Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ghosts, Resurrections, and Bereavement Hallucinations

When people undergo an emotionally traumatic event, it has dramatic effects on the brain. When people lose someone they love, it is quite common for them to have hallucinations of the person (or pet!) shortly after the loss. The phenomena is now well documented and is known as bereavement hallucinations. In one study, an amazing 80% of elderly widows report having hallucinations—either full visual or auditory—up to a month after the spouse has died. It appears that the neurochemistry of grief is playing an active role on systems in the brain that contribute to visual representation. People report seeing or hearing the lost person in some familiar environment, being visited in their dreams, or having conversations with them while being completely awake.

This phenomena suggest several interesting points about religious beliefs. First, consider the resurrection stories about Jesus. If Jesus was a real person and he was executed in the public and dramatic fashion that is alleged, then the emotional impact on his devoted followers would have been staggering. Suppose there were 20 people in Jesus’ immediate circle of committed followers. If the studies above can be taken as an indicator of the likelihood of some sort of post death hallucination in which Jesus would revisit the followers, we can actually generate some probabilities. If there is a .5 probability for each person that they will experience a hallucination of Jesus after his death, then we would expect half of them to have one. The odds that none of the followers would have a hallucination are vanishingly small. What are the odds that you could flip a coin 20 times and get all heads? That is to say, knowing that bereavement hallucinations are so common, we would predict with a high degree of certainty that Jesus’ followers, like any other normal human beings, would have them. It would be far more surprising and unlikely for them not to report having seen Jesus returned from the dead.

So some or many of his followers most certainly would have had these hallucinations, and they would have talked with each other, encouraged each other, adjusted their stories, filled in or altered the details just as normal people do when they give testimony about important events. The question then is not so much whether or not they reported having such experiences—most people do. The question will be given that so many normal people have such experiences and they are the product of neurobiological functions in the brain and nothing more, what reasons do we have to think that the experiences the followers of Jesus had are not the ordinary, common hallucinations, but actually of something real? As I have argued in several previous posts, we have ample reason for not leaping to that extraordinary conclusion when such an obvious, common, and well documented natural explanation is available.

But what would an ordinary person in the first century be led to think if they had such an experience? The data I cited above wouldn’t have been available to them. They scarcely had any conception of what a brain is or what role it plays in fabricating, falsifying, or altering experience in special circumstances. Such an experience would have been utterly mystifying. We can imagine that it would have seemed to them that the only obvious and reasonable explanation of what they saw was that they were being visited by a ghost or the resurrected person they love. A failure to appreciate the capacities of the human brain have no doubt played a huge role in the fact that 70-80% of modern Americans believe in ghosts, afterall. If modern humans are having these experiences and concluding that they are ghosts, then surely the 1st century religious zealots following Jesus would have been no more insightful or informed. It may have been reasonable for them to think that Jesus was resurrected given that they just wouldn’t have known any better. But we have substantial reasons to think they were wrong. Clearly, what might be reasonable for someone 2,000 years without the benefits of science and the vast body of knowledge that we have should not be accepted as reasonable for us. What remains the baffling puzzle is why so many people are willing to simply accept what the early believers claimed without question while being so much better informed about so many things. Modern Christians will employ the highest levels of critical scrutiny to carefully dismantle the evidence for global warming while accepting the under reported claim from a small group of 1st century Iron Age religious zealots that their leader was magically resurrected from the dead.

Background articles on bereavement hallucinations:

Visits from the Deceased

Bereavement Hallucinations

Widows and Hallucinations

20 comments:

AIGBusted said...

Hey Matt,

Just thought I'd let you know that I finally released the book that I've been working on ("Atheism and Naturalism"). Here's where you can read excerpts and where to buy:

http://www.godriddance.com/book.php

Peace,
Ryan

Steve Martin said...

"Evidence for global warming."

That's a good one.

Most evidence points to global cooling.

But Atheists need a religion, and any religion will do. The latest god is "global warming."

Why do they refuse to debate on the topic?

Ian Plimer knows why:
http://dennisprager.townhall.com/talkradio/transcripts/Transcript.aspx?ContentGuid=e669e672-a4fb-4e8b-9d94-4c89724a1cb5

Reginald Selkirk said...

Most evidence points to global cooling.No, and you have been corrected on this in the past. Your adherence to the anti-global warming line is apparently dogmatic.

Teleprompter said...

Steve Martin,

Debate is not a fully trustworthy method of attaining truth.

Why not?

Let's pretend that I believe that things fall down because of invisible magic fairies pulling them toward the Earth. You're arguing for the theory of gravity.

If you debate me, it appears that my position is as equally valid as yours, even though all the evidence that is available to us indicates that things do not fall down to Earth because they are pulled there by invisible magic fairies.

