Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head? Scientists suspect Moses and other religious figures were epileptic. But that doesn't mean they didn't really hear God. One researcher has created the "God helmet," which uses sensors to reproduce mystical experience by manipulating brain chemistry.
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Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head?

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Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head?

Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

More than half of American adults have reported that they've had a spiritual experience, an overpowering feeling that they touched God or another dimension of reality. Was that feeling a real connection with something unearthly, or simply chemicals that play in your brain?

This week, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty is exploring the science of spirituality. Today, she hunts down the brain's God spot.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: If you're looking for evidence that religion is in your head, you need look no further than Jeff Schimmel. The 49-year-old Los Angeles writer was raised in a conservative Jewish home, but he never bought into God, until after he was touched by a being outside of himself.

Mr. JEFF SCHIMMEL (Writer): Yeah, I was touched by a surgeon.

HAGERTY: About a decade ago, Schimmel had a benign tumor removed from his left temporal lobe. The surgery was a snap. But soon after that, unknown to him, he began to suffer mini seizures. He'd hear conversations in his head. Sometimes, the people around him would look slightly unreal, as if they were animated. Then came the visions.

He remembers twice, lying in bed; he looked up at the ceiling and saw a swirl of blue and gold and green colors that gradually settled into a shape. He couldn't figure out what it was.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And then, like a flash, it dawned on me: This is the Virgin Mary. And, you know, it's funny. I laughed about it because why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, a Jewish guy laying in bed, looking at the ceiling? She could do much better.

HAGERTY: Schimmel became fascinated with spirituality. He became more compassionate, less ambitious. So, he wondered: Could his new outlook have to do with his brain?

The next visit to his neurologist, he asked to see his most recent MRI.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: My left temporal lobe looked completely different than it did before the surgery.

HAGERTY: Gradually, it had become smaller, a different shape, covered with scar tissue. Those changes had sparked electrical firings in his brain. Schimmel's doctor told him he had developed temporal lobe epilepsy. It's a disease that has fascinated doctors for centuries.

Dr. ORRIN DEVINSKY (Professor of Neurology, New York University Langone Medical Center; Director, New York University Comprehensive Epilepsy Center): Going back 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates wrote one of the first texts we have on epilepsy and named it, "On the Sacred Disease."

HAGERTY: Sacred, says neurologist Orrin Devinsky, because the ancients thought that people we now believe had epilepsy were possessed by demons or blessed with divine messages and visions. Devinsky, who directs the epilepsy center at New York University, says neurologists suspect some religious giants were epileptics themselves.

Did Paul hear Jesus on the road to Damascus, or was he experiencing an auditory hallucination? What about Joseph Smith and the two angels, or Muhammad, Joan of Arc and Moses?

(Soundbite of movie, "The Ten Commandments")

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor): (As Moses) Do you see that strange fire?

Mr. JOHN DEREK (Actor): (As Joshua) A bush that burns?

Mr. HESTON: (As Moses) No, it is on fire, but the bush does not burn.

Dr. DEVINSKY: Assuming, for now, a more rational scientific view, he was having a visual hallucination, and he heard God's voice.

Mr. HESTON: (As The voice of God) I am the God of thy father.

HAGERTY: It could have been God. It could have been a seizure. But one thing Devinsky does believe...

Dr. DEVINSKY: Whatever happened back there in Sinai, Moses' experience was mediated by his temporal lobe.

HAGERTY: The temporal lobes run along the sides of the brain, and deep within them is part of something called the limbic system. This system handles not just sound, smell and some vision, but also memory and emotion.

Now, when people have a seizure in the temporal lobe, it's as if the normal emotions have an exclamation point after them because so many nerve cells are firing in rhythm. People may hear snatches of music drawn from their memory bank.

(Soundbite of music)

And in rare cases, interpret it as music from the heavenly spheres.

(Soundbite of celestial music)

HAGERTY: Those people may see a glimpse of light and think it's an angel.

Dr. JEFFREY SAVER (Professor of Neurology, University of California, Los Angeles): These patients give us clues to what parts of the human brain are involved when all of us have a numinous experience.

HAGERTY: That's Jeffrey Saver, a neurologist at UCLA. He says when people with no brain dysfunction have numinous or spiritual experiences, it's the same limbic system being activated, but with the volume turned down.

Saver's explanation made me wonder: If God uses the temporal lobe, can neurologists make God come and go at will? Well, they can make ecstatic seizures go away with surgery or medication, but what about summoning God? Could a scientist manufacture a spiritual experience by manipulating my temporal lobes?

Dr. MICHAEL PERSINGER (Neuroscientist, Laurentian University): Ms. Hagerty, can you respond, please?

HAGERTY: I can barely - you're very muffled.

I'm sitting in Michael Persinger's laboratory. Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has pasted eight electrodes onto my scalp. He eases, of all things, a motorcycle helmet - with its own sensors - onto my head. He calls it the God helmet.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, I'm getting the vibes here.

HAGERTY: The helmet is supposed to stimulate my right temporal lobe with weak magnetic fields, and create the illusion of God in my head. Well, not God exactly, but a sensed presence, a feeling that another being is in the room.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, everything is ready to go.

HAGERTY: Persinger covers my eyes with goggles stuffed with napkins. I sink deeper into the threadbare, overstuffed chair, feeling like a teenager hanging out in someone's basement. He leaves me in the chamber and returns to the control room, where I've placed a recorder.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's recording.

HAGERTY: Good, thank you.

For the next 30 minutes, I listened to magnetic fields shift over my skull. Occasionally, I report seeing images, or a dark forest.

It's kind of a roiling darkness, like a battle of darkness.

Dr. PERSINGER: Okay.

HAGERTY: It's off to my left.

Dr. PERSINGER: You've just reported the actions on your left. And now, you're beginning to experience, and my compliments to you, what is called the black or the dark of the dark.

HAGERTY: Actually, I couldn't hear him say that. He was talking into my recorder in the other room. At one point, Persinger predicts I am right on the verge of feeling the sensed presence. But it never happens. Now, there were several times when Persinger predicted I'd see an image or a face, and I did. To Persinger, this is evidence that God, and all spiritual experience, is a product of your brain.

Dr. PERSINGER: What is the last illusion that we must overcome as a specie? And that illusion is that God is an absolute that exists independent of the human brain and that somehow, we are in his or her care.

HAGERTY: Well, believers are certainly going to take issue with that, and so do many scientists. So I put the question to NYU's Orrin Devinsky. Does the fact that we can track spiritual feelings in our temporal lobe mean there's nothing spiritual going on?

Dr. DEVINSKY: No.

HAGERTY: Think about a man and woman who are in love, he says. They look at each other and in all likelihood, something fires in their temporal lobes.

Dr. DEVINSKY: However, does that negate the presence of true love between them? Of course not. When you get to spirituality, as a scientist, it really becomes extremely difficult to say anything other than, it's possible.

HAGERTY: Remember Jeff Schimmel, the guy with temporal lobe epilepsy? He finds it hard to believe that his new faith and love for his fellow man come merely from an electrical impulse that's gone awry.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: But I'll tell you what the real bottom line is for me. I don't care where it comes from. I'm just a happier person. I'm a more decent human being because of it.

HAGERTY: Schimmel has taken up Buddhism to harness his spiritual life. Now, Buddhist monks and other long-term meditators are coming under the gaze of brain researchers.

Spiritual virtuosos, that's tomorrow's story.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

NORRIS: At npr.org, you can take a tour through the brain, and through the research into the chemistry of spirituality.

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