world, operating under different rules, etc. I believe all is unified but only selectively perceivable under various conditions.

    Ken Wilber, among others, has shown that Buddhism is actually a highly sophisticated psychology of inner experience, perception, emotional control, etc., well exceeding both our Western religion and our Western psychology in certain regards. I say that as a non-Buddhist who has minimal exposure to its disciplines, etc. but believes it has insights and methods to offer those who wish to pursue it, and all of us who like to study psychology/religion. Similarly, every major religion has had its branch (often called "mysticism") that cares little about and often transcends the details of religions' dogmas and has developed a kind of "psychology of the soul" that tends toward increased tolerance, mutual respect and harmony, and the elements that many of us find lacking in the "mainstream" of major and minor religions.

    So Ken, I might suggest that guiding "true believers" in that direction is perhaps more realistic than hoping they may abandon religion altogether, and new sets of true believers are still being created.... Religion will remain for as long as I can foresee, though I am optimistic it will continue to evolve in positive directions such as this.

    Howard Pepper