Now do you see how debates can quickly become ridiculous and far-fetched? Good debating skills, in my opinion, can help clarify, but they are not equivalent to other methods, such as the processes used in science, for expanding our understanding and removing our biases.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Another reason why debates are not the best method of deciding scientific issues: It takes much more time to refute a lie than to tell it. So a dishonest person (e.g. Duane Gish) could reel off a long string of lies, leaving his opponent with too little time to refute them all.

Eric Sotnak said...

Thanks, Steve Martin, for the link. Here is a counter-link.

http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,27574,25376348-2682,00.html

Anonymous said...

Ok atheist followers and matt. since you're so convinced that the supernatural is hog wash please go find a book that deals with summoning demons. By all means try and find the biggest baddest demon and follow the instructions to a tee. Think of this as a test of your atheist faith...let me know how it works out...

ChrisAC said...

"By all means try and find the biggest baddest demon and follow the instructions to a tee. Think of this as a test of your atheist faith...let me know how it works out..."

Lemme dig out some old Dungeons and Dragons books and I'd love to. I know how you guys loved those things back in the 80's.

Anonymous said...

D and D? naw man thats role playing try a book on summoning demons. I am sure with a little research you can find which book is a bood one. please dont be scared because then your atheist faith would be pretty weak...

I'm sure all you atheist would never be scared of a haunted house. In fact with your atheist faith I bet you could walk around all night in one without any light because you are sure there's nothing to fear...

busterggi said...

Hey Anonymous, can you suggest a summoning spell that works?

I mean has been proven to work, not just encrusted with folklore.

Didn't think so.

Carbon Based said...

Geez was there a scary movie marathon on the SciFi channel this week? Damn I must of missed it.

Eric Sotnak said...

If you chant the following formula over and over, it's guaranteed to summon demons:
"wata dama sayam"

Anonymous said...

Really? How about going to a book store and do some studying. The mere fact that folks here like to tease suggest how dogmatic they are. If its too hard to find your way into a book store atheist believers perhaps you can find an alledged haunted house somewhere. Spend a night all by yourself w/ a bag lunch and a flash light. let me know what you experience.

At least you can embrace the spirit of invesigation rather then play atheist mind games...

Anonymous said...

Here are some books for the non dogmatic atheist...

Grimorium Verum

Lemegeton "Clavicula Salomonis"


Happy investigating...

Eric Sotnak said...

Hmmm.. So how did these magical super-secret books come to be written in the first place? How did the authors discover their demon-summoning techniques?

Why won't it work for me to stand in the middle of my living room and just say, "Hey, any demons want a cup of tea?"

Demons, angels, extraterrestrial visitors, and Bigfoot all seem to be really shy about appearing to skeptics.

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James Sweet said...

Matt, I think you overstate the argument here a bit. Sure, 80% of widows may have bereavement hallucinations, but what percent literally thought their loved one had risen from the dead? People believe in ghosts, but the (alleged) claims in the gospels aren't about the Ghost of Jesus, but rather they are about the Zombie of Jesus.

If we assume that the followers of Jesus really believed he rose from the dead (something you point out in another post is far from certain), then bereavement hallucinations would be one plausible explanation for how this belief came about... plausible, but I wouldn't even go so far as calling it "probable," personally. There's just so many other possible explanations, like he wasn't dead, an impostor, propaganda intentionally spread by one disciple and believed by the others, etc...

Maybe you didn't mean to, but your post sort of made it sound like, "Of course people in 30 AD thought their leader rose from the dead. That was situation-normal!" It's just one possible explanation among many.

OT, Steve Martin is depressingly hilarious in the way he has religiosity all balled up with AGW denialism. As if it weren't all politics. Yeah, whatever. Idjut.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks James for thinking about this question. These are good points. I don't mean to suggest by any means that nothing else could have happened to produce the Jesus myth. A couple of ideas. Of course, many educated, 21st century people would know better if they had a bereavement hallucination than to think that they were talking to a real person. (Although lots of modern people have them and insist that they really were talking to the real person.) But don't make the mistake of assuming that the first century questions would have viewed something like this the way we would. If a first century, illiterate, Iron Age peasant who is also a deeply committed religious zealot with a whole raft of highly supernatural beliefs and expectations had a bereavement hallucination, what explanations would be available to them? The first and most obvious explanation, not having any clue about the neurology, or even what a hallucination is, would be that they were being visited by the dead, returned to life. Hell, I have a professor in my department who insists that he is regularly visited by dead people. So if Jesus was executed, and if bereavement hallucinations are as common as recent studies indicate, then we can be quite confident that at least some of the his followers would have had them. I had several last year after my dog died! So that means that at the very least, those hallucinations would have been feeding into whatever else would eventually bring about the advent of Christianity.

But you're right: I have no intention of ruling out any of the other live natural hypotheses about the matter that are better than the "Jesus really was resurrected from the dead," view.

Matt